MIAMI-Point Blank Body Armor has become the focus of a controversy. The company sold the U.S. Marine Corps 19,000 bulletproof vests that failed the military's own quality tests, heightening safety concerns among GIs deployed in combat situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In face of damaging media coverage, on May 4 the Marines recalled about half of the 10,000 faulty vests that were given to U.S. troops.
The company has reaped hefty profits from Washington's wars and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. DHB Industries, Point Blank's parent company, has expanded dramatically to meet the military's demands for one million vests. It opened two new, nonunion factories in Florida last year in addition to its now unionized plant in Oakland Park, just north of Ft. Lauderdale, near Miami, and saw its revenue jump from $130 million in 2003 to $230 million last year.
A number of workers at Point Blank were not surprised to hear about the Marines' recall of vests. In a number of interviews, workers at the Oakland Park plant said the recently reported quality defects are the result of top management decisions and policies aimed at maximizing profits.
Workers at that plant fought a hard battle to organize into the UNITE garment workers union in response to abusive working conditions and low wages. During that fight workers themselves pointed to the company's responsibility for quality defects and how these problems potentially jeopardized soldiers in combat. At the same time, they rejected the company's demand that they end their union fight in the name of backing the war effort. After a two-year-long struggle, including a six-month strike, the workers won their first union contract in April 2004.
Workers said they have had firsthand experience with the bosses' chiseling tactics and efforts to cut corners in order to squeeze out more profits. Old, broken-down sewing machines, for example, make their jobs harder and unsafe.
Before the union victory, the company would grant no wage increases beyond a 50-cent raise after the first six months of work, which brought wages to $6 an hour, workers report. In their first contract last year, the unionists won annual pay raises-a gain that workers at the company's other plants in south Florida said was extended to them as well.
Union condemns defective products
During their union fight, workers pointed to the company's use of outdated bullet-resistant textiles in vests sold to the New York City police. The company felt compelled to replace 1,000 vests free of charge.
In a September 2002 press release, during the strike, UNITE quoted workers at Point Blank who said they were "routinely told by management to sew incorrect size labels into bulletproof vests, and to fill orders with improperly sized vests after switching the labels." The union noted the problems that the sizing of the protective gear created for soldiers in Afghanistan.
The union statement also noted "problems documented by a U.S. Army survey of troops in Afghanistan" regarding improper sizing of body armor used by the soldiers.
The company responded by suing UNITE officials in December 2002, claiming they had defamed Point Blank with false and misleading information about the safety of the vests. The suit was settled as part of the agreement that resulted in union recognition at the Oakland Park plant, according to UNITE press secretary Amanda Cooper.
This year, police departments in the southern United States won a settlement from Point Blank to replace vests manufactured with Zylon, a material that loses its resistance to bullet penetration after only six months when exposed to light.
While some workers expressed concern that quality questions might jeopardize their jobs by hurting the business, most of those interviewed by the Militant said the revelations vindicated the union's stance. "The Marine Corps should refuse to buy Point Blank vests if they think they are no good," said one union member, who asked not to be identified by name.
Unionists maintain that quality defects are the result of top management decisions, not worker incompetence, and should be corrected. "Whatever she says, that's what quality control does," another worker said, referring to Point Blank chief executive Sandra Hatfield.
Failed quality tests
According to the May 9 Defense News, last year "the Marine Corps accepted 19,000 Interceptor outer tactical vests (OTVs) from Point Blank Body Armor that failed government tests due to 'multiple complete penetrations' by 9mm pistol rounds" and other quality checks. Ballistics specialists at two government agencies, the Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Massachusetts, and the Defense Contract Management Agency, recommended the Marines reject the questionable vests.
One of the 800 internal memos released to the Marine Corps Times under the Freedom of information Act as part of an eight-month investigation, states, "The technical office is obligated to report...what we believe are major performance and quality assurance problems with this contractor. Ballistic failures started to occur in January 2003.... [Other agencies] have also identified major quality assurance deficiencies within Point Blank but without resolution to the satisfaction of either agency or the government COTR. (Contracting Officer Technical Representative). The COTR highly recommends disciplinary action against the contractor to resolve the issue. Instances of this nature have been occurring regularly over the past year.... I urge immediate action since this technical office has little confidence in the performance of the items to provide the contracted levels of protection."
Instead, company executive Hatfield and Lt. Col. Gabriel Patricio of the Marines signed waivers allowing the purchase and delivery of the body armor.
On May 4, however, faced with the imminent publication of a growing body of evidence by the Marine Corps Times, the Marines recalled 5,277 Interceptors-about half of the rejected vests that were issued to the soldiers.
The president of DHB Industries, Gen. Larry Ellis (Ret.), dismissed doubts about the quality of the vests. "We categorically stand behind the quality and effectiveness of Interceptor OTVs manufactured by Point Blank," he said in a company press release.
"The vests are performing in the only test that matters-live combat," DHB executive vice president Col. Ishmon Burks (Ret.) told the press.
The Marine Corps has made no purchases from Point Blank so far in 2005, although it has an order for 9,000 vests outstanding. The Army, which says it has never waivered test results for body armor, continues to do business, however, having accepted 500,000 vests to date and providing the bulk of a half billion dollar backlog of orders.
Despite Point Blank's surge in profits in 2004, its stock plummeted by more than 60 percent in the first three months of this year. This drop followed a massive sell-off in December by DHB executives, shortly after a big U.S. Army contract was announced.
On May 3, the day before the Marines announced their recall of Point Blank vests, DHB announced it had named a new president, retired army general Larry Ellis.
- 174 War & Disaster Profiteers Campaign