Was last week's massacre in south Alabama a tragedy that could not have been foreseen? Was it a case of an unstable individual "snapping" in an unpredictable fashion.
Absolutely not, says an expert on workplace violence. In fact, Mark Ames says the rampage that left 11 people dead was the predictable result of workplace policies that for almost 30 years have favored managers and investors over workers and wage earners.
Ames is the author of Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion: From Reagan's Workplaces to Clinton's Columbine and Beyond. He says many blue-collar workers have seen their wages stagnate and their rights erode since Reaganomics was instituted in 1980.
Michael McLendon, the gunman who killed 10 people in three small south-Alabama towns before committing suicide, was one such worker. The public should not be surprised when people like McLendon strike back, Ames says. They've been doing it consistently for 20-plus years:
The killing spree in Alabama fits a well-worn pattern of workplace-driven massacres that we've seen since the "going postal" phenomenon exploded in the middle of the Reagan revolution.
In spite of the fact that these killings have gone on unabated for over 20 years, most of the country doesn't want to know why they're happening--least of all the people in power.
If we study the motive for Michael McLendon's shooting rampage Tuesday, which left 11 bodies across three towns in southern Alabama, and we look at the bizarre way that the causes of the shooting are being hushed up, you begin to understand why this uniquely-Reaganomics-inspired crime started in the United States, and continues to plague us.
Ames notes the curious actions of investigators in the Alabama case. Last Wednesday night, officials announced they had discovered the motive and would announce it on Thursday morning. But then something strange happened, Ames reports:
Alabama investigators completely reversed themselves: They were now claiming there was no way to find out the motive for the killings, and in fact, no motive ever existed in the first place.
"There's probably never going to be a motive," Trooper Kevin Cook, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Public Safety, said Thursday.
Even the list that provided so many obvious clues as to what sparked the shooting is now no longer the "hit list" or list of people who had "done him wrong," but rather, "the kind of list you'd put on a magnet on the refrigerator door."
Just the day before, Cook discussed motive and pointed to a lawsuit that McLendon's mother had pending against Pilgrim's Pride, a large chicken-processing company. But on Thursday, officials abruptly closed the investigation and sent almost the entire team home, Ames reports:
This raises a new question: What was it about McLendon's motive that officials wanted hushed? Or better yet: What did Pilgrim's Pride do that could have incited a man described by all as nice, quiet and respectful to unleash a bloody killing spree?
Ames compares McLendon to Joe Wesbecker, who worked at a printing company in Louisville, Kentucky, in the late 1980s. Both men were relentlessly harassed in the workplace, even acquiring the same nickname--"Doughboy." Wesbecker was locked in an ongoing labor dispute with his company and finally cracked on September 14, 1989, unleashing America's first massacre in a private workplace.
As for McLendon, he worked two years at Pilgrim's Pride. And here's how Ames describes the company in recent times:
In 2006, Pilgrim's Pride, then the second-largest chicken processor in the world, made a huge gamble that will seem familiar to anyone who's been following the financial crash: the company borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars, leveraging itself well beyond its means, in order to acquire a rival company and become the nation's No. 1 chicken processor, slaughtering 45 million chickens per week.
That might have given the executives a nice, big hard-on, but it also meant they would have to come up with more money to pay for all that debt. So the company did do what every post-Reagan company has done and gotten away with: They made the workforce pay for the executives' mistakes. That meant squeezing them for more work for less pay, or in Pilgrim's case, more work for no pay: In August 2007, the U.S. Department of Labor filed a lawsuit against Pilgrim's Pride accusing them of grossly undercompensating their employees.
This all hit McLendon in a personal way:
In 2006, the year of the acquisition, McLendon and his mother filed lawsuits and claims against the Pilgrim's Pride plant in Enterprise, Ala., charging the company with illegally denying them pay for the time it takes for workers to get suited up for the dangerous factory lines, and the time to take the protective gear off. Pilgrim's Pride had decided to stop classifying that time at the job as "work," now that they had a bunch of Wall Street bondholders to pay off. Other lawsuits also allege that the company forced workers to work overtime but only paid them regular hourly wages.
Pilgrim's Pride went on to declare "voluntary bankruptcy," placing the company in a strong position to fight all the lawsuits against it.
Then one week before the massacre, Pilgrim's Pride suspended McLendon's mother, 52-year-old Lisa McLendon, from her job. What was she suspended for? Here's how Ames describes it:
This is where the corporate sadism gets surreal: According to one report, she was suspended for overstating her work hours on her time card. In other words, given her lawsuit (now no longer such a threat to Pilgrim's while it is "restructuring" under American courts), she very likely decided she couldn't wait for the courts anymore and decided to clock in her time spent putting on and taking off the required protective gear.
Were the actions by Pilgrim's Pride legal? Nope. Is it likely the company cared? Nope:
Suspending her in such a case would be a classic example of illegal corporate retribution against a worker with a labor dispute--but what can a small-town Alabama hick do, with so little money and only so much resources, against a many-headed corporate beast like Pilgrim's Pride? The fact that Michael McLendon had the names of so many lawyers written down on lists in a spiral notebook shows that he tried going the legal route, but I mean, really, who's fooling whom? You think a small-town Alabama chicken-plucker has a chance in hell of fighting these oligarchs in the courts?
Ames provides important perspective on the tragic story of Michael McLendon:
So now we can go back to the question of motive, a question that Alabama investigators are running away from: rapacious corporations that cheat their workers and plunder the company wealth, a systematic bullying that extends all the way down to the way workers treat each other, and the sadism in the way they treat the chickens. It's a snapshot of a vicious law-of-the-jungle world, and yet it's just plain flat reality for most Americans.
Put in this context, McLendon seems a lot less like a maniac, and more like a victim of maniacs, who finally snapped and lashed out--killing many of the "wrong" people, although judging by his list and what authorities had said earlier, he had plans to kill the right people, too.