'Have you no sense of decency, sir?'

Jesse Jackson | 6/21/2023, 12:27 p.m.
Texas is suffering from record high temperatures, with heat indexes topping a staggering 120 degrees.
Heat Wave Concept

Texas is suffering from record high temperatures, with heat indexes topping a staggering 120 degrees.

40 million people are at risk from what scientists call a “heat dome,” and storm chasers call a “death ridge.” Texas already is the state that suffers the highest number of deaths from heat exposure,

And the National Weather Service warns that the “extreme heat and humidity will significantly increase the potential for heat-related illnesses, particularly for those working or participating in outdoor activities.” Officials warn Texans to stay cool and hydrated.

In response, the Republican Texas State legislature and Republican Governor Greg Abbott passed and signed into law a bill that voids any city law that requires water breaks for employees.

Jesse Jackson

Jesse Jackson

You read that right. At the midst of a deadly heat wave, Republican officials passed a law to revoke city laws – such as one passed in Austin in 2010 and Dallas in 2015 – that require water breaks for workers. The law takes effect in September, but next summer, this will end up killing people. “Construction is a deadly industry. Whatever the minimum protection is, it can save a life. We are talking about a human right,” said Ana Gonzalez, deputy director of policy and politics at the Texas AFL-CIO. “We will see more deaths, especially in Texas’ high temperatures.”

The threadbare excuse for the law is that companies don’t want to deal with a confusing patchwork of local regulations. Of course, the governor could have removed that irritation by supporting a state law to mandate sensible water breaks rather than one banning them.

In reality, this legislation essentially treats workers as property – without human rights, even the right to life – to be used as their employers deem fit. The extreme expression of this, of course, was slavery, in which slaves literally were valued and sold as property. The 13th Amendment, passed after the Civil War, outlawed slavery – but it did not enshrine basic human rights or economic rights.

The majority of construction workers in Texas are Latinos, many undocumented, and relatively easy for employers to abuse and legislatures to oppress, as Blacks were under slavery. Linking a fake populism with appeals on conservative social issues like abortion, Republicans have been gaining ground among Latino voters – but apparently not enough to begin to respect their basic human right to survival.

In any case, this is less about race than about workers of all races. Under Donald Trump, Republicans have offered workers heated rhetoric about nativism, about crime, even about mythical Democratic pedophiles, using populist rhetoric as a cover for relentlessly anti-worker policies. Republican legislatures in Iowa and Ohio have weakened child labor laws, allowing children as young as 14 to be employed on evening shifts using caustic chemicals in meat coolers and industrial cleaners. Republican justices have rolled back the right to organize, and disemboweled the powers of existing unions. Republicans oppose raising the minimum wage, enforcing workplace safety, and seek to weaken unemployment support for those who are laid off.

Passing a law to ban local protection of water breaks in the midst of a record and deadly heat wave speaks for itself. It reminds me of the famous moment in the McCarthy hearings at the height of the ’50s Red Scare. Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, after feeding the Red Scare with repeated screeds about communists subverting the government, convened hearings on whether the US Army was soft on communism. Frustrated by the Army’s defense attorney, Joseph N. Welch, McCarthy slurred a young associate in Welch’s firm as linked to communists. Flabbergasted, Welch responded: “Until this moment, senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” That moment marked the effective end of McCarthy’s reign of terror.

Now in the wake of the cruel law passed by the Republican legislature and signed by its governor, surely it is time to ask each of them, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”

You can write to the Rev. Jesse Jackson in care of this newspaper or by email at jjackson@rainbowpush.org. Follow him on Twitter @RevJJackson.