Published: 02/05/2011

Conrad Fedler is suffering from inoperable, terminal lung cancer. He worked at the Roquette USA plant in Keokuk, Iowa from 1996 until last June, when his illness forced him onto disability. On September 28, 2010 – the day the company locked out hundreds of union members for insisting on their right to negotiate a collective agreement – Roquette raised his health insurance premiums by over a thousand dollars monthly – from USD 380 per month to 1,467 per month.

According to an article in Iowa’s daily Hawkeye, “Doctors told Felder the dust and smells he had to deal with on a daily basis at Roquette could be responsible for his lung cancer.”

Fedler began his 15 years at Roquette in the corn, solids and sweeteners department, processing sweetener from liquid to powder – and packaging the powder by hand. According to the Hawkeye, “With no automation at the time, Fedler figures he handled 35,000 pounds of powdered sweetener in an eight-hour shift, usually a 50-pound bag at a time.”

The article continues: “In March 2000, Fedler transferred into the germ dryer/evaporation department, where germ is taken off the corn and put through dryers. The finished product is a tainted yellow dust, which is blown into rail cars and sent off to customer Archer Daniels Midland.

“‘The control room is covered in dust,’ he said.

“Dust was always in the air despite the presence of fans, which weren’t always working. A roof fan once was down for six months. Also present in the department manned by five men over three shifts were two smells. Working in the oldest part of the Roquette facility, sulfur dioxide was the most prevalent smell.

“The second smell came from a caustic detergent, a liquid cleaner used on the seven evaporators in the department. The evaporators were cleaned every 124 hours with the cleaner. The liquid sat in an open tank, which measured 6 feet across and 10 feet high.

“‘It will burn a hole right through your skin,’ Fedler said of the cleaner. ‘You’re constantly breathing it.’

“The detergent is considered to contain a cancer-causing chemical. He said it was only five years ago when Roquette made full mask respirators available to employees, but their use was only required for one particular task.”

With the lockout now into its seventh month, Fedler’s old job in the evaporation department is being performed by scabs supplied by Ohio-based “Last, Best & Final” (a company specializing in furnishing replacement workers during industrial disputes), or perhaps by workers brought in from Roquette’s non-union operation in Illinois. Maybe even by company managers. No one knows, since union members aren’t allowed into the plant.

Since the lockout, Roquette has been advertising a position for a ‘Safety Leadership Manager’, whose job it will be to implement “a plant-wide culture change towards self-directed Behavioral Based Safety.”

‘Behavioral Based Safety’ was initially developed by the US insurance industry, with the goal of reducing company liability and thereby payouts. The concept was later refined by chemical giant DuPont (“Better Living through Chemistry”). The idea is to divert attention from the organization of work and its methods and materials to locate the source of blame with the individual worker. According to this scheme, it is unsafe behavior, rather than workplace hazards, which are at the root of workplace illnesses, accidents and injuries.

In Behavioral Based Safety, accidents are individual lapses: you don’t need a comprehensive workplace health and safety program, and a union health and safety committee which empowers workers to identify hazards and work through their union to eliminate them.

Behavioral Based Safety would not have spared Conrad Fedler the torment of lung cancer or the ordeal of paying increased premiums for expensive chemotherapy to prolong his life long enough to prepare for his widow’s livelihood. With Behavioral Based Safety, workers are penalized for reporting workplace injuries or illnesses: the goal is for the company to hit the coveted ‘zero accident’ target. Bonuses are linked to zero-accidents, and workers are encouraged to seek individual medical treatment outside occupational protection schemes. Employees can be medically screened to identify their alleged propensity for ‘unsafe behavior’. Cancer? Blame the victim…

Roquette workers need a union contract and a union health and safety committee. Roquette is trying to destroy the union. And this is the company which in 2009 was awarded the “Responsible Economy” trophy and “Good Environmental Practice” prizes bestowed by Frances ‘Reseau Alliances’ (“for social and environmental responsibility”), following that up with the February 2010 award for the “Best First Sustainable Development Report” of the National Association of Chartered Accountants!

Members of BCTGM have been maintaining an informational picket at the Keokuk plant since September 28, 2010, through the winter’s freezing weather and now epic downpours and floods. Despite having repeatedly and publicly called for a resumption of good faith negotiations and an end to the lockout, Roquette shows no inclination to get serious about negotiations.

You can support the Roquette workers – click here to send a message to the company calling for an end to the lockout and the start of genuine negotiations.