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Workplace Massacre in Alabama: Did Endless Downsizing and Slashed Benefits Cause the Rampage?

If you keep squeezing workers to fatten filthy-rich executives' already-obscene bonuses, there can be very violent consequences.
 
 
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The killing spree in Alabama fits a well-worn pattern of workplace-driven massacres that we've seen since the "going postal" phenomenon exploded in the middle of the Reagan revolution.

In spite of the fact that these killings have gone on unabated for over 20 years, most of the country doesn't want to know why they're happening -- least of all the people in power.

If we study the motive for Michael McLendon's shooting rampage Tuesday, which left 11 bodies across three towns in southern Alabama, and we look at the bizarre way that the causes of the shooting are being hushed up, you begin to understand why this uniquely-Reaganomics-inspired crime started in the United States, and continues to plague us.

But of all the inexplicable circumstances surrounding the murder spree, one of the oddest has to be the way Alabama authorities went from focusing hard on solving the shooter's motive to suddenly dropping the issue like a hot potato and running away from the scene of the crime, as if they didn't like what their investigation produced.

On Wednesday night, investigators announced that they had discovered the motive, and they would reveal it to the world on Thursday morning. 

Investigators close in on motive of Alabama gunman
by Donna Francavilla
SAMSON, Ala. (AFP) -- Alabama investigators said they were closing in on a motive for the U.S. state's deadliest-ever shooting, in which a man killed his mother, grandmother and eight others before taking his own life. The Alabama Bureau of Investigations said there had been "very recent developments that we believe may direct us to a motive" for the grisly rampage, but ABI was quick to dismiss earlier reports that a hit list had been found in the house of the gunman, identified as Michael McLendon.

But then something funny happened on Thursday. Alabama investigators completely reversed themselves: They were now claiming there was no way to find out the motive for the killings, and in fact, no motive ever existed in the first place.

"There's probably never going to be a motive," Trooper Kevin Cook, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Public Safety, said Thursday.

Even the list that provided so many obvious clues as to what sparked the shooting is now no longer the "hit list" or list of people who had "done him wrong," but rather, "the kind of list you'd put on a magnet on the refrigerator door," according to Cook.

Which is odd, because just the day before, Cook told reporters, "As to motive, what we do know is that his mother had a lawsuit pending against Pilgrim's Pride."

Why the bizarre about-face? We may never know, because Alabama investigators abruptly closed the investigation at noon on Thursday, sending home almost the entire team. Nothing to see here folks, keep moving along.

This raises a new question: What was it about McLendon's motive that officials wanted hushed? Or better yet: What did Pilgrim's Pride do that could have incited a man described by all as nice, quiet and respectful to unleash a bloody killing spree?

On the surface, the horrific details seem to suggest a straightforward case of a lone psychopath unleashed: Michael McLendon, 28, shot and killed execution-style his own mother and four dogs, then set their bodies on fire before driving to other relatives' houses and killing them; he killed a deputy's wife and baby, along with bystanders; and like so many rampage massacres over the past 20 years, he ended his life inside of his former workplace: Reliance Metal Products, in the small town of Geneva, Ala.

Authorities say they discovered a list -- presumably a hit list -- of people and companies whom McLendon felt had done him wrong. Popular culture tells us that the hit list and his grievances are themselves signs that he suffered from a persecution complex, like so many Charles Mansons. No need to actually look into who was on that hit list and why -- the mere discovery of such a list should be enough to indict him, case closed.

But nothing's solved, nothing's closed; and if we're serious about understanding the "why" of this massacre, as everyone claims to be, then that list is the best place to start.

As with so many of these rage massacres from the past 20 years, the more you look at Tuesdays' killing spree, the more you see that the system we've been living under since Reaganomics conquered everything has created all kinds of monsters and maniacs, from the plutocrats who've plundered this country for three decades straight, down to the lone broken worker -- McLendon -- who took up arms in a desperate suicide mission against the beast that crushed him.

So far we've learned that McLendon's hit list names the three companies he had worked for since 2003 -- Reliance Metals, which makes construction materials; Pilgrim's Pride, the nation's number one poultry producer, where his mother also worked, until she was suspended from her job last week; and Kelley Foods, a smaller family-owned meat-processing company from which McLendon apparently quit just last week.

Even more striking to someone who has studied these workplace massacres, it appears that McLendon was bullied and abused at work. One clue as to why he'd end his spree at Reliance, where he hadn't worked since 2003, could be that he was trying to kill the source of the pain: workers at Reliance used to taunt him incessantly, giving him the nickname "Doughboy." Which basically means "fatso" and "faggot" combined: McLendon was 5 feet, 8 inches tall, but he weighed roughly 210 pounds.

Maybe it's just a coincidence, but "Doughboy" is the exact same nickname that workers at Standard Gravure, a printing plant in Louisville, Ky., gave to a guy named Joe Wesbecker back in the 1980s.

Like McLendon's case against Pilgrim's Pride, Wesbecker also was locked in an ongoing labor dispute with his company, whose top shareholders had gone on an eight-year plundering spree, leaving little for the workers; the government backed Wesbecker's case against Standard Gravure, and he "won" his dispute, but it was irrelevant.

By 1989, the culture had changed, all power went to the CEOs and major shareholders. Standard Gravure's senior executives ignored the arbitration rulings and continued to treat Wesbecker however they felt, slashing his pay under a different pretense, which would require a whole new round of arbitrations.

Joe "Doughboy" Wesbecker finally cracked: on Sept. 14, 1989, he unleashed America's first private workplace massacre, pitting aggrieved worker against vampiric company, borrowing from the numerous post office shootings that had erupted a few years earlier. The result: seven killed, 20 wounded, and the death of the company that drove him to the brink. And an unending string of workplace massacres by "disgruntled employees" ever since.

Next time any asshole calls a kid or a co-worker "Doughboy," put the bully and the bullied on the top of your next Ghoul Pool list. Bullying in the workplace, like bullying in the schoolyard, is only now being recognized as a serious problem, with devastating psychological consequences -- and the occasional rampage massacre.

Conventional wisdom used to say that victims of bullying should "deal with it" since it was "just the way things are"; nowadays, after all the workplace and school shootings, anti-bullying laws and codes are becoming increasingly common.

But let's go back to Pilgrim's Pride, the company that the Alabama investigator first named as the possible motive for the massacre. You might have heard of Pilgrim's Pride before, not only because you've bought their chicken, but because of the notorious undercover video shot in one of the company's chicken slaughterhouses in 2004.

When you look back at that video, and you place future-rampage-killer McLendon and his mother in that environment, the gory, sadistic details take on new meaning:

PETA says its investigator witnessed workers "ripping birds' beaks off, spray painting their faces, twisting their heads off, spitting tobacco into their mouths and eyes, and breaking them in half -- all while the birds are still alive." In one shot, workers jump on live chickens with their entire body weight, sending blood and innards splashing on the lens of the hidden camera.
Mostly, the workers appear to have been acting either out of sheer boredom with their jobs or out of anger with management, sometimes for making them work too many hours. One sequence filmed on 6 April this year [2004], shows workers amusing themselves by throwing 114 birds against a wall, their stunned bodies collecting beneath it. At one point, a supervisor walks past and shouts "Hold your fire" so he can safely pass. Once out of the way, he tells the workers to "carry on."

So this is the vicious world that McLendon spent some two years working in, and his mother far longer. The way the company treats its chickens is a good metaphor for how Pilgrim's Pride treats its workers, shareholders and American taxpayers. 

In 2006, Pilgrim's Pride, then the second-largest chicken processor in the world, made a huge gamble that will seem familiar to anyone who's been following the financial crash: the company borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars, leveraging itself well beyond its means, in order to acquire a rival company and become the nation's No. 1 chicken processor, slaughtering 45 million chickens per week.

That might have given the executives a nice, big hard-on, but it also meant they would have to come up with more money to pay for all that debt. So the company did do what every post-Reagan company has done and gotten away with: They made the workforce pay for the executives' mistakes. That meant squeezing them for more work for less pay, or in Pilgrim's case, more work for no pay: In August 2007, the U.S. Department of Labor filed a lawsuit against Pilgrim's Pride accusing them of grossly undercompensating their employees. That same year, 10,000 Pilgrim's Pride employees launched a class-action lawsuit demanding compensation for their work.

And this is where McLendon comes in: In 2006, the year of the acquisition, McLendon and his mother filed lawsuits and claims against the Pilgrim's Pride plant in Enterprise, Ala., charging the company with illegally denying them pay for the time it takes for workers to get suited up for the dangerous factory lines, and the time to take the protective gear off. Pilgrim's Pride had decided to stop classifying that time at the job as "work," now that they had a bunch of Wall Street bondholders to pay off. Other lawsuits also allege that the company forced workers to work overtime but only paid them regular hourly wages. 

While all of this "cost-cutting" was ravaging thousands of workers at the bottom of Pilgrim's wage pyramid, at the very top, things were very different for chairman Lonnie "Bo" Pilgrim and his little pack of plundering wolves.

Despite the chairman's disastrous acquisition, which eventually brought the company to bankruptcy in December 2008, and despite slashing the workforce's already-low pay, Pilgrim rewarded himself handsomely for a job well done: in 2007, Bo Pilgrim paid himself $3.2 million and $2.1 million in 2008 for his work as "senior chairman" of the board. Pilgrim's Pride also paid Bo $1.01 million for a contract with another firm he owns, meaning he signed on both dotted lines of the contract -- a clear conflict of interest that is now the subject of a shareholder-fraud lawsuit.

There's more: In 2008, Bo Pilgrim directed Pilgrim's Pride to pay an egg-production facility that Bo owns $775,000 in rental fees; Bo's son, Ken Pilgrim, was paid over a half-million dollars in both 2007 and 2008 as "co-chairman" of the board; another son, Pat Pilgrim, and a daughter, Greta Pilgrim-Owens, were paid a total of over a million dollars in 2007-08 by the Pilgrim-controlled board, and little Pat Pilgrim seems to have learned a thing or two from his father, earning himself an extra half a million dollars thanks to sweet contracts between Pilgrim's Pride and his other company.

The only reason we know about all of this corporate malfeasance -- so typical in the post-Reagan economy -- is because of a shareholder lawsuit filed last year. Indeed, the trajectory of Pilgrim's wealth-plunder is a microcosm of what went on all across corporate America: first Bo Pilgrim squeezed all he could out of the workforce, and when they were squeezed dry, he fleeced his own shareholders, the unter-plutocrats, before finally crying "bankruptcy" and turning to the American government and legal system to protect him and his loot.

Thanks to the "voluntary bankruptcy," Pilgrim's Pride is in a much better position against all the lawsuits against it. In fact, it's in such a good position that the bankruptcy court even allowed Pilgrim family members to be hired back as restructuring "consultants," on company pay. And in case they were having revenue problems to pay Bo, Ken, Pat and the other vampires, the USDA handed Pilgrim's a contract worth tens of millions of dollars in January.

How did Pilgrim's pay back the taxpayers for this little bailout? If you've read the news, you'll know the answer: A few weeks later, Pilgrim's Pride announced mass layoffs at three plants, devastating those communities.

If you're wondering what the Reaganomics concept of "wealth transfer from the employee class to the plutocrat class" looks like, this is it. Multiply this story by just about every corporation out there today, and there you have America.

McLendon's killings holds few similarities to that other massacre that transpired this week in a school in Stuttgart, Germany.

One major difference between the Europe's and America's school shootings is that they happen all the time in America, with a frightening regularity, whereas they're still incredibly rare in Europe -- two school massacres in Finland and two in Germany, all of them unusually bloody by American standards, but none of them appear to have sparked an unstoppable trend in Europe's schools.

That's what makes America's modern-day school shootings so unique -- they happen so frequently and predictably (and for every shooting you hear about, there are dozens of averted shootings, shooting plots, kids caught with hit lists and duffel bags, etc., much of it covered up because they're minors). This was exactly what the most famous school shooters, Columbine's Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, hoped for when they attacked their school: "We need to fucking kick-start a revolution here! We need to get a chain reaction going!"

But whereas they've found a huge cult following among American kids devastated by a culture that coddles the bullies, pushes them to the limits to compete and succeed, and pumps them full of prescription drugs because mommy and daddy are themselves being crushed at the workplace -- outside of America, Columbine's influence has been sparse, as a culture like Germany's is different from ours on so many levels.

For one thing, Germany is much more humane to its citizens than America is: its teachers are much more respected than in America, where "people who can’t do teach," while all citizens have free health care and certain employee rights -- like, for example, mandatory paid vacation time (America is the only Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development country not to mandate paid vacation time to workers).

The difference between a common maniac's murder spree and crimes that result from intolerable conditions and injustices is that the maniac's killings take place in a kind of vacuum, resulting in shock but not widespread sympathy and an unstoppable ongoing movement. In that sense, the two school shootings in Finland and the two in Germany don't seem to be anything like what we have here.

Which brings me back to McLendon. Last week, Pilgrim's Pride suspended his mother, 52-year-old Lisa McLendon, from her job. Pilgrim's Pride won't say exactly why they suspended her from her night shift, except to darkly note it was a "very serious matter." So serious, in fact, that they told her she could come back to work in a week if she "resolved" the matter to their satisfaction.

So again, what was she suspended for? This is where the corporate sadism gets surreal: According to one report, she was suspended for overstating her work hours on her time card. In other words, given her lawsuit (now no longer such a threat to Pilgrim's while it is "restructuring" under American courts), she very likely decided she couldn't wait for the courts anymore and decided to clock in her time spent putting on and taking off the required protective gear.

Suspending her in such a case would be a classic example of illegal corporate retribution against a worker with a labor dispute -- but what can a small-town Alabama hick do, with so little money and only so much resources, against a many-headed corporate beast like Pilgrim's Pride? The fact that Michael McLendon had the names of so many lawyers written down on lists in a spiral notebook shows that he tried going the legal route, but I mean, really, who's fooling whom? You think a small-town Alabama chicken-plucker has a chance in hell of fighting these oligarchs in the courts?

The lead attorney in the class-action suit against Pilgrim's Pride explained the dilemma this way:

"What has been difficult for these workers, both because of the raids and that there's been a lot of press about layoffs at Pilgrim's Pride, a lot of workers are afraid of retaliation for coming forward, afraid of losing their jobs," [Jenny Yang] said. "We are trying to make sure people are aware federal laws protect them against retaliation for participating in the case."

But anyone who understands company-labor relations since Reagan knows that companies routinely flout these laws and retaliate at will, suffering at worst a minor slap on the wrist, usually getting away with it completely.

Now that the company is under bankruptcy protection, with the same Pilgrims running the show, what's the worst that would happen for punishing a lowly worker who made a claim? Another lawsuit? Yeah, right.

So now we can start looking at the "motive" that Alabama investigators first broke, then hushed up: Last week, Pilgrim's Pride suspended McLendon's 52-year-old mother from her grim night-shift job as retribution for her demands to be paid in full for her work. Almost the same time that his mother was suspended from Pilgrim's Pride, McLendon abruptly quit his job at Kelley Foods, a meat-processing company a few towns over. Add to this another corporate attack on the locals: In mid-February, Reliance Metal Products, the place where McLendon worked until 2003 and where he ended his killing spree, quietly started laying off its workers and pushing the lucky few who still had jobs into working longer hours.

You can glean some of the anger and frustration in unofficial forums, but there's little information in the official realm: According to a report dated Feb. 18 from a local TV station, WTVY:

Local Prefabricated Metal Manufacturer Lays Off Worker
At one time, Reliable Corp., based in Geneva, Ala., employed 800. We're being told by those who work there that fellow employees have been receiving their lay-off notices. Reliable Corp. has been manufacturing prefabricated metal products for more than 50 years. Over recent days, News 4 has received several calls from those who've been laid off.

They haven't been told if it's temporary or if it's a permanent job loss. In one correspondence, we've learned that those who've been laid off will meet with a delegation of company and state officials early next month in Geneva. Following the loss of a body-armor company late last year, Geneva Mayor Wynnton Melton says any loss of jobs for his city is tragic.

News 4 was unsuccessful in getting a statement from reliable officials in Geneva. In the 1990s, Geneva lost more than 2,000 textile jobs as they went to overseas' countries. At this time, we're not being told if the layoffs are due to the national recession. We will continue to follow this story as details become available.

As the local news crew reported, it's almost impossible to find out any news about the layoffs because Reliable was keeping quiet. You get some clues to the answer via the three lonely comments at the bottom of the WTVY story:

Posted by:Rudy Location: New York on Feb. 18, 2009 at 4:28 p.m. -- My heart goes out to the layoff victims of Reliable Corp. I found immediate advice and strategies in an iTunes app called "Pink Slip." It helped me know my rights and keep my head during and after the meeting with HR.
Posted by: Gwynn Location: Westville on Feb. 18, 2009 at 7:56 a.m. -- I have been laid off from Reliable. I have not been informed of any meetings. We were told that the layoffs were due to lack of work and that if work picked up, we would be called back to work. If work orders didn't, we would be terminated at the end of the month.
Posted by:RELIABLE WORKER on Feb. 17, 2009 at 10:35 p.m. -- Company laying off employees and giving overtime to other workers is more of a losing battle either way you look at it! Employees were told if they were called back by March 2nd, they would have a job, if not, they no longer had a job! Cut out overtime and put people back to work, not only are you hurting your employees but the city of Geneva as well. Loss of income is a loss of sales for the city. Not many jobs in the city makes people seek new jobs elsewhere. Makes you think we should have voted wet on the wet dry ballot. That would have been a lot of tax money for the city, which is now being lost by loss of jobs!

What these commenters reveal is the same Reaganomics corporate approach at work as with Pilgrim's Pride, only scaled down in size. Everywhere it's the same: the company only exists as a vehicle for the top half a dozen or so executives and major shareholders to plunder as many suckers -- workers, investors, taxpayers -- as they can soak. We know a lot less about Kelley Foods, the last place McLendon worked before his killing spree. Divorce papers from 2003 reveal that the wife of Charles Kelley, one of the principal owners, accused him of having "engaged in domestic violence" against her.

We also know that, like Pilgrim's Pride, Kelley Foods earns a substantial amount of money from American taxpayers: $1.36 million in food contracts with the Defense Department in just three years, 2005-07. For Kelley, that's a huge amount.

So now we can go back to the question of motive, a question that Alabama investigators are running away from: rapacious corporations that cheat their workers and plunder the company wealth, a systematic bullying that extends all the way down to the way workers treat each other, and the sadism in the way they treat the chickens. It's a snapshot of a vicious law-of-the-jungle world, and yet it's just plain flat reality for most Americans.

Put in this context, McLendon seems a lot less like a maniac, and more like a victim of maniacs, who finally snapped and lashed out -- killing many of the "wrong" people, although judging by his list and what authorities had said earlier, he had plans to kill the right people, too.

But this isn't something Alabama authorities would want to expose: It would pissing off a serious company which is in the middle of choosing which plants to close, and it would mean creating some very confusing and potentially dangerous sympathy for McLendon.

While much of the massacre details are a repeat of similar "going postal" attacks over the past 20 years, the way he killed his mother and family suggests that a new pattern is emerging to go with the Great Depression 2: Now, killers take their families down with them.

In today's rampage, the shooter began by killing his mother and torching her home, then driving to where other family members lived and killing them, before ending it all at his former employer Reliable Metals. This sequence strongly resembles a couple of other recent high-profile family slayings: one in Los Angeles, which left seven family members dead in January, and another in Ohio a few weeks later, leaving three dead. In those killings, the shooter and his family were left financially devastated by the Great Depression 2. 

It's interesting that McLendon began his attack by taking out his family, but ended it attacking the source of the pain -- inside the company premises, where he ended his life. McLendon's family murders were a bit more complicated than those in Ohio and Los Angeles, however: It appears that he was very careful and respectful with the bodies of his mother and four dogs after he killed them, placing the dogs at his mother's head and feet the way ancient civilizations buried their leaders, before setting their bodies on fire as if in a funeral pyre -- as if he loved her too much to have her endure not only the aftermath of his planned attack, but a world in which she was constantly being crushed by a vampiric corporation, and a culture that nurtured such corporations.

On the other hand, he seems to have had genuine scores to settle with other family members across town, whom he shot on their porch -- reports coming out indicate that a nasty divorce some years earlier had led to deepening disputes with this side of McLendon's family, suggesting that unlike his mother, they were killed for retribution.

For years, these shootings were considered "random acts" committed by people who "snapped for no reason." Now, hundreds of dead victims and a massive financial collapse later, we know better: They're reactions against corporate oppression. If the super-rich and the corporations constantly squeeze their workers of time, money and health, a few of their victims are naturally going to "snap" and fight back with guns. Call it a small price to pay for looting everyone's wealth.

Will it end? With the current economic crisis, there's a chance the playing field might even out a little, that our culture might finally learn to stop humping the plutocrats' legs while they plunder us and instead start biting them to get our fair share.

 
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