by Robert C. Koehler
As the heatwave intensifies across the country, as workers exposed to the heat collapse on the job in increasing numbers — some of them die — Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas has signed a law nullifying local ordinances in the state that require 10-minute heat and water breaks for those who work in the sun.
Water is life! Yeah, so what, says Abbott and those who support this law. Critics call it the Death Star Law. Texas Rep. Greg Casar, who recently staged a nine-hour thirst strike on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in protest of such laws — such indifference to the health and lives of so many American workers — said that Abbott, along with other GOP governors like Ron DeSantis, “are participating in the cruelty olympics, trying to outdo each other.”
These are deeply troubling times, and no doubt there are matters of greater peril for humanity than the right of construction and other workers to drink water on the job, but when I began reading about this and related issues, something began tearing at my insides. Water is life! I could barely imagine not having access to it. As the Texas Observer noted:
“Climate scientists have projected that Texas summers will get increasingly hot if climate change continues, exacerbating the public health risk. For every heat-related workplace death, dozens more workers fall ill. Since 2011, the state has seen at least 42 heat-related deaths on the job, and at least 4,030 incidents of heat-related illness, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.”
To think about this beyond the statistics, consider the death of Roendy Granillo, age 25, a Texas construction worker who began feeling ill at work. He was ignored, told to keep working, and eventually collapsed on the job. He died at the hospital, where his body temperature was 110 degrees.
Somehow this is all connected. The planet is heating up. We just got through the hottest July in recorded history, and the reaction of (primarily) Republican politicians has been to push back against humane legal intervention, meant to protect workers and others most vulnerable to the heatwave. What do we value? Do we value life or do we value profit? If the latter is true, we’re doomed. We will ignore, not address, the looming climate disaster and other deep dangers, such as nuclear war.
Ignoring these looming disasters is a crime against humanity — whatever that means. The United Nations’ Office of Genocide Protection addresses that very question, noting that many scholars trace the root of the concept to the late 18th century, in reference to slavery and the slave trade, as well as the atrocities of European colonialism in Africa and elsewhere.
Slavery! Somehow that seems to fit into the issue. The horror of slavery — the dehumanization of millions of people — is more than just numbers. It boils down to cruelty against individuals. Denying a worker a water break, especially as the days get mercilessly hotter, sounds like some leftover cruelty from the slave era: a crime against humanity, especially when you factor in the racism.
As The Guardian points out, six out of every 10 construction workers in Texas are Latino — and Abbott’s law will hurt Black and Latino communities the most, which are already disproportionately affected by the intensifying heat.
“In the midst of a record-setting heatwave, I could not think of a worse time for this governor or any elected official who has any, any kind of compassion, to do this,” said civil rights organizer David Cruz, quoted by The Guardian. “This administration is incrementally trying to move us backwards into a dark time in this nation. When plantation owners and agrarian mentalities prevailed.”
Water is life! Yeah, so what?
Last week, writing about the Texas border wall, I noted this: “A state trooper said he was under orders not to give migrants any water.”
And then the New York Times, writing recently about life in Latino border communities, known as colonias, talked about the continual water shutoffs the residents are enduring, and then, when the water came back on, they are warned to boil it before using it. “You could not trust the water when we needed it the most, if we had it at all,” one resident said, adding:
“I’m afraid to take a shower or even splash water on my face. We were told not to let water get into our eyes.”
And as her father pointed out: “You drive around the block, and you see the carwashes using all of this water, but there is no water for a mother and her two children? How is that possible? It’s like the colonias are part of a different country.”
As I write these words, I take a gulp of water. I take it for granted — and I’m not writing in the hot sun. I’m cool and comfortable and the water I drink is simply refreshing. I hardly think about it as a right, or the source of life and health. But it is.