Friday, May 14, 2004

Charging My Batteries

Had drinks last night with New York Times reporter David Barstow (and his trusty sidekick Robin Stein), who wrote the Pulitzer prize winning series on the McWane corporation who willfully killed nine workers, injured scores and had been cited for more than 400 federal health and safety violations. Barstow's descriptions of working conditions at McWane, the plight of its workers and the failure of OSHA to bring criminal prosecutions down on a clear corporate criminal sum up this country's failure to ensure every worker a safe and health workplace as the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 requires.
In the last decade, many American corporations have embraced such a vision of capitalism — cutting costs, laying off workers and pressing those who remain to labor harder, longer and more efficiently. But top federal and state regulators say McWane has taken this idea to the extreme. Describing the company's business, they use the words "lawless" and "rogue."

The company's managers call it "the McWane way."


Employees describe simply stepping inside as an overwhelming experience. First is the heat, wave upon wave of it, sometimes in excess of 130 degrees. Then there is the noise — of pipe slamming into pipe, of pneumatic tools that grind and cut, of massive machines that shudder and shake, of honking forklifts and roaring exhaust systems. Dust and fumes choke the lungs and coat the lights, leaving the plant floor a spectral labyrinth of glowing pipes and blackened machinery.
Barstow went on to write another three-part series last December (which I covered here, here and here) about the failure of OSHA and the U.S. Justice Department to bring criminal prosecutions down on all but a tiny number of employers who willfully kill their employees.

If you haven't read the series, you can find them here. If you read the stories when they came out, it's about time to read them again -- and pass them on to someone who hasn't read them yet. (Preferably someone who is looking for a reason to vote for political leaders that see the need for government to take a strong role in forcing employers to provide safe workplaces.)

David and I lamented the sparse media coverage of the deaths of thousands of workers in this country every year -- a few formulaic paragraphs (at most) in the local newspaper, sometimes not even noting the worker's name. Most reporters never realize that there are gripping stories behind these deaths involving failures to take basic precautions, life and death, good vs. evil, employers' failure to take responsibility for actions or omissions that result in the preventable deaths of people whose only mistake was going to work that morning. And stories of children growing up without parents, and parents burying their young children. And most tragically, the missed opportunity to channel to sorrow and rage of the families into action that could literally save thousands of lives every year.

The first story of Barstow's second series began with the death of Patrick M. Walters, killed in an uprotected 10-foot deep trench, only a couple of weeks after OSHA had cited the same company for sending workers into unprotected 15-foot deep trench. Walters' parents were in Washington D.C. last week for a "hearing" organized by New York Congressman Major Owens. Michelle Marts and Jeff Walters testified in favor of legislation introduced by Senator Jon Corzine (D-NJ) that would increase the penalties for employers found guilty of willfully killing a worker. They were accompanied by the families of other workers killed on the job, including Jeff Davis Jr., whose father was killed in the explosion of a sulfuric acid tank after the Delaware company, Motiva Enterprises, had been warned that the tank was leaking. All that was left of Jeff Davis's father were a couple of pieces of his workboots.

I've been to a lot of hearings in Washington over the past 20 years and I've never been so moved -- or seen an audience so moved to tears at the tragic stories of the preventable deaths of these husbands, fathers and children. Although they all died in different ways, the stories their families had to tell had one thing in common: the employers all knew that what they were doing was life threatening. Nothing was done to prevent these tragedies, their loved ones died, and no serious action was taken to punish the companies beyond a meaningless -- and often insultingly low -- fine.

A second panel at the "hearing" addressed the plight of immigrant workers in this country and OSHA's failure to seriously address the issue by hiring enough non-English speaking staff and supporting effective training and enforcement programs.

Note in the previous paragraphs I've put the word "hearing" in quotations. That's because this wasn't an "official" hearing. Instead of being held in a Congressional hearing room, this "hearing" was held in a cramped basement room of the U.S. Capitol building. Why? Because the Republicans in control of Congress won't let the Democrats hold their own hearings. Why? Because they don't want to hear about workers dying on the job. They don't want to hear about the failure of this government -- all three branches of which are controlled by their party -- to comply with the mandates of the OSHAct. They'd rather put their heads in the sand, listen only to their contributors whining about the abuse of big government and pass bills that further weaken OSHA.

We need to be rid of them.

One of the witnesses at the hearing was SEIU Immigration Campaign coordinator Omar Henriquez. Omar, along with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, AFSCME DC 37 health and safety staffer Guilermina Mejia, Transport Workers Union Local 100 President Roger Toussaint and the World Trade Center Worker and Vounteer Medical Screening Program were the recipients of awards at the NYCOSH Annual Awards Celebration.

If I was a real reporter, I would have taken careful notes about all that was said at the event and report them back to you. But at the event with me were 500 of my best friends -- brothers and sister -- many of whom I have worked with for the past twenty years and continue to go to work every day -- for unions, COSH groups, universities, law firms and government agencies -- with one mission in mind -- to help workers access the knowledge, tools and support they need to protect themselves when they go to work every day. None are well paid, all work far too hard against huge obstacles that shouldn't exist in a country as rich and "civilized" as ours. And as inspiring as the speakers were, it was the crowd that was most energizing.

We're living through one of the most difficult and terrible times in our nation's history -- beset by terrorism and faced with an administration that instead of building on the world-wide good will that resulted from the events of 9/11, has alienated the entire world and irretrievably damaged the image of America and Americans. At home, their arrogance, their mendacity, their blatent pettyness and cruelty have cast a pall over progressive people who are fighting every day to improve the lives of those who have been stepped on and left behind.

From the Washington perspective it's even more frustrating. In the heart of the beast we are cursed with the ability to see not only the obvious effect of the war, the tax cuts, and the rollbacks in environmental and workplace protections, but we are also "lucky" enough to witness the smaller crimes that never make the newspapers outside of Washington or New York-- the drip, drip, drip of small, almost unseen regulatory changes that favor some of the administration's friends, slices out of an agency's budget that the President has just publicly praised, favors that administration officials perform for the industries that employed them not long ago. We can clearly see that the Emperor has no clothes while too much of the rest of the country sees the canned, distorted, "fair and balanced" version of reality. While the media and pollsters are finally reporting the astonishing news that Bush and Kerry are roughtly tied right now, I can't believe that support for the joker living in Al Gore's house exceeds 12%. It's so completely clear that the guy lies every time he moves his lips, yet few are able (or willing) to look at what's behind the curtain.

But coming home from the celebration tonight, spending time with so many people fighting the good fight, it's possible to believe that we have the energy and ability to change things in this country -- in ways small and large. We're saving lives and we're making the world better. To quote that mighty activist Dan Aykroyd, "We're on a mission from God."

Let's do it.