Reprinted From Confined Space
On March 23, 2005, a huge explosion ripped through the giant BP Amoco refinery in Texas City, Texas, killing 15 contract workers. Twelve of the workers were in an office trailer located in the middle of the blast zone. As with most workplace fatalities, illnesses and injuries, these deaths were preventable. While a full investigation won’t be completed for many months, it is clear that refinery officials were aware that the process was outdated and hazardous. Refinery officials and the contractor were also aware of the trailer’s hazardous location.
Today, April 28, is Workers Memorial Day. Across the country, workers and labor unions will pause to remember the 15 Texas City employees and the more than 5,500 other workers killed in workplace incidents over the past year. Between 50 and 60 thousand workers perished from work-related illnesses caused by toxic materials like asbestos close to five million suffered injuries and illnesses. The toll is enormous: according to Liberty Mutual, the nation’s largest workers’ compensation insurance company, the direct cost of occupational injury and illness is $1 billion per week, with indirect costs many times higher.
Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act 35 years ago to assure “every working man and woman in the nation safe and healthful working conditions.” Among the tools given to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) were the authorization “to set mandatory occupational safety and health standards” and the ability to penalize those who break the laws. But instead of making progress in workplace safety over the past several years, the Bush administration has taken the country backwards.
In the workplace safety field, the Bush administration’s aim to make workplace safety issues less “confrontational” is transforming this country from a nation of laws to a nation of fact sheets and web pages.
One of the first actions of the Bush administration was to repeal an OSHA standard that addressed the biggest source of injury facing American workers -- ergonomic hazards. Year after year back, shoulder and wrist disorders make up one-third of all workplace injuries and illnesses. Instead of a standard that would have forced employers to address this workplace epidemic, OSHA substituted voluntary guidelines, along with a new innovation of the Bush administration: the Alliance – a voluntary information sharing partnership between industry associations and OSHA.
Setting up voluntary alliances as a replacement for mandatory standards has become a pattern for the agency and a means to accomplish the long-term goal of President Bush’s corporate supporters – making OSHA irrelevant.
For example, when the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, an independent government agency, recommended in 2002 that OSHA revise a standard to prevent explosions that have killed over 100 workers between 1980 and 2001, OSHA’s only response was a voluntary alliance with the chemical industry.
When a butter flavoring chemical destroyed the lungs of thirty workers at one popcorn plant in Missouri, OSHA formed an alliance with the Popcorn Council instead issuing an emergency standard. The alliance has yet to produce even a fact sheet. This is not an isolated example. OSHA regulates only around 600 out of the thousands of chemicals used in industry, and the vast majority of those standards are based on information more than 40 years old. The only chemical standard close to completion, however, is being done under a court order.
There is nothing wrong with promoting outreach and information sharing. In fact, government agencies should do more of it. But outreach should accompany enforcement, not replace it. Educating drivers about the dangers of drunk driving is important. But education should not replace strict laws that punish drivers found guilty of drunk driving.
OSHA’s penalty structure is another problem. Even when an employer knowingly puts a worker into a dangerous environment that causes his death, the maximum penalty, which OSHA rarely pursues, is 6 months in jail. The penalty for harassing a burro on federal land is one year in jail. In fact, killing fish and crabs draw larger penalties than killing workers. After a chemical tank at a Delaware Motiva refinery exploded in 2001, dissolving a worker in sulfuric acid, OSHA issued a $170,000 fine. But because the acid was released into the atmosphere and the nearby river where it killed thousands of fish and crabs, the Environmental Protection Agency levied a $10 million fine on the company.
Earlier this week, a Brooklyn contractor pleaded guilty to the death of a worker and to cheating workers out of the wages the contractor was supposed to be paying its employees. For killing one worker and injuring others, the employer potentially faces six months in jail, OSHA's maximum penalty. But for committing mail fraud while underpaying its workers (the building was under contract with the Postal Service), the employer faces a possible 20 year jail term.
The purpose of Workers Memorial Day is to “mourn for the dead and fight for the living.” Worthy goals indeed. But forgotten in this motto are the millions injured on the job every year, many of whom are (were) dedicated workers that have been tossed into the garbage by their employers and our country’s disintegrating workers compensation system. Like the families of those killed in the workplace, most of those injured are left to their own devices without anyone to put their plight into a political context, without anyone out there organizing them for change. Confined Space has fallen into the same trap – focusing on the dead (who are easier to find and count than the injured and ill, and who make far sexier stories) – and forgetting about the millions who have lost their livelihoods, lost the useful lives they once lived, and too often have lost their homes and means of support.
The political issues raging in this country – over court appointments, social security, terrorism and the war in Iraq – are important, but they tend to overshadow many of the concerns of the vast majority of people who are not politically engaged. But ask people if they think that workers injured on the job should suffer economically for the rest of their lives, ask people whether the jobs and chemicals should be considered safe until we manage to count the bodies or lungs of people who prove otherwise, ask people whether they think they have the power to make their workplaces safer or whether they think there is a role for laws and government enforcement – and you’ll probably get answers that don’t line up with those who are in power in Washington (or in most state capitals) today. The challenge is to organize them into a potent political force – not just in New York city and Boston, but in Wichita, Kansas, Houston Texas, Boise, Idaho and Atlanta, Georgia.
This is the challenge we face if we are ever again to move forward on workplace safety issues – in Republican or Democratic administrations. And we’re not going to be able to depend excusively on labor unions to get there. They’re too small, they’re too consumed with fighting for survival, and health and safety has not (yet) risen to the level where enough labor leaders see it as one way to build the labor movement. This doesn’t mean that we give up on labor; they’re still the most potent progressive force out there, but it does mean that we can’t depend on them exclusively. Some states have COSH groups, some have injured workers associations and some states have strong, active and aware unions. But they aren’t enough. Unless and until those concerned about workplace safety make strong common cause with other progressive groups – environmentalists, womens rights groups, progressive churches, immigrant organizations and others, ours will be a difficult and ultimately futile struggle.
The American people are ready to listen. A recent poll showed that out of a variety of issues that Americans think Congress should be involved in (endangered species, gun control, gay marriage, steroids in baseball, "Schiavo" type family health cases), "Rules in the workplace that deal with health and safety issues" came out on top.
And I believe you'd get similar answers if you asked a few more questions:
Finally, with more than 50,000 workers dying each year from work-related accidents and illnesses, with millions suffering injuries, with workers in the U.S. now working more hours than workers in most of Western Europe and Japan more than one quarter of workers in the mining, manufacturing and wholesale trade industries working more than 40 hours per week, and with mounting evidence that these conditions cause elevated levels of psychological stress, increased exposure to physical hazards and more repetitive stress problems, as well as other serious health problems like heart attacks -- with all of these problems increasing in American workplaces, with the labor movement spiraling into oblivion, why are we, on this Workers Memorial Day, worrying about whether the AFL-CIO is going to abolish its health and safety department? Why can't we seem to understand that the conditions people work under are among the strongest issues on which to build a labor movement that actually shows that it cares about what people actually do at work -- between 9:00 and 5:00 or between 5:00 and 1:00, or between 1:00 and 9:00.
These are the thoughts I'm having this Workers Memorial Day -- and they aren't happy ones.
Nathan has ranted and raved quite articulately about the extensive new paperwork requirements that the Bush administration has imposed on labor unions in retaliation for their support of Democratic candidates.
Dan Haar at the Harford Currant makes a similar point:
[Secretary of Labor, Elaine] Chao, like others in the Bush administration, has an annoying habit of couching anti-worker rules as pro-worker measures. This confusing and unwarranted mess of data is, the department insists, a way of letting union members know where their money is going.
Don't believe it, coming from an administration that has replaced rules with voluntary compliance for businesses, adopted few, if any workplace safety rules and slashed budgets for such items as worker safety training.
As one union leader put it, aptly, "If for-profit corporations had to have the same level of disclosure, there would be a general meltdown on Wall Street."So what exactly does Wall St. think about all of this? Well, if one is to believe that the Wall St. Journal (subcription required) speaks for Wall St., all these rules have very little to do with uncovering corruption and everything to do with undermining unions:
Talk about eye-openers. Consider a LM-2 filed by a California local of the Communication Workers of America. While the union's spending is fairly routine, its dues base certainly isn't; 47% of its members are "agency fee payers." In plain English, these are members who, exercising their right under the Supreme Court's 1988 Beck decision, have withheld any dues that go to political or non-bargaining-related activity.Well, at least they're being honest.
This suggests either that the members disagree with their leaders' agenda, or resent their forced enrollment in the union in the first place. It is especially notable because a vote of only 50% of a union's participants can oust the current leadership, or more drastically decertify the union altogether. Evidence of such disgruntlement in the ranks is exactly the sort of information that union chiefs would prefer to keep quiet.
The House has repeatedly passed bills to create "Association Health Plans", interstate health plans for small businesses that are exempt from state consumer laws.
But even some conservative Senators have questioned the proposal, and witnesses at a hearing ripped into them:
Karen Ignagni, President and CEO of America's Health Insurance Plans, also called AHPs a bad idea that could result in higher rates for many small firms.So the healthy would get healthier and the sick would get sicker-- just a variation on the conservative theme we are all too familiar with.
"While low rates initially may seem attractive to small businesses with a healthy workforce, if one of their workers developed a significant illness, they would face a rate hike from the AHP the following year," she testified. "Ultimately the result would be a market in which a shrinking portion of healthy business would be covered by the AHP while businesses whose workers have significant health needs would be driven out of the AHP."
(Reprinted From Confined Space)
After years of meetings, negotiations and false starts, Senator Arlen Specter has finally introduced an asbestos compenation bill. The bill calls for a $140 billion asbestos compensation fund. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy (VT) is one of the co-sponsors, but many Republicans announced oppostion to the bill.
Judging from the critics and supporters, there still may be a long way to go:
The draft proposal includes some important improvements such as increases in award levels for some disease categories and a bar against any liens on workers compensation awards. At the same time, however, the draft has a number of serious deficiencies that must be corrected. These include the elimination of compensation for a large group of lung cancer victims, without allowing these individuals to document asbestos exposure through CT scans, and the absence of remedies for victims during the startup period before the Fund is able to pay claims. In addition, there are a set of issues, such as the statute of limitations, preemption and the treatment of claims if the Fund sunsets, that will determine whether the compensation system works as intended for deserving claimants.
complained the draft would let some asbestos injury claims leak back to the courts instead of being paid by the fund. It also criticized a provision that would prohibit liens on workers' compensation awards to asbestos victims who are also compensated by the fund.
NYCOSH has posted the bill here.
More on the pros and cons of the debate later.
109 House members have signed onto the reintroduction of a bill to:
I'm glad the bill's starting with 109 House members, but the question is why every damn Democrat hasn't rushed to put their names on the bill. And while Arlen Specter has endorsed the bill, there are a bunch of Republicans who claim to support labor; now's the time for them to step up and prove it.
Since we're on the theme of union corruption versus corporate malfeasance, here's a good head to head example. One of the more notoriously corrupt union institutions was the Teamsters Central States pension fund, which Jimmy Hoffa Sr. used to throw cash to his pals and hand money to insiders.
But the rank-and-file Teamsters actually did quite well off the fund. Still, in 1982 the federal government imposed a consent decree on the union and turned management of the fund over to federally-supervised investment experts.
Yet in these expert hands, the aging fund has fallen into greater financial peril than when James R. Hoffa, who built the Teamsters into a national power, used it as a slush fund.In contrast, the Western Conference of Teamsters pension fund, still controlled by union officials, is in great financial shape and road out the bear market at the beginning of this decade far better than most funds controlled by Wall Street firms.
At the end of 2002, the pension fund had 60 cents for every dollar owed to present and future retirees - a dangerous level. In a rough comparison, the pension fund for US Airways' pilots had 74 cents for every dollar it owed in December 2002, just before it defaulted. During the bear market after the technology bubble burst, Central States' assets lost value as its obligations to retirees ballooned, causing a mismatch so severe that the fund had to reduce benefits last winter for the first time in its 49-year history.
"There never were benefit cuts in the 1970's," said Wayne Seale, 52, a long-haul driver from Houston and one of about 460,000 Teamsters participating in the fund. "We were happy. We were being taken care of."
So here you have the most direct head-to-head comparison between union and corporate management of pension funds-- and the union officials won hands down.
Immigration advocates will cheer today as conservative Senator Larry Craig of Idaho offers a bill to help undocumented agricultural workers gain citizenship. For many of those workers, 360 days of agricultural work over the next three to six years would qualify for permanent residency.
Anti-immigrant opponents are seeking to filibuster the amendment (which is being offered to the emergency Iraq funding bill), although supporters look close to having the 60 votes needed.
It probably can't make it through the House, but it's an encouraging sign of sanity in the immigration debate.
Having noted how pathetic are the examples of union corruption cited by the Bush administration to justify their witchhunt audits of unions, at least one conservative bloggers at Pajama Pundits tried to jump in with an example sure to quiet us union defenders, namely the cost overruns at the Florida Westin Diplomat, a hotel owned by the International Plumbers Union.
I'll spend a little time on this example, since each time conservatives try to dig up an example of union corruption, they demonstrate how minor it is compared to corporate corruption in our society.
The first problem with the Westin Diplomat example: it has nothing to do with the union audits in question, since pension funds are governed by a completely different set of financial rules. The DOL did bring a lawsuit for mismanagement of union funds under the federal ERISA pension law, and in 2004, some of the pension trustees agreed to pay an $11 million settlement in compensation to the pension fund and fines to the DOL, but once again, this example-- an $11 million fine out of the hundreds of billions of dollars managed under union pension funds -- just shows how hard it is for union critics to find any serious corruption in the union movement.
Not to sneeze at $11 million, but it is an insignificant amount compared to the amount of corporate corruption.
And let's talk about the investment itself. The DOL never proved any personal corruption by the trustees. No one has been charged with any crime. All the DOL ever charged was poor management. And while the union trustees have been attacked for investing in the hotel convention complex, the hotel industry itself has been rather impressed with the facility (link from Miami Herald article):
The Labor Department's harsh assessment of the Diplomat's planning contrasts with the generally warm words industry watchers have had for the hotel since its opening.In fact, the DOL has had to admit that nowhere in their lawsuit does the DOL say "that it was a bad investment."
A massive convention facility facing the Atlantic Ocean, the Diplomat has emerged as a strong draw for business groups needing large amounts of meeting space. In 2003, the resort made Conde Nast Traveler magazine's list of the 75 best North American hotels.
"In terms of measuring it against industry benchmarks and its competition, it's doing very well," said Scott Berman, a hotel analyst with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Miami.
So all you have is a charge that the union officials could have been more efficient in their management of the project. Geez-- if corporate officials had to fork over fines every time they made bad business management decisions, 99% of the dotcom companies would be facing fines by the US government. Which just goes to the double standard facing union versus corporation leaders under the law.
I wonder if any conservatives can find any example of union corruption that actually comes close to ranking with corporate crime in our society?
On the same day I go off on the attack by the DOL on unions through auditing rules, Rep. George Miller has condemned department for its misuse of department funds for anti-union purposes:
“Under President Bush, the Department of Labor has increasingly shifted its resources and attention away from protecting workers and towards attacking the organizations that represent workers."The DOL cuts sweetheart deals for Wal-Mart and cuts money for minimum wage investigations, even while it diverts money to harass unions. This is the anti-worker agenda of the Bush administration.
Funding for staffing at the Department’s Wage and Hour Division, which enforces overtime, minimum wage, and child labor laws, dropped $113 million between 2001 and 2005...Meanwhile, funding for staffing at the Office of Labor Management Standards (OLMS), which investigates labor unions, increased $74 million (28.2 percent) over the same period.
Even as the DOL seeks to bury unions in disclosure requirements, they've decided its too much of a burden on companies to even count the total number of women they employ.
The National Organization for Women have an action site to tell the DOL what you think about this attempt to deny the public the data needed to reveal continued inequality in the workplace.
Corporations like Enron have stolen tens of billions of dollars from investors and consumers in the last few years.
Deadbeats cheat on their taxes to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars.
So where is the Bush administration cracking down hardest on financial auditing? Labor unions, of course.
The crimes inspiring this crackdown?
Pointing to embezzlement of hundreds of thousands of dollars by the presidents of the ironworkers union and Washington's teachers union, Labor Department officials say the number of audits fell too far in the 1990's and needs to be restored to previous levels.Yes, that's it. The absolute worst examples of corruptions and it's equivalent to the change lost in the company couches at Enron and WorldCom.
In a nation where tens of millions of union members pay billions of dollars each year in dues, its actually encouraging that these are the worst examples of corruption the Bush administration can point to. But then, unions are already scrutinized at a level that would make corporations like WalMart scream if it was suggested for big business.
Check out the LM-1 union disclosure page at the Department of Labor. For fun, type the number "1199" under the line "Designation Number" and put in "New York" under state. Submit the search and you'll get SEIU 1199, one of the largest SEIU locals in the country. If you click for the 2003 financial forms, you'll see financial disclosures on $118.7 million.
And we aren't talking about general numbers. We have hundreds of pages listing the salaries and compensation of EVERY officer and employee, down to the clerical staff.
So this is what unions already have to do. Now, the Bush administration wants them to track every major purchase, contract or other financial transaction.
Can you imagine what would be said if liberals were demanding similar disclosure from every corporation? Actually, we already know since they are already whining about the Sarbanes-Oxley bill passed in the wake of the Enron-WorldCom scandals, and the disclosure to the public required for those forms are far less extensive.
Even as the Bush administration fails to fund inspectors to enforce the minimum wage or workplace safety, it's diverting money to audit unions-- clear political revenge against its perceived enemies. It has no evidence of any pervasive problems in union finances, but it's manufacturing a supposed crisis to justify its political attack.
The goal is not to save union members money-- a laudable goal that I would support -- but to cost those members money through increasing red tape and auditing costs. Such costs will clearly outstrip any potential savings in a union movement that has a financial integrity record that we only wish the corporate world could match.
Movable type is acting up and messing with my host computers, so I'm suspending comments to see if that fixes the load issues. Hopefully, I'll get them back up on Monday.
(Reprinted From Confined Space)
"Patients love anything that keeps them from waiting,” Pugh says. “They don’t really care what you did to make that happen, but it leaves them with a much better feeling about your Emergency Department."I wouldn't be so sure about that after the patients read the letter from an R.N. reprinted below. Among all of the stories I've heard over the years in the workplace safety field, this is one of the most disturbing.
-- Dayle Pugh, RN, BSN, CEN, Clinical Director, Emergency Services, St. Charles Mercy Hospital, Oregon, OH
As anyone who’s recently had the misfortune of going to an emergency room knows, you're probably in for a long wait. With health care costs rising and the E.R. being the primary health care destination for the growing number of Americans without health care insurance, the situation promises to get worse.
One hospital in Ohio has decided to do something about it – with disastrous results for hospital workers and patients. Instead of dealing with the root causes of the problem (underfunding, understaffing, too many patients), the hospital had a brilliant idea: attract more patients and make the staff work harder.
How did they do it?
The "30 minute Promise" policy. The hospital promises E.R. patients that "If you are not seen within 30 minutes of your arrival by an ER doctor that you will receive a $15.00 coupon for gas, movie tickets or a gift certificate to a store."
The "30 minute Promise" policy. The hospital promises E.R. patients that "If you are not seen within 30 minutes of your arrival by an ER doctor that you will receive a $15.00 coupon for gas, movie tickets or a gift certificate to a store."Domino's Pizza tried this a few years back (Pizza delivered in 30 minutes or it's free), but the policy put so much pressure on the delivery drivers that they were getting into accidents rushing to get the pizzas delivered on time. After losing a $78 million lawsuit, the pizza company dropped the policy.
This hospital apparently failed to learn the pizza lesson. And at least one worker will pay for their negligence for the rest of her life. This is her story:
On March 7,2004, I was injured at work because of a horrible policy set forth by my hospital. This policy is known as the "30 minute Promise" policy. It says to patients that come to our ER, "If you are not seen within 30 minutes of your arrival by an ER doctor that you will receive a $15.00 coupon for gas, movie tickets or a gift certificate to a store."
As nurses and doctors, our requirement is to meet this 30 minute requirement or face the consequences. Physicians have been told that they would lose their jobs if they did not abide by this policy. I have seen many ER doctors and residents leave the side of a critically ill patient to quickly run over to another room to see a sprained ankle because the sprained ankle patient only had 2 more minutes left before he or she would be given a $15.00 coupon. How can this be a safe and appropriate policy for any administration to consider? How can ER residents and student nurses truly learn anything in an environment that supports quantity rather than quality patient care?
I have actually had people come in off the street and ask, "What is the prize today?". We have had entire families come in and expect "a prize" for each family member because they where not all seen within the 30 Minute Promise policy. How sad!!!
My injury occurred because of this "30 minute Promise" policy in March of this year. I had taken a patient up to CCU from the ER. This patient weighed about 250lbs and I along with another ER nurse waited for the CCU nurses to come and help transfer the patient to the CCU bed from the ER cart. In my mind I was considering the 30 minute policy and that there were many patients in the ER yet to be seen. I was conscious about the fact that this lost time of waiting for the appropriate amount of nurses to safely transfer this patient was going to certainly cost me and the hospital a $15.00 movie ticket or gas coupon. Finally, one CCU nurse showed up. She announced that the other nurses where not available to help. She was way to small to really help and the ER nurse with me already had a back injury and so she took the patients feet. I was left to take the rest of this patients body weight. As I pulled on the sheet to bring the patient over to the CCU bed, I felt two incredible pops in my lower back with pain, numbness and tingling down into both my legs and feet. Later MRI showed that I had herniated my L3-L4 and my L-5 - S-1 with severe impingement of those nerve roots. I have had 2 major back surgeries since then with little hope of returning to hands on patient care again.
ER nursing was my life and I loved my career. But I do not love where I have seen nursing going. I did not go into nursing to hand out coupons or to work in a "fast food ER" environment. Where has the professionalism gone? Where has safe and appropriate care lost way to commercialism? My greatest question to my hospital and any other hospital administration that has adopted such a policy as this: "Was it worth it for you to lose a highly skilled RN for the sake of a $15.00 coupon?" I'm trying to understand. I have lost so much for so little gain by this hospital's decision to implement this 30 minute promise.
I have written this with hopes that any Nursing Administrator, Director or Clinical supervisor will see that there is absolutely no justification for choosing thoughtless policies over care and safety of your highly skilled nurses.
But wait, there's more. Just as I was about to publish this, I thought, "Hey, I wonder if this hospital is uniquely stupid." So I googled "30 Minute Promise" and guess what? A bunch of hits. The "30 Minute Promise" seems to be quite popular, at least among a number of Ohio hospitals. One article in "Hot Topics in Health Care," published by Thomas American Health Consultants boasts of the efficiency gains that this policy forced.
Another article concluded that the program had produced "dramatic results," faster service, happier patients, fewer walk-outs and more "business."
One Ohio emergency room doctor, writing in 2003, had major reservations, but he was concerned mainly with quality of patient care and professional satisfaction. Not a word on the toll it takes on the health care workers who literally do the heavy lifting.
One thing I don't understand is that one of the purposes of this program is to attract more patients when there's already a problem dealing in a timely manner with the ones they have. So they introduce a program that attracts more volume to be dealt with by the same staff in a shorter amount of time.
I'm not sure if it's the total ignorance of worker safety that I find most astounding, or perhaps just the indifference -- the fact that these policies can be implemented, studied, analyzed and measured without even taking a moment to consider the impact on the workers doing the job. And the pure lack of common sense and knowledge about how the job is done among managers who are supposed to be able to run organizations is perplexing and distressing.
There ought to be a law, or at least an OSHA standard.
Oh wait, we had one ... until George Bush and his industry friends took it away.
Compassionate conservatism rears its ugly head again.
Like me, you have probably been repulsed by the frequent appearance of Jack Welch on various media outlets these last few weeks, as he attempts to sell his book. I just received notice that Hacksaw Jack is making some public appearances in the New York City area, and I don't think his reception should be friendly, or unnoticed by labor. Here is the information to pass around...
Here is the information to pass around.
Borders-Manhattan (Wall St.)
New York, NY 10005
Meet Jack Welch
Monday, April 18
As the head of General Electric, Jack Welch became one of the world's biggest celebrity CEOs. In Winning, his practical, motivational how-to book, he presents an expert class in business principles and practices designed for anyone who wants to get ahead. Welch will be joining us to sign copies of this business must-have.
Jack Welch also will be appearing at Borders-Fairfield in Connecticut on Saturday, May 7, at 11:00 AM.
Surveys show that almost 50% percent of American workers want to join a union. Yet just a bit more than 10% of those workers actually belong to one. Why?
Because the law only allows a union where a majority of workers in a particular workplace vote to form one-- and it's extremely hard to jump from no union in the workplace to winning an election in the face of anti-union corporate tactices. So if a workplace starts with only a minority of workers committed to unionization, they have no legal ability to collectively bargain with an employer, even on behalf of those specific workers.
Or so goes the conventional wisdom in the labor world.
But as Charles Morris argues pursuasively in his new book, this conventional wisdom is dead wrong. If, say, thirty percent of workers of an employer want a union, they have the right to form one-- and employers are legally obligated to bargain with them on behalf of the work conditions of the union members. No election is needed since the union is not claiming to represent all workers, just those who join the union and demand better conditions.
Given that a company like Wal-Mart will use scorched earth tactics to prevent any individual store from unionizing -- even closing them if they vote for a union -- a strategy of starting by organizing a minority of workers at multiple stores seems like a far better approach. In fact, labor is actually implementing this strategy at Wal-Mart stores down in Florida in a piliot project, and the Steelworkers just passed a resolution to use "members only" unions at some of the companies where they have had trouble jumping straight to majority support.
Morris explains in his book that much of the initial union upsurge in the 1930s was based on such minority unions. When US Steel was initially unionized, most of the initial contracts were negotiated on behalf of unions who did not represent a majority of employees in US Steel workplaces. Only once those initial contracts were negotiated, and the power of the union was demonstrated, did a majority of workers then vote to join the union.
So if it worked for US Steel, why not use the same tactic against Wal-Mart? And why not bring unions to any company where a minority of workers are willing to band together to demand better conditions?
Morris blames the general failure of unions to use minority union strategies on a false "conventional wisdom" that descended over the labor law world as elections became the norm during World War II and afterwards, so much the norm that the earlier history of minority union bargaining was largely forgotten.
He documents that the clear legislative intent of the National Labor Relations Act was to require collective bargaining by companies with minority "members only" unions.
Given that history, the NLRB has the power to recognize a duty of companies to bargain with minority unions -- important since that means that unions could be supported in such a campaign without changes in federal labor law. Even if the NLRB refused to recognize such a duty to bargain, Morris makes a persuasive case that the courts would have to recognize the rights of minority unions based on the clear text of the law.
Even if the conservative doesn't require unions to bargain with those minority unions, nothing prevents the unions from using strikes, boycotts and all the other historic tools of unions to force them to voluntarily agree to bargain over work conditions for those employees. Morris makes a good legal case for what the courts should do in recognizing the rights of minority unions, but in many ways his more powerful case may be to union leaders to revive tactics that helped build the labor movement back in the 1930s.
Here's how to really think about the economic power of global corporations: count all the employees at the firms working on contract to the big multinationals.
Take Nike, who to its credit released a report detailing the location and operations of its subcontractors around the world. While Nike itself has a relatively small direct payroll, its 700 contractors around the world employ 650,000 workers.
This is another way to understand why these "retailers" like Nike or, even more so, Wal-Mart are such power players in the world. They are "bosses" to employees around the world and, through their contracting decisions, have far more power than their nominal employment numbers would indicate.
Sadly-- and this is by a company that's trying to improve conditions -- the treatment of workers in many of Nike's factories are terrible:
The company said it audited hundreds of factories in 2003 and 2004 and found cases of "abusive treatment", physical and verbal, in more than a quarter of its south Asian plants.Look at that last line-- these factories aren't even meeting the low legal wage requirements of their own countries.
Between 25% and 50% of the factories in the region restrict access to toilets and drinking water during the workday.
The same percentage deny workers at least one day off in seven.
In more than half of Nike's factories, the report said, employees worked more than 60 hours a week. In up to 25%, workers refusing to do overtime were punished.
Wages were also below the legal minimum at up to 25% of factories.
But the fact that Nike is even documenting the problems is the result of global organizing to hold the company accountable and is the first step to holding all multinational corporations accountable for the treatment of workers in their subcontractors around the world.
So despite some of the bad news in the report, the existence of the report is itself a reason to cheer.
See the debate between Liza Featherstone Contributing Editor, The Nation and Jonathan Tasini, President, Economic Future Group vs. Ben Edwards, American Business Editor, The Economist and Steven Malanga, Senior Fellow, The Manhattan Institute.
"Carnivals" are a kind of quasi-group blog that migrates from site to site among its participants. A new one, the Carnival of the UnCapitalists has its second round up. The first round was posted here for those who missed it.
You'd think post-Enron and post-WorldCom, corporate American would be toning down the excessive pay for its CEOs, but sadly the executive payoffs continues to gush at an obscene rate, as the newest update of the AFL-CIO Executive Paywatch shows.
While there has been some retreat from the insane paper wealth handed out during the dotcom days, average CEO pay is still insane compared to the pay of the average worker; CEOs today average an income of 300 times what the average hourly worker makes:
What's remarkable is how recent a phenomena is this elevated income of CEOs. Inequality is hardly new in America, but for most of the 20th century, the average income of the superrich was relatively constant, the richest 1% of the population averaging between $300,000 to $400,000 per year in income. As the chart below shows (source here), it was only in the 1980s that there was a significant departure from that pattern. The income of the superrich has exploded even as the income of the rest of the population has largely stagnated over the last few decades.
(Reprinted From Confined Space)
You have friends who think they have their finger on the pulse of the American people? Wh think that Dems and labor are totally out of touch with real workers?
Ask them to guess which issue, above all others, the American people think Congress should be more active and directly involved, according to the latest Wall St. Journal-NBC News Poll (Question 10)?
Maybe "Issues of family illness and health, such as the Terri Schiavo case?" Nope. In fact that came in LAST, with only 22% thinking Congress should be more involved.
Or maybe the issue upon which the last election was allegedly decided -- Gay Marriage? Oooh, better luck next time -- a pathetic 34% think Congress should be more involved in Gay Marriage issues.
So what's the answer? What's the most important issue that Americans think Congress should be involved in? "Rules in the workplace that deal with health and safety issues," ringing in at 84%.
And following closely behind were "Environmental laws that involve restricting development to protect endangered species" at 80% and "Discrimination and affirmative action" at 76%.
You don't recall workplace safety, the environment or affirmative action being major issues in the last election? (Only in some peoples' fantasies) You don't recall workplace health and safety being pushed by any AFL-CIO presidents in current debates as an issue crucial to reviving the labor movement?
I can think of a few good questions for the next poll, if any of you have any friends or spouses who do polling. For example:
a) $70,000 (the current OSHA penalty for a "willful" violation
b) $1 million
c) $1 million and a 10-year jail term
d) $3,000 if they promise not to do it again.
What does this say about the issues that need to be stressed during elections? What does this say about politicians who try to portray themselves as Republican "lite?" And although it wasn't the main point of the poll, what does this say about good issues for unions to organize around?
Wal-Mart seems to have been caught illegally spying on unions and possibily paying off selective workers with bribes not to unionize. Having designated its former number two executive, Thomas Coughlin, as the fall guy, we will see what comes out of the criminal investigation. Since this will give both the government and civil litigants a solid reason to examine the company's whole anti-union campaign budget, who knows what may be revealed?
Back in the 1930s, some of the most explosive public relations disasters for industry were the revelations of anti-union spying by companies. When the public saw companies turn their workplaces into a fascimile of a totalitarian state -- with spies, informants and punishment for any hint of dissent -- the anti-company backlash was profound. Which is no doubt why Wal-Mart is panicked enough to dump its old number two guy Couglin overboard in a desperate attempt to minimize the public relations meltdown it may be facing.
(Reprinted From Confined Space)
There are two specters haunting environmental activism today: the growing power and control of polluting corporations, and the often irrational fears generated by 9/11. Together, these forces generate a force that threatens many of the gains made over the past 35 years. Willie Fontenot, who some call the "grandfather of Louisiana environmentalism," may have been a victim of both. Fontenot was forced to retire this week as "community liaison officer" for the state Attorney General’s office, a job he had held for the past 27 years.
Life in Louisiana’s cancer ally has never been easy. Living in the shadow of chemical plants spewing cancer-causing chemicals, citizens have a difficult time gathering information on what they’re exposed to and what they can do about it. Fontenot’s job for almost three decades was to help them find the information they needed, learn about Louisiana’s environmental laws, and to file complaints with public officials.
In addition, Fontenot helped found and support numerous Louisiana non-profit environmental organizations:
He assisted in the formation of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, the state's largest environmental organization, which today represents more than 70 separate environmental groups, many assisted in their formation by Fontenot.Part of his job is showing reporters and school groups around the area, explaining the problems and introducing them to activists and people affected by the chemical industry.
He also helped form RESTORE and the Calcasieu League for Environmental Action Now, two major environmental organizations in the Lake Charles area, and the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation in New Orleans.
He believes his firing was precipitated by an incident that happened while he was accompanying one of those groups — 15 college students from New England — on a tour of a Baton Rouge neighborhood being bought out by the ExxonMobil refinery. The group was stopped and questioned by law enforcement concerned about homeland security after taking pictures of the plant.Fontenot said he was given a choice of retiring or facing a disciplinary hearing that would end in his firing. Fontenot, 62, is not in good health. He’s legally blind, suffered a mild stroke last year, and is being treated fro prostate cancer. Facing the loss of his pension and health insurance if he was fired, he chose to retire.
The students from Antioch New England Graduate School in New Hampshire were touring the state to learn about environmental racism, and the photographs were required for their class, said Abigail Abrash Walton, a professor who led the trip.
Walton said the group met Mayor Kip Holden, then drove around looking at industrial plants in the area. When directly across from one facility, the students began taking photos.
"Two or three minutes later, two security vehicles showed up," Walton said, and off-duty Baton Rouge police and East Baton Rouge sheriff's deputies pulled the van over and demanded the licenses of those inside.
Fontenot was asked to collect the student's driver's licenses; he refused, saying he wasn't leading the trip.
The security officers then contacted the attorney general's office by phone, Fontenot said. He was told later that a complaint was filed by the Sheriff's Office with the attorney general's office about his refusal to cooperate.
The state says the Fontenot didn't let them know where he was going or what he was doing that day. Fontenot, a survivor of 27 years in hostile territory, says he followed all of the rules. The state says Fontenot had already decided to retire. Fontenot says that’s not true.
The fundamental underpinning of much of the environmental law passed over the past thirty years has been the involvement of the communities affected by environmental pollution. A number of federal and state environmental laws have forced companies to reveal the substances they use, what they release into the air and the potential consequences of catastrophic accidents for surrounding communities.
In the wake of 9/11, all of those rights – strenuously opposed by the chemical industry since their introduction -- are under attack. Federal and state governments, without much consultation with Congress or affected citizens, are erecting higher barriers to access to chemical exposure information.
As we’re seeing from Fontenot’s fate, it's not just our laws, but also citizens and government officials may fall victim to these attacks if they continue to insist on the right of the public to know what their exposed to. Of course, as we've seen from recent events in Texas City, Texas, and Graniteville, South Carolina, we probably have more to fear from ourselves than any outsiders who would deliberately do us harm. And our strongest weapons -- an informed citizenry and activists and government officials free to do their jobs -- are under attack.
Yale graduate student workers have shrugged off the NLRB's ruling that they are not protected by labor law and continue to organize, threatening a strike if the university does not improve conditions.
As this article details, even without legal recognition, collective organizing by grad students has improved conditions on campus.
Yale University has pledged to improve labor relations with the rest of its workforce, but if it wants to end its reputation as one of the most strike-prone institutions in the country, law or no law, it will have to sign a union contract to with the grad student workers.
After a bruising jurisdictional fight with AFSCME, child care workers in Illinois have voted to join SEIU by a vote of 82%.
This is part of an SEIU effort to organize 500,000 child care workers nationwide. Like home health care workers who SEIU, along with a few other unions, have been able to organize in recent years, child care workers are usually not direct government employees but often depend on government money for much of their income.
This creates complex representation challenges of who is their "real" employer, especially for some who are independent contractors or run their own center. This problem was solved in Illinois when the Governor signed an executive order officially allowing these workers to collectively bargain directly with the state government without becoming public employees.
At least for now.
Bowing to attacks by police and firefighters attacking his plan to privatize the state's pulbic employee pension system, Arnold threw in the towel at least until next year. We'll see if this is a real backing down, or whether he's just figuring out how to buy off a few opponents in a new assault next year. But in any case, it's a victory for worker pension power.
Under bills passed by the Maryland House and now state Senate, companies in the state with more than 10,000 employees in the state to spend at least 8 percent of their payroll on health benefits -- or put the money directly into the state's health program for the poor. Read this to mean Wal-Mart, since it is the only large company in the state that doesn't already provide that level of health care spending for employees.
This is a statewide variant on bills in Chicago and Montana which target Wal-Mart for its lack of health care. Maryland's bill appears moving towards passage, although its Republican governor has threatened to veto it.
Both US and Central American labor activists are escalating their opposition to the CAFTA trade deal -- formally known as the U.S.-Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement.
As the Daily Labor Report details (see full article below), activists highlight that NAFTA -- with similarly weak labor provisions as CAFTA - has failed to protect labor rights and the use of trade deals to undermine wage standards. In fact, CAFTA would be a step backward from present law which requires Central American companies to take " steps to afford internationally recognized worker rights" and would eliminate the enforcement tools presently available to labor activists.
On top of the bad labor provisions, health advocates criticize CAFTA's intellectual property provisions for threatening to restrict the availability of cheap generic AIDS drugs in the country. A good example is Guatemala:
Late last year in Guatemala, AIDS activists scored a big victory when a new law was passed that further opened the country's market to generic drugs. But the U.S. Embassy and Trade Representative put stern and open pressure on the government to change the law, saying it contradicted the already negotiated CAFTA. In March, weeks before ratifying the free trade accord, the government changed the law to bring it in line with CAFTA."Free trade" is not about freedom but about the United States overriding the democratic decisions of small countries and using the leverage of trade to lower wage standards and weaken health standards in other countries.
Trade: AFL-CIO ISSUES NEW REPORT CRITICAL OF CAFTA LABOR PROVISIONS April 5, 2005
By Rossella Brevetti
The AFL-CIO April 4 released a new report blasting the labor provisions of the U.S.-Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement and characterizing them as a step backwards from current unilateral trade preference programs.
The report comes just one day before Central American and Dominican Republic labor officials are scheduled to officially endorse a series of recommendations aimed at enhancing the implementation of labor laws in the region.
In addition to the United States and the Dominican Republic, the CAFTA countries are Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Costa Rica. CAFTA contains an "enforce your own laws" labor standard which has drawn strong criticism from House Democrats (see related report, this issue).
The report, The Real Record on Workers' Rights in Central America, likens CAFTA to the North American Free Trade Agreement which the AFL-CIO said also failed to include strong protections for workers' rights. "As a result, 11 years after the agreement was implemented in 1994, trade and investment among the NAFTA countries has increased, but workers have not benefitted. In the United States, nearly a million jobs have been lost to the booming trade deficit with Canada and Mexico. In Mexico, basic workers' rights continue to be denied, real wages have fallen and poverty is on the rise," the report said.
CAFTA, the report said, fails to protect the fundamental rights recognized by the International Labor Organization -- freedom of association and the right to organize and bargain collectively; the right to be free from forced or compulsory labor; the abolition of child labor; and the right to work free from discrimination.
"Workers' rights to form unions of their own choosing and to bargain collectively with their employers are routinely violated in Central America. Central American labor laws fail to protect these rights, and Central American governments refuse to adequately enforce those protections that do exist," the report charged.
Not only does CAFTA allow such violations to persist, it "backtracks from existing U.S. laws that require Central American governments and employers to respect workers' rights in exchange for unilateral trade preferences," the report said.
Under the Generalized System of Preferences program, countries must be "taking steps to afford internationally recognized worker rights" to qualify for duty-free benefits. Similarly, the Caribbean Basin Initiative program instructs the president to consider "the extent to which the country provides internationally recognized worker rights" when granting benefits under the program which benefits all CAFTA countries. CAFTA would eliminate enforcement tools available under these unilateral programs, the report said.
The report took issue with claims by CAFTA supporters that CAFTA's labor provisions are in line with those of the ground-breaking U.S.-Jordan Free Trade Agreement. While the Jordan FTA allows each of its labor obligations to be brought up under the agreement's dispute settlement mechanism, "CAFTA excludes the vast majority of its labor rights obligations from the accord's dispute resolution and enforcement mechanisms," the report stated.
Problems plaguing the labor laws in Central America include inadequate protections against antiunion discrimination; absence of explicit provisions barring employers from interfering with union activities; obstacles to union registration in some countries; restrictions on the right to organize above the enterprise level; limitations on rights of public employees; and limitations on the right to strike. The ILO, the State Department and various human rights organizations have repeatedly criticized the Central American countries for not remedying these deficiencies, the report said.
The AFL-CIO report called for the rejection of CAFTA. "Without stronger protections for workers' rights, CAFTA will fail to deliver on its promises of job creation and economic development, just as NAFTA has failed. Workers in Central America will continue to face insurmountable obstacles to the exercise of their most basic rights. They will be unable to bargain with their employers for a decent share of the wealth they create and thus remain trapped in poverty," the report concluded.
We will see many conservatives evoking "the spirit" of John Paul II in political arguments in coming weeks and years, so it's worth honoring his memory by reminding people of the complicated combination of social conservatism, opposition to military actions, and commitment to economic justice that was his legacy.
For those committed to labor rights, John Paul II wrote a landmark encyclical, On Human Work in 1981 that laid out tough pro-labor views that conservatives routinely ignored.
John Paul II saw the rights of labor as THE issue for economic justice; "human work is a key, probably the essential key, to the whole social question, if we try to see that question really from the point of view of man's good." John Paul II rejected market relations as delivering justice for workers and emphasized "solidarity" between workers as the critical element that the Church must support:
In order to achieve social justice in the various parts of the world, in the various countries and in the relationships between them, there is a need for ever new movements of solidarity of the workers and with the workers. This solidarity must be present whenever it is called for by the social degrading of the subject of work, by exploitation of the workers and by the growing areas of poverty and even hunger. The church is firmly committed to this cause for she considers it her mission, her service, a proof of her fidelity to Christ, so that she can truly be the "church of the poor."
While John Paul II rejected class conflict in the classic Marxist sense of the term, he actually followed the core judgement that labor was the core engine of economic life and that capital was merely the extraction of that labor and that capital should always be subordinate to labor, including the labor of the poorest workers:
This gigantic and powerful instrument--the whole collection of means of production that in a sense are considered synonymous with "capital"--is the result of work and bears the signs of human labour...Obviously it remains clear that every human being sharing in the production process, even if he or she is only doing the kind of work for which no special training or qualifications are required, is the real efficient subject in this production process, while the whole collection of instruments, no matter how perfect they may be in themselves, are only a mere instrument subordinate to human labour.Instead of class conflict, however, John Paul II saw the solution neither in capitalism nor Soviet-style collectivism, but in a broad social understanding that private property, while a useful social tool at times, is not an inherent right: "the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone."
John Paul II wanted a socialization of property that would not merely transfer control of social resources from the wealthy to an undemocratic political class. Instead, he promoted worker ownership of capital as an ideal to strive for, even if he knew the mechanisms of such ownership were problematic under existing economic systems.
And at its core, his thinking rejected the idea that labor should be treated as property hired by contract, but instead emphasized that labor had inherent rights in the workplace that no employer or state could contravene:
The experience of history teaches that [labor unions] are an indispensable element of social life, especially in modern industrialized societies...They are indeed a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice, for the just rights or working people in accordance with their individual professions...One method used by unions in pursuing the just rights of their members is the strike or work stoppage, as a kind of ultimatum to the competent bodies, especially the employers. This method is recognized by Catholic social teaching as legitimate in the proper conditions and within just limits. In this connection workers should be assured the right to strike, without being subjected to personal penal sanctions for taking part in a strike.While John Paul II emphasized that all should strive for harmony, he was clear that when harmony broke down, the moral should side with workers as the bearers of the cause of justice.
While I don't agree with every emphasis of his words on labor, it is clear that those who speak in his name on one hand, then support the busting of unions the next are hypocrites of the top order.
Eliminating the filibuster of Democrats against judicial nominations has been deemed the "nuclear option" by GOP leaders. Hear's hoping for an atomic meltdown.
There is something inherently repellant about progressives rising to the defense of the filibuster, the tool of racists and segregationists for a century. But even at the pragmatic level, the short-term fear of bad GOP judicial nominations ignores the longer-term losses progressives have suffered from the existence of the filibuster. Which some conservative groups opposing the end of the filibuster understand:
In a setback for supporters of the change, a coalition of conservative groups, including the anti-union National Right to Work Committee, the Gun Owners of America and the anti-abortion National Pro-Life Alliance, has recently broken ranks. All argue that changing the rules to prevent filibustering nominees would lead to the elimination of legislative filibusters, which conservatives have relied on to protect gun rights and abortion restrictions.Without the threat of the filibuster, we would have passed national health care in 1994 -- and a host of other progressive bills.
"Please do not tamper with freedom-loving Americans' Senate filibuster tool, which has served them well many times in the past," Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Committee, wrote in an open letter to Dr. Frist.
The opposition of the anti-union Right to Work Committee is instructive. Repeatedly since the 1960s, major labor law reform has had majority support in both houses of Congress and a President willing to sign a bill to protect labor rights, yet opponents were able to block the bill from being passed into law.
Eliminating the filibuster -- and ending it for judicial nominations will lead quickly to its end in other areas -- would of course open things up to worse rightwing laws that liberals could have blocked.
But the reality is that conservatives have thrived in a political environment where they can block any positive use of government. By frustrating progressive policy, it feeds the argument that ineffective government does not deserve the taxes working families paid. That was the explicit argument of conservatives who blocked health care reform in 1994; they knew that national health care would be so popular that it would lock in support for positive government action for decades more.
The reverse doesn't work for liberals. Blocking conservative action through filibusters has short-term gains, but it feeds the long-term cynicism of voters that government cannot accomplish anything. Which just feeds the meta-argument of conservatives of the dysfunctionality of government and the superiority of leaving decisions to the marketplace.
So here's hoping for the GOP to hit the button.
See the followup post Against the Filibuster (Again)