Thursday, December 13, 2007

We're In This Together

The last week has thrown me, one more time, up against all the things I don't know. I just hate that.

I attended a board strategic planning meeting of an organization near and dear to my heart this weekend. We were there officially to discuss fundraising--oy vey!--and we did that. We were given helpful planning concepts and paper tools to use to plot our funding needs for the next year, and made great strides in that planning task.

But before we got into the agenda, I had another heart attack experience. I don't mean that I actually had a heart attack. I mean that during the mildly awkward time while assembled strangers and friends await the arrival of the rest of the expected attendees, I overheard a conversation that made me realize again, one more time, that the notion that we inhabit parallel universes is a myth.

I know it feels like that. There are micro-universes out there about which I know nothing. For instance, there are flamingo fans and foundries and psychoneurolinguists and smelters and hod carriers and afficionados of Baccarat. Within some of them, whole lives pass engrossed in personalities, politics, potential lays, high policy, the next vacation, who's who in upcoming papers, and who just didn't get tenure.

Within others, whole lives pass engrossed in the cost of work boots, eye guards, and leather gloves, or bosses' dispositions, factory alliances, unionizing, what's left after paying the rent, and Oh Christ, what the fuck do I do! The foreman won't fix the hinge on the furnace door.

What I know of foundries goes back 50 years to the last time I walked a factory that specialized in making thermostats and bellows and other peculiarities. My dad was the general superintendent, the chief flak catcher. He got the 3 a.m. phone calls and worked on Sunday to make sure whatever was needed for the Sunday night shift was ready for duty.

My dad lived in the uninhabitable space between the men on the floor and top management. I take it as a great compliment that his men came to his wake and his funeral and told us many stories of ways he mentored and went to the wall for them. But that said, my dad was third from the top. His job was to mediate the conflicts among the workers and the conflicts between the workers and top management--and that meant being present, physically present, 24/7 when necessary. So, the top two lived 30 years longer than he did because they didn't log 4 miles a day on concrete. Nobody called them "a one-eyed son of a bitch" (a reference to his WWII injury) or dared them to pour the giant ladles of 2500-degree molten steel or lose face and with face, authority.

What are you on about, you ask?

Just this. Have you ever sat opposite a dad and mom describing how their young son was burned to death in a foundry because management couldn't be bothered to fix the hinge on the furnace door?

Where is the nexus, the connection to me, you ask?

Just here. When this mom and dad called on a member of the Arizona legislature to ask for a law that would address corporate malfeasance, the member asked to be excused to attend to a call of nature, and never came back.

What if that were your issue? What if you helped to elect this person? Does he represent you?

In fact, come to think of it, it is your issue. And mine. Workplace safety is everybody's issue. How much "Duh!"-er can it get?

I don't have the statistics, but I know, and you know, that the Profit Imperative means nothing more than this: Workers are not paid for higher productivity, and workplaces are not maintained in the condition that best protects the workers. No matter the hazards, there will be shortcuts, and the shortcuts will inevitably be at the expense of those who are least able to prosecute resulting injuries and fatalities. It's a simple matter of gravity. Shit rolls downhill. If the factory employees are semi-literate "rednecks" or semi-literate Hispanics, it doesn't really matter because they have no idea how to even begin to file a complaint and can't afford to hire a lawyer. Doesn't really matter who gets burned to death so long as the investors make out and the CEO gets his. Sounds like rhetoric until you look around.

So, for some of us, the stock market is the nexus. My profit, my wellbeing, comes at the expense of the basic safety of the foundryman, and this I know, and now that I know it, if I fail to leverage my stock ownership to demand less fixation on mere profit and a great deal more on worker safety and the environment, I am complicit. N'est-ce pas?

For some of us, the bellows or the thermostat is the nexus. These things are in our cars and fridges and whatever. We might not know we have 'em, bu we have 'em. They make our lives easier.

For others, the connection is our contract to provide security for the factory. Or a contract to provide the steel, or deliver the steel, or negotiate the union agreement next year, or operate the canteen outside the foundry door.

For others of us, the nexus is as thin as this post, or as deep and substantial as blood relationship to management or broker or worker or foreman.

You can see that safety in the foundry quickly becomes no more than, and mostly less than, six degrees of separation.

There are other nexuses. Everyone who makes, sees, purchases, benefits from, wholesales, or retails the steel or the bellows or the thermostat or the foreman's shirt or the workman's boot. Everyone whose labor constructs the factory, or the furnace, or the converyor for the lathe or the vat, or the milling equipment. Everyone who oversees the foreman and the workman, whose secretarial and accounting and sales and marketing position depends on the workman. Everyone whose senior managment position depends on the workman. And all their children and grandchildren.

And all the parents, and cousins, and sisters, and brothers, and aunts, and uncles, and nieces, and nephews of all the workmen.

And all the people who hear the story of how the 20-something workman was burned to death because nobody--not management, not labor, not foremen, not workmen--demanded basic workplace health and safety.

It's about all of us. Why don't we see that?

Because we aren't looking. Don't want to. Very strange. The cost-benefit analysis for seeing and doing something about this ultimately accrues richly to us.

I can thump Bibles with the best of them: "If you do it unto the least of these, you do it unto me."


Liana said...

There can absolutely be no more horrific death than burning to death, at least in my mind. Yet, the recounting of this tale reminds me of so many workers who sit at the bottom of the hill that the shit rolls down. After that meeting, we went the next day to visit with workers at housing developments. Not as imminently dangerous as an unsecured furnace, to be sure, but equally as downhill in terms of profit-seeking bosses who disclaim responsibility based on the facts of business relationships: "The subcontractors are responsible for THAT" whatever THAT is. In many cases, it was outright physical abuse in the demands for the amount of work to be accomplished in what amount of time to even achieve minimum wage; in other cases, it was much more subversive in that work tickets would just "disappear" so that workers would not get paid for the work they did. Yet you could be certain that the General Contractor Billed for and got paid for the work those workers did!!! The president of that company, Pulte Homes, would not even meet with a group of clergy to talk about the issues. Warned his receptionist that we might show up and ask to see him and to tell us we needed an appointment. Which of course, we had repeatedly tried to secure. Scum rises to the surface...

Pico said...

Thank you for this. I hope that you and everyone who have firsthand information about the abuse of workers in the name of Profit will continue to call these bastards on what they do. Thank you for the courage and strength that you give to confronting them.

Come back soon.

All the best,