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The Prison House of Labor

By Corey Robin

When Kathy Saumier learned that a new factory was coming to town, it seemed as if there really was — as that absurdist bit of suburban wisdom from The Graduate has it — a great future in plastics. Landis Plastics, to be exact. Landis, a family-owned company based in Illinois, makes containers for yogurt and cottage cheese. The company was opening a plant in Solvay, New York, not far from Syracuse where Saumier lived. She applied for a job. “It’s a new place,” she thought. “It’s more money. It sounded good.” New York Governor Mario Cuomo thought so too. With the help of Solvay officials, Cuomo’s administration had put together an $8.5 million package of tax breaks, cheap electricity, and direct aid to lure the factory — and 200 promised jobs — to upstate New York. The day the plant opened, Cuomo was there to welcome it.

For Saumier, however, the celebration was short-lived. Hired to operate a machine that produced 36,000 plastic containers per hour, Saumier was expected, within a single minute, to inspect 600 containers, pack them in a box, and haul the box over to a conveyor belt. The breakneck pace was the least of it. Safety conditions at Landis were dire. Within thirteen months of Saumier’s hiring, printing presses at the factory had claimed part of the finger of a co-worker, almost all of the finger of another worker, two fingers of a third, part of the pinky of a fourth, and the tip of the middle finger of a fifth. Sex discrimination and sexual harassment were rampant. Managers reserved all but one of the higher-paying and safer technician jobs for men – and openly admitted to doing so. Male workers asked female workers for oral sex, called them bitches and cunts, touched their breasts and buttocks, and humiliated new female employees with simulations of masturbation. Management did nothing about it.

Saumier decided to speak up. She got involved in a union drive at the plant. She filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) about the factory’s safety conditions and lodged a sex-discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Viewing her actions as the opening shot of a larger “insurrection” by the workers, Landis struck back. Harassment, particularly of Saumier and other pro-union employees, increased. When Saumier complained, the assistant director of human resources replied, “If you’re in the public eye, you’re opening yourself to harassment.” Saumier was called into a meeting where she was accused by a former FBI agent, now working for Landis’ lawyers, of sabotaging the cars of anti-union workers. Another pro-union worker was hustled off to jail by the police after a co-worker accused her of stealing a coat; the charges were later dropped. Saumier was forced to work by herself in a room called “hold,” where she was not permitted to talk to anyone. “It’s like they put you in solitary,” she told a reporter. She was again questioned by management, this time in the presence of a police officer, about sabotaging the car of an anti-union worker. Finally, after she herself was accused of sexual harassment — among other charges, it was alleged that she pulled down a co-worker’s pants and tried to touch his genitals and that she asked an African American co-worker about the size of his penis — Saumier was fired. Claiming that Landis treated its employees as “rabble that must be kept under the boss’s heel,” Syracuse’s mild-mannered local newspaper editorialized thus:

Like most central New Yorkers, we cheered when Landis came to Solvay, bringing nearly 200 jobs to a community that had been clobbered by the Allied pullout. [Allied Chemical had closed its Solvay plant in 1986.] But no one expected a seventeenth-century attitude toward worker rights to come with the deal. No one expected mangled bodies to be accepted as a cost of doing business.

Then the federal government stepped in, and things began to go Saumier’s way. OSHA fined Landis $720,700 — one of the largest safety fines in New York history — for seventy-four violations at the plant. An EEOC settlement forced Landis to pay $782,000 to former and current female employees. A federal judge issued an injunction, ordering Landis to reinstate Saumier. Pointing out that the company had done nothing in the past about female workers’ complaints of sexual harassment — or about black workers’ complaints of racial harassment — the judge ruled that Landis was retaliating against Saumier for her union activism and whistle-blowing activities. Then the National Labor Relations Board conclusively determined the same and ordered Landis to rehire Saumier.

By the time Saumier returned to her job thirteen months after being fired, the pace had increased: now the machines pumped out 700 containers per minute. Saumier could barely keep up, and a workplace injury caused her intense pain. Of the more than one hundred workers who had originally joined Saumier in signing union cards, only fifteen remained. Most of the new workers were immigrants, too frightened to speak up and suffer Saumier’s fate or worse. Saumier decided to quit, the union drive stalled. Today, there is no union at Landis Plastics.

• • • • •

In the course of cleaning up my computer, I found the above discussion of workplace coercion and labor unions that I wrote for, and had intended to include in, The Reactionary Mind. Originally I planned to use it to open the introduction — to give readers a more concrete sense of what I meant by the reactionary politics of the right, a politics dedicated to the preservation of private hierarchies of power — but Rick Perlstein wisely counseled me to take it out.

Since I’ve been talking quite a bit of late about workplace coercion — though it’s an old concern of mine, going back to my grad school work as a union organizer and my first book Fear: The History of a Political Idea (especially chapter 8 ) — I thought I’d post this passage here, particularly since it’s never been published anywhere.

The material is entirely drawn from Steven Greenhouse’s excellent book The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker (New York: Knopf, 2008), pp. 15-34, which I highly recommend. Focusing on a little known labor struggle from the 1990s, this story gives a visceral sense of the neo-feudalism of the workplace I often talk about. Outside the military and the prison, is there any institution that so controls the bodies of adult men and women? No wonder they call it the prison house of labor.

Corey Robin teaches political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, and is the author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. He blogs at coreyrobin.com, where this post originally appeared.

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