On September 22, 2007, the Chrysler Corporation murdered my uncle, Jon Kelley Wright. After working over twenty-two years at the die casting plant in Kokomo, Indiana, he was crushed to death by the machine he operated in a gruesome but utterly preventable workspace disaster.
Widely heralded as “the safest operator in that plant” by his coworkers, Kelley had long been an outspoken critic of management’s dangerous practices and an advocate for safety on the job. Early in 2007, my uncle and some of his coworkers demanded meetings with management about the terrible condition of the safety equipment on their die casting machines. Management said that it wasn’t “cost effective” to fix the problems. Since management knew about the faulty safety equipment for months, and the company refused to fix it, I’ve stopped referring to my uncle’s death as a workplace “accident.”
Kelley produced transmission cases for Chrysler vehicles. The die casting plant where he worked is a loud and dangerous place. The ceiling of the building is a network of rails where giant crucibles of molten aluminum fly over head to replenish the enormous die casting machines. I’ll never forget how my uncle told me that on his first week on the job, one of these crucibles was derailed and fell to the ground, crushing and incinerating one of the workers. It’s no wonder that Kelley was so concerned with workplace safety.
The die casting machines for transmission cases are huge, and these days, they’re mostly automated. A series of sensors signal a computer with the exact state of the machine, whether the last part has been properly ejected, whether it’s ready to cast another part, and so on. The job of a die cast operator in today’s auto-parts industry mostly involves watching the machine to make sure it keeps working, and to debug any problems that might arise. For large parts such as transmission cases that require enormous machines, debugging a problem or making an adjustment often involves opening up the machine and walking inside. One of the sensors on the machine notices when the door is open and completely shuts down everything else. When the door is open, it is supposed to be impossible for the machine to function.
For months in the Kokomo plant, these sensors had been malfunctioning. At least the sensor was designed to “fail safe,” meaning that when it wasn’t working, it told the computer the door was open (and therefore, the machine was disabled) even when the door was closed.
Early in the morning on September 22nd, my uncle’s machine froze up. The computer claimed that the part that had just been cast wasn’t properly ejected. As usual, Kelley opened up the machine and went inside to pull the part and adjust the pneumatic pins that are supposed to eject the transmission cases after they cool off. Apparently, it’s common for these pins to get out of alignment, since they’re just screwed into place (one of my uncle’s coworkers later told me that the pins wouldn’t malfunction so often if Chrysler stopped cutting corners and just welded them into position instead of relying on the cheaper but weaker screws). However, even though the door was still wide open, as soon as Kelley got the pins adjusted, the machine fired another part with my uncle still inside.
Every one of Kelley’s coworkers who came to the funeral said that he was probably the safest operator in the plant, and one of the most outspoken about health and safety issues. They all said it was impossible that he had done something stupid or careless to put himself in harm’s way. When they got to the machine and opened it up to find my uncle’s remains, they looked over the whole machine and discovered that someone had put a glove over the sensor that was supposed to see if the door was open, rendering the sensor useless (such that it always thought the door was closed). No one knows where this glove came from. Some of his coworkers said that management had removed the glove before OSHA arrived. Many things about the situation remain a mystery, and will probably never be known. Two things, however, are certain. First, there’s no way Kelley knew that glove was there, or he never would have gone inside the machine. Second, that glove would never have been there if Chrysler replaced the faulty sensors as soon as workers in the plant reported the problems.
Chrysler’s immediate response to the incident was to shut down the whole plant for 24 hours. According to coworkers, this shutdown served two purposes: it allowed management to clean up the place before OSHA arrived, and it allowed OSHA to begin its official investigation. The next day, Chrysler brought in some “grief counselors” to talk to the other workers on the line and convince them to get back to work. The coworkers were furious (and still grieving the loss) and basically told these counselors they had no idea what they were talking about. Then, one of the workers on the line stood up and said “if you don’t feel like you’re ready to safely operate these machines again right now, go home,” and the entire shift left the plant, most of them going out for breakfast together to continue talking and grieving. Some of the newspaper stories about the “accident” reported that production was halted for two days, but the second day was a voluntary shutdown by Kelley’s coworkers. At some point during these two days, Chrysler went through the plant and finally fixed or replaced the door sensors on the die casting machines, though it’s unclear if that was before or after OSHA came through.
My uncle’s funeral was heart wrenching, inspiring, and enraging. When the immediate family first arrived at the funeral home, we were overwhelmed with all the flowers that people had sent. The funeral director said they had never had so many flowers for someone. However, as we read through all the cards, we came upon one modest bouquet right next to the coffin that pushed me from grief mixed with joy into rage. The card read “Our condolences to the family of the deceased employee—Chrysler LLC.” They couldn’t even be bothered to put his name on the card. And how dare they sign it “LLC” to remind us of their “limited liability corporation” status? After quickly polling the rest of my family on their feelings, they agreed to let me do something about it, so I promptly removed Chrysler’s “condolences” from the room, and we moved around some other bouquets to give more prominent display to the ones from our cousins and the UAW local my uncle belonged to.
Once the guests started arriving, it was incredible to hear story after story about how much Kelley was loved and respected in the plant. One story in particular stuck with me, since I had heard similar ones from my uncle before he was killed. Kelley loved to fish, and he loved a good fish fry. At least once a year, usually after a successful fishing trip with some of his co-workers, he’d bring a giant outdoor fryer and a few big bags of fish fillets into work. The person on the machine next to his would watch his machine all night, and Kelley would spend most of the shift frying fish for his co-workers. They’d just spread out newspapers on the floor of the plant, as if it was a picnic. Something about the image of my uncle frying fish all night for his co-workers really touched me. In the midst of an incredibly loud, dirty, dangerous, inhumane place, here was Kelley, trying to give it some humanity. I love him for that, and it was clear from everyone who came to the funeral that they do, too.
Since the funeral, I’ve learned more than I ever wanted to know about the inner workings of a company like Chrysler. First of all, it’s company policy to pay for the funeral services of workers they’ve killed. Furthermore, at least in Indiana, they’ve setup a scholarship fund for the children of killed workers to attend college – so long as they go to one of the public Indiana schools. They’re obviously trying to blunt the worst of the anger – there’d probably be rebellion if the families had to pay the bills for these funerals. I have to assume that the scholarship fund works as a tax shelter for the company, in addition to providing whatever PR benefits they can get out of it. I learned that my aunt is eligible to collect 500 weeks of workers’ compensation payments at a percentage of my uncle’s paycheck at the time he was killed. However, signing the form to start collecting payments would absolve Chrysler of any legal liability regarding Kelley’s death, even though OSHA cited and fined Chrysler for numerous safety violations in the plant. It also seems that management has gone on the offensive in terms of intimidating the other workers in the plant. Before and during the funeral, coworker after coworker expressed their rage, and proudly asserted their willingness to testify to the facts of the case and the events of the previous several months. When our family’s lawyer approached them to do exactly that, not a single coworker was willing – all had been frightened off by the fear of losing their jobs. Apparently, Chrysler has figured out how much it costs to kill one of their workers, and decided that, in the infamous words of Madeline Albright, “the price, we think, is worth it.”
As painful as this experience has been, it is not unique. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 5,840 people were killed on the job in 2006. That’s 16 people a day in this country alone. If there was a gang murdering 16 people a day, even for a few days, that would be headline news around the country. But this group of corporate killers goes on killing, day after day, year after year, and at most the individual cases make the local news (rarely as headlines). This lethal gang is composed of the managers and bureaucrats making the cold calculation that it is cheaper and more profitable to set up scholarship funds for the children of murdered workers and (when forced) to pay out small settlements than it is to operate a plant with enough safety precautions that no one would be killed on the job. Instead of doing jail time for their murderous computations, these people get bonuses and promotions.
My uncle’s early and preventable death has been a tragic loss for our family, his coworkers, and all who knew him. Kelley named me as the beneficiary on one of his modest life insurance policies, and to turn some of my grief and anger into positive action, I have decided to use the money to endow the Jon Kelley Wright Workers’ Memorial Fund through the Center for Economic Research and Social Change. This fund will allow Haymarket Books to publish an annual series of books about the labor movement and other struggles of working people to change the world. The first title in the book series is The Labor Wars by Sidney Lens.
I hope that the Jon Kelley Wright Workers’ Memorial Book Series will inspire others to dedicate their lives to the struggle for a world where safety on the job is more important than profits, and that it will help keep the memory of my beloved uncle alive. So, we’re inviting anyone else who has lost someone they love in a workplace disaster to memorialize their loved one through this book series, and we’ll print all of the names on the dedication page of each book.
With love and solidarity,
- Derek Wright