The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Condemned to death for an overdue utility bill

Apr 10, 2006

Tyrone Williams, a 49-year-old Detroit man, was killed last month by carbon monoxide poisoning from an electricity generator. But Williams’ death was no simple accident caused by the sloppy use of a generator.

DTE Energy, the local utility company, had a hand in his death. First they raised their rates on gas and electricity – so much so that the family’s January bill was $300 higher than any they had ever received.

Then they shut off the power to Williams’ home, and failed to restore the power even after his wife had paid the $667 DTE demanded, plus a little extra. Williams’ wife made repeated calls over the next two days to get the company to send someone out. Each time DTE told her someone would be out the next day, until Friday, when they told her she would have to wait until Monday. By the time DTE restored the power, Tyrone Williams was dead.

The electric company tries to present his death as a bureaucratic “snafu.” They blame a customer service representative, who works for a sub-contractor that handles DTE’s customer service calls, for not properly scheduling the service restoration. But who chose to outsource customer service work to a “third-party” provider without the proper training, other than DTE?

The company Williams’ wife Carmen worked for also assisted in his death. She was suddenly laid off at the height of the winter heating season, when utility bills are at their worst. The main reason Tyrone Williams was using the generator was because the family had food in the freezer and could not afford to let the food go to waste. Williams had in fact moved the family out of the house and only went back to check that everything was okay when he was overcome by fumes.

The State of Michigan played a role in Williams’ death. Carmen Williams had to wait to pay the energy bill until her unemployment check, delayed for weeks, finally arrived through the mail. With the state cutting back on staffing at the unemployment offices, the least little problem can delay a check for weeks, if not months!

DTE Energy, the State of Michigan, and Carmen Williams’ employer are all accomplices in Tyrone Williams’ death. Behind them lurks a capitalist system that repeatedly produces similar tragedies.