MAY 1990 - VOLUME 11 - NUMBER 5
T H E F R O N T
Confronting GM Toxics
Workers from General Motors' (GM) Lordstown, Ohio plant and other area industries marked Workers' Memorial Day, April 28, with a "citizens' hearing" documenting the plight and the courage of chemically disabled workers and their families. Members of Workers Against Toxic Chemical Hazards (WATCH) testified about their working conditions and their illnesses before a panel of labor and community activists chaired by Staughton Lynd, a Youngstown, Ohio labor lawyer and author.
Representing Kids Against Toxic Chemical Hazards (KATCH), Rhonda Miller, the teenage niece of a GM Lordstown worker, expressed concern about her generation's future. It is a fact of life for her and her friends that the Lordstown plant, with 10,000 workers, is the area's largest employer and that few other choices exist in the Mahoning Valley for young people hoping to earn decent wages. Yet, she said, "it is hard to want to work there after seeing so many from the plant become ill and die." She expressed the hope that April 28, 1990 would mark the beginning of a transition toward a new way of life in which a safe place to work, fair wages, clean air and clean water are the inheritance of every generation.
The 24-year old Lordstown complex consists of car and van assembly plants building Pontiac Sunbirds and Chevy Cavaliers and Vans, painting operations in the assembly plant and a metal fabrication plant.
Four chemically disabled workers formed the WATCH group in 1988 to fight against the chemical poisoning of the Lordstown workforce. They knew that, under existing laws, their daily exposure to chemicals that had never been proven safe would continue unless they could prove the chemicals dangerous. The four - Charles Reighard, Prentis Taylor, Mike Greb and former employee Lessley Harmon - searched the Warren and Youngstown, Ohio papers for obituaries of former Lordstown workers. They found that 75 former workers had died between January 1987 and July 1988 from causes potentially linked to their employment at GM Lordstown. The "GM Lordstown Memorial," a listing of the deceased workers' names and ages, was created. It included 23 people who died under age 50.
In June 1988, WATCH demanded that the company and union conduct a Proportional Mortality Ratio (PMR) study to compare death rates from cancer, respiratory and heart disease among former GM Lordstown workers with those among the general population. After 10 months of pressuring and petitioning by WATCH, a joint committee of the United Auto Workers and General Motors began the PMR study.
Initial results, released in September 1989, showed cancer deaths 37 percent higher than expected in the assembly plant and 48 percent higher in the fabrication plant during the period 1978-88. Stomach and pancreatic cancer rates were exceptionally high in the fabrication plant, 6.7 and 3.3 times the expected rate. The study also showed a rate of accidental deaths, mostly from automobile accidents, 37 percent higher than normal in the assembly plant and 80 percent above normal in the fabrication plant. Charles Reighard, now vice chair of WATCH, offered an explanation for the high number of auto fatalities: "Many of us who work at Lordstown routinely experience headaches, dizziness and numbness in the hands and feet, including when driving home from work."
In its report, the UAW-GM Joint Committee stated that the numbers in the PMR study "do not lead to clear inferences relating the excess of cancer, in particular cancers of the stomach and pancreas at the fabrication plant, to exposures in the work environment." However, the Committee acknowledged that the excess cancers at the fabrication plant "might be work- related, since [they are] not found at the assembly plant nor among the salaried employees." In addition to recommending further study, the Committee concluded that in order to ensure employees' health, it would be advisable to identify potential steps to reduce inhalation and skin contact with metalworking fluids in the fabrication plant.
Incredibly, GM's general manager of the Lordstown complex, Michael J. Cubbin, had publicly declared a month before the release of the PMR study that all hazardous materials had been eliminated from production processes at the fabrication plant. This claim was discredited early this year when WATCH obtained a toxic chemical inventory for the fabrication plant. The inventory listed numerous hazardous materials that were being kept at the plant, including several carcinogens. WATCH President Peggy Van Winkle invited Cubbin to the April 28 hearing to respond to this evidence; He did not attend.
WATCH members are hopeful about prospects for strengthening alliances with grassroots environmental groups in the region. In 1988, the Lordstown plant released over 3 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment, so the basis for an alliance is strong. WATCH also aims to expand its efforts and membership beyond the Lordstown plant and to encourage increased public participation.
In their summary statements at the April hearing, the panellists spoke of the need to go beyond the piecemeal approaches of the past and develop solutions commensurate with the scope of the problems. Panellist Richard Grossman, author of Fear at Work, Job Blackmail, Labor and the Environment and editor of the Wrenching Debate Gazette, reminded the audience that in the early UAW negotiations, the late Walter Reuther, former president of the UAW, was warned by GM's president that if the union wanted to assert influence in areas of traditional management prerogative --such as choices about production processes--then Reuther had better get his army. "Through groups like WATCH," Grossman said, "people are raising an army. But it needs to grow bigger and it needs to display its strength."
- Alexandra Allen
Exxon Crushes Colombian Strike
Exxon and the government of Colombia teamed up to crush a strike at the largest coal mine in Latin America in mid-May of this year. Sixteen days after 3,800 workers walked off their jobs at a coal mine in Guajira in northern Colombia, the government declared the strike an economic detriment to the country and ordered the miners to return to work.
An Exxon subsidiary, Intercor, manages the mine and, in the weeks leading up to the strike, negotiated with the workers about their demands for improved housing, a shorter work week and better working conditions.
The government's ruling sends the disputed labor issues to arbitration. They will be heard and resolved by a panel including one representative of the miners, one company nominee and an official of the Minis-try of Labor. Walter Castillo, vice president of the Intercor workers' union, said he has "no confidence" in the panel's ability to give the workers a fair hearing, since the Colombian government owns the mine and shares its profits with Exxon.
Exxon precipitated the strike by refusing "to negotiate in good faith with the workers," Castillo said. "Its behavior is completely arrogant.... What we are saying to Exxon is, 'We are human beings. You must stop trying to block the elemental desire of every human being to satisfy their basic needs, improve working conditions and move forward.'
Once the strike began, Exxon re-fused to continue negotiations. Tom Torget, public affairs manager for Exxon Coal and Minerals Co., told Multinational Monitor that there was no particular philosophy guiding Exxon's refusal to negotiate, saying merely, "that was the position we took."
With workers and management at a standoff, the Colombian army occupied the mine, as it had in disputes during two previous contract negotiations. Although there were no incidents of violence, Castillo charged that the soldiers' presence was in-tended to discourage the workers from continuing their strike by "creat[ing] a climate of fear and intimidation."
Living conditions and particularly the provision of housing were the central issues of the strike. Be-cause the Guajira mine is located in an extremely undeveloped area, Intercor has had to provide the basic infrastructure for a population of several thousand workers.
Most of the miners currently stay in company-provided hostels during their work week (the miners work four 12-hour days a week), returning to their families — most of whom live at least 250 kilometers away in the city of Baranquilla — on their off days. On October 1, 1989, Intercor announced plans to demolish the hostels, leaving the miners little choice but to buy the new homes Intercor is building near the mine. Exxon's Torget explained that the company decided to demolish the hostels because its managers "believe the best situation is to have employees live in the area."
Torget said that Intercor's pro-gram to construct neighborhoods has "made sufficient facilities available" for the workers. He also stated that the company had a "generous" relocation plan which would enable workers to bring their families to the area and purchase the new homes with low interest loans.
Castillo disputed Torget's assertions. He said that the workers objected to Intercor's actions because "they want the choice to live else-where [outside of Guajira]." He added that an insufficient number of homes exist to house the workers and their families and that the schools, clinics and stores being built by Intercor are inadequate to meet the workers' needs.
The miners are not the only people threatened by Intercor's activities. The company may be endangering indigenous people in the region. Intercor uses a 140 kilometer railway which it constructed to transport the Guajira coal, all of which is mined for export, from the mine to port facilities. The coal is transported, Castillo said, in open rail cars; dust flies off the top, harming nearby flowers and animals and, he believes, posing a threat to the indigenous Wayhu people. The Wayhu have approached the Colombian Senate about the problem, but have failed to spark any concern, Castillo said.
The miners have also gained inter-national allies, including the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). According to Ken Zinn, assistant to UMWA President Richard Trumpka, the union made a sizeable contribution to the Colombian miners' strike fund, established a Colombian Miners Aid Fund and, until the strike was broken, planned to send a delegation to witness the labor conflict. Additionally, Zinn said, two Exxon U.S. underground local unions, as well as Australian Exxon miners, wore stickers on their hats during the Colombian miners' strike in a highly visible show of support for the strikers.
Though the strike was broken, Zinn said, "The linking of mineworkers from one country with [those of] another who work for the same company is a step forward." He added that UMWA is "absolutely" committed to maintaining its support of the Colombian miners' struggle; "We are in it for the long haul, and so is the union in Colombia." ^
— Robert Weissman