21st century slavery: Remembering MLK in the age of infectious greed

King saw the labor movement as essential — and the No. 1 labor issue is the predatory healthcare system

Published April 5, 2023 2:30PM (EDT)

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preaching from his pulpit circa 1960 at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. (Dozier Mobley/Getty Images)
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preaching from his pulpit circa 1960 at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. (Dozier Mobley/Getty Images)

This article originally appeared on Work-Bites

This week marks the 55th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. King was in Memphis as an act of solidarity with Memphis Sanitation workers who had been out on strike since early February after sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker were crushed by their malfunctioning trash compactor.

Dr. King saw the union movement as essential to advancing the cause of America's poor and low-wealth families of all colors.

In 1961 Dr. King addressed the AFL-CIO and said the "labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it." He said that by "raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who today attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them."

In the decades since, the percentage of Americans in a labor union has declined substantially as working families have lost ground. Meanwhile, wealth concentration has accelerated dramatically, and the racial wealth gap has only grown wider and wider. Multi-billion-dollar corporations like Amazon and Starbucks flagrantly violate federal labor law to defeat a substantial upsurge in organizing.  

Next month, President Biden is set to formally declare the end to the COVID-19 public health emergency that claimed over 1.1 million Americans including tens of thousands of healthcare workers, first responders and other essential workers. Yet, our for-profit healthcare system is still itself in a deepening crisis of affordability and basic access which organized labor is struggling to address.

There's been reporting that big pharma will realize a considerable windfall as the Biden administration rolls out the 'mission accomplished' banner and the federal government leaves COVID testing and vaccines increasingly up to the predations of these corporations who have bought off the beltway.

There's every indication that it was the nature of our for-profit healthcare system that's rooted in scarcity that actually drove the pandemic's body count. For years before the pandemic, the U.S. paid the MOST for healthcare of any wealthy nation in the world and yet had the poorest health outcomes with declining life expectancy to show for it.

COVID itself is ample evidence of the utter failure of our nation's healthcare system we are programmed to believe is the best in the world. The U.S. is only four percent of the world's population, yet we were 12 percent of the world's COVID deaths and counting.

And while unions and their allies in the Democratic Party hail President's Obama's Affordable Health Care Act, it still left too many Americans out and we have the body count from the pandemic to prove it.

There's a growing body of research which documents that America's poorest communities of color where access to healthcare was most problematic were the most vulnerable to COVID. And of course, we all know these are the very same communities that millions of our essential workers live in.  

Last April, Rev. Dr. William Barber and Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs released a county-by-county analysis that looked at COVID mortality data sorted by poverty, income, race, and geography.

"Yet in the pandemic, we will hear that there have been two, three, four, five-times the deaths in poorer communities as in richer ones," Barber told reporters at the time. "We encourage everyone here to walk through the data after this conference and take the time to see what has been so far unseen. The findings are so contrary to a nation that claims first and foremost to establish justice, and certainly contrary to the call of God to care for the least of these."

Barber continued. "Remember, this unnecessary death happened while we gave corporations $2 trillion to keep them alive and the richest Americans saw their wealth soar. It's a gross example of what Naomi Klein has called the "shock doctrine," when the wealthy exploit tragedy to increase their own profits while poor people suffer. This report shows that a poverty-producing and sustaining system was also a death-dealing system. Within this analysis, we can see that it did not need to be this way, if only we were honest about poverty and systemic racism, and the systems of violence that allowed this tragedy."

21st Century Slavery

As it turns out, the nation's number one labor issue, whether the nation's union leadership wants to recognize it or not, is this country's predatory healthcare system. As long as we continue to link our healthcare to our jobs, working Americans will never get ahead. We need to see it for the 21st century slavery it is, imposed by a rigged system that's based on healthcare NOT being a human right designed by a network of companies that make a profit by blocking access to care.  

So far, some unions have opted to get into bed with these for-profit healthcare insurers through strategic alliances with various Medicare Advantage providers that are currently the target of fraud investigations by the federal government that have been reported in the New York Times and Kaiser Health News.

Across the country, we know hundreds of thousands of families end up in bankruptcy every year due to medical expenses and that tens of thousands die each year because they lack healthcare insurance. According to research from Families USA, a non-profit advocacy group, for every 10 percent increase in the proportion of a county's residents who lacked health insurance there was a 70 percent increase in COVID cases, and a 48 percent increase in COVID deaths.

In New York City's five boroughs between Aug. 31, 2020 and Feb. 1, 2021, close to 7,500 of the COVID deaths recorded were linked to gaps in, or the lack of health care coverage for the patients (2,667 in Queens, 2,219 in Brooklyn, 1,572 in The Bronx and 274 in Richmond), according to Families USA.

If America's top labor leaders have any doubt about the moral bankruptcy of the for-profit American health care system, they should sit down with the nurses' unions who are taking it on directly by demanding proper nurse to patient ratios in states like New York and New Jersey, the very global epicenter of the COVID pandemic.

According to an investigation by the Guardian Newspapers and Kaiser Health News, 453 New York state healthcare workers died in the first wave of the COVID pandemic which came amidst a national shortage of N-95 masks. In New Jersey 268 perished. Nationally, over 3,600 healthcare workers perished in the first year of the pandemic. Close to two-thirds of them were people of color.

"As the ratio goes up between patients and nurses goes up infections go up, lower nurse to patient ratio drops infections. That has been proven with much research over the last decade," said Debbie White, RN and president of Health Professionals and Allied Employees, New Jersey's largest nurses' union.

"Even before Covid-19 appeared, tens of thousands of patients died each year from preventable infections acquired during treatment," Michael Millenson, a patient safety activist wrote in the journal Stat. "The contagious nature of the coronavirus has vastly increased the number of those at risk, with health care workers themselves now routinely endangered."

Millenson continued, "Receiving care at a highly regarded facility won't necessarily provide protection against health-care-associated infections. ProPublica examined five years of inspection reports from 55 major hospitals designated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as in the 'first tier' of treatment centers able to handle an infectious disease crisis. Journalists found infection-control failures and other problems at more than half of the facilities."

There's a reason why Congress can't bring itself to empower an independent 9/11 Commission-style review of the nation's seriously flawed pandemic response. Chances are that our for-profit healthcare system works to undermine the control of infectious diseases like COVID and in the process puts our healthcare workforce, their families and by extension the entire community at greater risk.   

By Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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