In the News June 13
Death of a Worker at Hamilton Plant
Workers Protest Deadly Unsafe Conditions at National Steel Car
Workers’ Forum expresses deepest sympathies to the family and co-workers of Quoc Le, a 51-year-old welder at National Steel Car, who died on the job on June 6.
Quoc Le is the third worker to die at work at National Steel Car in less than two years. Crane operator Fraser Cowan, a 51-year-old father of two, died at work on September 2, 2020. Collin Grayley, a 35-year-old painter and father of three, was killed in a workplace accident on April 23, 2021.
Workers from National Steel Car, joined by steelworkers – including members of Local 1005 at Stelco – and other Hamilton workers, held a rally outside the National Steel Car plant on the afternoon of June 9 to affirm the right of workers to healthy and safe working conditions.
Workers at the rally described hazardous working conditions. Production goes at a hectic pace with employee safety appearing to take a back seat, they told the CBC. One worker said that the onus is placed on workers to “watch their own backs” in order to stay safe.
The president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 7135, Frank Crowder, a welder at the plant, spoke with CBC in a telephone interview on June 9. “Our members are not just angry, but they’re fearful … I’m receiving many calls from members who are looking for other employment because they believe it’s too dangerous. Their families, their wives, are asking them not to go back there, to please find other jobs and work somewhere else,” he said.
Steelworker representatives have called for a serious investigation into the workplace deaths as well as action by the Ministry of Labour.
The company expressed condolences and its commitment to provide the “safest possible work place” for its employees. However, their response to the latest tragic death and the concerns and demands of the workers does not end there.
On June 9, the company sent the workers on shift home and shut down production for two days without pay. A notice on the company’s Facebook page says: “We have been made aware of a planned protest this afternoon at our main entrance that will impede the safe entry and exit of our facility. Our top priority remains the health and safety of our people, customers, suppliers and partners. Out of an abundance of caution, we have decided to temporarily suspend our manufacturing operations today and tomorrow. We are planning to resume operations next week.”
Take note, the rally on the afternoon of June 9 did not involve a walkout. It was attended by retired workers and workers not on duty. Nonetheless, the company announced that the shutdown was a “safety measure.”
Besides penalizing the workers by not paying them for two days, their condolences and declaration of intent were also accompanied by the threat of legal action against union spokespersons for requesting a criminal investigation.
Earlier in the day prior to the shutdown, the local union president and another union representative, who were on shift at the time, had been asked by management to leave the plant because they were wearing shirts that said “Stop the killing. Enforce the law.” The reference is to the Westray Law which allows the courts to attribute criminal liability in the case of workplace deaths.
The company’s action is consistent with what the workers report as the culture it has imposed, which prioritizes production without regard for the production workers. Besides already identified violations of health and safety laws for which the company has been charged and fined, there is a documented history of appealing Ministry of Labour orders issued when violations are found.
The union reports the company’s lack of commitment to the operation of the joint union-management health and safety committee. Workers describe conditions that are unsafe, including lack of training and the onus being on workers to protect themselves, while the company only appears to be interested in speeding up production no matter the cost in injuries and deaths of the workers. Workers also report that the company puts extreme pressure on everyone not to report or stand up to unsafe working conditions or to refuse unsafe work.
The response of National Steel Car to Quoc Le’s death adds insult to injury with such glaring disrespect that it cannot be permitted, workers say. It is unacceptable to have neo-liberal governments which permit the kind of unsafe working conditions that the workers have been responsibly protesting. The workers are affirming their rights which are being violated by the company with impunity. Both National Steel Car and the government must be held to account.
Workers’ Forum calls on everyone to support the just demands of the workers at National Steel Car and the USW for immediate action by the company and the Ministry of Labour to prevent further injuries and death, to enforce all safety laws and regulations. Workers themselves must be involved in deciding how production is organized safely and with the well-being of the workers uppermost in mind.
(With files from TML Correspondent, CBC, USW, Hamilton Spectator, Ontario Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development. Photos: Hamilton and District Labour Council, USW District 6)
Workers’ Forum, posted June 13, 2022.