Thursday, November 15, 2012

Is Cruelty to Workers Behind Workplace Violence?

Another workplace shooting took place in Fresno on November 5th at a chicken processing plant. Three workers were killed and two were injured by a fellow employee with a handgun. According to filmmaker Emil Chiaberi, this pattern of workplace violence has roots in the way employees are treated in this country.

Chiaberi's 2010 film, “Murder by Proxy: How America went Postal,” sheds both light and heat on the phenomena of workplace murders. Beginning with the Royal Oak Post Office massacre of 1991, which caused the expression “going postal” to become a part of American slang, through other workplace attacks, Chiaberi chronicles a history of employee abuse that drives some beyond the limits of sanity to commit appalling and desperate acts.

There is no excuse for these crimes and Chiaberi does not try to present one. But there are reasons and, through interviews, he explains the history of cruelty to workers that is characteristic of the US Postal Service as well as many other working-class jobs.

Since the mid-eighties no workplace protections have been instituted for workers. The climate we now inhabit is overtly hostile to those that make the machine of service or manufacturing run. The post office is a hotbed of extreme stress and discontent for many reasons. Workers are required to keep up with sorting machines, the pace of which are inhuman. Those who deliver mail have speed and safety issues combined. The job requires little skill or training but has good benefits and pays well. In other words, there’s more where you came from is a prevailing mantra.

Workplace scapegoating seems to be a particularly prevalent problem in the postal service and other low-skill level jobs. This is not explained in the film, I assume, because it is not completely understood. But scapegoating, when it works, tends to do two things. One, frighten other workers because the same thing could happen to them. And two, unify folks against a common enemy, the workplace scapegoat.

But many of the workers interviewed see through this ruse and understand the common enemy is their systematic and continual dehumanization. One shooter skipped shooting a boss who simply asked him how his recent eye surgery went.

The fact that workers are people has escaped those who advocate for the business owners and managers. With anti-union politicians like Wisconsin’s governor Scott Walker leading the charge, worker protection is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Films like “Murder by Proxy,” may not change that but at least they can serve as a warning of what may be in store for our increasingly income-skewed society where production and service workers are belittled and their fundamental humanity ignored.