Life IS Not Cheap

On April 24, 2013, just prior to submitting my last article for the Local 974 News, an eight-story commercial building, Rana Plaza, collapsed near Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. In the weeks that followed, dead workers and many of their children at the onsite daycare were pulled from the rubble with the final death toll totaling 1,127. Approximately 2,500 injured workers were rescued from the building alive. The factory was originally designed as a shopping mall, but the owner added four additional floors and converted the building into a garment factory-a purpose for which it was not designed.  

Now amazingly, months later, only Walmart and Gap (which owns Old Navy and Banana Republic) refuse to join the other 60 companies that have signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which establishes minimum safety criteria for workers. However, in these third world countries where U.S. companies outsourcing good-paying American jobs, life is cheap.

If you want to engage in a little social activism, please go to the following link and join the International Labor Rights Forum in calling for these two hugely profitable companies to sign the Accord  . Until they sign, please do not buy clothing sold by WalMart or The Gap.  Alternately, if for some incomprehensible reason you find yourself in either store, feel free to pile a cart full of clothing, then tell the store manager the reason you’re not buying the clothes is that they’re made in sweat shops in Bangladesh, then leave.

President Obama got the message and suspended trade privileges with Bangladesh in order to pressure that government to take positive steps to ensure workers’ rights and safety. Still, it’s amazing that it takes such a tragedy to provide incentive to prevent such horrific events from reoccurring, but such clarity usually comes only after the body count begins.

Several weeks ago, I met a Skilled Tradesman from a Big Three employer in another state whose company was selling one of their large mechanical presses to a supplier in China. The tradesmen at the plant had carefully removed the press from the plant and were in the process of loading it onto a truck so it could be shipped to China, where they would start making parts that used to be made in the U.S.

When the lead tradesman asked the Chinese liaison where he wanted the pallets of light curtains and barrier guarding for the press loaded on the truck, he was startled and then disgusted with the answer he received. The Chinese liaison told him, “No guards…many people”.  The tradesman said he would never forget the cold look on the Chinese man’s face as he told him all he needed to know about how little he cared for worker health and safety. I guess life is cheap there.

During the first week in July, it was announced that a number of jobs at our local union’s southernmost facility were going to be outsourced. Allegedly, the company informed the union and the workers that the decision was made because they could get the job done cheaper by outside contractors and that the company would not have to pay worker’s compensation. 

How does a company like Caterpillar, that touts their commitment to health and safety, and sells their services as safety and health consultants, justify outsourcing work to contractors who will be doing the exact same job, in the exact same manner, that injured so many of our members? It’s easy. These contracted workers will not be under the direct supervision of Caterpillar management, therefore any injuries or illnesses (ergonomic injuries) will not be counted on Caterpillar’s OSHA 300 logs and any Workers Compensation claims will be made against the contractor, not CAT.

In recent years, CAT has outsourced its fatalities to outside contractors with at least five contractor fatalities resulting in company-wide “Safety Stand Downs”. Three of the contractor fatalities have occurred in facilities in our local, to Brother Kevin Fay, Brother Noe Garcia Jr. and to ATS employee, Troy Bryner. Add the death of Brother Jeffery Smith, from the former Bucyrus plant in South Milwaukee and it would appear that there is a significantly different picture for you and me than the rosy one painted by CAT on their safety website. When workers are being killed at your facilities, or killed doing jobs for you, you don’t have a health and safety model or culture worth emulating.

Recently in our southernmost outpost, a senior manager tried to explain why he could not address a safety concern brought to him by the union safety representative. Our representative was told, “There is a fine line between production and safety”. What kind of crap is that?

We have a big task ahead of us. Caterpillar is a $60 plus billion dollar per year company. It gave $2 million dollars to buy public goodwill and for the naming rights to “Dozer Park”. Now for that manager to tell his union safety rep, “There is a fine line between production and safety”, after the company threw money at Dozer Park indicates to me that we’ve got our work cut out for us. In these trying times, many would say that any job would be acceptable, but this is exactly the mindset we have to fight.

You are one of the finest, most productive workforces in the world. You build the best, most reliable, most profitable heavy equipment ever known. You deserve, and, you have the right to a workplace free of recognized hazards. We cannot continue to accept the constant outsourcing of hazardous jobs to others, who initially feel lucky to get them, but later regret their shortsightedness. We need to bring all hazards to management’s attention and hold them accountable for fixing them.

If our workplaces were safer and healthier, it would give us a huge advantage over our competitors and make the company’s justification for outsourcing of jobs more difficult. Caterpillar and the UAW negotiated and agreed on a process to make our work place safe and healthy, so use 8.3 of the contract. Tell your boss of any and all hazards because that is a contractual requirement Caterpillar demanded. Ask yourself if you would allow a loved one to do your job exactly as it exists today. If not, use the process; ask for your UAW Safety Representative-it works. Life is not cheap here. You deserve a safe and healthy workplace and together we can achieve it.