by Karl S.
On January 2nd, 2023 Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed after making what looked like a routine tackle in a football game against the Cincinnati Bengals. For nine horrifying minutes the 24 year-old player lay on the field between life and death as medical staff administered CPR. As Damar’s teammates cried and prayed on the sidelines and thousands of traumatized fans waited in the stadium for updates, the NFL only cared about one thing: getting the game started again. The NFL makes billions of dollars a year, with all of its massive profits coming from the brutal labor of the players. The toll of playing in the NFL is clear; former players die young and experience debilitating injuries and cognitive impairment at disturbingly high levels.
The callousness of NFL commissioner Roger Gooddell, who originally wanted to give players a five-minute warm up after witnessing the near death of their teammate, was shocking to anyone with their humanity intact, but under capitalism, it is unsurprising that a boss would prioritize profits over human life. Ultimately, players on both teams collectively refused to go back on the field, leading to the game’s cancellation. This horrific on-field tragedy gave millions of viewers a glimpse of what is possible through labor solidarity. The game cannot go on if the players refuse to play.
Every year thousands of workers die and become permanently disabled at their jobs and unlike the Buffalo Bills, they do not have unions who can intervene or the celebrity to bring attention to their cases. During the holidays at an Amazon warehouse in Colorado, workers reported that management used boxes to cover up the body of a worker who died on the job after suffering a heart attack. Workers were forced to continue their day as if one of their colleagues had not just passed away right in front of their eyes. Last summer, a young UPS driver died of heatstroke in his poorly ventilated truck during an extreme heatwave in California. Drivers all across the country had been reporting the unsafe conditions in their painfully hot vehicles, where temperatures can reach over 130 degrees. Without millions of fans watching, these workers’ deaths often do not attract wider attention, but they are no less tragic than what happened to Damar Hamlin.
“Back to work” is one of the defining mantras of the capitalist class. When COVID-19 interrupted work for millions of people around the world in 2020, bosses immediately began plotting how to get their workers back on the job as quickly as possible with little regard to the health of their staff. The US is one of the only countries in the world not to guarantee paid sick leave. When massively overworked rail workers pushed to add sick time into their contracts, President Biden and the Democratically controlled House and Senate instead threatened to compel the workers to accept a contract without these protections. While the capitalist economy pushes us to work ourselves to death, our for-profit healthcare system wages a systematic war on the health of American workers. Every other wealthy nation in the world besides the US guarantees healthcare to all. Between the unchecked greed of the bosses and the shockingly expensive and woefully inadequate healthcare in the US, it is unsurprising that even before COVID-19, life expectancy in America had been declining.
Every worker deserves a job where they are treated with dignity and their bodies do not become physically or mentally damaged due to the toll of their work. In my own union, we are given at least 15 paid sick days per year and we have rules (although often inadequate) governing the health and safety of our workplace. Millions of workers in the U.S. are denied these basic protections and that is why it is so important for socialists to rebuild the labor movement. Even in unionized workplaces, bosses fight tooth and nail against the most meager safety measures. A union alone does not guarantee a safe workplace. Like the players on the Bill and Bengals learned on that awful day, sometimes the only way to guarantee a safe workplace is by sitting out and not playing the bosses’ game at all.