The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Extreme Heat:
The Working Class Pays the Price

Aug 7, 2023

In July, extremely high temperatures scorched a large part of the U.S. During two separate weekends in July, about one out of three Americans was under an excessive heat warning.

Especially in the South and Southwest, temperatures not only reached record levels, but stayed there for a long time. While Phoenix, Arizona, reported a temperature of 110 degrees or higher for 31 days in a row, the temperature stayed above 100 degrees for 40 straight days in El Paso, Texas.

Of all weather events, it’s heat that kills the most people. And such extremely high and lasting temperatures cause the most deaths. A recent study found that extreme heat caused more than 61,000 deaths in Europe last summer, which otherwise would not have occurred.

So, how many tens of thousands of people is this heat wave killing? We might never know. Heat-related deaths are typically under-reported. Doctors usually report an immediate cause for a death, such as a stroke or heart failure, even if that condition was brought about by heat.

And in capitalist society, who gets sick and dies from heat is mainly a question of social class. The hottest neighborhoods, in every city, are working-class neighborhoods—neighborhoods with more concrete, less green space and fewer trees to provide shade. Large apartment complexes in these neighborhoods are heat traps. Residents often have to buy their own air conditioning units, if they can afford them. Last month, an emergency room doctor in Las Vegas reported that an elderly patient he treated had gotten ill because they were keeping their thermostat at 80 degrees to keep down electricity costs.

At work, working-class jobs are more likely to expose workers to extreme heat—construction and farm workers, for example, who have to work outdoors, under the sun. And when indoors, many workers have to put up with high temperatures without air conditioning.

Few U.S. states have heat standards to protect workers, outdoors or indoors. And in those states that have passed legal protections for workers exposed to heat, state governments often don’t enforce those protections. In a recent study in California, about one out of four of the 1,500 surveyed farmworkers reported that their employers “never or rarely” provide shade when the temperature is 80 degrees or higher, as required by state law. And about one out of five said that their employer never provides the mandated 10-minute cool-down break.

Nor is the federal government any help. During Phoenix’s month-long 110-degree streak, for example, a city official complained that the city didn’t get federal funds to help keep cooling centers better staffed and open for longer. That was certainly true everywhere hit by extreme heat across the country.

The federal government allocates more than a TRILLION dollars a year for military spending; it has already spent more than 50 billion dollars on the war in Ukraine, and counting. But it’s nowhere to be seen or heard when it comes to protecting working people from extreme, deadly heat—a result of the changing climate that their own policies helped bring about.

It’s not a surprise. It’s what the U.S. government—a government of big corporations, military contractors and financiers—has always done.