THE UNTIMELY DEATH OF TERESA WEAVER PICKARD
by Scott Smith
(Editor’s Note: Teresa Weaver Pickard worked at the Sewon America factory in LaGrange, Georgia, which supplies parts to the Kia auto plant there. On May 29, Mrs. Pickard complained to management of difficulty breathing due to extreme heat where she worked — reportedly 102 degrees — and was told to wait in the break room, which also lacked air conditioning. She waited for three hours before an ambulance was called, according to another worker (the company’s account is different). She died in the ambulance. The following speech was delivered at a vigil in Atlanta, Georgia on June 26, called by the Georgia Student Justice Alliance, Atlanta Jobs with Justice, Georgia AFL-CIO, NAACP and other groups.)
I did not know Mrs. Pickard. I never had the pleasure of meeting her. But Mrs. Pickard was a hard-working member of my community, and what happened to her could have happened any number of others.
I have close friends who have worked at Sewon America, and I’ve heard about the horrendous working conditions there, from former and current employees. I’ve heard about the extreme heat inside the plant. I’ve heard that management doesn’t turn on the air conditioning unless visitors are passing through. I’ve heard that it got so hot in the break room that the candy in the vending machines melted. I’ve heard that workers can’t have their own bottles of water, and that the water stations are often out of water or cups.
I’ve also heard about the company’s reluctance to call 911 in emergency situations. I’ve heard from a mother who had to go pick up her son and take him to the hospital when he had an asthma attack. I’ve heard from a former worker who found herself on her front porch after having a seizure at work. I’ve heard from employees who were asked to find somebody else to pick them up instead of calling an ambulance.
I’ve heard, and I’ve come to understand, that at Sewon America, the company’s bottom line is more important than the safety and the lives of the people who work there. David Macaray, a former steelworker and union rep in Pittsburgh who’s now a playwright in Los Angeles, predicted this attitude in an article he wrote two years ago:
“Without having the unions to use as leverage… Without the resistance of organized labor, the law of supply-and-demand will spur an inexorable race to the bottom. And instead of Alabama [and Georgia] becoming the New Detroit (as the glossy brochures advertise), [this area] will, in time, resemble the New Bangladesh.”
Indeed, one current employee compares the conditions at Sewon America to those of a third-world sweatshop.
Female employees have reported that sexual harassment is rampant inside the plant, and that managers watch pornographic videos in plain view of female employees.
One former Sewon worker told management, “It’s so hot somebody’s going to die in here!”
And it didn’t take long.
Earlier this afternoon, I received a phone call from H. B. Cho, a reporter for Korea Daily. Mr. Cho said, “Don’t you think you’re moving too quickly with all this since the medical examiners’ report hasn’t been released yet?”
No, Mr. Cho, I think we’re moving far too slowly — it has been nearly a month since Mrs. Pickard died — and one death is far too many!
When we see results of the medical examiner’s report in days, weeks, or months from now, we may see that Mrs. Pickard had a pre-existing medical condition that contributed to her death, but that will not excuse the working conditions in which she and so many others suffered.
And we’re still left with these important questions: Did management at Sewon America call emergency services as soon as possible? Did they do everything they could to save Mrs. Pickard’s life? Or did they stall, as they have in the past, in an attempt to save a few dollars?
I grew up in Troup County, GA, and “union” has been a dirty word in Troup County, GA for over 75 years. When Callaway cotton mill workers formed a union in 1935, martial law was declared, the state military was sent into town to bust up the union, soldiers patrolled the streets and instituted a curfew, protesters were rounded up and interned at a concentration camp at Ft. McPherson in Atlanta, and at least one union member was killed by soldiers as they evicted his family from their mill-owned home.
Imagine the fear that this must have created in people, knowing that the state military would literally murder people on behalf of industry to prevent union organization. Over the years, down through the generations, this extreme fear turned into an extreme hatred of unions in Troup County.
I have never heard local people talk about the need for union organization — until just a few weeks ago. Now people are talking. Even people who have been anti-union their whole lives now see the need for a union to protect workers from the dangerous conditions at Sewon America. Sadly, it took another death for people to begin to open their minds.
There are still plenty of local people who are anti-union. There are those staunch individualists who say that all it takes is one heroic worker to stand up to management and demand better working conditions. But it doesn’t work that way. Individual workers are replaceable.
Individual workers are seen as machines, or mere machine parts. But we are not machines! We are human beings with beating hearts and families who love us, and we deserve to be treated like human beings! To make this demand so strong that it cannot be ignored, we must stand together in solidarity as human beings — because this is our one source of power over the machine of industry.
I’d like to close with a moment of silence for Teresa Weaver Pickard and her family, and I’d like to ask all of you to please visit GiveForward.com and donate to the Teresa Weaver Pickard Memorial Fund for her family. I’d also like to invite all of you to join me at the protest outside the gates of Sewon America in LaGrange, beginning at noon on Saturday [June 29]. Now, please join me in a brief moment of silence… Thank you for listening.
Scott Smith, a native of LaGrange, is a graduate clinician, publisher of The LaGrange Citizen newspaper, and author of Legacy, the Secret History of Proto-Fascism in America’s Greatest Little City: LaGrange, Georgia.