August 7, 2011
The hard road for whistleblowing, truth-telling workers
The earnest '70s film, The China Syndrome, has been playing on TV recently, and I finally watched it so many years after it created a fuss about nuclear energy just before 1979's Three Mile Island nuclear accident.
This tidy thriller tells a cautionary tale about a whistleblowing shift supervisors' attempt to expose safety hazards at the Diablo Canyon-like nuclear power plant.
Jack Lemmon plays the supervisor who discovers that fellow employees have falsified records to please executives concerned about profits. The company that owns the plant is CG&E--yes, a fictional PG&E. Lemmon tries to share those falsified records with a scrappy TV reporter--played by Jane Fonda--and her scrappy cameraman (Michael Douglas). But on his way to their meeting, Lemmon's nearly gets run off the road. He barricades himself in the plant's control room, hoping an exclusive interview with Fonda will bring media attention to the coverups that could lead to a nuclear meltdown.
CG&E executives call in the police, who, off camera, send a SWAT team into the control room. The SWAT officers gun down Lemmon. Outside the plant, before a pack of reporters, the CG&E flak describes Lemmon as dangerous and emotionally disturbed.
Trying to portray truth-telling, whistleblowing workers as emotionally disturbed is a pathetic but common tactic used by corporate and institutional bosses threatened by unpleasant information. Another is to claim that the employee is not a team player.
Haven't we all seen this sort of thing happen in our own workplaces? Maybe it even happened to us.
Apparently, punitive measures were enforced against whistleblowing workers at the real-life CG&E--or PG&E. So claims PG&E workers who says they were punished for speaking up about safety concerns in the years leading up to the deadly San Bruno explosion.
A former manager of investigations says he was laid off when he complained about "potentially explosive gas leaks" and falsified records, according to a report by the Bay Area News Group. Another union safety leader, who "raised red flags about dangerous pipeline working conditions, was detained in a hotel overnight, where supervisors called him "unstable" and forced him to submit to a psychiatric evaluation
That's how it goes at CG&E, PG&E and so many other companies and institutions that wield so much power and often through corrupt means. You speak up, those charged with upholding that power will try to slap you down. They will try to make you feel defective and deranged. They will threaten your livelihood and reputation.
But what's the alternative? Not speaking up? Depending on the situation, that can be demoralizing, too. The banality of evil is a slow, soul-destroying reality to tolerate.