Workers Vanguard No. 897

31 August 2007


Bridges, Levees, Runways, Tracks

Capitalists Starve Infrastructure: Working People Die

• July 18—An 83-year-old Con Edison steampipe explodes in Midtown Manhattan at the height of the evening rush hour, injuring many with scalding steam and setting off widespread panic. One person dies of a heart attack.

• August 1—The I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis suddenly collapses during evening rush-hour traffic. The main span plunges into the river along with dozens of cars, then both approach spans buckle. Thirteen people are killed and nearly 100 injured. The body of the last remaining victim, construction worker Gregory Jolstad, is pulled out of the dark waters on August 20, nearly three weeks later.

• August 6—Six coal miners are buried in a collapse of the non-union Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah, where deadly “retreat mining” techniques were used. Then three rescuers are killed as the mountain continues to shift around them.

• August 18—Two New York City firefighters die trying to put out a fire in the Deutsche Bank building being demolished at the World Trade Center site. The building was a firetrap, produced by a combination of mammoth corruption and official indifference. The following week, a forklift on the 23rd floor plunges to the ground, crashing through a construction shed and injuring two more firefighters.

• August 29—The second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina arrives with no guarantee that the barely patched-up levees will hold this hurricane season, while much of the dispersed black population of New Orleans is told in no uncertain terms: Stay out!

This is the picture of the anarchic and decaying system of American capitalism. From coast to coast, the country’s bridges, roads, airways, mass transit systems, waterways and power grids are disasters waiting to happen. The country’s rulers have looted basic industry and criminally neglected the infrastructure of society, and their drive for ever-greater profits means depraved indifference to the lives of those they exploit. The destructive irrationality of the capitalist system is highlighted by frenzied financial speculation, most recently seen in the subprime mortgage meltdown, that threatens to touch off a world recession. Meanwhile, the bloody U.S.-led occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, carried out in pursuit of American global dominance, thunder on unchecked.

With practiced ritual, capitalist politicians from Bush on down offered their prayers for the victims’ families in Minnesota, Utah and New York, while Congressmen once again called for “hearings” that would amount to little more than cover-ups for the crimes of the capitalists who call the shots. Not only the Minneapolis victims, but the Utah miners and the thousands who died or were displaced following Katrina are not victims of “natural disasters” but of a capitalist system that always holds safety hostage to profit.

Conditions in the U.S. cry out for a counteroffensive by the working class against the exploiters and their Democratic and Republican parties. To begin with, what’s needed is a fighting labor movement determined to use its power to enforce safety standards and shut down dangerous structures and facilities without regard to the capitalists’ bottom line. Ultimately, the well-being of the population can only be secured when the capitalist class is expropriated through a workers revolution and a collectivized, planned economy is established based on production for human need and not profit.

The Minnesota Bridge: Case Study in Criminal Neglect

Under capitalism, engineering practice, like everything else, is profit-driven. The Minnesota I-35W steel truss bridge, completed in 1967, was designed to save on the amount of steel required. Like many such bridges, it lacked redundancy: if any structural member fails, the bridge collapses. It was designed without adequately accounting for fatigue and cracking in structural steel due to cyclic stress and corrosion. Although of a different design, the Silver Bridge in West Virginia collapsed in 1967 due to similar factors, killing 46 people.

The science underlying crack propagation as a principle failure mechanism in structural materials emerged in 1913 and was elucidated by A.A. Griffith in 1920, and further refined by scientists afterward. Metal fatigue and stress cracking were certainly understood well enough by the mid 1960s to evaluate existing bridges. But it took a disaster like the Silver Bridge collapse for the bourgeoisie to even establish a mandatory bridge inspection program. Nevertheless, more than 30 years later less than 4 percent of “in-depth” inspections correctly identify weld crack indications.

Even a well-built bridge will not last if it is not properly maintained. As the former chief engineer for the New York City Department of Transportation, Samuel Schwartz, explained in a New York Times (13 August) op-ed piece, “Bridges are machines with movable parts” that need to be regularly cleaned, lubricated and painted to prevent corrosion or the seizing up of moving joints. But, as Schwartz noted, routine maintenance is routinely scuttled because states and localities only receive federal funds for major projects rather than the “mop and pail” work that bridges really need.

These kinds of cost-driven irrationalities in infrastructure would not be tolerated if the working class ruled society. But faced with aging, deficient bridges, you might expect that common sense would dictate that even this profit-driven system would, at a minimum, limit traffic load, ensure necessary maintenance and plan for early replacement of the I-35 and other outmoded bridges. Instead, by the late 1980s, more lanes and increased truck weight limits—authorized by Congress—greatly increased the load on the Minneapolis bridge. By the time of the collapse, vehicle traffic had more than doubled from the original projections.

In 1990, after only 23 years of service, the bridge was rated by federal inspectors as “structurally deficient,” i.e., it was in poor condition but still considered nominally safe. As deterioration continued in the 1990s, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MDOT) increased inspections and stop-gap repairs. A 2000 report by MDOT engineers cited numerous structural problems, concluding that “eventual replacement of the entire structure would be preferable.” However, the state had no plans to do so until 2020.

A 2006 study by the URS Corporation recommended redundant “steel plating of all 52 fracture critical truss members” as the safest interim solution. The MDOT rejected this and instead adopted the study’s cheaper option, which was to inspect the welds. Even then, they halted the inspection halfway through in order to start repaving and other work on the bridge roadway. This work was taking place when the bridge collapsed. Corroded and frozen hinge joint bearings, which eventually caused one of the support piers to tilt slightly, were prominently cited in several MDOT inspections. A forensic engineering study will eventually discover which structural member failed—but in the end it was about money.

They Don’t Starve the Pentagon

Historically, the bourgeoisie has produced massive public works when this has suited its purposes, particularly in periods of capitalist expansion…and to prepare for war. In the 19th century, the American system of canals and railways was the path of expansion to the West. The 42,000-mile interstate highway system, named the “National System of Interstate and Defense Highways,” was completed in the 1950s during the anti-Soviet Cold War. Developed in part to facilitate military operations in case of war, this network was patterned after the Autobahn system developed during Hitler’s Third Reich, which was designed to speed the Nazi invasion of Europe.

However, for nearly four decades the government has slashed infrastructure spending so much that the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) 2005 report card gives an overall grade of “D” (poor) to the country’s infrastructure as a whole. Yet bridges, with a “C” grade, are in better shape than almost every other category! Aviation, dams, drinking water, power grids, hazardous waste, navigable waterways, roads, school buildings, transit and wastewater treatment all received “D” grades. Almost 20 years ago, we headlined: “New York Bridges Are Falling Down” because of conscious capitalist policy (WV No. 456, 1 July 1988). The next year, sections of the Oakland Nimitz Freeway collapsed during an earthquake, killing scores and leaving many more homeless. As we stated in “Freeway Death Trap—A Capitalist Crime” (WV No. 488, 27 October 1989), people died “because of a willful refusal to repair and maintain structures that were known to be inadequate.”

Today, nothing has changed. The ASCE projects that it will take $1.6 trillion over five years to restore public infrastructure to acceptable conditions. Few dispute the accuracy of the ASCE cost projections, but the capitalist ruling class has no intention of shelling out. With the decline of American industry, the U.S. bourgeoisie has lost its hegemonic economic position and faces increased competition from other imperialist powers, primarily Japan and Germany. Since 1980, hand in hand with deindustrialization, the U.S. has spent less than 2 percent of Gross Domestic Product on infrastructure, far less than many other advanced industrial countries. The only significant increase in “public spending” has been an explosion in prison construction, under both Democratic and Republican administrations. In large part, this has been in the service of the racist rulers’ “war on drugs.” As of two years ago, some 60 percent of the U.S. prison population was black or Latino.

What America’s capitalist rulers will never starve is the Pentagon budget, which is greater than the combined total military spending of all other major states in the world. The direct budgetary costs thus far for the Iraq war and occupation are about $450 billion, which understates the real expense that includes supplementary spending and other such measures. The actual costs could eventually reach $1-2 trillion. The U.S. earlier spent trillions in its war drive against the Soviet Union, which, following American imperialism’s stinging defeat in Vietnam, was renewed under Democrat Jimmy Carter and deepened by the Republican Ronald Reagan. A good part of the imperialists’ calculations was to compel the Soviet Union to spend a great amount on its own defenses, undermining its economic development. The counterrevolutionary destruction of the USSR in 1991-92, a historic defeat for the proletariat and the oppressed worldwide, removed a military and industrial powerhouse that had been a countervailing force against U.S. imperialism.

In response to the recent disasters, the reformist Workers World (18 August) all too predictably headlines: “Los Angeles Activists Demand: ‘Money for Bridges—Not for War’.” What’s wrong with this nice idea? The “Anybody but Bush” liberals and their reformist followers push the lie that the U.S. imperialist system, which shatters whole countries like Serbia and Iraq, can be reformed to “end war” and “rebuild America,” particularly if the lesser-evil Democrats are in office. The reality is that the capitalist system is based on production for profit and not on satisfying human needs. The imperialists’ wars are fought centrally in order to secure control of markets, resources and new sources of labor to exploit. As long as the capitalist system exists, this government will wage wars. Creating a society where human needs come first requires nothing less than the overthrow of capitalist class rule, through a series of proletarian revolutions across the planet.

Workers Revolution Will Rebuild America

The Democrats like to blame Bush’s tax cuts for billionaires for contributing to the country’s decay. But cutbacks in infrastructure and social services are Democratic as well as Republican policy. Over two decades of neglect of the flood control system around New Orleans prior to Katrina included the eight years of the Clinton administration, during which the U.S. experienced an economic boom and the federal government ran a sizable budget surplus. Now, after the Minnesota bridge collapse, Hillary Clinton calls for a paltry $10 billion increase in bridge spending over ten years, in line with other Democratic proposals. This is despite the fact that the ASCE report projects it will cost almost $10 billion per year for 20 years just to eliminate all bridge deficiencies.

A working-class fight for safety and to rebuild this country would powerfully resonate throughout society. But this requires a fight against the labor misleaders who support this murderous profit system and bind workers to the Democratic Party and other agencies of capitalist rule. When Hurricane Katrina hit two years ago, we outlined a fighting program for labor in “New Orleans: Racist Atrocity” (WV No. 854, 16 September 2005):

“The masses of displaced people must be provided with jobs—union jobs at union wage scales, with health care, housing, clothing and all other necessities. Instead of being regarded as victims, these working people can be incorporated into a force for their own revitalization. What is needed at the minimum is a massive program of federally funded public works to rebuild New Orleans and the rest of the devastated Gulf Coast. There should be workers committees that would make sure that shoddy designs and penny-pinching construction could be vetoed before they endangered people’s lives, and that lifesaving repairs and maintenance would not fall victim to the ax of austerity.”

It doesn’t take a natural disaster for this profit system to threaten people’s lives. Look at the chaos that reigns in air transport today, with chronic staffing shortages, critical equipment failures and horrible working conditions. Massive accidents are just waiting to happen. One already did: in August last year a jet in Lexington, Kentucky, crashed on takeoff, killing 49 of the 50 people aboard, because there was only one air controller on duty. This is the bitter fruit of the most massive union-busting attack since the 1930s, when Reagan smashed the PATCO air traffic controllers strike in 1981 (with plans drawn up by the Carter White House). Criminally, Reagan was abetted by the heads of the Machinists, Teamsters and other unions who refused to shut down the airports in solidarity with PATCO.

Such dangers loom daily in NYC’s antiquated subway system, which the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) runs without regard for the safety of workers or riders. This was seen yet again in April when two track workers, members of Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100, were killed within a week. We noted in “NYC Transit: Murder by Speedup” (WV No. 892, 11 May) that “track workers have for years demanded radios for everyone working in the dark, filthy, dangerous subway tunnels, so that they can be connected with train crews and control centers. But for the MTA, a worker’s life is not even worth the cost of communications equipment.” The system cannot run without the TWU, as the union powerfully demonstrated in the December 2005 transit strike. Our article called for the TWU to “fight for elected union safety committees with the power to shut down unsafe worksites on the spot.

The capitalists and their politicians have demonstrated many times over that they are the enemy of human progress. As Leon Trotsky, co-leader with V.I. Lenin of the 1917 October Revolution, declared in the 1938 Transitional Program, founding document of the Fourth International: “The question is one of guarding the proletariat from decay, demoralization, and ruin…. If capitalism is incapable of satisfying the demands inevitably arising from the calamities generated by itself, then let it perish.”

The experience of the Soviet Union shows the enormous power of collectivized property and centralized economic planning, despite the degeneration of the workers state under the rule of the Stalinist bureaucratic caste. A year after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, 90,000 of the people evacuated had been provided with new homes, while those directly responsible for criminal mismanagement were punished. Two decades earlier, when an earthquake demolished Tashkent in Soviet Uzbekistan, a massive reconstruction program had the entire city—population 1.1 million—rehoused in three years. In Cuba, masses of people are routinely moved to safe areas of the island during major hurricanes. And after Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, Cuba offered medical brigades to give emergency care, only to be turned down by Washington.

As Trotskyists, we stand for the unconditional military defense of the remaining deformed workers states—China, Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam—against imperialist assault and internal counterrevolution, as we did in regard to the Soviet Union. We fight for workers political revolution to oust the Stalinist bureaucracies that undermine the collectivized economies and that oppose the struggle to extend socialist revolution to the wealthy, advanced capitalist countries. Instead, they preach “peaceful coexistence” with imperialism. The Stalinist misrulers must be replaced by regimes of workers democracy and proletarian internationalism based on workers councils (soviets).

The fight for a socialist future is necessarily international. The horrific images of homeless, starving men, women and children in New Orleans, the dead lying on the streets for days, prompted many to compare it to the Third World. “That’s not supposed to happen here,” was the shocked response. But it shouldn’t have to happen there either. More than 500 are dead in the latest earthquake in Peru, while in Bangladesh and South Asia, nearly 25 million have been displaced by the worst monsoon floods in living memory. Humanity cannot stop tsunamis and tornadoes, or tectonic plates from shifting. But the world proletariat can alter human society, by overthrowing the capitalist imperialist system that cripples the economic development of semicolonial countries. From the Indian subcontinent to Africa and Latin America, natural disasters are compounded by imperialist subjugation, which deprives the masses of such basics as safe housing and clean water.

In concluding our 1988 article on New York bridges, we wrote:

“A workers revolution would put America back to work rebuilding the bridges, highways and factories. And not just here—massive aid programs to rebuild Vietnam, Latin America, Africa, everywhere the imperialists have plundered and destroyed. The capitalist class in its twilight has shown that it is incapable of maintaining society. The working class led by its revolutionary vanguard must wrench society from the bourgeoisie’s death grip.”

It is to that end that the Spartacist League/U.S. fights to build a revolutionary workers party, section of a reforged Fourth International.