The Whistleblower's Tightrope
By James Sandler
CIR Staff Reporter
In the summer of 2002, Robert Rester got a call from a colleague at the pipe foundry where they worked, the McWane Corporation in Birmingham, Alabama. The caller said that supervisors suspected Rester was leaking company information to the press. Rester, for the first time in his 24-year career, was out on medical leave - he had a heart condition -- and news of the company's suspicion of him only complicated matters, especially since what the supervisors believed was true. Rester had blown the whistle. And as a result, he would eventually lose everything.
The work at McWane--casting molten iron into massive sewer and water pipes--was inherently dirty and dangerous. But McWane's record of worker injuries outpaced all of its major competitors combined. Between 1995 and 2002--when Rester decided to speak out--4,600 employees had been hurt on the job at McWane plants across the United States. Rester had risen to the rank of plant manager, and as such, he had intimate knowledge of McWane operations. There were burns and cuts, disfiguring fractures, crushed limbs, amputations and a gruesome history of dead workers. The environment, too, suffered. McWane employees, he said, regularly dumped floods of toxic metals into local creeks and lakes, all the while duping environmental regulators by submitting samples of city tap water for their inspection.
It was an approach to business referred to as "the McWane Way," where production was maximized at nearly any cost. Rester was part of this Way for many years, and was paid well for it, making as much as $125,000 a year. Like other managers, his annual bonus was tied to his ability to cut expenses--like proper waste disposal and correctly handling worker injury claims--and exploit productivity. Supervisors, Rester said, blamed accident victims for their injuries and those who disputed a boss's account were regularly disciplined or fired. Employees quickly learned not to report their injuries.
Rester admitted not only complicity, but taking an active role in abuses. "You got polluted water, wait for a good rain and put it in the creek. Someone gets hurt, put someone else on the line. Keep the pipe movin', that's all that counts," He said at the time.
But then Robert Rester had a change of heart. His wife had been killed in a car accident in 2001, and Rester was left to care for his four young daughters. He began to consider the fragility of life, and he said at the time he tried--unsuccessfully--to get McWane to spend more money on safety and the environment. His efforts, he said, ran counter to the McWane Way. He was demoted and eventually fired.