Blood on Your National Geographic

Thirteen workers a day die on the job in the U.S. One of them was a worker at the largest printing plant west of the Mississippi, which prints magazines like National Geographic and Sports Illustrated. Infographic: Sonia Singh.

Thirteen workers a day die on the job in the U.S. One of them was my co-worker: a veteran electrician crushed to death at 5 a.m. on April 24 at the Oklahoma City Quad/Graphics plant. He was servicing equipment on a maintenance call when he was pinned under a crane.

The company decided not to shut down the plant. Workers were sent back to the presses to finish their shifts printing magazines while their co-worker lay dying. Lawyers and insurance agents were in the plant before the man’s family was even notified of the incident.

A month earlier, another worker died at a different Quad/Graphics facility, in Atglen, Pennsylvania—crushed under a pile of books while unclogging a baler.

THE WALMART OF PRINTING

At 1.5 million square feet, the Oklahoma City Quad plant is the largest print facility west of the Mississippi River. It employs 650 workers, who print and ship titles like National Geographic, Time, Sports Illustrated, People, US Weekly, and Boys’ Life magazine.

Wisconsin-based Quad is the fastest-growing company in the otherwise declining U.S. print industry. It catapulted into second place in the U.S. market in 2010 when it purchased rival World Color. It’s an international player too, with plants in Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Colombia, Poland, and India.

Quad’s growth has largely come through buying up other companies and consolidating their operations, transferring their equipment to its other plants, and shedding thousands of jobs in the process. In the last few years, the company has closed at least a dozen plants. Just some of the job losses: 400 near Buffalo, New York, in 2011; 600 in Jonesboro, Arkansas, in 2012; and last year, 540 in Woodstock, Illinois, and 280 in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

The closings appear to target union facilities. Some workers have been able to transfer, but they lose union protection and take a large cut in pay. Press workers with experience elsewhere report that Quad’s non-union wages are only about two-thirds of its competitors.

WALKER BACKER

Meanwhile the company has invested $175 million to expand its operations in Wisconsin since 2010— while the state’s climate for unions has steadily worsened.

Quad is a major backer of Governor Scott Walker, who’s regularly featured in company emails and events. Before his 2012 recall election, the governor held one of his final campaign events at a Quad plant in Wisconsin, joined by South Carolina’s antiunion Governor Nikki Haley.

At a Quad/Graphics conference just days after my co-worker was crushed to death, Walker was the featured speaker. He touted the company’s U.S. job growth—from 10,000 in 2009 to 22,000 today.

Walker conveniently left out the fact that nearly all these “new” jobs came from buying other companies—and then laying off workers. Nor did he mention the workers who have lost their lives because the company refuses to invest in proper safety measures.

‘PROMOTION WITHOUT PAY’

At the Oklahoma City plant, shifts last 12 hours. New hires are told at orientation that each shift they’ll get two 20-minute breaks and a 20-minute sit-down lunch.

But press workers, the largest segment of the workforce, rarely get breaks. You’re expected to eat while you work—if you have time to eat at all. It’s common to skip meals if the shift is especially busy.

Base pay starts at $10 an hour, so most workers do at least some overtime. Sixty-hour weeks are routine—but sometimes workers put in 84 hours, which means seven straight 12-hour shifts.

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It’s also normal to work with some level of exhaustion. Quad is kind enough to stock its vending machines with overpriced energy drinks. Crewing levels are kept as low as possible, so workers often have to handle multiple tasks at once.

In Oklahoma City, the company prefers to hire vulnerable and desperate workers, such as those with felony convictions. Workers estimate the turnover rate is well north of 80 percent. New hires often quit by the end of their first week.

Due to the high turnover, Quad has a policy that workers sarcastically call “promotion without pay.” Out of sheer necessity the company will rapidly promote anyone who sticks around—but hold off on pay increases as long as possible.

Veteran print workers say the turnover rate is much lower in union plants. There it takes years to move up to the next position, but promotions come with guaranteed wage increases.

For instance, in union plants it can take several years to rise from material handler (the entry-level position on press) to rolltender—while at Quad it can happen as quickly as 30 days. It’s not uncommon for people to move from new hire to second pressman in less than a year, with no raise.

LOST FINGERTIPS AND ARMS

Safety and environmental laws are routinely ignored. Workers at the Oklahoma City plant are told to dispose of chemicals down the sink drain, something the Environmental Protection Agency outright bans. A few times a year, fires force workers to evacuate the plant.

Occasionally the air scrubbers used to maintain air quality—per the Clean Air Act—will malfunction. Even then the press does not shut down so they can be fixed. Instead the polluted air pumps into the building, and workers are forced to breathe it. During those times the air around the press is thick and hazy.

Equipment is badly maintained. Sometimes vital parts of presses will operate in a suboptimal state, or outright broken, for months on end, making conditions more dangerous. The mechanics and electricians in the maintenance department want to fix the equipment, but often their hands are tied.

Injuries are common, and occasionally catastrophic. Several years ago a worker at the plant lost an entire arm. Lost fingertips are the most common. Nationally, in the past five years OSHA has charged the company with 51 violations and proposed $212,665 in fines.

Quad also has a very strict attendance policy. Calling in on a day when you’ve signed up for overtime counts as two occurrences, not just one—so if an emergency happens and you end up calling in several times in a row, you may lose your job. To avoid this, people often show up to work sick.

POLICE ROAM THE HALLS

The mood on the shop floor is dark. In at least two recent incidents, laid-off workers came back to the plant with weapons and threatened management. The company now has a contract with the local police department.

Police cars can be seen in the parking lot at shift change. Uniformed officers roam the halls watching us. The company has installed cameras everywhere. Every day the place gets more like prison, where many of us have already spent time.

Conditions at Quad are unbearable on a good day. Now that a worker has died, it’s plain to see just how little employees matter to the company.

Ben Jackson is the pseudonym of a worker at the Quad/Graphics plant.