By Lee Gilchrist
On Monday June 6, 51-year-old welder Quoc Le was crushed under a 2,000 pound bulkhead while working on a rail car. Le was pronounced dead after paramedics rushed him to hospital.
Le’s workplace death is the third at National Steel Car in 21 months.
Labour responded immediately by calling a protest at the factory gates for the afternoon of Thursday, June 9. The United Steelworkers Local 7135, which represents 1,400 workers at the plant, and the Hamilton Labour Council backed the call. Over fifty people attended on short notice.
National Steel Car responded by suspending operations on June 9 and June 10 by trying to paint the rally as a threat to the “health and safety of our people, customers, suppliers and partners.” Anthony Marco, the Hamilton & District Labour Council president, suggests this is an illegal lockout.
Steelworkers Local 7135 president Frank Crowder is calling for a criminal investigation under the Westray Law and has alleged criminal negligence against the company. The Hamilton Spectator reported that NSC requested they not publish Crowder’s allegations. The request was ignored.
NSC already facing charges
National Steel Car is already facing charges for the two other workplace deaths since 2020.
On September 2 2020, 51-year-old crane operator Fraser Cowan was killed when he was struck by a large piece of metal.
On April 23 2021, 35-year-old painter and Collin Grayley was killed only hours before NSC closed due to a COVID-19 outbreak that had grown to over thirty workers.
After Grayley’s death, Steelworkers’ Ontario Director Marty Warren called for the Attorney General, Crown prosecutors and law enforcement to step in.
A coroner’s investigation concluded Grayley’s was killed by “blunt force trauma to the body” and a “crush injury” caused by his scissor lift malfunctioning and crushing him against a ceiling.
NSC is cited in the Hamilton Spectator (April 27 2021) saying there is “no evidence whatsoever” of Grayley being killed by such injuries.
It took until October 2021 for National Steel Car to be charged for Cowan’s death, and April 2022 for charges to be laid against the corporation for Grayley’s death.
A bloody history
NSC has a long reputation of being an unsafe workplace. Workers have long discussed a culture of management bullying and neglect, a failure to invest in or repair equipment, or develop effective safety protocols and procedures.
In 2008, NSC was hit with two fines. The first was $200,000 for the 2004 death of a welder who was struck over the head by a failed spacer bar. Another fine for $50,000 was issued for a 2006 accident. A metal running board fell and struck the head, arm and leg of a worker placing decals on the side of a railcar. Only months after the fines were issued, NSC workers went on strike. One of the company’s demands was cuts to health and safety provisions.
NSC was also fined $180,000 for the 2001 death of 46-year-old Ivan Laus, who was doing repair work on a crane and fell to his death. Lack of safety equipment was cited.
In 1994, two workers were injured and NSC fined $60,000. A year later, charges were laid again with another workplace injury.
In 1997, a brakeman was crushed by a rail car and sent to hospital with a punctured lung and broken ribs. Only a few weeks before, a 13,600 kilogram roof caved in on a rail car moments after a few workers had just left for a coffee break.
Getting justice for workers at NSC has been hard fight because the Ontario Ministry of Labour has a long history of failing to uphold workplace health and safety and pursue corporate criminals.
This is exemplified by the 1980 case of Andre Robilliard whose legs were badly burned in a flash fire caused by his cutting torch igniting paint fumes.
The Ministry of Labour took no action, so Michael Skinner, a Steelworker union health and safety activist, picked up Robilliard’s case and pursued it for 15 months, ultimately winning a $20,000 fine against NSC. It was, at the time, one of the largest health and safety fines ever levied against a corporation in Ontario.
The Robilliard case was won in part because his accident fit a pattern of disregard for safety. NSC had been convicted three times in the six years before Robilliard’s accident for failing to isolate dangerous gases and suspended particles from potential sources of ignition.
Aziz takes a fall
Three years after he bought National Steel Car from Dofasco, CEO Greg Aziz was injured on the job.
In 1997, during a visit to the workfloor, Aziz fell off a ladder and was whisked away to Hamilton General’s ER for treatment of “unspecified injuries”.
No public explanation was ever provided for Aziz’s fall. A Harris-era Ministry of Labour spokesperson said it was a “non-critical incident” that did not need to be addressed by the MoL. Even the union local president and a health and safety rep did not comment to media inquiries.
Aziz has been in the news for other curious incidents, too. In 2007, Aziz made the big announcement that a new rail car plant would be built in Alabama. Like a true capitalist, Aziz sought millions in public subsidies. However, the plan fell through. Then, in 2013, he was indicted for fraud in Alabama, alleged to have misled the state’s pension plan regarding the financing of the proposed plant. A year later, the charges were dropped when Aziz coughed up a $21 million for a settlement.
Refuse unsafe work
While Aziz’s team of corporate lawyers and public relations consultants continue their dirty work, there is definitely an angry mood in Hamilton that ought to be harnessed towards building a new fight against deteriorating workplace health and safety.
Employers are paying chump change instead of being thrown behind bars under the Westray Law. The day after Quoc Le’s death at NSC, Scotlynn Farms became only the first employer in Ontario to be convicted in a workplace COVID-19 death. Juan Lopez Chaparro, 55, died in May 2020. Scotlynn was fined $125,000.
“Scotlynn is a multi-million-dollar, multi-national corporation, and these fines are just the cost of doing business to them,” commented Syed Hussan of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change.
Knowing how to conduct a legal work refusal, and organizing coordinated work refusals is a powerful form of legal job action workers have with or without a union. The right to refuse unsafe work was exercised during the pandemic, but never in a large or coordinated manner. The results have been that employers continue to dictate terms around health and safety in the absence of any threat of disruption, legal or otherwise.
From the farm fields to assembly lines, hospitals to warehouses, the biggest advances in workplace health and safety have come through direct action on the job. The most significant major modern victory for Ontario health and safety legislation came out of wildcat strikes in the early 1970s led by Elliot Lake miners.
The last major advance in Ontario’s health and safety legislation came in the late 1980s following massive work refusals in manufacturing which caught top union leaders off guard. These work refusals were driven by a well-trained and well-organized shopfloor network linked to the new workplace health clinics that emerged out of Hamilton.
Westinghouse worker and shopfloor health and safety rep Stan Gray was a key figure in establishing the clinics. Gray’s experience at Westinghouse led him to believe that rank-and-file workers had a better shot at improving health and safety through coordinated work refusals than waiting around for complacent union leaders to do something.