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The Non-Union Workplace

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Here’s what happens when workplaces don’t have unions.

An employee of Sewon America, an auto parts supplier for Kia, allegedly died Wednesday, May 29, after working in extreme heat on the company’s “project weld line” in LaGrange, according to another Sewon employee who spoke with LaGrange Citizen on conditions of anonymity.

Troup County Coroner Jeff Cook confirmed that Teresa Weaver Pickard, 42, of Wadley, Al., died after an emergency call came in indicating she was having trouble breathing. Her body has been sent to the state crime lab in Atlanta for an autopsy, but the results could take three to four months because of a backlog in cases, Cook said.

The anonymous employee, who has worked at the LaGrange auto parts supplier for approximately two years, said that he initially heard about Pickard’s death from his supervisor, who advised Sewon employees to stay hydrated.

“I heard that [Pickard] complained of chest pain several times before she was sent to the break room,” said the employee. He said that the air conditioning on the assembly line is not working properly, workers are soaked in sweat, and several other workers also passed out last week due to the extreme heat.

He added that the air conditioning in the break room where Pickard was sent was not turned on and that management keeps the air off in the break room to discourage employees from loitering. It’s so hot in the break room that the candy in the vending machines melted, he said.

Weaver was finally sent to the front office, the employee said, where she allegedly sat for approximately three hours before an ambulance was finally called. He said he heard that Weaver died on the way to the hospital. He added that representatives from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) visited Sewon the day after Weaver died. (LaGrange Citizen has left two message with the OSHA Atlanta West office and will update this article as soon as possible.)

In 2010, OSHA fined Sewon $135,900 for a variety of violations. A drop in the bucket compared to the money Sewon brings in from Kia. The fines should be in the millions. As for this case, the supervisors involved and the corporate leaders setting policy need to be charged with manslaughter.

The AFL-CIO blog with more.

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  • Bobby Flashpants

    Hey – I’m a daily reader here, but very rare commenter.

    I live in Lagrange, and two of my close friends originally broke this story weeks ago on lagrangecitizen.com, which is a community citizen’s journalism blog. The local mainstream paper, Lagrange Daily News, didn’t print a word about this until yesterday (well after the AFL-CIO blog and Daily Kos picked it up). http://lagrangenews.com/view/full_story/22898679/article-LPD–OSHA-investigating-Sewon-employee-s-death?

    Scott Smith (founder of Lagrange Citizen, and author of this book on Lagrange’s terrible and tragic history of racism, segregation, and labor suppression: http://www.amazon.com/Legacy-History-Proto-Fascism-Americas-Greatest/dp/1466440988/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1371303944&sr=8-1&keywords=legacy+lagrange) also wrote this editorial: http://lagrangecitizen.com/sewon-executives-belong-in-prison-workers-need-a-union/

    There’s going to be a vigil 6/29 at the plant.

    • Thanks for all this info.

    • Yes, thank you for the links. Very informative.

  • “The fines should be in the millions.”

    No kidding.

    • Quixote

      I’ve long felt that fines for corporations should simply be the forfeiture of their profits for the entire time that they were in violation of the law. Take away the incentive to break the law if it helps their bottom line.

      • PSP

        Revenue – not profits. Do it for long, and get the corporate death penalty.

      • Bitter Scribe

        Fines, schmines. The real pain will come when that dead woman’s family sues those assholes down to their silk undershorts.

    • Alan Tomlinson

      I disagree completely. No fines whatsoever. The supervisor, their supervisor, and so on. should be tried for felony manslaughter or murder. These people should go to prison. A corporation is not a person, its employees are. If you order someone to do something physically dangerous, you should accept the fact that you are putting yourself in physical danger.

      That’s the more diplomatic option that I’m offering. If they don’t go with that one, there’s always physical torture.

      Cheers,

      Alan Tomlinson

      • While I have some sympathy for making individuals culpable for crimes like this–one of my proudest professional accomplishments is from when I was a legislative staffer in the MI Senate and I was able to rally enough interest in the case of a trench cave in on a construction site that killed a 22 year old–I think such an approach, separate from any legal problems, also personalizes problems, and makes them caused solely by people acting badly. Truth is, a lot of what’s wrong in the world is structural, and implicates not just those with proximate involvement, but everyone in the system/company/economy/society. It’s the idea behind people being asked to be aware of the provenance and practices involved in the production of their clothing. The Bangladesh disaster was caused by individuals in Bangladesh acting badly. But a secondary cause is the behavior of consumers in North America and Europe.

        Overly personalizing bad actions lets people who benefit from an unjust system avoid understanding their role in the injustice and evade their responsibility for confronting and challenging structural injustices.

        • Typo: “…and I was able to rally enough interest in the case of a trench cave in on a construction site that killed a 22 year old that the owner’s son, the on-site supervisor, was charged with felony manslaughter…”

          • Yes, but limited liability isn’t really available to individuals, just to corporations. And this encourages bad behavior in corporations which we do not encourage in individuals. If safety really was job number one we wouldn’t have as much on-the-job death and I really can’t think of a better way than to make people who are responsible for the working conditions of workers actually, you know, responsible for failures, negligence, and deliberate/structural deficits that lead to death.

          • Josh G.

            If the supervisor hadn’t been the owner’s son, do you think a prosecution would still have been appropriate? What if he was barely being paid more than the people he supervised, and hadn’t received proper safety training himself?

            • Well, I’m not sure. It doesn’t take any safety training to know you can’t work people to death in high heat conditions with no water. If you take the king’s shilling and you commit murder in his name I’m not all that full of pity. But I admit there would be unintended consequences of a strict liability policy–management would simply rename itself something like “not management” and bump up some loser from the line to sign documents and stand in for the real owners when the corporation is on the line.

            • It was undoubtedly appropriate because he wrote the company safety manual that said not to do things he ordered his employees to do that day, and then lied about it after the fact. The nice thing about it was that drove the company out of business, so they weren’t able to kill anyone else, and they only employed about 7-8 people so not many people lost their jobs.

              Besides, I’m not saying to prosecute everyone or never prosecute anyone, I’m simply saying that personalizing things too much obscures other factors. For instance, that the workplace I described wasn’t a government contract, so therefore it wasn’t covered under Davis-Bacon laws, which require all bidding companies to pay their workers what is effectively the union wage, so that they have to compete on skill and efficiency rather than by cutting corners by paying their workers less. Had Davis-Bacon applied to this private contract, that guy may not have died, because there would either have been a union or a more realistic threat of a union than typically exists for a small contractor doing private home construction. Whether the owner’s son was an asshole who disregarded safety would not have been as large a factor as it was.

      • Josh G.

        In theory, this is a good idea. In practice, I’m afraid it would result in relatively low-level supervisors with no actual decision-making power being made into scapegoats for these disasters.

        • But then we could flip them and use their testimony against higher ups, as is done (theoretically) in drug cases. Right now you know who is really terrified of his former workers? Rupert Murdoch. A british newspaper got him on tape basically promising that he or his heirs would “take care” of any of his reporters financially if they keep their mouths shut about the illegal practices at his UK newspapers.

          • Tristan

            Yeah remember when Bush and Cheney were brought down by Lynndie England’s testimony

  • Davis X. Machina

    Can’t shut down until the A/C is fixed, filling orders from inventory. There is no inventory. Kanban means your production line is the other guy’s warehouse.

  • Also a case of where plants are located. Not that stuff like this doesn’t happen in the north, but the center of gravity of US manufacturing has shifted south because it’s easier to operate like this when not only isn’t there a union currently representing the workers but legal impediments and cultural mores minimize the threat of unionization.

  • cpinva

    I read about this a couple of days ago on kos, absolutely horrible, no excuse for it at all.

    as for this:

    ” As for this case, the supervisors involved and the corporate leaders setting policy need to be charged with manslaughter.”

    of course, you’re correct. however, it will never happen, especially down south. should it even be whispered about as a possibility, they’ll threaten to close the plant, and re-locate it elsewhere, and that will be the end of that.

    • Lee Rudolph

      Flight from prosecution is evidence of guilt!

  • PhoenixRising

    Comments on the story are really interesting too.

    This may be an example of social media (comments coming from phone handsets on FB from the shop floor) serving a progressive cause. The paper is doing some hands-on moderation trying to get more firsthand stories about conditions in the plant. So this isn’t over, as far as attention to it.

  • I’d like to add that the poor woman didn’t “allegedly die” she just died, the “allegedly” needs to be put in front of the implication that she was, in effect, killed by the negligence and common practice of her employers. I hate the “allegedly” creep that puts alleged in front of obvious facts.

    • Exactly this!

    • Thanks for pointing this out. I have corrected the error on the website. When the article was first published, the death was alleged by a co-worker; it had not yet been confirmed through the coroner. Subsequent edits left the error. LaGrangeCitizen.com is managed by two full-time students who try to do the work that local media with full-time staff does not, and we make mistakes sometimes. We’re just glad that this story is getting out there. Thanks again.

      • My apologies. I did not mean to be so snarky. I think you guys are doing a bang up job. If it helps any your mistake, however it crept in, is one that many, many, top newspapers and journalists are doing.

  • This ties in with the fortress unionism idea, in that there are only rare times when Americans want to work for unionism. We are approaching that time soon. In the 70s-2000s, there were still older people who remembered decent working conditions, and thought of companies and not too bad or malignant. They had that memory. It was a memory of conditions created via unions, but it was a good memory. But it’s going away now. Few working people who have come of age in the last 20 years think of employers as anything but opportunists.

    • I don’t think it’s true that there are rare times that Americans want to work for unions. Polls consistently show strong support for the idea of a union. What doesn’t exist right now is the political structure to support the growth of unions or a cadre of radicals willing to put their lives on the line for other workers. At the Flint Sit-Down strike, the UAW had like 5% of the GM workforce signed up. After it succeeded it jumped to like 80% in a week.

      • But it also often requires at least tacit acceptance from those in power. For instance, Michigan governor Frank Murphy–one of the great and under-appreciated American liberals of the 20th century–refusing to use the national guard against the sit-down strikers, but in effect using the guard to protect the strikers.

        • Right–that’s what I meant by political structure.

      • Yes. And I’d go further and change that “or a cadre” to “and” – there were tons of radical cadres back in the 19th century, but it didn’t help much when the state militia or the U.S Army breaks your strike pursuant to a federal injunction handed down by a court that believes unions to be inherently illegal.

        • Right. That was my point above. There have to be people with power who see it as neutral or favorable for workers to have more rights in the workplace.

  • ChrisTS

    So, I assume, the office was air-conditioned?

    • PhoenixRising

      Maybe, but it wasn’t the location in which dozens of people were spot-welding auto parts. So it was definitely cooler than the shop floor/line/whatever they call it.

  • Linnaeus

    This shit makes me sick. And when some of my friends joke about me being a “Bolshevik”, I tell them this is fucking why.

  • When we’re sitting on the ground we have to run our Auxiliary Power Unit if we want to run the air conditioning in the plane.

    The company of course discourages this because it burns fuel.

    One Captain told me “I’m going to run the Air Conditioning until the temperature in the cockpit is the same as the CEO’s office”.

  • Mike D.

    “allegedly died”?

    • firefall

      Well possibly she was faking death and will be released from her coffin by her commie fellow workers

    • Thanks for pointing this out. I have corrected the error. When the article was first published, the death was alleged by a co-worker; it had not yet been confirmed through the coroner. Subsequent edits left the error. LaGrangeCitizen.com is managed by two full-time students who try to do the work that local media with full-time staff does not, and we make mistakes sometimes. We’re just glad that this story is getting out there. Thanks again (and thank you, Mr. Loomis).

  • Please consider making a donation to the Teresa Weaver Pickard Memorial Fund to help her family cover unexpected costs related to their tragic loss:

    https://www.giveforward.com/fundraiser/64k2/teresa-weaver-pickard-memorial-fund

  • Burnspbesq

    The conduct described here is horrendous, but given the definition of manslaughter under Georgia law no properly instructed jury will ever convict, because the prosecution’s chances of proving recklessness are infinitesimally small, and there appears to be no crime of “negligent homicide” under Georgia law.

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