A Young Woman Reporter's Expose
The look is appropriate for a woman on the road—worn blue jeans, a workman’s bandanna, loose brown hair. She could be just another of America’s aimless young drifters.
But Rachel Scott, looking about 17 but actually 27, has had her destination firmly in mind as she traveled America off and on for more than three years, often short of money, spending nights in her car, in a sleeping bag in campsites, or bedding down with folks who’d take her in. Out of her peregrinations, Rachel Scott has written an important book, Muscle & Blood, just published by Dutton and receiving enthusiastic reviews. It is a carefully documented account of the industrial conditions that—compounded with the greed, apathy or ignorance of employers—are decimating the ranks of American workers every year. (About 100,000 actually are killed on their jobs, she reports; 6 million more are poisoned, blinded, crippled or suffer debilitating diseases.)
Rachel Scott grew up personally unthreatened by industry. She was reared in the pleasant suburb of Prairie Village outside Kansas City by a father who runs a camera store and a mother who teaches remedial reading. “I was politically naive. I never knew the difference between Right and Left until my junior year in college, but our parents had strict ethical and moral standards. We learned what was right and what was wrong, and that wrongs needed correction.”
After majoring in journalism at Kansas State, Rachel worked on newspapers in Detroit, Akron, and Winston-Salem, N.C. While reporting for the Winston-Salem Journal she interviewed cotton workers whose lungs had been clogged with lint and who were dying of “brown lung disease” (byssinosis). After working with Ralph Nader and sharpening her investigative skills, she set out to do the book. The research was awesome, troubling and difficult. For the most part she investigated large and flourishing companies—such as Mobil, Bethlehem Steel, Anaconda and Ford—which would seem well able to afford safe working conditions. She met with some rebuffs: American Viscose would only let her talk to the company doctor. The president of one now defunct foundry refused to let her in. But she came back late that night, and the security guard, disarmed by the slip of a girl (she’s 5’3″), showed her around and let her photograph the appallingly unhealthy conditions.
Although she received some support from the Ford Foundation and other philanthropies, her funds remained precariously low. Finally, with voluminous files and reels of tape recordings, she withdrew to a little house in the woods at Harper’s Ferry, W.Va. and began to write.
Even for a public that has been environmentally awakened, the book contains terrifying case histories, and the author draws some harsh conclusions. Industry, motivated by rising costs, competition and the need to show a profit, continues to cut back on safety, she claims. One motor company, she says, callously balances its reserves for workmen’s compensation each year against the cost of safety improvements and finds compensation cheaper. “Management doesn’t intend to inflict pain and suffering on its workers,” she believes. “It happens mostly because management wants to shave costs. The worker likes to think that someone up in the front office is looking out for him. Not so.”
Union leaders take some lumps from the writer as well. “They’re too removed and don’t fight for their constituencies. The worst time I had was with a United Steel Workers VP in Detroit. He got sore and started to check up on me while I was sitting there. I walked out of the interview.”
Now a labor reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Rachel Scott isn’t sure what her next book will be, although industries she did not get around to investigating in this one might merit her attention. “At least 100,000 toxic substances are used in industry today,” she points out, her indignation rising anew, “and standards exist for only 450 of them. Unions aren’t doing enough. The remedy lies with legislation and the will of the workers to help themselves.”