Sunday, May 29, 2005

Workplace Shootings: Crazy Workers or Crazy Workplaces?

When I was at AFSCME, I worked a lot on workplace violence issues -- mostly dealing with our social service, corrections, health care and other members who were routinely assaulted, and sometimes killed on the job.

Much less common, but much more newsworthy were those employees (or ex-employees) who would "go crazy," bring a gun in and start shooting supervisors or co-workers. Unfortunately, there were a few of those among our members and former members as well.

As I've written before, it's the latter type of violence, those workers who "go postal" (apologies to our much-maligned postal workers) who get the most press, and who keep the workplace violence "consultants" and "experts" in business.

I have three major problems with these guys. First, they tended to play up the likelihood of one of your employees going berserk. Workplace violence, after all, was the second leading cause of death in the workplace for a number of years. They neglected to tell you, however, that only around 7% of those homicides were so-called "worker-on-worker" events.

Second, they tended to focus on profiling: listing a number of characteristics that employers could use to identify workers who might "lose it." While most workers who committed these crimes fit the profiles, so did a number of other employees.

Finally, most of these consultants focused on the suspect worker, but completely ignored the workplace environment that could have contributed to driving a worker over the edge. The media and so-called workplace violence experts generally assume that "worker-on-worker" violence is the result of mental health problems. This "crazy worker" theory of workplace violence ignores organizational causes, and particularly hostile work environments.

I thought about this last February when I read an excellent article by Michael Brooks in the Toledo City Paper about Toledo Jeep Assembly Plant worker Myles Meyers who went on a shooting rampage last January, killing two plant workers, and injuring two others. Unfortunately, I never got around to writing anything then, but after reading the following article, I couldn't resist any longer:

Potentially violent workers give cues, speaker says in Toledo

THURSDAY, MAY 19, 2005 -- Look for a history of violence, an obsession with firearms, problems with temper control, and a sudden change in behavior when assessing whether an employee may become violent at work, an expert says.

Another potentially volatile employee who warrants watching is someone who doesn't take criticism well, holds a grudge, and is repeatedly disciplined.

Such apparently was the case with Toledo Jeep Assembly Plant worker Myles Meyers, who in January went on a shooting rampage in the factory that left two dead and two injured, said John Lewton, president of Toledo's Workplace
Resources, an employee assistance program for high-stress occupations.
According to Brooks, however, "Meyers’ outburst was not isolated and was the culmination of systematic harassment by management that took place throughout many months."

In fact, most of his co-workers thought the world of Meyers: a good work ethic, loved his family, "cool," "selfless," "friendly," and, as one co-worker said “He was the last person I would ever expect to react this way,” he said. “I was sad that he felt he had no other choice.”

So what happened?
Meyers may have come to the attention of management because he was an outspoken advocate against what many workers feel is an attempt by DaimlerChrysler to eliminate the higher-paid positions, which are often held by older workers.

Yang agreed with this assessment.

“For example, one way lean production eliminates “waste” is by attacking the seniority system, pitting old-time workers against the younger ones,” he said. “The former views the younger temporary workers as ‘scabs’ while the newer workers resent the old guard for getting better paid and being hostile to them.”

“Myles understood that the company would love to have only one category of worker: low wage, jack of all trades, and master of none,” said Windau, citing the company’s record of forcing workers to perform work outside of their job descriptions. Employees who refuse, according to many workers, face disciplinary action up to and including termination.
And conditions at the Jeep plant were particularly bad:
“You can’t even take a water bottle to your work station,” said a millwright. “Try working in the summer heat without water.” According to workers, food, drinks and personal items are now forbidden at work stations.

“At the old plant, guys would have on headphones, or keep a radio nearby to make things more tolerable,” said Phil. “Sometimes you would see people singing or smiling while they worked. Now, there’s nothing but factory noise for 10 or 12 hours.”

Several workers described a room near Labor Relations in the plant, where injured workers are sent.

“They don’t want to pay the (state administered worker’s compensation benefits) or have OSHA [Occupational Safety & Health Administration] investigate, so many injured workers are forced to work jobs where they can sit,” said ‘Jerry.’ “If they are too hurt to do any work, they have to sit in this room with nothing in it. They aren’t even allowed to talk to the other injured workers,” he said, adding that injured workers are told “you are not here to talk.”

Another source of friction for Jeep workers is DaimlerChrysler’s policy of mandatory overtime — employees must put in 10- to 12-hour days, six days a week.

“The mandatory overtime began right after all those workers were laid off,” said “Marty,” a production worker. “It doesn’t take a genius to make the connection between the layoffs and the overtime.”

Workers are also unhappy about the company’s increasing use of temporary part-time workers (TPTs), who work three-day workweeks and are eligible for few benefits.

“These workers get the possibility of full-time employment dangled in front of them, and they are pressured into working like maniacs,” said “Kevin,” a production worker. “Plus, if an older worker goes on sick leave, his job is covered by TPTs. When the worker gets back, he’s expected to perform at the level of two gung-ho part-timers who each have four days to rest up from their overexertions.”
But the working conditions at the Jeep plant weren't a mistake, they were planned:
The industrial buzzwords for the DaimlerChrysler’s manufacturing philosophy — such as “lean production” and “continuous improvement” — have a different name for many of the people who work at Toledo North.

“A better term would be ‘management by stress’,” said “Phil.” “Plant managers keep pushing the limits on people and machines to get just a few more cars per hour. Whatever you did last week is never good enough this week.”

Manuel Yang, an instructor at University of Toledo who has published numerous scholarly articles concerning labor relations in the auto industry, described the new philosophy as “a method of how to make the average worker work faster, harder and more intensively.”

“Lean production is one of corporate business management’s weapons in this concerted attack against workers across the world,” he said. “Needless to say, workers suffocate under such intensified labor conditions, and understandably crack up under the stress, go mad, or take their guns to work, as it happened with Myles Meyers."
And it wasn't uncommon for management to harass workers who complained about working conditions. And Meyers complained:
“For the last two months, Myles had at least one manager watching him the entire shift,” he said. “A female supervisor would even follow him to the bathroom at break and sniff his clothes to see if he had been smoking in the bathroom.” (Toledo North is a nonsmoking facility).

‘Karl’ also witnessed what seemed to be a pattern of coordinated persecution by management against Meyers.

“Supervisors would stand outside the welding tunnel, arms crossed and stare at Myles all shift,” he said. “If he asked for a restroom or cigarette break, they would ignore him, because they would get to write him up if he left the work area without tag relief (a worker assigned to fill in for breaks).”

‘Marty,’ who worked in Meyers’ area in December, spoke of even more pervasive harassment.

“They would direct workers to move welding screens when Myles went to lunch, or they would hide his tools — petty shit,” he said. “When Myles would come back, everything would be in the wrong place, and managers would yell at him because he couldn’t jump right back in.”

‘Karl’ witnessed something that particularly upset Meyers.

“A younger female supervisor was directed to hang these insulting signs in Myles’ work area, things with pictures that were so dumbed down as to be degrading,” he said, describing the signs as geared toward children. “Here was a man who had been building Jeeps longer than she had been alive and he’s being treated like he’s stupid!” Meyers was visibly angered at this incident, which occurred in late November.

‘Jerry’ said that a supervisor with whom he is friendly, told him that management had been warned weeks before the shooting, that Meyers was acting strangely.

“The supervisor told me that workers had overheard Myles saying that he was going to ‘get’ Toney and Thacker,”
he said, referring to two of the victims, the late Roy Thacker and Mike Toney; also injured in the attack was Paul Medlen.
The article also doesn't have much good to say about the UAW local at the plant is not adequately representing its members.

Talk to any human behavior or violence expert and they'll tell you that there is a point at which any human being can be driven to violence. It differs from person to person, but no one is immune. But just blaming a violent event on an aberrant personality that "doesn't take criticism well, holds a grudge, and is repeatedly disciplined," borders on malpractice if organizational factors in the workplace, or any harassment the worker had been suffering are ignored.