By Ricky Baldwin
When news broke this summer that a toxic cloud of sulfuric acid at a local plant had sent eleven local workers to the hospital, horrific as the story was, many in the area were not all that surprised. Workers at the Guardian West Flex-n-Gate facility in Urbana had been speaking out for months about hazardous conditions, negligent corner-cutting management, and a hostile work environment. In June, the first of several official safety and health complaints at the plant resulted in a citation and penalty against Flex-n-Gate from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The fine was only $57,000.
Urbana is the headquarters of a national network of vehicle parts plants owned by University of Illinois graduate Shahid Khan. The Guardian West plant produces vehicle bumpers and other chrome-plated parts, and is the site of frequent fires, clouds of explosive gas, and other serious hazards. Many of the plant’s employees are francophone Congolese immigrants, doctors, pharmacists, and other professionals recruited from. Africa. Others are Spanish or American English speakers. Rumors abound of management playing one ethnic group against another.
The work is hard and dangerous, and proper safety equipment is lacking. But Flex-n-Gate took in $3 billion in revenue in 2011, according to Forbes. Workers report seeing men knocked unconscious by bumpers suspended overhead, being simply dragged to the side so that production need not stop. Vapors frequently spark into fires, and the Fire Department has made frequent visits to the facility. Workers report that now fires are extinguished using a garden hose.
Erin Brockovich all over again
Last December Flex-n-gate received some unwanted media attention when a Detroit plant owned by Khan called Chrome Craft became the target of former workers and community activists who believe the plant contaminated their neighborhood with chemicals including the deadly carcinogen hexavalent chromium, which featured in the movie Erin Brockovich. The Detroit plant has been inactive since 2009, listed as “idled” rather than “closed,” possibly to avoid final inspections by the Department of Environmental Quality.
“Our review of regulatory documents, as well as interviews with former employees finds a consistent pattern of environmental and safety problems at the plant, including releases of hazardous waste into the environment,” says a letter from workers, Detroit and Highland Park chapters of the NAACP, and environmental groups, quoted in the Detroit Free Press. From 1992 until 2009 the plant was cited with 39 violations of local, state and federal laws, including failure to train workers, dumping toxic wastes into Detroit sewers, and improper licensing and storage of hazardous substances. Some in the Urbana community are increasingly concerned that a similar contamination may be happening here.
Around that same time workers in the Urbana plant first reached out to the community in this area, through the United Auto Workers union (UAW) and local allies in the Jobs With Justice coalition (JWJ). Area residents were shocked at the severity of conditions right in our own backyard. A community forum organized in January of this year drew dozens of interested people from the community, including activists from the C-U Occupy movement. A second forum, held on campus in March, drew over a hundred.
Right in our backyard
Attendees at these events described it as close to a conversion experience. They heard from workers at the Urbana plant and others, as well as UAW organizers, about the cheap and ineffective safety equipment provided for workers handling dangerous toxins and the blatant disregard for workers’ health and wellbeing.
Some spoke in only halting English or in translated French. The courage it took to speak up was obvious. They described huge electroplating tanks used to fix the shiny metal to bumpers and other vehicle parts. Nickel, chromium, hydrochloric acid, and sulfuric acid are used in the process, all of which are toxic. OSHA’s eventual citation released in June found that Flex-n-Gate in Urbana was guilty of “nine serious health and safety violations for failing to monitor workers’ exposure” to these toxins. But workers also revealed in the public discussions that not only were they required to go down into these tanks to clean them without the proper safety gear, but that some co-workers had been in the tanks when the chemical washes were accidentally switched on. Some of this stuff is so dangerous that a person is never supposed to allow it to come into contact with the skin at all, but these workers were soaked head to toe in the deadly carcinogens.
Proper safety attire for such areas in the plant should be a heavy –duty “hazmat” suit, and for dealing with toxic vapors a full-face respirator. But workers who complained about the lack of safety gear said they had been handed flimsy paper masks and/or thin jumpsuits. Also present at the March forum were workers from other Flex-n-Gate plants, who are unionized with UAW. They testified that they do not face the same fear and unsafe conditions described by workers in Urbana and that they do have the proper safety equipment. Many workers at the Urbana plant have begun working with the UAW in hopes of organizing a union at Guardian West.
A few days after the forum in March, Central Illinois Jobs With Justice and other local groups held a rally at the Flex-n-Gate headquarters in Urbana, protesting these conditions and the economic injustice of millionaire Shahid Khan making money from these conditions. Activists with a new statewide Stand Up Coalition were there and pointed out that Khan, in addition to the unseemly contrast between his millions his employees’ poverty, owed thousands in back taxes he had underpaid. In fact, the group pointed out, Khan is an excellent example of what is wrong with the tax system and the economy in general, growing rich from the suffering of others. Illinois has a constitutionally mandated flat tax, so that even if Khan paid his taxes he would in theory only pay the same rate as his workers in his toxic plant.
For every action …
But harsh as these realities may be, the rest of the story is yet more sobering, and more instructive. First, several of the Congolese workers who lived in the same apartment complex had received mysterious eviction notices shortly after they began speaking out even though they were not behind in their rent and there had been no complaints against them. A chilling effect began. Many of the Congolese workers became afraid and expressed that they could no longer help with the campaign.
Community members who became aware of this situation began urgently calling and writing the owners of the apartments, their family members, and the human rights commission. Within days the eviction notices were rescinded. This outcome encouraged the workers to further action, including the March forum and demonstration.
Immediately following these events, workers in the plant reported a sharp increase in intimidation at the plant. Managers held captive audience meetings, required the workers’ attendance, and reportedly lied to them. For example, the workers say management told them that OSHA had investigated their complaints and found no violations. OSHA denied having made a decision at that point. A second chill set in. Rumors circulated that Flex-n-Gate was no longer hiring Congolese applicants. The union filed hiring discrimination charges with the Department of Labor, but a sense of limbo descended over the workers.
So OSHA’s first citation brought hope to many in the plant, requiring that the company’s guilt be posted at the plant for all the workers to see. Other charges are still pending, and the UAW continues to meet and organize the workers. But the outcome is still uncertain. Some observers believe, at least, that the sulfuric acid spill this summer would never have made the front page if not for the attention drawn to the plant and its problems by the workers and concerned community members.