Violence in the Workplace: It's Never a Woman

A true story. While I was president of a labor union, one of our Executive Board members ("Fred") brought in a newspaper article about an employee who shot and killed the shift supervisor and HR rep who'd just fired him. At the end of the termination meeting, this guy pulled out a gun, shot both of them, then walked out of the office and turned himself in. (As I recall, this happened at a Midwestern facility affiliated with the UAW.)

Scary and tragic as this account was, what piqued our interest was that, according to the report, he didn't harm either of the two other people present at the meeting. They were sitting at the same table, right next to him, in fact. He could've killed either or both of them just as easily as the other two guys, but he didn't. We're all too familiar with stories of distraught men shooting everyone in the room and then turning the gun on themselves. But this didn't happen.

Who were the two people who were spared? They were union officers who'd been assigned to represent him. Presumably, the shooter allowed them to live because he believed they were "on this side." As badly shaken as the union reps must have been by witnessing what they did, they also had to realize how lucky they were. Attempting to be witty, Fred said, "Well, at least the poor son of a bitch could tell the good guys from the bad guys." I chuckled appreciatively.

Because our conversation took place in a busy union hall, it was overheard by another E-Board member ("Gary") who took instant offense to what was said. In an indignant, sanctimonious tone, he said something like, "So you guys think that's funny? You think it's funny that two people were murdered? These were human beings! Just because they happened to be (air quotes) "management" doesn't mean they deserved to die."

We had no idea what prompted Gary's outburst -- whether it was an exercise in political correctness, or one of those self-righteous "gotcha" moments, or a case of him being genuinely outraged at hearing the loss of human life mocked. In any event, because Gary was a financial officer, a numbers guy who had never mixed it up with the company's foot-soldiers, his view of "management" differed significantly from those of us who'd spent time in the trenches.

Still, it was absurd to think Fred and I would rejoice over supervisory personnel being killed. You can throw all that "labor vs. management" stuff out the window when it comes to something like this. Whether or not the union believed the employee had been fired for cause is irrelevant. The supervisor and HR rep were just doing their jobs. Also, union reps (and defense attorneys) have also been killed by disgruntled clients, so it cuts both ways.

But because this exchange occurred with a group of sharp-eyed people -- our union peers -- watching and listening, Fred and I were embarrassed. We became defensive and were forced to awkwardly back-peddle. "Hey, c'mon, Gary, get real," we said lamely. "No one's saying anybody deserved to die... We were just joking around." Gary considered our reply with a smug mixture of disappointment and resignation, and walked away.

While one part of me was proud of being grown-up and secure enough to apologize to an aggrieved colleague for something that, in my opinion, didn't warrant an apology, another part of me (the rebellious part) was ashamed that I'd caved in so readily. That rebellious part wished I had said something like, "Gary, why don't you go f**k yourself, because no one was even talking to you."

Clearly, workplace violence is nothing to smirk about. Everyone knows how serious it is. All Fred was trying to do with his gallows humor was make light of something that -- to people like us, in the business of representing people who are often under tremendous emotional strain -- hit very close to home. Over the years we union officers had regularly discussed the possibility of someone coming into the facility with a gun.

The following are some of the conclusions we reached. Granted, these are all broad generalizations.

(1) It's never a woman. Women are not serial killers, and women don't walk onto the factory floor with guns blazing. There are hundreds of millions of guns in this country, and women have as much access to them as men do, but they simply don't go in for this kind of "exhibition killing."

(2) It's never the guy who threatens to do it. It's never the guy who warns everyone that he's going to come in some day and blow away the entire crew. It's the guy you never suspect.

(3) All things being equal, it's the older guys (over age 45) you should worry about. Younger guys tend to be more optimistic and carefree. The way they see it, they have their whole lives ahead of them, so even a devastating setback (like being fired) can be taken in stride. But it's different for older men. It's during middle-age when you first realize that things are likely to get worse rather than better.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor," 2nd Edition), was a former labor union rep.