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Death at the Supermarket

A disgruntled and bullied Safeway employee is the latest to commit a workplace massacre. The press and co-workers are blaming the attacker -- but the real culprit is a corporate culture gone bad.
 
 
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This article first appeared on Comment is Free, a news and analysis group blog run by the British newspaper The Guardian .

The blazing hot summer has produced yet another American workplace rage massacre by a disgruntled employee. On June 25, a 22-year-old worker at a Safeway grocery chain warehouse in Denver, Colo., fired a handgun at his co-workers, killing one and wounding five, and set several fires in an attempt to burn down the massive 1.3 million square foot structure where he worked, before he was finally gunned down by police.

"I can't imagine this happening out here. It could happen anywhere." This was how one employee, Raymond Rivas, reacted to the shooting -- words that are a repeat of a repeat. This disbelief can be found in practically every article about a workplace massacre, word for word, going back to the first ones some 20 years ago.

These workplace rampages, in which an employee blasts his co-workers, are now a regular feature of American life, yet they are still grossly misunderstood and oddly ignored. One would think that after 20 years of this new species of crime, with hundreds of dead and wounded, there should be a massive body of literature devoted to studying and explaining it. And yet they are one of the last true "Made in America" products.

The rage murder crime first appeared in the mid-late 1980s, when a rash of post office massacres by postal employees gave American slang a new term: "going postal." Within a few years, post office massacres jumped like a virus to the private workplace, beginning with a disgruntled employee at a printing press in Louisville, Ky., who killed or wounded 20 co-workers in 1989 ... and from there, the crime metastasized to the middle-class American schoolyards.

Until the late 1980s, no one had even conceived of the workplace as a potential killing zone where any co-worker is a potential rage murderer. Today, gossiping over who is most likely to "go postal" in your office is one of the favorite water cooler conversation topics -- and also a sly way to make sure you're on the witchhunting end of the workplace clique, rather than on the suspected-weirdo end. You have to be careful though when gossiping -- offices today are increasingly like high security camps, complete with surveillance video cameras, security badges, armed guards and undercover informants.

In the case of the June 25 massacre, the media and the culture reacted as they always do: answering the "why" by focusing on the rampager. And as always, this trail led to a dead end, so to speak.

Yet very little attention was given to the one possible motive, which the media has barely focused on: Michael Ford, the killer, was apparently “ teased” and "harassed" by co-workers for being Muslim.

This may strike Normal People as a pretty weak reason to try to murder your co-workers, as proof that Ford was sick and weak. Yet it is interesting that so many schoolyard shootings in middle-class America are also triggered by bullying. Indeed a lot of workplace massacres, such as the first big one in Louisville, featured a murderer who had been brutally hazed or teased by coworkers.

The hazing, the coworker-on-coworker cruelty, is real, but it's a symptom of something larger: a corporate culture gone bad.

And this is where the media sleuths always avert their eyes -- because then it means looking at what really changed in the 1980s that might bring about rage in the workplace at this point in time.

What changed in the U.S. workplace wasn't a sudden influx of guns on the market, or an influx of psychos in the workplace, but rather the most obvious and powerful cultural force of all: Reaganomics.

But you can't bring that up. Reaganomics is accepted as a kind of law of physics, the ultimate example of America's cultural and moral superiority, at least according to our cultural propaganda.

Yet if you consider the possibility that these crimes have a socioeconomic cause, as does inner-city violence, then you find that much more is revealed by profiling the company where the massacre took place than by profiling the murderer.

Profile Safeway. Its current CEO, Steve Burd, is a classic post-Reagan corporate vampire whose every working hour has been dedicated to enriching a tiny layer of shareholders and executives -- including himself -- at the expense of tens of thousands of Safeway employees. Burd's policies of constantly slashing workers' pay, pensions, health care benefits and so on earned him hefty bonuses during Safeway's best years in the '90s.

Instead of distributing the earnings windfall back to workers, he went on a reckless (and some say corrupt) acquisition spree, which came under fire from some shareholders for obvious conflicts of interest in many of the companies acquired (which had ties to some Safeway directors).

When these acquisitions turned out to be bad buys, Burd did what all post-Reagan CEOs do: He made his employees pay it. So in 2003, he tried further freezing wages, raiding the employee pension funds and forcing workers and retirees to pay for health care benefit payments for the first time in Safeway's history. This led to a five-month workers' strike by some 70,000 California employees in 2003-2004, the longest grocery worker strike in American history.

Burd's real-world villainy, and the utter futility of resisting it, was summed up in early 2004 by Rev. Jim Conn, a Methodist who led a several-hundred-mile pilgrimage up to Burd's home to plea for him to look into his heart: "We are praying for this man, Burd, who has been so recalcitrant, so cold to his workers. He needs to know about the lives he is affecting."

Prayer didn't melt the ogre's heart: Eventually workers agreed to a new contract requiring them to pay for health care benefits, and they got no salary increase as they'd fought for. But perhaps God was listening to Burd's prayers, because last year he earned 42 percent more than in 2004: $3.25 million in salary and bonus, and 1.03 million share options.

In 2002, Burd boasted that he planned to raise Safeway's share price in part by "financing price reductions by lowering costs, including restructuring labor contracts. ..."

Like other post-Reagan corporate heroes such as "Neutron" Jack Welch -- who fired 120,000 GE employees while making billions for the superwealthy -- and Al "Chainsaw" Dunlap, who took over Scott Paper in 1994, fired a third of the employees and walked away with over $100 million in stock options 19 months later -- Burd gets away with this plunder, his only threat being a salvo of Methodist poison-prayers, and he gets to be the hero too. Ask most Americans today, and they'll tell you -- even the ones who stand to lose from it -- that a company's highest priority is not its responsibility to its employees, but its responsibility to its tiny clique of obscenely rich major shareholders. And these people are considered sane!

Some rampage murderers were very explicit about tying Reaganomics to the destruction of their lives, such as Robert Mack who shot his supervisor at General Dynamics in 1991.

The 65-year-old who shot up his American HomePatient office in May of this year told police that he acted after fearing that he was going to be fired. Then he killed himself.

American HomePatient recently got creamed by Bush's Medicare reform bill, which is shifting money towards funding prescription drugs (thus handsomely paying back Bush's drug industry donors) and away from covering necessities like home oxygen for seniors, since companies like American HomePatient that provide that equipment don't have a hundredth of the lobby power that the drug companies do. The result? A 65-year-old worker who gave the last 17 years of his life to the company has to be let go. And for many people today, getting fired means death.

A new survey showed that Americans are becoming increasingly lonely and isolated. In 1985, most Americans reported having three close friends; by 2004, a quarter of Americans said they had "no one" close to them, and another 50 percent said that they had at best two close friends.

One of the survey's authors, Duke University professor Lynn Smith-Lovin, noted, "This is a big social change, and it indicates something that's not good for our society."

Indeed.

Michael Ford's rampage massacre was typical of the post-Reagan era in some details, such as how he fired 16 shots and was killed in a hail of police bullets, taking seven hits. Yet it stood out in its destructive ferocity. Ford, considered a quiet young man who was engaged to be married and had no history of crime or problems at work, was at least as intent on burning the huge building down as he was in shooting his co-workers, suggesting that he was out to kill not just a few co-workers who'd teased him, but the company itself. As police chief Gerry Whitman said, "He spent more time setting fires than shooting." Burn, Safeway, burn.

Interestingly, some of the fires Ford had set the day before were reported to have rekindled. As a fireman on the scene noted, the rekindled fires "added to the employees' unease."

Mark Ames is editor of the Moscow English alt weekly, The eXile and author of the book " Going Postal : Rage, Murder, and Rebellion -- From Reagan's Workplaces to Clinton's Columbine and Beyond" (Soft Skull, 2005).