Sometimes you do What you have to do, Even if it Hurts (UPDATED)

Peter put on his sunglasses concealing his eyes and apologized. “I can’t talk about what happened to me without crying and I don’t want you to see me cry.”

We were talking about corporate indifference to worker safety and preventable industrial accidents at USEC, the uranium enrichment plant near Paducah, Kentucky, where we live, and the nearby Union Carbide plant in Calvert City. Peter is not his real name for reasons that will soon become apparent. My wife and I own a beat-up truck and we supplement my meager social security income by hauling junk to a recycling center. We’d met Peter the day before when he asked us to haul away some junk. My wife and I had finished loading our truck and were about to leave when he approached and thanked us. We weren’t in any hurry and he seemed to want to talk.

“How did y’all get into this business?”

“Well, that’s a long story,” I said. “I used to be a lawyer. We moved to Paducah because I was hired to teach at the new law school that went belly-up a little over a year ago. I blew the whistle on the Dean and Assistant Dean because they were stealing student loan money. After they fired me, the deans cleaned out the school’s bank account and left town without ever suffering any consequence. The school fell apart and went bankrupt. I can’t get another teaching job and nobody will hire me because I was a whistleblower. I wasn’t expecting a ticker-tape parade, but this is ridiculous.”

My wife, who is more intuitive than I am, excused herself to retrieve something that she said she left in his back yard where we had been digging up scrap metal and old aluminum siding that a previous owner had buried in a trash pit. She later told me that she thought he had approached us because he had something that he wanted to say to me.

Peter told me that he was between jobs and was having trouble finding another job. Fortunately, his wife had a job, but that wasn’t helping his self-confidence very much. So, I asked him where he used to work and that’s what got him started on USEC and Union Carbide. After quietly raging about management’s indifference to employee safety, he started swallowing hard and put on his sunglasses.

“Did you hear about the accident at the Union Carbide plant in Louisville this morning? Two people got killed,” he said.

“No,” I said.

“I’m sure their deaths were preventable,” he said. “Union Carbide makes acetylene gas and the torches people use to cut metal. Their factory is the most dangerous fucking place I’ve ever been. When I worked there, I told my supervisor about some changes the company should make that would make the job safer and wouldn’t cost them much money. They ignored me and fired me six months later. Refused to tell me why. Said I was an at-will employee and they didn’t have to give me no reason. They don’t give a shit about their workers. If somebody gets hurt or dies on the job, nobody in the company ever goes to jail. The worst thing the company faces is a fine. Paying it is just a cost of doing business to them. That’s all a worker’s life means to them.

“So, they blacklisted you as a troublemaker, right?

“Yes, sir. I’ll be lucky if I ever get another job. I’ve lived here all my life and always tried to speak the truth and do right by people. Sometimes, I think that making that suggestion was the dumbest thing I ever did.”

I think I saw a tear roll down his cheek.

We stood in silence for a minute or so with me struggling for control as I revisited memories of what I’d been through.

“I’d do what I did again, if I had a chance to do it over,” I said.

Peter took a deep breath and shuddered in the warm spring sun. “Me too,” he said, “but sometimes it’s really hard.”

I told him that there are 28.5 million people in this country that are unemployed, underemployed, or can’t find work and the only way We the People are going to change anything is if a million of us sit down, lie down, and clog the streets of Washington, D.C., and Wall Street and refuse to leave until the filthy rich criminal banksters that brought down our economy, every member of Congress and the Supreme Court, the President and the Vice President resign and leave town.

Well, three of us are ready to do it.

How about you?

CORRECTION: The accident that killed two workers in Louisville happened at Carbide Industries, not Union Carbide. They are separate companies. According to its website, Carbide industries LLC “provides high quality products which include plywood and composite cabinets, laminate countertops, granite countertops, cultured marble vanity tops and decorative hardware at a cost effective price for the multi-family market with an added emphasis on quality installation.” I apologize for any confusion my mistake may have caused. (h/t Rayne)

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