Printed in blood: Quebecor World’s safety record spawns U.S. campaign for worker rights

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Two years ago while trying to repair a shrink-wrap machine at the Quebecor World Inc. (QW) printing plant in Clarksville, Tennessee, 50-year-old Donald Wilkerson was pulled into the machine and crushed to death. Last August, when a blaze broke out at a Memphis plant, QW’s fire-fighting equipment failed. Two people were hospitalized, one with severe burns covering a third of his body.

Based in Montreal, QW is one of the largest commercial printers in the world. It has 160 facilities in 17 countries and employs about 37,000 people, 28,000 in North America. In 2003 it posted a 2.4 percent growth in sales, and a net income of $31.4 million U.S.

Since 1998, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has slapped the company with more than 100 infractions, and fines totalling over $120,000 U.S. After Wilkerson’s death, OSHA found four more serious violations at the plant. QW was fined just over $15,000 U.S. The company is contesting the fine.


Last December, a coalition of three unions led by the Graphic Communications International Union (GCIU) launched the Justice@Quebecor campaign. The goal: to organize American QW employees and fight for workers’ rights and safety.

In addition to concerns about worker safety, GCIU alleges that in 2004 the company reduced contributions to its U.S. workers’ health insurance plans, doubling workers’ premiums. Union officials also charge that the company dropped its contributions to workers’ 401(k) retirement plans altogether.

Justice@Quebecor campaigners say that QW has disrupted its workers’ efforts to unionize. “The company threatened plant closure, intimidated people, harassed people, scared people basically to the point where they were afraid to vote for the union,” said Alan Tate, GCIU’s director of research and contracts, and the coordinator of the Justice@Quebecor campaign.

Tony Ross, QW’s director of corporate communications, has a different assessment of Quebecor’s record. “We haven’t done that at all,” he said. “We believe that our workers have the right to organize.”

Ross also denied that the company had reduced its contributions to workers’ health insurance plans, and offered this explanation for halting contributions to worker 401(k)s: “The difficulties are the environment and the economy, particularly in the U.S. Prices have dropped significantly for printing in the U.S., and as a result margins and profitability have dropped as well.”

And then there’s the worker safety issue. “What I think is more important is what our recent record is,” Ross said, adding that since 2002 the number of OSHA violations has decreased due to QW’s increased spending on safety. “In 2003 I believe we only had two violations,” he said.

In fact, according to OSHA records, the government watchdog investigated 10 possible QW violations that year. Although some 2003 cases remain open, OSHA cited eight serious violations with current fines of more than $25,000 U.S.


The Justice@Quebecor campaign is starting to win support from some high-profile names. “I have always believed that one of the best ways to raise people out of poverty is to give them the real freedom to form a union, free of management interference and intimidation,” U.S. Democratic presidential contender John Kerry said in February. “I urge Quebecor to remain neutral when it comes to its employees’ choice to form a union.”

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