The Working Series
Big orange ball in the sky
hazy hot and humid
first the steel
then the concrete
then water water water.
Steel lay on a flatbed
then on the ground
it’s cut and bent
and put in place
now it holds up a world.
Blood – yes
sweat – yes
tears are not an option
another floor went up today
everyone was gone by 3.
At 18 stories high
it’s 17 degrees
with 16 mph winds
after 30 years in the trade
it’s still 10 minutes to quittin’ time.
Ripped brown duck coveralls
stuffed in a milk crate
in the back of my Jeep
along with my tool belt
I’ll earn a living today
Bill Hohlfeld, Ironworkers, Local 46, NYC2
Blue-collar workers die at a disproportionate rate on the job, and afterward, from job-related illnesses. But the harsh reality slips from our grasp, gets pushed aside as the cost of doing business, their difficult and dangerous labors taken for granted. This essay looks at some of the most compelling stories that got book-length treatment, and together, capture the full dimension of death on the job and the aftermath. They provide a blueprint of the issues involved in lost lives, fractured families, regulation, compensation, and culpability. Two things emerge from this broad canvas: first, the strong working-class voices captured in the pages of these stories that finally emerge to speak about the conditions they face in their workplaces—after the deaths and injuries have occurred; and second, a pattern of culpability and gross negligence in the workplace. Whether it is old industries like coal mining, or new technologies like cell phones—with the towers that must be built and maintained for them to function—good training, good tools, safe practices, taking precautions and the time to do those things that will preserve life, are, in all too many workplaces, not part of the culture. Rather, another culture of shortcuts and deadly decision-making rules.
Despite the fact that the construction industry has gotten safer over the decades, it ranks at number ten on the list of most dangerous jobs,3 yielding a fair share of fatalities. The steady stream of stories in the tabloids,4 and the fact that buildings go up before our eyes, a part of our everyday landscape, provides a degree of visibility, unlike the inner workings of power plants, chemical factories, oil rigs, or coal mines. The romantic nature of the skill and daring it takes to construct a skyscraper, to walk on high steel, all in plain sight—the immediacy—adds to our awareness of the cost when a crane falls, or a body. Most every building, every bridge, every tunnel, has its tally of lost lives.
In his powerful novel, Christ in Concrete, (1939),5 Pietro di Donato pays homage to his father’s death in a construction accident on Good Friday, 1923. Workers die on the job in a gruesome accident, and the title character, Geremio, is swallowed in concrete when the building he is working on collapses. Art imitates life in the scene where Geremio’s widow and son visit the Compensation Bureau. The outcome is left up in the air, when the construction company blames the workers for the accident, while the insurance company argues that the accident is outside the bounds of the policies they have with the construction company.6
The Bridge: The Building of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, (2014) is dedicated to the real-life ironworkers whose story it tells. In his preface, author Gay Talese notes that, on moving to New York in the mid-1950s, he often asked himself: “Whose fingerprints are on the bolts and beams of these soaring edifices in this overreaching city? Who are the high-wire walkers in boots and hard hats who earn their living while risking their lives in places where falls are often fatal and where the bridges and skyscrapers are looked upon as sepulchers by the families and coworkers of the deceased. Although we often know the identities of the architects or chief engineers of renowned structures, the workers’ names are rarely mentioned in the written accounts or archival materials associated with such landmarks.”
The book is “less a celebration of the bridge than of the high-stepping men who built it—the very men who, incidentally, were not invited to attend the opening-day ceremony fifty years ago.”7 Talese describes “the real art and drama in bridge building, the human and mechanical frailty of working in winter,” how the two 693-feet towers went up, and the cable spinning began, and with it, the deaths that experienced ironworkers had anticipated. On October 9, 1963, ironworker Gerald McKee, the son of an ironworker who himself had been crippled for life, fell from the bridge. To their lasting credit, Ray Corbett, the business agent of Ironworkers Local #40, and the union, led a campaign to have strong nets strung under the men on the bridge. A five-day strike in December resulted in victory and the nets were strung. Three men fell off the bridge within the next year, and they were saved from hitting the water—as hard as concrete from those heights—by the nets.8
In Trapped Under the Sea: One Engineering Marvel, Five Men, and A Disaster Ten Miles Into the Darkness, (2014) author Neil Swidey documents the last phase of the Boston Harbor clean-up project. In a gripping feat of story-telling, he brings us—the reader—into the workplace. We get close to the men involved, caught up in the suspense of the claustrophobic world of working underground, and privy to the organizational callousness and bad decision-making that ends in tragedy. “Death in the workplace is too often the ‘perfect crime.’ No one is held accountable; no penalty is paid by the perpetrator.”9 This quote from a safety and health expert, perfectly sums up the tragedy of the Boston harbor tunnel job gone wrong. In his epilogue, Swidey writes: “Whenever a worker dies, there is a natural inclination to hunt for a huge, single failure that can be blamed. In reality, a worker’s death is usually caused by a series of small, bad decisions made by many individuals, none of which, on its own, would have been enough to produce a fatality. Disaster strikes only when all the holes in the Swiss cheese line up.”
“But the fact that all those holes did line up in the tunnel case forces a larger, lingering question. How could this idea of sending divers to a place as remote as the moon, asking them to entrust their lives to an improvised, untested breathing system, have ever made sense to sensible people? The answer lies in the dangerous cocktail of time, money, stubbornness, and frustration near the end of the over-budget, long-delayed job. The major players desperately needed the project to surmount its last enormous hurdle … The deaths of the men had been more than just preventable. They had been more than just predicated. Given all the bad decisions—by all the players—the deaths had effectively been preordained.”10
It is given that danger is part of the equation in construction jobs. That is one factor economists use to explain why hard hats—at least in the union sector—get paid high wages. In Work and Other Sins: Life in New York City and Thereabouts, Charlie LeDuff writes about an antenna tuner, Deke Johnson, 38, whose job it was to scale the 1,454 feet and 6 9/16 inches from the street level of the Empire State Building to inspect the filament in a bulb that went out at the pinnacle of the building’s aviation beacon. In his essay “Where Is King Kong When a Bulb Goes Out?” LeDuff describes Johnson’s hourly rate of pay ($17.50 an hour), and the fact that: “He did not know, and did not seem to care, that New York union men make twice as much.”11
But enough of the fact that nonunion workers are paid so little to put their lives at risk on risky jobs, and back to the death-on-the job equation: The pressure exerted by the time/money component results in a deadly calculus in workplace decision-making and factors in as the chief culprit. In New York City, an annual tradition-laden mass celebrated at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral places construction deaths front and center: In 2015, the mass followed close on the heels of a highly visible death on a construction site: A “fatal crane accident at a non-union job site on East 44th Street underscored, yet again, just how high the stakes are in the building industry. But those gathered at Saint Patrick’s on Tuesday for this year’s Workers’ Memorial Day observance already knew that. What they want to know now is what the City of New York is going to do about it. … This year, failing building equipment, wall collapses, deadly falls, and gas explosions have all claimed the lives of construction workers expecting to return home safely at the end of the day. Critics in the construction trades are calling for the city to stop doing business with contractors and subcontractors who continuously violate worker rights.”12
The conscious act of weighing the value of human lives versus productivity and costs running up against the clock figures into most stories of workplace disasters. Coal mining has long been a major source of loss of life in the workplace, or lives shortened due to black lung disease and the inability to breathe. Some of the best literature on workplace safety and health has been written about coal and the miners who put their lives at risk to provide the nation with fuel. Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal, by Peter A. Galuska, (2012) examines the latest, most egregious example of pitting life against profits. An explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine took the lives of twenty-nine men on April 5, 2010. Behind these deaths lay a long history of corporate greed and neglect of basic safety practices. Galuska explores the landscape in which politically-connected operatives like Donald Blankenship, a mega-millionaire by virtue of his position as chairman and chief executive officer of Massey Energy, the country’s fourth-largest coal firm, functioned. He documents the myriad ways that Blankenship spread his wealth around to buy an influential judge, to sway regulators, and to publicly spit in the eye of any who argued for conservation and regulation. Blankenship by himself did not destroy Appalachia, but the tradition in which he loomed large surely created the wasteland it represents today.13
The author introduces us to West Virginia miners and their families, and additional key players, such as public-sector lawyers who tilt at windmills as they oppose Massey and other big energy polluters engaged in surface or strip-mining and other ecologically-destructive practices. He brilliantly exposes the seams of corruption that run throughout the area, robbing its people of clean air, water, rivers, land, and life. Like Harry Caudill14 decades before him, he is a bard who uses his finely-honed tools and combines them with compassion to create a complete portrait of the nightmare terrain, a region that, despite the vast riches shipped out of the area for world-wide consumption, is inhabited by some of the poorest people in the country.
Blankenship, forced to retire, is currently on trial in a federal courtroom in Charleston, West Virginia. In a rarity among cases like this, he is facing criminal charges and up to 31 years in prison.15 Defense lawyers are building a case for their client, arguing that enforcement of safety practices was the smart thing to do. That the company had, in fact, made efforts to exceed federal safety standards in the Upper Big Branch coal mine.16 While the rules of evidence in a courtroom are closely choreographed, the book shows a journalist at work, mapping out the world of Massey Energy after most of the headlines faded but before the legal battle began. It provides a step-by-step procedural of life on the job and a window that allows a reader to judge just how important safety concerns ranked at the mine under Blankenship’s style of micromanagement. One astounding fact provides its own indictment of Blankenship: the autopsy of the deceased miners showed that 71 percent of the victims suffered from black lung—this in comparison with an industry average of 3.2 percent.17
Another disaster in the energy extracting industries occurred just fifteen days after the Massey mine explosion. On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico took the lives of eleven men and seventeen suffered serious injuries. While the environmental catastrophe, (millions of barrels of oil discharged into the Gulf) took media preference over the loss of life, two books capture the complexities of both sides of the story. In Too Deep: BP and the Drilling Race That Took it Down, by Stanley Reed and Alison Fitzgerald (2011), and Blowout in the Gulf: The BP Oil Disaster and the Future of Energy in America, by William R. Freudenburg and Robert Gramling (2011) are critically important books. Read together, they paint a fascinating portrait of the industry, the disaster, the history and corporate culture of BP. For example, in March 2005, a BP plant in Texas City, Texas, killed fifteen workers in an explosion that ranked as the nation’s worst refinery accident in ten years. In September 2004, two workers were killed by superheated steam at the same plant. After that accident, the company succeeded in lowering the fine proposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) from $109,500 to $13,000, and an agreement to make changes at the plant.18
In Blowout, the authors describe the pressures management was under: The “common feature of the decisions that BP made in the face of such pressures was that they posed a trade-off between cost and well safety.”19 Also coming in for criticism was the federal agency with responsibility for regulating off-shore oil operations—the U.S. Minerals Management Service, part of the U.S. Department of Interior…described variously as “a toothless watchdog” and even worse, “in bed with the industry.”20 Some of the practices that the agency engaged in were so egregious that they received attention from the press (sex, drugs and other gratuities exchanged between industry and regulatory personnel).
In Too Deep describes the depth of concern BP extended to safety. Just one example, a public relations nightmare for the company when it came to light, was called: “The Three Little Pigs.” This was a safety presentation that compared three types of trailers featured in the company’s decision as to what type to purchase. Likening the decision to the fairy tale characters, and utilizing a cost-benefit analysis, the question was posed: “Which type of house should piggy build? … In the end BP managers did not even abide by the recommendations the presentation made. The optimal trailer at a refinery, in terms of cost and safety, should be made of bricks that can withstand a blast…Still, three years later, the trailer where eleven workers were killed was a temporary structure made from much weaker materials.”21
While these disasters typify the drip-drip method of everyday, callous, sometimes-criminal decision-making, the case of the asbestos manufacturers represents a blatant example of knowledge about the dangers being foisted on workers and willfully hiding that information from employees and the communities where they reside. Paul Brodeur has spent much of his career documenting this history. In Expendable Americans and Outrageous Misconduct: The Asbestos Industry on Trial, Brodeur documents the manufacturers’ willful failure to warn. For purposes of this essay, we focus on one—Outrageous Misconduct.22 (1985) The book is a journey and we accompany the author as he follows several trails, like a diligent detective would do. We are privy to the details of the complicity of the manufacturers, how they gained knowledge of the deadly nature of asbestos, and how they knowingly lied—under oath—claiming no such knowledge. We follow the plaintiffs’ attorneys, and we get to know the victims. We learn what asbestos disease means to the lives of those who shoveled and carried and pulled apart the “magic mineral.” He traces the many facets of the “reckless and outrageous misconduct” of the defendants.
Brodeur concludes his account of the massive disaster that befell the nation’s asbestos workers with quotes from the wives of the victims gathered by the late Doctor Irving J. Selikoff and his colleagues at the Mount Sinai Medical School’s Environmental Sciences Laboratory. These heartbreaking statements speak out for the dead—as do both of Brodeur’s brilliant books. His work brought the story to the public’s attention when Outrageous Misconduct was serialized in The New Yorker. Another hero of the story is Dr. Selikoff, whose path-breaking study of asbestos insulation workers broke the news about exposure and its deadly consequences, released in 1964. To their everlasting credit,
New York Local 12 and Newark Local 32 of the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers Union supported Selikoff’s study by providing him with access to their members.
Up to this point, we have avoided the question of unions and their potential for making union workplaces safer than nonunion sites. Some of these books address the question, albeit most in cursory fashion. The Massey mine was nonunion and the company had a long history of fighting against unionization. In Thunder on the Mountain, Galuska addresses this history, and describes the role that union safety committees can play in holding management’s feet to the fire—a second sounding board or back-up for decision-making. BP was operating in a right-to-work state, and neither book about BP included in this essay addresses the role of unions. But a terrific trio of books does get to the heart of the role that a union has the potential to play, should it choose to do so. The union in question was the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union. The three books are: The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor: The Life and Times of Tony Mazzocchi, by Les Leopold (2007); Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation, by Dan Fagin (2013); and Forging a Common Bond: Labor and Environmental Activism during the BASF Lockout, by Timothy J. Minchin (2003). All three books share the strength of demonstrating how inextricably intertwined are chemical/workplace exposures and community/environmental exposures.
It was Tony Mazzocchi’s genius to understand early on the potential involved in harnessing the exposure of workers in the industries represented by the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW) to the nascent environmental movement. Les Leopold’s biography chronicles that mission and the life and times of a real working-class hero.23 The other two books document two different battles in OCAW plants, one New Jersey manufacturer, Ciba-Geigy, which dumped its carcinogenic chemicals into the bay, which led to the ocean, and the ground, which led to the town’s water supply. Others (including Dow Chemical) were involved in the toxic pollution, but for purposes of simplification (and space) we concentrate on one—Ciba-Geigy. We learn about the cancer clusters in the children of Toms River and the organizing by parents that eventually led to litigation, and changes in the company’s practices which had resulted in toxic pollution.
Meanwhile, we wonder about the parallel story of the workers in the Ciba-Geigy plant who were being exposed on an even greater basis to the same chemicals. Belatedly, we see the union workers in Toms River joining in organized opposition to the grieving, outraged, environmental activists, showing up at rallies in union hats and demonstrating a profound belief in the company as well as fear of losing their jobs. Later yet, we learn of the union memberships’ fears about their own health. Today, the toxic grounds are a Superfund site. And a far corner of Riverfront Landing Park is the location of a granite memorial to the lost children of Toms River. The book is written in gripping suspenseful prose, an absorbing environmental mystery, one with a complicated genesis and many villains and heroes, as it races along to its unhappy ending.24
Alongside this sad albeit engrossing story, is a much slower but happier struggle that started with a lockout of the OCAW membership in the BASF plant in Geismar, Louisiana. Despite being a right-to-work state, the union and its members held together over the years to preserve their collective bargaining rights. When BASF, a German-based chemical manufacturer, and the union reached an impasse in 1984, and management resorted to a lockout, the members interpreted the move as part of a strategy to destroy their union. And in time they mounted an imaginative, ever-expanding campaign to prevent that from happening. Forging a Common Bond is an oral history. The author, historian Timothy Minchin, conducted hundreds of interviews to present a complete map of just how the members and their union allies forged an alliance with the environmental movement, and concluded their struggle with a victory in 1989—ending one of the longest-running labor disputes in American history. The campaign brought together concerns about employee exposures and community exposures. One billboard mounted alongside a highway educated passers-by to this connection with the slogan: “Bhopal on the Bayou.” (1985) This after the deadly chemical release by Union Carbide in Bhopal, India, brought a heightened awareness to the public about the dangers of unleashed toxic chemical exposures.25
The puzzling aspect of these two stories—how two different chemical facilities represented by the same union took such divergent paths, becomes clear in the Mazzocchi biography.26 Unsurprisingly, union politics proved to be at the root of the different strategies. The BASF members and their leaders latched on to Mazzocchi’s analysis. The union leaders at Ciba-Geigy were aligned with the anti-Mazzocchi forces in the union, sadly for the OCAW members they represented. Fear of losing their jobs took precedence over investigating the history of epidemiological exposures, aligning with community activists, and ultimately, government regulators, who belatedly used the tools at their disposal to look into the pollution in Toms River. In a televised interview, author Dan Fagin pointed to the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency has an $8 billion budget: “The agency collects data and does virtually nothing to put that health and environmental data together to save lives. There is no satisfactory system now. I think we can do better,” he said.27
While typically, we focus our awareness about the fatalities and destruction resulting from war and weaponry on the immediate victims in war zones, collateral damage from the military-industrial complex has a long legacy of injury and death tracing back to the extraction and storage of nuclear and other toxic materials. Three books that focus on this heritage deserve inclusion in this litany of outstanding health and safety literature: If You Poison Us: Uranium and Native Americans, by Peter H. Eichstaedt (1994); Atomic Harvest: Hanford and the Lethal Toll of America’s Nuclear Arsenal, by Michael D’Antonio (1993); and Baptized in PCBs: Race, Pollution, and Justice in an All-American Town, by Ellen Griffith Spears (2014).
Native Americans have many sad stories and centuries of duplicitous actions resulting in death and destroyed lives. The story of the uranium miners is one of those stories that, while unfamiliar to most, is deserving of attention. Eichstaedt’s beautiful book, with frontispiece photos of the vast expanse of the lonely hills that yielded up their deadly ores to the miners, documents the long trail of tears leading to dead and diseased uranium miners and their communities, stocked with the leavings—the radioactive mine wastes and open mines left to pollute these small, impoverished communities.28 The book includes transcripts of interviews with miners or their relatives and their photos, as well as appendices with reports on health studies and congressional hearings on a compensation bill for the miners. This is yet another example of corporate malfeasance as knowledge of the deadly consequences of exposure was never shared with the workers—plus a long, tortuous fight for compensation.
In 1919, the U.S. Congress opened up Indian lands to prospecting and mining. As the national war effort in 1941 spurred exploration and development of mining sites, Native Americans enlisted. “The U.S. government appealed to the Indians to help defend the country, and the tribes responded favorably,” Eichstaedt writes. “The mines would also provide much-needed income for a people whose existence was often precarious. However, neither the tribal governments nor the miners were told that there were hidden costs—that the mines were dangerous. By the start of the Manhattan Project, there was already good evidence that working with uranium and radium could cause lung disease, cancer, and other fatal health problems.”29 The OCAW did not represent the uranium miners, but Tony Mazzocchi lent his expertise to the fight for compensation. The title of the book is taken from Congressional testimony by Mazzocchi, quoting Shylock’s famous lines from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice: “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”30
The full title of Atomic Harvest encapsulates the story unfolding in Hanford, Washington. This site of great pastoral beauty alongside the Columbia River was home to an ever-expanding number of reactors—atom-bomb factories. Hanford was a mainstay of the nation’s radioactive nuclear weapons complex. Despite the chain reaction of destruction that lay in its path, as recently as 2003 the Bush administration was pushing to move nuclear waste from other U.S. weapons plants to Hanford, “already the most contaminated nuclear site in the nation.”31 The plan to double the amount of waste already stored at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and other proposals found ready critics. How ordinary citizens and environmental activists came to appreciate the toll that their nuclear neighbor posed is at the heart of the story D’Antonio tells in his thrilling, scary, and lyrically descriptive book. This site, although perhaps the worst of its kind, is just one of many sites around the country. In 2014, The New York Times reported on an accident—a violent chemical reaction—at a nuclear storage facility in New Mexico, one that stores waste from the making of plutonium bombs.32 Atomic Harvest reports on the fallout from decades of nuclear weapons production: “Across the country, people who had once lived near Hanford read of the experimental and accidental radiation releases and were forever changed. Whether they were affected physically or psychologically, they were nevertheless victims of the atomic age who shared a sense of anger and disillusionment.”33
The story Ellen Griffith Spears tells takes place in Anniston, Alabama, a town made infamous for its treatment of the Freedom Riders during the Civil Rights era, and later caught up in a contemporary fight for environmental justice. Chemical weaponry secretly stockpiled near Anniston during the Cold War became one of two targets, as environmentalists fought to rid them from their community, while also fighting against the agrochemical giant, Monsanto, for dumping polychlorinated biphenyls into the black community near the company’s Anniston plant. This important book brings together several critical themes, as Spear’s writes: “In exploring how the chemical industry, the U.S. military, and racism altered the landscape and human bodies and how local people responded, I confront several questions: How are race and class and gender imbricated (i.e., an overlapping of layers) with geography in decisions about placing and monitoring polluting industries? How do we tackle documented concentrations of toxics in poor and minority communities when their disposition on the landscape seems so deeply entrenched? What invigorated conception of justice would better serve people who live and work in polluted places?”34
Spears deals with questions about occupational health and the role of unions in this struggle against workplace and community exposures. Tony Mazzocchi and his role in the coalition of environmental, health, and labor groups that fought for passage of the Toxic Substances Control Act, is included, in contrast to the union representing Monsanto’s employees, the International Chemical Workers Union. She quotes John J. Sheehan, legislative director for the United Steelworkers of America: “Our primary method of identifying hazardous substances is counting the bodies that they leave behind. … The manifestation of cancer is coming of age with regard to the chemical barrage we have subjected ourselves to in the past several decades.”35 She describes the role of David Baker, an Anniston native and former labor organizer for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, who returned home and took over the local environmental organization—Citizens Against Pollution (reconstituted as the Community Against Pollution)—CAP, reinvigorating it and daring to take on the chemical giant, Monsanto. Literally a David versus Goliath contest, with many participants, who were ultimately successful in bringing unresponsive state and federal regulators and the agrochemical giant to heel.36 In 2002, Monsanto was found liable by a jury in state court, of “suppression of the truth, negligence … ‘wantonness’ and ‘outrage.’ Alabama law interprets ‘outrage’ as conduct ‘beyond all possible bounds of decency … atrocious and utterly intolerable in civilized society.’”37
Spears book begins with an epigram from Toni Morrison: “What I am interested in are the strategies for maintaining the silence and the strategies for breaking it.”38 While all of these books explore areas remote from public scrutiny, two remarkable books explore singular categories of workers who labor in silence, without much scrutiny and with little recourse for remedy—the invisible poor and undocumented migrants. Gabriel Thompson’s Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing Jobs Most Americans Won’t Do (2010), and Jimmy Breslin’s The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutierrez (2002) put us squarely in the shoes of these low-paid laborers who do backbreaking work for low wages—without benefits—and the results are unforgettable.
Describing his introduction to life on a poultry assembly line, Thompson writes: “Safety is discussed by a man I am convinced has his bottom lip stuffed with chewing tobacco. He lays out his vision for the plant: that we ‘leave with the same number of fingers and toes as when we arrived.’ I’m new to Russellville but know that not everyone is so lucky: I’ve already bumped into one woman in town whose son lost part of his foot when it was crushed by plant machinery. After the safety director leaves, our trainer explains that we will be in pain even if we follow every safety precaution. ‘You’ll be using muscles and nerves and tendons all the time that you normally don’t use. Remember, thirty-eight birds are going by every minute on the de-bone line. It’s fast and it’s hard and your hands are gonna swell and ache. That’s why the nurses say it’s best to take ibuprofen every four hours. … We are offered other advice to make the job less painful. One PowerPoint slide argues that in order to prevent repetitive damage, it is necessary to ‘organize your daily activities’ … Small chance, since, as Thompson describes, “work at a chicken plant consists of doing one thing over and over again.”39
Thompson’s book introduces the reader to memorable experiences: Picking lettuce all day in the hot sun. Sounds simple? Guarantee: you will never again look at lettuce on your plate as an innocuous leafy green vegetable. Delivering take-out food in New York City? After reading this section of the book, your encounters with deliverymen on rickety bicycles on the pot-holed streets of the city—especially on cold, rainy nights, will take on a different cast.
Veteran journalist and author Jimmy Breslin also followed the trail of his subject, Eduardo Gutierrez, a Mexican immigrant, as he made his living working construction in Brooklyn, New York.40 When he dies on the job, nobody knows his name—it goes almost unmentioned. Breslin takes that anonymity and transforms the dead man’s life into an expose of gross municipal corruption and an indictment of the desperate days and hostility migrant laborers experience. He examines his life and transforms this invisible worker into a beacon, whose tragic death sheds light on a national disgrace. On October 24, 2013, a study released by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, documented that Hispanic and immigrant construction workers are dying on the job in New York City in disproportionate numbers. From 2003 to 2011, the OSHA study found that 74 percent of construction workers who died were either U.S.-born Latinos or immigrants.41 Collapses were common on the job that Gutierrez worked at in Williamsburg. When he drowned in concrete, he joined a long list of dead and injured workers. Breslin is passionate. He is angry at all of the outside players who have anything to do with the work life and after-death of his subject. He takes swipes at all of them. He dedicates his book to the mother of the dead man, Teresa Gutierrez Daniel. He breaks the silence. Strategies for change will take more time.
One more travesty is required to complete this saga of dead and dying workers. Time unfolding is one of the villains at the heart of Fallout: The Environmental Consequences of the World Trade Center Collapse, by Juan Gonzalez (2002). In a chapter entitled, “The Rescue Workers: Abandoned Heroes,” he traces the failure of government regulators, top city and federal officials, “to enforce even the most basic health and safety procedures for weeks and even months, thus abandoning those heroic workers to dangerous toxic emissions that are likely to cause unnecessary disease and death in the years to come.”42 Gonzalez writes about the first responders, the police and firefighters, as well as the sanitation workers at the Fresh Kills site in Staten Island, who labored through 12-hour days and, for the first 45 days, received only paper masks to shield them from the deadly toxins they were breathing. “It will be many years before we get an accurate picture of the long-term health impact on Ground Zero workers resulting from their exposure to so many toxic substances,” writes Gonzalez. “By then most of the government leaders responsible will be long retired, but it is likely that the damage will be staggering.”43
By now, we know the cost. We also know the way the nation has responded to their plight. Unless Congress acts, the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which took years to enact, and offers medical treatment, monitoring and compensation to those tens of thousands who were sickened by exposure, will expire by October 2016 if lawmakers fail to reauthorize it. Meanwhile, a medical study released in October 2015 showed that “the rate of cancer has risen roughly 50 percent among NYPD officers since 9/11, with all 668 officers diagnosed with some form of the disease having served at one of the sites dealing with the fallout from the terrorist attacks.”44
Photographer Earl Dotter has spent decades documenting sick and injured workers through the lens of his camera. In The Quiet Sickness: A Photographic Chronicle of Hazardous Work in America (1998), Dotter’s subjects speak to us as they stare up from the page, first-person witnesses to what work does—can do—to the human body. Sociologist Bennett M. Judkins turns to some of these same sources—cotton mill workers suffering from brown lung disease and coal miners suffering from black lung disease. He uses their experiences in organizing into social movements—the Black Lung Movement and the Brown Lung Movement—to argue for a different model, in his aptly entitled book, We Offer Ourselves as Evidence: Toward Workers’ Control of Occupational Health (1986). Judkins is arguing for greater worker control over the production process itself, as a way to address “the demand for higher productivity at the workplace and the resistance by workers to that demand. Workers are becoming increasingly aware of the meaning of higher productivity—faster speeds of work, longer working hours, and shift work—and its impact on their health and their lives.”45
We conclude this essay about death and disease on the job with a direct quote from a construction worker: “Our bosses preach safety, but they’re always pushing us to hurry up and get the job done,” explained a member of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 15, on a day he was running a gas line in a neighborhood at the tip of Manhattan. Each book in this essay includes recommendations for change—what needs to be done to make a difference—what practices and policies could lead to better results. In addition, there are a whole host of prescriptive books that analyze these problems in the workplace. Some of the best include: Lisa Cullen’s A Job To Die For: Why So Many Americans Are Killed, Injured, or Made Ill At Work and What to Do About It (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 2002); the classic Work Is Dangerous To Your Health: A Handbook of Health Hazards in the Workplace and What You Can Do About Them, by Jeanne M. Stellman and Susan M. Daum (New York: Random House, 1973); and Corporate Violence: Injury and Death for Profit, edited by Stuart L. Hills (Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1987).
Most of the books included in this essay were written by gifted, experienced journalists. After these stories appeared and disappeared from the newspapers, these authors used their professional expertise—their tools—to provide in-depth examinations of specific case studies, shedding light on how these tragedies take place, why they occur, who, and what, is responsible. The eloquence and passion expressed through their work honors the lives of the dead and injured workers they portray.
This tradition is being carried on by collaborative, in-depth investigative journalism taken up by news organizations that rank as modern day muckrakers. Frontline on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) stations, Politico and The Center for Investigative Reporting, The Nation and The Nation’s Fund for Investigative Journalism, ProPublica, The New York Times, and National Public Radio, in collaborative partnerships, have been digging into the circumstances around workers dying gruesome deaths on cell towers, oil rigs, stockyards, and the horrors and gross inadequacies of the workers’ compensation system(s), thus, breaking the silence.46
Thirteen workers are killed on the job every day and 137 workers a day die from occupational diseases. “Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect,” a report issued by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, documents the low penalty employers pay in fines (average federal penalty an employer pays for a worker’s death: $5,050). Only eighty-eight cases since 1970 have been prosecuted for willful violation resulting in a worker death. Since 1970, there have been over 390,000 worker deaths on the job.47
Only after the container ship, El Faro, sank during Hurricane Joaquin with thirty-three crew members aboard, did questions arise about its seaworthiness and safety standards, and “whether pressure to deliver cargo on time took precedence over keeping the ship from potential danger as it sailed into the storm.”48 The ship set out on Tuesday, September 29, on its 1,200-mile run from Jacksonville, Fla. to San Juan, Puerto Rico. By the time the ship reached the Bahamas, the storm was rated at Category 4, with 50-foot seas and winds of 125 miles per hour, near the eye of the hurricane. Taking on water and listing dangerously, the engine finally failed and made steering impossible. The vessel was filled with cargo containers, cars, and the crew.
On November 10, 1975, another ship sank in a severe Lake Superior storm. The S. S. Edmund Fitzgerald was a freighter that carried taconite iron ore from mines near Duluth, Minnesota. On its last run, it was headed to a steel mill near Detroit. Her entire crew of twenty-nine men drowned. In 1976, Gordon Lightfoot wrote a haunting hit song after reading about the wreck in a Newsweek article, “The Cruelest Month.” Today, there are still many moving tributes on-line for the men who died on the Edmund Fitzgerald. As Wikipedia tells us, many changes in Great Lakes shipping regulations and practices followed in its wake, including “mandatory survival suits, depth finders, positioning systems, increased freeboard, and more frequent inspection of vessels.” And the images of the men, with their home ports listed, along with job titles, ages, and haunting faces, still speak to us about the costs borne by working-class men. Watch the videos, and, as Lightfoot’s song accompanies the photos, reflect on these lives and how the monumental losses in the workplace reflect on our nation.
Jane LaTour is a scholar of women working in nontraditional jobs. She has worked in electronics assembly plants, pharmaceutical companies, and many other factories. While teaching in the mid-1980s, she earned extra income as a Teamster, working the night shift as a package sorter in a United Parcel Service warehouse. She was one of very few women working in the warehouse. As a union organizer for District 65 (1977–1979), LaTour gained an insider’s perspective on trade unions and their function as political organizations. She was the director of the Women’s Project, Association for Union Democracy, where she produced the highly successful Manual for Survival for Women in Nontraditional Employment, and author of the ground-breaking book: Sisters in the Brotherhoods. Address correspondence to Jane LaTour: Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
1 This essay is dedicated to my brother-in-law, Phillip J. Morin, March 20, 1940—March 19, 2014, skilled craftsman and master mechanic, who taught me so much about what work does to the bodies and lives of the men who, year after year, do hard physical labor.
2 Reprinted from Bright Stars Poetry.
3 OSHA reports (Jan. 2015) the top ten most dangerous jobs. The #1 most dangerous job is commercial fishing. The fatality rate from 2000 to 2006 was almost sixty times the rate for all American workers. (The New York Times, May 13, 2008).
4. Midtown Building Collapse Kills Construction Worker,” October 31, 2015; “Built to Kill: Hazardous Lapses,” Daily News, October 18, 2015; “Veteran’s Sad End,” Daily News, May 8, 2015; “Worker Killed at Hotel Construction Site in Manhattan,” The New York Times, April 25, 2015; “21-floor plunge kills hardhat at 7 WTC,” Daily News, September 30, 2004; “Three hardhats killed at casino job site,” Daily News, October. 31, 2003; and so forth.
5. Originally published as a short story in Esquire Magazine, and later adapted into a 1949 movie, Give Us This Day. Pietro di Donato, Christ in Concrete (New York: Signet Classics Reprint, 1993).
6. Wikipedia, October 10, 2015.
7. Gay Talese, The Bridge: The Building of The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014), xi; xiii.
8. Talese, 102–4; 107; 112–3.
9. Nancy Lessin, while a staff member of MassCOSH, was quoted in Commonwealth of Toil, by Thomas Juravich, William F. Hartford, and James R. Green (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996), 161.
10. Neil Swidey, Trapped Under the Sea: One Engineering Marvel, Five Men, and a Disaster ten Miles Into the Darkness (New York: Crown Publishers, 2014), 356–7.
11. Charlie LeDuff, Work and Other Sins: Life in New York City and Thereabouts (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 36–7.
12. Joe Maniscalco, “Too Many Hard Hats On The Altar” (April 28, 2015), laborpress.org/sectors/building-trades
13. Peter A. Galuska, Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012).
14. Harry M. Caudill wrote several books about the Appalachian region, including Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area (1962), My Land is Dying (1973), and A Darkness at Dawn: Appalachian Kentucky and the Future (1976).
15. The New York Times, Editorial, “The Coal Baron on Trial in Appalachia” (October 30, 2015): A26.
16. The New York Times, “Mine Company Stressed Safety, a Former Executive Testifies,” By Alan Blinder, (October 27, 2015): A16.
17. The New York Times, Editorial (October 30, 2015).
18. Ralph Blumenthal, “A Town Used to Danger Shifted Into Crisis Mode,” The New York Times (March 25, 2005).
19. William R. Freudenburg and Robert Gramling, Blowout in the Gulf: The BP Oil Spill Disaster and the Future of Energy in America (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2011), 30.
20. Freudenburg and Gramling, 31.
21. Stanley Reed and Alison Fitzgerald, In Too Deep: BP and the Drilling Race That Took It Down (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2011), 113–4.
22. Paul Brodeur, Outrageous Misconduct: The Asbestos Industry on Trial (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985). Andrea Peacock explores the tragedy of asbestos mining and its legacy in her excellent book, Libby, Montana: Asbestos & the Deadly Silence of an American Corporation (Boulder, Colorado: Johnson Books, 2003). The American corporation featured in the book is W.R. Grace, the defendant at the heart of A Civil Action, the story of another toxic disaster in Woburn, Massachusetts.
23. Les Leopold, The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor (White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2007).
24. Dan Fagin, Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation (New York: Bantam Books, 2013).
25. Timothy J. Minchin, Forging A Common Bond: Labor and Environmental Activism during the BASF Lockout (Gainsville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 2003). “On Dec. 3, 1984, more than 3,500 people were killed, and thousands injured, by a leak of the toxic gas methyl isocyanate at Union Carbide ‘s Bhopal plant.” p. 63. “… The union’s concerns were shared by Dr. Karim Ahmed, a senior staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, and by Dr. James Melius, a director of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. Ahmed, in particular, emphasized the similarities between the Bhopal and Geismar plants, including ‘woefully inadequate training, high worker turnover rates and maintenance cutbacks.’” p. 66.
26. Leopold, 411–8.
27. Panel Discussion on Disasters, Tucson Festival of Books (March 15, 2015), c-span.org/video/
28. John Raymond, “Indigenous Blood at Indian Point,” Z Magazine (June 2015): 11–13.
29. Peter H. Eichstaedt, If You Poison Us: Uranium and Native Americans (Santa Fe, New Mexico: Red Crane Books, 1994), ix–x.
30. Eichstaedt, 91.
31. Karen Dorn Steele, “Feds want to double N-waste at Hanford,” Spokesman-Review (May 6, 2003): A1; A4.
32. Matthew L. Wald, “In U.S. Cleanup Efforts, Accident at Nuclear Site points to Cost of Lapses,” The New York Times (October 29, 2014).
33. Michael D’Antonio, Atomic Harvest: Hanford and the Lethal Toll of America’s Arsenal (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1993), 136.
34. Ellen Griffith Spears, Baptized in PCBs: Race, Pollution, and Justice in an All-American Town (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014), xvii.
35. Spears, 164.
36. Spears, 229–32.
37. Spears, 1.
38. Spears, xiii, from Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark, 1992.
39. Gabriel Thompson, Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs Most Americans Won’t Do (New York: Nation Books, 2010), 115–6.
40. Jimmy Breslin, The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutierrez (New York: Crown Publishers, 2002).
41. Erica Pearson, “Latino, immig hardhat peril,” Daily News (October 24, 2013).
42. Juan Gonzalez, Fallout: The Environmental Consequences of the World Trade Center Collapse (New York: The New Press, 2002), 117–8.
43. Gonzalez, 126.
44. The Chief-Leader, Editorial, “Adding to ‘Zadroga’ Case,” October 23, 2015, p. 4.
45. Bennett M. Judkins, We Offer Ourselves as Evidence: Toward Workers’ Control of Occupational Health (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), 204–5.
46. Frontline on PBS produced excellent exposes of the death rate on radio, TV, and cell tower sites–a sad story involving subcontractors, 100-foot falls—at a rate ten times the average for construction workers (pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/social-issues/cell-tower-deaths/.Politico and Reveal—The Center for Investigative Reporting have covered the story of drilling for gas in North Dakota: www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/06/bakken-oil-fields-investigation “Workers Are Paying for Cheap Gas With Their Lives,” by Jennifer Gollan, June 15, 2015; and “In North Dakota’s Bakken oil boom, there will be blood,” by Jennifer Gollan, June 13, 2015, www.revealnews.org/author/jennifer-gollan. Charlie LeDuff reported on “At a Slaughterhouse, Some Things Never Die: Who Kills, Who Cuts, Who Bosses Can Depend on Race,” June 16, 2000. Frontline carried out an in-depth, three-part investigation in partnership with The New York Times [and that eventually resulted in charges against the employer, McWane Inc., “a major pipe maker and one of the nation’s most persistent violators of workplace safety and environmental laws…” New York Times, May 26, 2004). Reporters David Barstow and Lowell Bergman conducted devastating reporting on “At A Texas Foundry, An Indifference to Life” (January 8, 2003); “A Family’s Fortune, a Legacy of Blood and Tears” (January 9, 2003); and “Deaths on the Job, Slaps on the Wrist,” January 10, 2003. ProPublica, and NPR collaborated on a harrowing, in-depth investigation of the horrors of Workers’ Compensation, see www.propublica.org/article/the-demolition-of-workers-compensation and www.npr.org/2015/03/04/390441655/injured-workers-suffer-as-reforms-limit-workers-compensation-benefits.
47. Ben Anderson, “Blood on Your National Geographic,” (a pseudonym), Labor Notes (June 2015): 4.
48. The New York Times, “Questions Are Raised About Safety on Ship Missing After Storm,” By Frances Robles and Lizette Alvarez, October 6, 2015 and “El Faro, Missing Ship, Has No Sign of Survivors,” by Lizette Alvarez, Richard Perez-Pena, and Frances Robles, October 5, 2015.
This essay originally appeared in: WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society – 1089-7011 – Volume 19 – March 2016 – pp. 125 – 140.
© 2016 Immanuel Ness and Wiley Periodicals, Inc.