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Remembering the American Workplace’s Victims

Today, on Workers Memorial Day, we should remember that thousands die on the job every year — deaths made all the more tragic because they could have been prevented by bosses who valued workers' lives.

Heinrock / Flickr

On February, 15, Gary Martin shot and killed five coworkers and wounded five police officers at the Henry M. Pratt Company in Aurora, Illinois. Martin, a forty-five year old African-American man and a fifteen-year employee of the company, faced — for the second time — termination from his job.

Martin had worked as an assembler for Pratt in Illinois’s second-largest city forty miles west of Chicago. His mother and sister told several media outlets that Gary was “very depressed” at losing his job, which meant also losing health care and much of his pension. Since Martin was also a convicted felon from the mid-1990s in Mississippi, the likelihood of finding a similar well-paying job was bleak.

The ferocity of the Aurora massacre was shocking even by the standards of workplace violence in the United States. Martin’s handgun, for example, was mounted with a green laser sight so he could shoot more accurately. Among Martin’s victims was Russell Beyer, the machinists union representative, who previously helped Martin get his job back after he was fired the first time, and Trevor Wehner, a human resources intern, killed on his first day on the job. Martin then brazenly fired upon approaching police officers before he fled into the Pratt Company’s 29,000-square-foot cavernous warehouse, where he hid for nearly ninety minutes before police shot him dead.

The chief executive of Mueller Water Products, which owns Pratt, called the Aurora massacre the worst day in the company’s history, but only he vaguely spoke of the reasons for Martin’s termination. He issued a press release stating that the firing was the “culmination of various workplace rules violations,” but didn’t mention Martin’s first firing. The Chicago Sun-Times interviewed Russell Beyer’s father Ted, himself a former union chair at Pratt, and observed, “Though angry that Martin killed his son, he suggested built-up frustration with the company led to Friday’s [February 15th] attack.”

“It’s real easy to sit there and blame him [Martin],” Beyer said. “You work for the company fifteen years and there’s no justice because there’s games being played between the union and the company. It’s a shame when they have to desecrate somebody like that instead of getting down to the root cause.”

Ted Beyer is right: getting down to the root cause is one of the most difficult things about addressing workplace violence in the United States. Today is Workers Memorial Day, an international day of remembrance and solidarity for to workplace deaths, injuries, and illness.

Workers Memorial Day

Death has always stalked the American workplace, and some of this has made its way into the public memory. For example, Upton Sinclair’s classic 1906 book The Jungle was dedicated to the “Workingmen of America,” is required reading. According to labor lawyer Jonathan D. Karmel in his book Dying to Work: Death and Injury in the American Workplace, “The Jungle was intended as an expose of the lives and working conditions of immigrant workers, with vivid passages describing meatpackers falling into rendering vats and being sold for lard.”

But the immediate reaction to the book had less to do with the safety of the meatpackers than with the food safety. Comprehensive national legislation protecting worker safety would have to wait sixty-four years with the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

In 1989, the AFL-CIO chose April 28 as “Workers Memorial Day,” because on that day in 1970, President Richard M. Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act into law. Five decades later, it is still the most significant of federal legislation that regulates workplace health and safety.

It wasn’t an accident that 1970 was the year that OHSA came into being. By the late 1960s, a new awareness of workplace deaths and injuries had taken hold. As Daniel M. Berman put it in his 1978 book Death on the Job:

With the exceptions of the United Mine Workers’ activities and sporadic local uprisings, unions have been seriously involved in health and safety issues only in the last decade, since they mobilized to pass the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. The OSHA law was made possible by a tight labor market, worker dissatisfaction, the new environmental consciousness, the aid of progressive professionals, and a climate of general social unrest.

The general social unrest included, among other things, the Black Power insurgency, the rank and file rebellion in major industrial unions, and opposition to the Vietnam War. Wartime casualties highlighted the industrial slaughter in the workplace. The documentary The Story of OSHA makes that clear:

In 1968, at the height of the war in Vietnam, 14,000 Americans were killed and 46,000 were wounded. That same year, another 14,000 Americans were killed here in the United States, because those American men and women were killed at work — on the job. Another two and one half million American workers suffered disabling injuries — fifty-four times the number we had wounded in Vietnam that year.

But rank-and-file action were key to OSHA’s passage. In 1969, according to Trish Kahle, “over 60,000 miners — more than one-third of the mining workforce — participated in wildcat strikes, demanding safer working conditions and protections from black lung, a deadly (and completely preventable) respiratory disease that comes from inhaling coal dust. That year, 70,000 miners marched on the West Virginia capital to demand black lung legislation.” The miners won their demands.

A month before Nixon signed OSHA into law, a national postal workers wildcat strike started in New York City and spread across the country, eventually involving over 200,000 workers and paralyzing the national postal service. Nixon bumbled the affair by federalizing the National Guard and sending them in deliver the mail (with predictably disastrous results). The American workplace was in rebellion, and OSHA was a concession from a president known for anti-communism and hostility to labor.

From the beginning, OSHA was an underfunded agency whose inspectors were overwhelmed by their task of keeping the millions of varied workplaces in the United States safe and healthy. Despite this daunting task, OSHA had a dramatic impact on worker safety. The US Department of Labor reported,

it is estimated that in 1970 around 14,000 workers were killed on the job. That number fell to approximately 4,340 in 2009. At the same time, U.S. employment has almost doubled and now includes over 130 million workers at more than 7.2 million worksites. Since the passage of the OSH Act, the rate of reported serious workplace injuries and illnesses has declined from 11 per 100 workers in 1972 to 3.6 per 100 workers in 2009.

While such dramatic decline was laudable and saved many workers’ lives, the US still suffered horrendous and unnecessary workplace deaths since OSHA’s creation. In 1991, North Carolina witnessed one of the worst in US history. When fire broke out at a Hamlet, North Carolina, Imperial Food Products plant, according to the Smithsonian magazine, and workers tried to escape, only to find the exits locked. Workers collapsed into piles as the carbon monoxide overtook them; twenty-five died and forty were injured.

If the Hamlet massacre highlighted the need for a better-funded OSHA, the opposite push was happening in Washington. OSHA was always a grudging concession that the major employers sought to undermine, usually through underfunding and limiting the scope of its jurisdiction. However, in the mid-1990s, it faced down extinction following the triumph of New Gingrich’s Republican revolution of 1994 with its takeover of the House of Representatives.

“Most employers would describe OSHA as the Gestapo of the federal government,” declared Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), one of Gingrich’s chief lieutenants in 1995.

OSHA was weakened but survived the onslaught. Under Trump the number of OSHA inspectors declined during his first year in office. NBC reported last year that after Trump’s inauguration, OSHA “lost 40 inspectors through attrition and made no new hires to fill the vacancies as of Oct. 2 [2017],” 4 percent of OSHA’s total force.”

The workplace in the United states is a dangerous place. Karmel argues,

The risk of workplace death is much greater than dying in a plane crash, or being a victim of a terrorist attack. The odds of dying in a plane crash are 1 in 11 million. The odds of being killed in a terrorist attack in the United States are 1 in 20 million.

In 2015, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 4,836 workers were killed, or thirteen workers every day; the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported in that same year that fifty thousand deaths annually are related to the workplace, or an average of 137 death a day. Compare those numbers to the thirteen years of the Iraq War from the invasion in 2003 to 2016, where the US suffered 4,424 U.S. combat-related deaths.

No discussion of workplace deaths and injuries is complete, however, without adding that violence in the workplace particularly that American phenomenon ­— the mass workplace shootings or rage killings. The AFL-CIO reports,“Workplace violence is the third-leading cause of death on the job, resulting in nearly 29,000 serious, lost-time injuries for workers each year.”

In 1992, OSHA started began tracking workplace violence related deaths, in response to a decade of growing public awareness of murder in the workplace. The phenomena was glibly referred to in the media as “going postal,” after a series of workplace mass killings at post offices across the country starting in 1986. Why the post office? In his book Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion From Reagan’s Workplaces to Clinton’s Columbine and Beyond, Mark Ames argued that deregulation and privatization created the climate of extreme workplace stress in which workers snapped.

Combined with President Ronald Reagan’s breaking of the Air Traffic Controllers union (PATCO) in 1981, that opened the floodgates for union-busting and concessions, the American workplace has become a living hell for the last four decades. The most extreme manifestation: murder in the workplace. From 1992 to 2010, there almost fourteen thousand workplace homicides.

Work in America

American history is peppered with a long history of workplace deaths and injuries. But workers have also always fought to save their lives. Recently, amidst the carnage of General Motors plant closings and layoffs since last fall, only a handful of journalists recalled that the struggles of the rank and file workers at Lordstown GM plant in the early 1970s provided a different direction for the American workplace.

Will Bunch was one of the few. He wrote last fall that Lordstown wasn’t just notable for providing workers with decent paying jobs, but that workers could “fight for a workplace that had meaning, and where they actually had a say in what happened there.”

The work in auto plants was always dangerous, dirty, and violent. When GM build Lordstown, Jeremy Milloy recounts it was to be the symbol of the modern efficient auto plant. However, the young workers, many of whom were Vietnam war veterans, rebelled against the inhumane, oppressive working conditions. They struck GM for twenty-two days in March 1972. The UAW leadership in Detroit was cool to hostile to the strike from the beginning.

Yet it was clear that the strike was different. Fear of a “Lordstown Syndrome” spreading throughout the industrial sector caused panic in corporate boardrooms.”This wasn’t about more pay or shorter hours, which had been the historical struggle of the labor movement,” recalled historian Jefferson Cowie, “These guys basically wanted a better life on the job. They wanted to re-envision work and how work was done,” studying worker co-ops in Sweden and other models. The UAW and GM regained control of the plant, but not without giving the auto workers concessions on the brutal conditions in the plant.

Congress held hearings on the Lordstown strike and a special report on “Work in America’ was produced on the quality of work life in the United States. Yet, the discussion Lordstown strikers began was subsumed during the 1970s by recession, layoffs, and narrow-minded trade unionism.

Four decades later, Americans still go to work every day in dangerous and alienating conditions. On Workers Memorial Day, we should remember we don’t have to.