As the third mass shooting in five days leaves two dead and several wounded, Mark Ames argues that spikes in joblessness inevitably breed workplace violence.
On Friday morning, it was announced that America’s unemployment had unexpectedly climbed to 10.2 percent, the highest it’s been in a quarter-century. The jobless report was released right around the time that a bankrupt, desperate, and unemployed 40-year-old man, Jason Rodriguez, attacked his former employer’s office in Orlando, Florida—one of the worst-hit states in the country.
The Orlando office shooting, which left one dead and five wounded, came close on the heels of the massacre at Fort Hood the day before. The Fort Hood shooting was unusual because rarely has a Muslim “gone postal” in the America workplace. But Judeo-Christian Americans, including Latinos like Jason Rodriguez, have been massacring their co-workers and fellow students in “going postal” shootings for well over two decades now.
Why did these killing sprees begin cropping up in the mid-1980s? I traced the roots to Reagan-era economic policies that changed the postwar relationship between employees and companies, and between the middle class and the super-rich.
In fact, America invented these “going postal” murders, starting with the first post-office massacre in Edmonds, Oklahoma in 1986, which left 14 dead and six wounded. Over the next few years, shootings, rampages and suicides were rampant in the U.S. Postal Service, giving rise to a whole new term for these crimes. At first, they were dismissed as a Postal Service problem, as if loonies had suddenly been recruited to work there. But the murders and complaints piled up, and by 1989, the co-worker-on-co-worker office massacre had jumped like a virus to the private sector—beginning with the rampage shooting at a printing plant in Louisville, Kentucky, which left nine dead and 12 injured. Soon, workplace massacres of this sort spread all across the country; the term “disgruntled employee” also entered the lexicon, signifying something akin to “terrorist.” By the mid-1990s, even middle-class all-American schools were experiencing mass killings. Today, 10 years after Columbine, these episodes come and go with such frequency that most Americans hardly notice; they’ve become cable news wallpaper.
Why did these killing sprees begin cropping up in the mid-1980s? When I studied these murders for my book, Going Postal, I traced the roots to Reagan-era economic policies that changed the postwar relationship between employees and companies, and between the middle class and the super-rich. Government regulation of business was reduced, unions were decimated, and a radical new brand of capitalism became a kind of state religion. The trouble began in the U.S. Postal Service, a major government entity suddenly subjected to market forces under President Richard Nixon. He signed a law banning strikes, opening up the USPS to private-sector competition, and mandating that it become profitable by 1983. Not coincidentally, 1983 was the year of the first postal employee-on-employee shooting in South Carolina. A once-comfy government job had transformed into the sort of stressful workplace that the rest of America would soon experience, too.
Back in 2005, when the book was first published, it wasn’t easy getting Americans to accept this thesis. Now that the entire Reagan model has crashed and most Americans have woken up to the fact that they’ve been taken for a ride, it seems almost self-evident. Average American wages haven’t grown since 1979, while the super-wealthy have seen their share of income soar to the point where the wealth gap in the U.S. is on a par with Mexico and Turkey. Americans today work more hours with less security, fewer health and pension benefits, and even shorter lunch breaks and sick-day leaves, than they had before the Reagan Revolution stripped those protections away. CEOs earned on average 30 times the wages of their workers in 1978; by this decade, they were earning more than 500 times their workers’ average salaries. They did it, in the words of GE’s “Neutron Jack” Welch, by squeezing “unlimited juice” from their employees (Welch famously downsized more than 100,000 GE employees during his reign, while making himself a billionaire).
As the disparities mounted, so, too, did the frustrations in the work force. And Florida has been the site of some particularly horrific outbursts. In 1993, a fired employee of Fireman’s Fund Insurance burst into the Tampa office building, killing three and wounded two; three years earlier, in the largest mass shooting in state history, a 42-year-old man whose Pontiac was repossessed by GMAC entered their Jacksonville office and killed nine employees, wounded six more, then turned the gun on himself.
And those incidents took place during Florida’s boom years. Today, the state is suffering record unemployment, record foreclosures, and one of the hardest-hit real-estate markets in the nation. To make matters worse, a U.S. attorney labeled Florida “ground zero for mortgage fraud;” recently, 105 people involved in a massive mortgage scam were arrested.
This week, the annual “Happiness Index” was released, and Florida, its citizens plagued by high debt, unemployment above the national average, and the third-highest foreclosure rate in the country, came in dead last among all 50 states.
We don’t yet know the full story of what happened with 40-year-old Jason Rodriguez. But against that backdrop, his tale of financial and personal ruin is depressingly familiar.
When he was arrested at his mother’s a few hours after the shooting, he told reporters why he attacked his ex-employer, Reynolds, Smith & Hills: “They left me to rot.” When reporters asked Rodriguez if “they” meant his former employer, he answered: “No. No. I’m angry.”
RS&H fired Rodriguez in 2007. Two months ago, he filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. He listed his income as $812.67, with $90,000 in debts, and just $4,675 in assets—$4,000 of which came from his Nissan Xterra SUV, the vehicle he fled in after the shooting (and which is described in the filing as in “poor condition”). He owed about $40,000 to Sallie Mae and Wachovia for loans he took out to earn a master’s degree in business administration from a university in Puerto Rico, which he signed up for right around the time when his wife moved there after divorcing him.
Rodriguez does not appear to have had a violent history or a criminal record. In that regard, he’s like most of the others who have “gone postal.” Instead, he seems to be a man ground down by the kind of dreary, familiar pain that more and more Americans experience as jobs disappear and despair takes hold. Until there is a radical rethinking of the way America treats its workers, there are tragically going to be many more like Jason Rodriguez to come.
Mark Ames is the author of Going Postal: Rage, Murder and Rebellion From Reagan's Workplaces to Clinton's Columbine and Beyond and The eXile: Sex, Drugs and Libel in the New Russia. He is a regular contributor to eXiled Online.