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corporate dominance | labor

Poor and Elderly Die in California Heat Wave

Like Katrina, California's deaths during the recent heatwave were not due to natural causes but the free market.
California refuses to provide air conditioners for the elderly and frail as the US spends $11 million and hour in Iraq.

Richard Mellor
AFSCME Local 444 retired

California's deadliest heat wave in 57 years has finally ended and as of July 29th, 126 deaths were confirmed due to the weather. The fact is that these deaths were not so much heat related, they were, like the thousands who died in the Katrina disaster, deaths that were the product of social inequity; deaths caused by the free market, not by nature.

If workers went on strike in the water industry in order to combat the attacks of capital on their standard of living and consumers died of thirst, the corporate media would not call this a "natural" disaster. If deaths occur due to smoke inhalation or fire during a firefighters strike, this would not be called death by natural causes. The capitalist press would be quick to blame workers for our greed and lack of social responsibility. But when thousands die in New Orleans or hundreds die due to cold or heat, it is an act of God or nature, not the failure of a system and the class that perpetuates it.

The victims in California, as in any heat wave, are the frail and the elderly according to state officials. The death count was so high, Roni Java of the State Office of Emergency Services called it "unprecedented". "We don't have any records of this kind of loss of life." she tells the San Francisco Chronicle. (1)

Elderly people that lived alone or folks living in SRO's (Single Room Occupancy Hotels) were among the victims and the state made some effort to check on these vulnerable people. But as anyone who has called OSHA knows, state agencies that are supposed to protect workers or consumers, in other words, that don't function as agencies to increase the profit of business, are under-funded, understaffed, and, in many cases, just window dressing.

As more and more of the public sector is being privatized, handing over to the private sector what should be public functions means officials are placing the burden of responsibility on individuals, on the relatives and children of workers and the middle class whose lives have become increasingly stressed due to increased work hours, long commutes brought about by skyrocketing house prices, and other pressures of a society in which profit is paramount; where making money and the accumulation of wealth for a few is more important than quality of life for the many.

"The state can't guarantee an air conditioner in every room... " says Howard Becker a doctor with the Department of Health Services and he points out that what we need is for people to check on older neighbors and people living alone, a "socially coherent network of people checking up on each other."
No one would disagree with that. And society functions to the extent that it does because humans in the main are collective creatures, we cooperate and help each other in many individual and collective ways, day in day out.

But the state is exactly the institution that can guarantee an air conditioner in every room. It is the only social institution that can do that. And not only air conditioning, a small venture compared to the invasion of a country, but providing other guarantees that are essential to civilized living such as heat and housing and health care and education and transportation.

In the halls of Congress and state legislatures, the capitalist class and their representatives in the Democratic and Republican Parties ensure that their interests are guaranteed. While public expenditure on the poor and elderly, the sick or disabled, or education and public transportation finds itself on the chopping block, one item that is guaranteed not to be there is interest paid to moneylenders, the interest on public debt.

The Savings and Loan scandal that cost millions of Americans their savings and cost billions in taxpayers dollars to repair, (some $300 billion by some estimates) was made possible through the intervention of the big business politicians in Washington who voted to de-regulate the industry in 1982.
Ron Dellums, the new mayor of Oakland California and darling of the progressives, voted to deregulate the industry as well as voting against HR 27 in 1987 that would have restricted risky investments by S&L's. Barbara Boxer, another liberal favorite voted against that measure. (2) The few thousand millionaires and billionaires that control society ensures the "state" guarantees them their health and welfare and ensures that we pay for it.

Despite decrying the failings of big government through their mouthpieces like Rush Limbaugh and Fox's O'Reilly, the capitalist class recognizes that the state or what we call government, is an institution that represents their interests and use it to do so. The US capitalist class didn't just defeat the British in the revolutionary war; they created a new form of state that better suited their economic interests. As working class people, it is important to recognize that a capitalist state cannot serve our interests; that it will never provide health care for its people, or eliminate poverty, that it will never provide a decent education for all, and that without being forced, it is incapable of even preventing the deaths of sick or elderly people in one state in the mighty USA by providing air conditioners.

While recognizing this, it is just as important to recognize that through struggle we can win certain reforms from this state, that we can force temporary concessions from big business. But once we recognize that "their" state, a government that serves "their" economic interests, can never fully serve ours, can never resolve much of the crisis that we see around us from California to the Middle East,
We must have an alternative.

Collectively we have the labor power, the technology and the human ingenuity to solve the many dilemmas we are faced with every day. From housing to education, hunger to health care. Millions die each year not due to hunger, but to the failure of the so-called "free market" to allocate resources in a planned and rational way whether it be food, water, concrete and steel or even human labor power.

The fight to win air conditioners for the elderly in California is part of a wider struggle for working people to take control of the resources of society and the planet, of what we call the means of production, the farms, the factories, the building of houses and communities, the education of our children, and the private banks and financial institutions where the resource we call capital is stored. It is a struggle to take these resources and collectively decide where and how we use them based on human need and not profit and we plan how we use them in a collective and rational way. This is the only solution.

It is important to reject the idea that organized society cannot provide such a simple thing as an air conditioner for elderly Californians; it is just not a high priority for those who control government. Society, organized in a different way, can eliminate global poverty; Warren Buffet and Bill Gates cannot; they can only perpetuate it.

(1) SF Chronicle, (7-29-06)
(2) Who Robbed America? A Citizen's Guide to The Savings and Loan Scandal: Michael Waldman

homepage: homepage: http://www.laborsmilitantvoice.com

please 05.Aug.2006 10:31

send those air conditioners

to Lebanon and while you are at it, send as much bottled water as possible and get their electricity back on.

Working towards an air conditioner in every room is way over the top. What is more harmful to humans is going in and out of air conditioning throughout a heated day, stressing the body to adjust to 20-30 degree temperature differations in a matter of seconds. It's one of the reasons many people have "colds" during summer months, at least in industrialized nations and I have known many who have developed pneumonia.

Decreasing activity, keeping hydrated and checking up on neighbors will go further than an air conditioner in every room in saving lives.

business 05.Aug.2006 13:51


That's interesting. Let's see...build a metropolis in the desert where it should never have been in the first place, of housing that's incabable of naturally protecting its' occupants from the intense summer heat.

Destroy a magnificent river canyon and suck its river dry attempting to sustain this poplulation abnormality.

We definitely do not need more air conditioners. We need more thoughtfully designed, energy efficient cities and housing to provide for a population that is made to grow smaller, not larger. Business is responsible for this most recent controversy of people dying due to lack of air conditioners. Business is responsible for much of the destruction to the earth and harm to life on it.

Oh yes, wouldn't business love a government mandate providing air conditioners in every room. What a financial boon, a gold mine for business, and another nail in the coffin for us.

Thank you for caring about the most vulnerable in America 05.Aug.2006 21:50

Rose Elvern

I agree with you about the means of production and like Katrina we need to keep talking and writing about the needless deaths and suffering of our elderly and poor citizens. Where are the churches in this?