May 31, 2005

Colorado's Owen: Vetoing Labor Rights

Governor Bill Owen of Colorado, a likely 2008 candidate for the GOP Presidential primary, is staking out his position as an anti-worker standard bearer, vetoing a host of pro-labor legislation.

One of the vetoed bills was a basic right of employees to read what information the company has in its files about the employee -- a measure that would force companies to reveal illegal or discriminatory behavior and, hopefully, deter them from doing it.

Another was a measure to allow workers to collect unemployment insurance when companies lockout union employees during a dispute. Under current law, companies can maneuver the game to force employees to either accept the employer's contract offer or face unemployment - except that because it's a "labor dispute", employees wouldn't qualify for unemployment insurance.

Owens also vetoed a bill that would have made employment discrimination against gays illegal.

From Bush down to the state level, from rightwingers like Owen to "moderates" like Schwartenegger, bashing workers is the theme that unites GOP politics. Progressives should be highlighting this with every GOP official and make this reality as obvious to the public as possible.

Posted by Nathan at 08:22 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 27, 2005

Mass Telecom Strike in Pakistan

Among other things, Bush's "war on terrorism" has been a wonderful distraction from global protests against corporate plundering of public assets. But our "ally" Pakistan, as Charles at Freiheit und Wissen details, is witnessing a mass strike of 60,000 workers protesting the privatization of the state telecommunications firm.

As with the mass uprising in Bolivia, the media considers economic justice for poor people around the world a less important story than which brand of theocracy will get to rule Iraq. But for the rest of us, this is a story that should be getting far more attention.

Posted by Nathan at 01:26 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Grocers to Face Union Busting Antitrust Suit

For folks who remember the southern California grocery chain strike last year, a key to the grocers breaking the strike was a revenue sharing deal between the big chains-- thereby preventing the unions from easily reaching settlement with any of the firms individually.

Sounds a lot like corporate collusion that should be barred by antitrust law, doesn't it? And yesterday, a federal judge allowed a lawsuit by the California Attorney General alleging antitrust violations to move forward.

U.S. District Judge George H. King in Los Angeles wrote in his decision that the mutual-aid deal was "not protected from potential antitrust liability."...

"We are confident we will prevail on the merits," Lockyer said in a statement, adding that this was the first such ruling to hold that a "profit-sharing agreement like the grocers' is not immune from antitrust laws."...

The chains initially refused to disclose the pact's details and sought to have them sealed after Lockyer sued. But King unsealed the documents in February.

They showed that the companies used a formula based on their sales, before and during the dispute, and their regional market shares to figure out what Kroger should pay the others.

Kroger later revealed in securities filings that it paid a combined $148 million to Safeway and Albertsons, and Albertsons said it received $63 million of that. That would have left $85 million for Safeway.

This shows the big money companies are willing to pay each other to support union busting. Hopefully, a strong antitrust judgmenet against the companies will stop this particular employer tactic in other strikes.
Posted by Nathan at 08:02 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

May 26, 2005

GLAAD Stands With Workers

In solidarity with the workers fighting for a new contract at the Westin St Francis in San Francisco, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has moved its Media Awards ceremony to a new venue They have taken this action knowing they may lose money on the decision:

By moving the 2005 Media Awards to a neutral site, we believe we are acting in the best interests of the larger community.

We are pleased to have the wholehearted support of our Board in taking this step, even as we recognize that the decision entails significant financial risks on GLAAD's part. We simply cannot know at this juncture whether we will recover the additional costs involved in mounting the event at the new location, or whether a failure to do so will come at a cost to the programs it has been designated to fund.

We have, instead, elected to act on what we do know–that in this as in all situations, GLAAD must be guided by its foundational commitment to the pursuit of fairness and equality for all. Finally, that must be our bottom line.

Justice and solidarity as "the bottom line."

Now that's a motto more organizations should live by.

Posted by Nathan at 07:53 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

BP To Incompetent Workers: “Nevermind … or Not?

(Reprinted from Confined Space)

"Damn workers are to blame. "

"Oh, no they're not. Sorry."

"No, actually, it is their fault."

I’m so confused.

Last week, BP North America issued an interim report on the March 23 explosion at its Texas City plant that killed 15 workers and injured more than 170, blaming the blast on “surprising and deeply disturbing” mistakes made by plant operators who did not follow proper procedures. Workers were made the scapegoats despite the fact that BP admitted that the unit that blew up had been “recognized as potentially hazardous for this type of service” and that BP had bypassed several opportunities to take it out of service. Furthermore, BP admitted that its faulty hazard reviews had failed to note the danger inherent in placing occupied trailers so close to hazardous units. All of those killed were contractors meeting in the trailers or doing non-essential work nearby..

BP’s press release stated that they were issuing the interim report because “further analysis is not expected to change the root causes or the recommendations made public today.” As a result of the interim findings, several operators and supervisors were fired.

BP’s “blame the worker” strategy came under harsh attack by the Steelworkers union, which represents workers at the plant, as well as the Houston Chronicle which published an article stating that “BP's finding that worker error is the root cause of the fatal blast at its Texas City refinery is at odds with respected industry guidelines for refinery accident investigations.” Even the Chronicle's business reporter attacked the BP report as "corporate scapegoating."

As of this morning, according to the Chronicle, BP had realized that its arguments weren’t flying and made some "adjustments" to its conclusions

BP backed off statements made last week that the root causes of its deadly Texas City refinery explosion were that workers weren't following procedures and supervisors were lax.

While those were indeed critical factors leading to the blast, they were not the deeper causes, as the company had said in releasing its interim report on the accident a week ago, BP spokesman Hugh Depland said.

"We simply used the wrong language to describe the report's findings," he said. "Our fault."

The true causes have not yet been identified, he said.


Last Tuesday, BP Products North America President Ross Pillari said the company was releasing its interim report because he did not expect its ongoing inquiry "to change the root causes of the accident" being made public that day. He went on to describe operational and supervisory failures by workers.

Two days later, Depland reiterated, "The primary root cause was a failure to follow operating procedures and a failure of supervision."

OK, so far, so good. Until this afternoon, when this comes across the wires:
BP Stands Behind Texas City Investigation Report

Wednesday May 25, 3:13 pm ET

HOUSTON, May 25 /PRNewswire-FirstCall/ -- Today's Houston Chronicle incorrectly reported that BP has changed its views of the March 23rd incident interim investigation report. BP stands fully behind its issued report, which has always been identified as an interim report

At that time, we said we did not expect the work that remains to change the findings and recommendations made public last week. The investigation team is now working to identify the deeper, root causes and to gain complete understanding of the exact nature of the hydrocarbon release. This is consistent with our statement last week that the May 17 report was an interim report and that there would be additional findings.
OK, so last week, they stated that they did not expect remaining work to change the findings.…which is consistent with their statement that there would be additional findings. That certainly clears things up.

Oh, and BP also wants to make clear that “In speaking about the report, we have sometimes described the immediate critical factors as root causes. This has caused some confusion, for which we apologize.”

That’s not all we’re confused about (nor are we the only ones confused.)

Posted by Jordan Barab at 07:27 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Congressional Crazyness: Fighting Terrorism By Dying In The Workplace

(Reprinted from Confined Space)

Terrorism has been used as an excuse for a lot of crazy things like limiting civil liberties and even re electing George W. Bush. Now, according to some people in Cloud Cuckooland Congress, it's also an excuse for letting workers die.

One of our favorite Congressmen, Charlie Norwood (R-GA), Chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, held a hearing last week on voluntary safety programs and contracting out OSHA third-party safety and health audits, where, instead of OSHA inspections, employers could hire third party auditors to inspect their workplace. (After all, it worked so well with Arthur Anderson and Enron, why not try it in every workplace?)

The "highlight" of the hearing was a statement by Congressman John Kline (R-MN), according to a BNA report. Referring to AFL-CIO figures that it would take OSHA 108 years to inspect every worksite under its jurisdiction, Kline said that OSHA does not have the resources. He noted that in light of expanding the nation's defenses against terrorism, the notion of enlarging OSHA to police more worksites is "just not reasonable at this time."

Reasonable? Let's see, in 2003 5,559 workers were killed in workplace "accidents" (not to mention the 50,000 - 60,000 workers who die each year of occupational disease). That means that more people die on the job in this country last year than were killed on 9/11, in Afghanistan and in Iraq put together. OSHA's budget request this year is somewhere between $400 and $500 million, while we're spending around $5 billion a month in Iraq.

Sounds pretty damn reasonable to me to spend a few more bucks to hire more OSHA inspectors.

Let's be clear. We're talking about spending tax dollars to save lives here, not to extend a highway in Kansas or build a new library in Toledo. But according to Congressman Kline and his cronies, it's more important to push through tax cuts for the wealthy and eliminate the inheritance tax for the super wealthy than it is to spend a few more dollars to save the lives of American workers. War on terrorism and all that, you know.

Ezra Klein points out an article in the American Prospect by Geoffrey Nunberg that criticizes Democratic politicians for not actively defending necessary government programs:

Republicans will try to pin a big-government label on the Democrats, but the appropriate response to that is not to apologize for government, as some liberals have recently done, but rather to call the Republicans’ bluff. Kerry just once might have responded to Bush’s charge that he was a big-government liberal not just by denying that his health-care plan was a government takeover but by bearding Bush on his government-bashing. “Just which government programs are too big?” he might have said. “What should we do away with? Social Security? Medicare? The Food and Drug Administration? The Securities and Exchange Commission? The Environmental Protection Agency?”

We should make all these guys work in an unprotected 15-foot deep trench for a week

Posted by Jordan Barab at 07:13 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 24, 2005

Online Congressional Hearing on Airline Pension Debacle

Here's a great idea from the Democrats in Congress-- hold hearings that invite testimony online.

Democrats on the House Education and the Workforce Committee are looking into the United Airlines pension plan bailour and giving workers a chance to speak out:

“Because United is using the bankruptcy courts and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation to back out of its pension agreements, United employees and retirees are being tossed into retirement without a parachute,” said Schakowsky, who represents thousands of United flight attendants and machinists in her district. “The goal of this online hearing is to provide a voice to those who will otherwise not have a chance to be heard in the Congress under the current Republican leadership."
This online hearings approach is an endrun around the GOP leadership which refuses to hold official hearings on most key issues.
Posted by Nathan at 12:18 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 20, 2005

State Policy Watch

Good news from Illinois for day laborers:

Day laborers in Illinois have greater protections thanks to the passage of a reform bill.

Governor Rod Blagojevich Thursday promised to sign the Day Labor Services Act.

It will require agencies to give workers detailed employment and wage notices.

The Act also protects temporary workers' paychecks from unreasonable deductions for meals and equipment, and prohibits agencies from charging workers fees for transportation between the agency and job sites.

Less good news in Maryland:
Gov. Robert Ehrlich on Thursday vetoed a bill that would force Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to spend at least 8 percent of its payroll on health benefits or pay the difference to a Maryland fund...

The Fair Share Health Care Act, which was approved by lawmakers in April, would require Wal-Mart to spend at least 8 percent of its payroll on health care benefits or pay more into the state Medicaid fund.

The bill would apply to all companies with more than 10,000 employees. Only one Wal-Mart in Maryland meets that criteria. It also would force nonprofit organizations of the same size to spend at least 6 percent of their payroll. Only Johns Hopkins University is large enough to qualify, and the institution already spends more than the required amount.

Eduardo Castro-Wright, chief operating officer of Wal-Mart stores USA division, stood at the Republican governor's side as he signed the official veto.

The big issue is whether there are votes in the Maryland legislature to override the veto.
Posted by Nathan at 06:52 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 19, 2005

Montana Labor Movement Politics

I'm recommending this piece by Matt Singer on splits within the Montana AFL-CIO.

It's worth reading just because it's the kind of analysis of the complexities of labor politics that's rarely done -- and given Montana's strong labor history and its more recent revival of Democratic fortunes, labor's role in that state could be even more interesting.

What's worth noting is that Montana reflects the national debate within labor over how and where to organize, but the players are very different. In Montana, the dominant union is the teachers union, which today enrolls about half of all union members in the state, a sign of the rise of government employees relative to the decline in mining and other industrial unions in the state. And many of the industrial unions are playing the role of critics of the teacher-dominated labor establishment, some leaders already bolting to form a new Progressive Labor Caucus and others threatening to bolt.

And I will say, for all the media likes to portray an image of undemocratic unions, these kinds of story make clear that politics in the union movement is actually far more rambunctious than most other areas of politics.

Posted by Nathan at 11:18 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

May 18, 2005

"Employers Fight Back"

Management Law Firm Tells the Real Story on "Class Action Fairness" Law

Now that the Bush administration attack on class actions is law, the business class is promoting, as in this document from the management firm Jackson Lewis, the anti-worker benefits for employers of the law:

While the Act is aimed primarily at products liability and mass tort cases, it also may significantly impact employment-related class actions such as discrimination and wage and hour cases...In the past, plaintiffs generally have been more successful with class actions in state court than in federal court because state class action rules tend to be easier to satisfy than the federal rules.
In particular, workers suffering minimum wage and overtime violations are likely to suffer, since class action rules are often dramatically different under state laws versus the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA):
In federal court, class members in a collective action under the FLSA must "opt-in" to be included in the case. In state court, class members are automatically included in the action if the case is certified by the court as a class action, unless they affirmatively "opt-out" of the class. The different federal and state procedures greatly affect the size of the class, which has caused most plaintiff attorneys to pursue class actions in state court.

Under the Act, state overtime class actions may now be removed to federal court provided the cases meet the expanded federal jurisdiction. In such cases, employers may begin to benefit from the more stringent federal class action rules.

This was a typical bait-and-switch by the rightwing. Talk about abusive tort cases and use it to quietly attack the rights of poor workers suffering minimum wage and overtime violations. But now that it's the law, the employer class can gleefully celebrate their new legal toy.
Posted by Nathan at 08:36 AM | TrackBack

May 17, 2005

Dissident Unions Lay Out Agenda

SEIU, the Teamsters, UNITE-HERE and the Laborers released their joint vision for the labor movement-- with the UFCW and the Carpenters considering signing on in the coming weeks.

It's not very different from what SEIU has been promoting or what the old "New Unity Partnership" was discussing last year (not surprisingly since it's mostly the same players), but it's significant that these unions have signed onto the details:

  • Spending half the AFL-CIO's budget for helping individual unions organize;
  • Promoting consolidation of unions;
  • Supporting campaigns against Wal-Mart and other targets too large for any single union to organize.

    To understand the most fundamental disagreement between the existing unions supporting John Sweeney and the dissident unions, read this section:

    As the recent election shows, even our maximum political efforts fall short for the simple reason that we are too small. We believe that our movement can and must organize and grow on a mass scale today, because that is the only way to bring true change in the direction of our nation.

    We are confident that American labor’s resources are sufficient — if properly aligned and leveraged — to serve as the economic and organizational foundation for a new movement to successfully organizing the millions of workers who hold out hope for the American Dream. And we are certain that if we do not act quickly and decisively, our strengths will be squandered and it will be decades before they are recovered.

    Pay attention to that italicized word "today", which was emphasized in the original. Some unions argue that they need to achieve political change in the national government to create the environment necessary for broad growth of the labor movement.

    What SEIU et al are stating is that unions have all the power they need to expand if they act strategically.

    This is a fundamental disagreement with unions who believe that focusing on politics should be the focus for joint union action.

    Of course, both sides believe in both organizing and political work, but this difference is more than a matter of emphasis; it is a fundamental difference in evaluation of the strategic situation the labor movement faces. The political and legal environment for unions is harsh in the United States today, yet the new union alliance argues that labor can succeed nonetheless without additional political changes, that in fact political change will only happen if labor first succeeds in organizing new workers.

    So that's the real divide today in labor-- this confidence that organizing, if properly supported, can succeed today without fundamental political change versus the belief that labor needs to focus on politics as a precondition for labor success.

    Posted by Nathan at 08:06 AM | Comments (7) | TrackBack
  • May 16, 2005

    Nuclear Power, National Security & Labor Rights

    With the supposed new enthusiasm for nuclear power among some enviros (but not a lot of them), I'm still a bit skeptical since the industry refuses to operate without the government agreeing to subsidize the costs of any meltdown.

    On top of that, every nuclear power plant is a ripe target for terrorism, yet the nuclear industry has a record of hiring substandard security firms, namely Wackenhut, to provide security. Wackenhut's idea of protecting our nation is to hire low-wage, poorly-trained employees, a practice that pads their profits but endangers our security. SEIU has a whole website, Eye on Wackenhut, which details the ways the company's anti-worker policies endanger our security. Some choice bits:

    Wackenhut provides security at 30 nuclear power stations in the United States...Both the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy have uncovered problems with Wackenhut’s security practices at a number of facilities, including the Department’s headquarters office buildings, nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons and related facilities...

    Wackenhut has forced security officers to work excessive hours: six and seven straight days of 12-hour shifts.

    Some Wackenhut officers in the U.S. who have raised questions about security vulnerabilities in nuclear power plants have faced discipline, suspension and even termination.

    Security officers must be provided with high quality training to enable them to protect our nation's most sensitive facilities. Yet it was revealed that Wackenhut cut back on training exercises recommended by U.S. Government nuclear regulatory agencies.

    And this is a company that has a documented history of security abuses and fraud in performing its work, yet it's still hired by the nuclear power industry to provide security.

    If this is the security standard now, imagine how bad it would get if the nuclear industry suddenly moved into "go go" expansion mode?

    In theory, nuclear sounds like an attractive potential option for energy security, but in its actually existing form, the industry is too much of a basket case, preferring to hire union busting low wage outfits like Wachenhut rather than provide real security for our nation. So for now, I pass.

    Posted by Nathan at 08:02 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    May 15, 2005

    Intellectual Bankruptcy of NY Times on Class

    It's one thing to be intellectually simplistic in an off-hand statement of a larger news article. But when the New York Times sets out on a multi-week series on "class" in America, it is shocking to see the authors writing so stupidly about the issue.

    What they are writing about is economic opportunity, whether children can make more money than their parents. Fair enough, but that's only one part of the issues at stake in discussions of the concept of "class" historically. All they really discuss are gradations of status, not class, which is not just about individual success but about the broader operations of the economy.

    To be sophisticated neoliberals, the authors make the obligatory idiotic mistatement of what Karl Marx said on the subject:

    When societies were simpler, the class landscape was easier to read. Marx divided 19th-century societies into just two classes; Max Weber added a few more.
    In fact, Marx described society as riven by multiple classes inherited from the feudal age-- landowners, peasants, large business owners, petit-bourgoisie, guild workers, unskilled workers, the criminal class, and so on.

    What Marx argued was that the nature of capitalism was encouraging a flattening of class distinctions, where the vast numbers of the population would increasingly make their income through wage labor, while a very small number would own enough capital to earn most of their income through returns on their wealth. This is an issue not of a continuum of status and income but of asking whether a person's income comes from working for other people or whether a person contols other peoples' labor. Class in this conception is a process effecting the whole economy, not a description of individual status.

    Nothing in Marx's idea of class was incompatible with some degree of economic mobility, at least for a tiny segment of the population. In fact, many of the emerging capitalist class of Marx's day were nouveau-rich, displacing the old feudal lords who had previously dominated society.

    The New York Times , because of their obsession with individual status, ignore these structural issues of class and the economy. But if they did pay attention, it would be obvious that Marx's prediction of a flattening of class towards a division between a small handful of owners versus wage earners is more true today than in Marx's day. Many of the small capitalists of yesteryear, running small shops in towns across the country, have been replaced by Wal-Mart managers working on salary, while a much tinier group of people control the capital that decides whether other people are employed or not in those big corporations.

    There are interesting classic issues of class to analyze in the modern economy, say the status of the owners of subcontractors, companies totally dependent on big corporations but officially operating as separate firms. This is a pervasive phenomenon but does not override the increasing domination of the economy by larger and larger companies that straddle the globe, even as more and more workers around the world share a common position as workers for those global corporations.

    Given the complexity of society, it's actually an easy intellectual exercise to catalog the differences between people -- the apparent program of the New York Times authors in coming weeks -- but the harder exercise is to understand commonalities that transcend those surface differences. The interests of the elite are in emphasizing those differences to keep workers divided against each other economically and politically.

    We'll see how the series proceeds, but it's a pretty inauspicious start intellectually.

    Posted by Nathan at 08:58 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

    May 12, 2005

    Wal-Mart: Victim of Fascist Oppression?

    Flagstaff, Arizona has a ballot initiative to restrict the entry of "big box" retailers into the city, with provisions that especially target Wal-Mart's ability to sell groceries in its supercenters.

    However you feel about Wal-Mart, most people might think this is a basic issue of land use choices, some thinking them foolish, other vitally necessary, but only corporate propagandists like Wal-Mart would compare it to a Nazi book burning:

    The newspaper ads contend that Proposition 100's restrictions on big-box retailers are an infringement of constitutional freedoms. The message has been conveyed through a blurred photo of a Nazi book-burning taken from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum archives and a close-up of a person's mouth covered with tape.
    This is more than an abusive media attack ad; it's part and parcel of the rightwing corporate attempt to rollback constitutional law to the early 20th century when basic labor protections were struck down as unconstitutional by the courts.

    So what were the corporate "constitutional rights" protected back then? How about child labor (to match image for image):

    When corporations talk about "constitutional rights", remember that property rights to slavery and child labor are their precedents.

    Posted by Nathan at 08:09 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

    Even Conservatives Disgusted by United Corporate Bailout

    Balloon Juice, a conservative, writes about the taxpayer ripoff involved in the United Airlines pension bailout, and emphasized the likely domino effect as other airlines are forced to slash their pensions in response:

    The other major airlines will be charged higher premiums to make up for the slack created by the PBGC assuming United's debt, and they in turn will then be 'forced' to apply for protection and will walk away from their pension plans, shouldering the PBGC with even more payments and debt.
    He doesn't discuss the Bush administration's encouragement of these bankruptcies as part of its union-busting campaign against the airline unions, but it does reflect that even conservatives can admit the hypocrisies involved in "free market" ideology, when private shareholders keep the profits in flush times and taxpayers get stuck with the bills when they fail.

    "Personal responsibility" is only for small fry nailed to the wall by credit card companies under the new bankruptcy law; big-time shareholders get to just walk away from their debts such as pension obligations during corporate bankruptcy proceedings.

    Posted by Nathan at 12:23 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

    Cambodia & a Progressive Trade Policy

    With even moderate Democrats opposing the CAFTA trade deal for Central America, Bush's trade policy is in tatters. "Free trade"-- meaning trade with any country, no matter how exploited their workforce or how bad their labor laws -- is on the run.

    So what is the alternative?

    Not across-the-board protectionism, which would deny all workers in the developing world needed jobs and a chance for economic development.

    The best approach is conditioning trade on countries meeting basic international labor standards. Cambodia is the poster-child for a country that has moved from the most horrific labor conditions possible under the Khmer Rouge to being a model of labor conditions, largely due to economic incentives offered by the US and the international community to achieve that result. And the broad anti-sweatshop movement has encouraged many garment companies to buy goods from Cambodia, despite potentially cheaper labor in China, because those companies know that Cambodian labor is less likely to be tainted by illegal labor abuses:

    A majority of Cambodia's factories have retained the loyalty of major retailers around the world by appealing not just to their need for low-cost production but also to their desire to avoid the stigma of exploiting poor laborers in distant sweatshops.

    Cambodia, while still a very cheap place to produce apparel, has chosen to rely on outside inspectors and to foster unusually strong garment unions that have become an independent political force in a country otherwise awash in corruption and cronyism. The efforts at improvement here may point the way for other nations seeking to avoid a race to the bottom as they struggle to establish or sustain footholds in the global economy.

    Cham Prasith, the Cambodian minister of commerce who reached the deal with Washington in 1999, said the benefits had gone beyond anyone's expectations.

    "We are extending our labor standards beyond the end of the quotas because we know that is why we continue to have buyers," he said in an interview. "If we didn't respect the unions and the labor standards, we would be killing the goose that lays the golden eggs."

    Now, the specific deal with Cambodia could be extended country by country, but a better approach is to build such labor standards directly into all international trade deals.

    Essentially, if a country meets minimum international standards of protecting the freedom of workers to form labor unions, they would have unfettered rights to trade with other countries. But countries that abused those labor rights would forfeit those trade privileges and be subject to trade sanctions by any other country.

    Posted by Nathan at 08:51 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    An Open Letter To AFL-CIO President John Sweeney On The Elimination of The AFL-CIO Safety and Health Department

    (Reprinted from Confined Space)

    As I reported last week, the AFL-CIO has announced the elimination of its safety and health department, the layoff of half of its professional staff, with the rest being folded into the new Government Affairs department.

    Now, I’m just a guy with a blog, but I’m also a proud member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981, so I thought AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and UAW President Ron Gettelfinger should know how I feel. I don’t know how many of you who are union members are communicating your feelings to your union leadership, but it probably wouldn’t hurt for them to hear the opinions of a few (thousand) of you. Feel free to plagiarize my letter or anything else you find in Confined Space, but for those of you outside of Washington who are facing real health and safety struggles, your own stories are probably most effective. (Also, I tend to run on a bit; if you're inclined to write, feel free to be shorter.)

    John Sweeney President AFL-CIO 815 16th St. N.W. Washington D.C. 20006

    Dear President Sweeney:

    I am a member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981. I have worked for the past 22 years in occupational safety and health – 16 of which were spent running AFSCME's health and safety program, as well as two years as a consultant and temporary employee in the AFL-CIO Safety and Health Department. I have also spent five years in government, including three as OSHA’s national labor liaison during the Clinton Administration. In my spare time, I write a weblog devoted primarily to workplace safety and labor issues. (Confined Space:, if you’re interested.)

    I was very disappointed to hear about the elimination of the AFL-CIO's Safety and Health Department last week, coming just a month after the tragedy at the BP Amoco refinery in Texas City, Texas that killed 15 workers, and only a week after Workers Memorial Day.

    I am not writing to ask you to reinstate the AFL-CIO’s Department of Occupational Health and Safety and its full staff. Given the serious problems facing the labor movement today, I am writing to request that you reinstate and expand the department.

    First, I completely agree that the first priority of the labor movement must be organizing. In fact, health and safety issues are major reasons that workers join unions. As you have said, one of the biggest challenges facing the labor movement today is making unions relevant to workers -- both to activate current members and, most important, to organize new members who are looking for some good, concrete reasons why they'll be better off if they organize a union and pay dues.

    Working conditions, and workplace health and safety concerns can play an important role in almost every organizing campaign and can play a prominent role in political mobilization as well. There is little doubt (and numerous polls have confirmed this) that working conditions – particularly safety and health conditions – are an area of high concern for American workers and one that they look to labor unions to protect. For many members, union resources that are used to train rank and file activists in how to investigate and organize around health and safety issues is a service well worth paying some dues money for. A larger safety and health department could assist affiliates to develop strategic organizing programs focusing on health and safety issues.

    Unfortunately, folding what’s left of the safety and health department into Government Affairs leaves the impression that health and safety is just about lobbying Congress, writing testimony and commenting on regulations. While these are certainly important functions for the AFL-CIO (as shown most recently by the current activities around asbestos compensation legislation), they are far from the only function of the AFL-CIO’s safety and health department.

    Perhaps the most important function of health and safety departments – either at the AFL-CIO or at the affiliates – is to provide the knowledge, tools and organization that workers can use to defend their rights, their health and their lives when they go to work every day. This support takes a variety of forms that are crucial to maintaining and expanding union membership. The ability to translate local health and safety issues into a larger political context is also important in political mobilization.

    It is well known fact that workers are the proverbial canaries in the coal mines: Almost every major workplace health problem was initially discovered by workers (by their illness and death) and their unions, and then brought to the researchers and government regulators. Again, the AFL-CIO has played a crucial role in this process – and more than ever needs the resources to continue to play that role in the future.

    I write every day about the health and safety of American workers, how they get hurt, how they die, and what they're doing to fight back. I see them not only dealing with “traditional” workplace safety and health issues (hazardous unregulated chemicals, falls from scaffolding, communicable diseases, trench collapses, amputations, etc.) but they’re also facing growing threats in areas that haven’t been adequately addressed by oversight agencies or by researchers: stress, workplace violence, ergonomics, increased workloads, fewer employees and faster production rates, excessive overtime, short staffing and the exploitation of immigrants.

    The “good news” is that the lack of attention to these issues makes them ripe for mobilizing and organizing workers – if the AFL-CIO puts adequate resources into using these issues for organizing and political mobilization.

    In addition, the AFL-CIO Safety and Health Department has been the only worker organization in the country addressing workers compensation problems from a national angle, identifying trends, developing effective strategies to fight off attacks and communicating important information to affiliates and state federations. The national fight against the cruel mistreatment of injured workers by failing workers compensation systems has now also fallen victim to this reorganization.

    On the national political front, my years at OSHA proved to me that there will never be any movement on a political or regulatory front – even in a Democratic administration -- without constant pressure from labor. Convincing OSHA to issue effective health and safety standards or to enforce the law is no longer a simple process of writing testimony or lobbying Congress or administration officials. To be successful, unions need to organize massive grassroots political action campaigns. It takes coordination from the AFL-CIO and national unions, it involves identifying and organizing the victims of health and safety problems on the local and national level and it takes political action in Washington and in the states. And clearly, this requires adequate staff and resources in Washington to coordinate these activities. Otherwise, how can working people and individual unions working alone be any match for the well funded power of the Chamber of Commerce, NAM, NFIB and other industry associations who have an almost unlimited ability to hire high-priced attorneys, scientists, public relations experts – and legislators. Now, at the time when our members need help the most, we seem to be taking health and safety out of the game, leaving the playing field our enemies.

    Look back at the proud history of the American labor movement and everywhere you look, you'll find workplace safety and health concerns. In fact, there is probably no issue more central to the founding of the labor movement in this country than the issue of safety on the job.The history of the Mineworkers, the Steelworkers, the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers and many other unions is also the story of workplace safety. Karen Silkwood died defending the health and safety of her members. The 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike was sparked by two workplace fatalities. This is not just dead history, but an indication of how health and safety issues can be used to build a new labor movement. What message are we sending to American workers (and the enemies of American workers) if we devalue the importance of the issue upon which the labor movement was founded?

    My great fear is that eliminating the AFL-CIO Department of Health and Safety will send the wrong message -- both to American workers and American corporations. Workers will assume that the labor movement no longer cares about their health and safety on the job while the corporate community will assume that we’ve given up the battle. By eliminating the health and safety department and downsizing its staff, it appears as if unions care more about the health of unions than the health of the workers they represent. Both are clearly important, but workers appear to have gotten the short end of this reorganization.

    As a long-time union activist, I fully understand that our backs are up against the wall, and I applaud the efforts you are making to turn things around. Health and safety issues can play an important role in this effort, but in order to effectively use health and safety issues to build the labor movement, we need not only strategic leadership and coordination from the AFL-CIO and national unions, but also the capacity and resources to plan and implement these campaigns. The small staff of the AFL-CIO’s Department of Safety and Health have done amazing work over the past decades. Now is the time to expand those activities, not cut them back. To do less than this would be a serious disservice both to workers’ health and safety to our hopes for a stronger labor movement, and to the progress our members have fought and died for.

    In solidarity,

    Jordan Barab

    cc: Ron Gettlefinger, President, UAW
    Gerard Colby, President, National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981

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    Posted by Jordan Barab at 07:56 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    May 11, 2005

    Wages Falling

    Corporations Reaping Gains from Growth

    From the Financial Times:

    Inflation rose 3.1 per cent in the year to March but salaries climbed just 2.4 per cent, according to the Employment Cost Index. In the final three months of 2004, real wages fell by 0.9 per cent.

    The last time salaries fell this steeply was at the start of 1991, when real wages declined by 1.1 per cent.

    But the real story is not this fall in wages but the fact that this comes amid continuing productivity growth. Employees are working more efficiently, but they aren't getting the benefit:
    Since 2001 productivity has been rising at an annual average of 4.1 per cent, while compensation growth has averaged just 1.5 per cent, leaving workers with just over a third of the benefit from rising efficiencies.

    In the previous seven business cycles, by contrast, workers reaped about 75 per cent of the benefit of increasing efficiencies. “Businesses have clearly managed to gain the upper hand,” says Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think-tank.

    Read that again.

    Usually, workers get 75% of gains in growth from productivity. But this cycle they are only getting a third, an extreme level of hyperexploitation of their work by employers.

    But what do you expect from a recovery where the Bush administration has helped airlines destroy worker pension systems. It was announced yesterday that United would be allowed to drop its pension obligations, leaving it to taxpayers to pick up the tab -- with the 120,000 United employees seeing a severe drop in pension payments.

    From Day One of his administration, Bush has been leading an assault on workers rights in order to restrict their ability to negotiate for their share of productivity gains. As this data shows, his Presidency has been a success for its corporate backers.

    Posted by Nathan at 07:18 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    May 07, 2005

    Whistleblowers and National Security

    An Appeals Court has given the government the right to cover up inepitude and malfeasance-- and punish any government employee who tries to expose those government failures.

    Sibel Edmonds, an FBI translator complained the agency produced slipshod translations of key terrorism intelligence before and after 911, and was fired for speaking out. How credible is Ms. Edmonds?

    The inspector general of the Justice Department said in January that the F.B.I. had failed to investigate forcefully Ms. Edmonds's accusations of espionage and fired her in large part for raising them.
    And yet the Appeals Court allowed the government to waive the magic wand "state secrets" and bury the lawsuit.

    The danger of the government covering up incompetence is far greater than the danger that national security will be compromised in such lawsuits. Judges can always exclude evidence on a case by case basis, but throwing out the lawsuit altogether is an abomination.

    Our national security became far less because of this decision.

    Posted by Nathan at 07:20 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    May 06, 2005

    States and Employer-Paid Health Care

    The New York Times gives a full analysis to the trend of states requiring employers to cover employee health care costs. They cite a few obvious examples, like the Maryland bill targetting Wal-Mart through a bill requiring large employers to spend 8% of their payroll on employee health care and the barely defeated California initiative to require all large employers in the state to provide health care for employees.

    There is little question that the status quo is economically and socially idiotic. Good employers who provide health care are punished in the marketplace by competitors who don't pay the costs of health care.

    So you can solve the problem in two ways.

    A mandate that each employer cover employee costs makes sense in that it levels the playing field and stops companies from dumping their costs onto public sector hospitals -- forcing them to internalize their externalities in econospeak.

    The other way to level the playing field, of course, would be for the government to guarantee universal health care for everyone. From a global perspective, that would help lift the burden of health care costs from decent companies finding it hard to compete internationally. The announcement that the bond ratings of General Motors and Ford have been reduced to junk bond status is largely based on the health care costs dragging those companies down.

    Which is one reason so-called "pay or play" legislation is attractive-- the idea is that companies either are required to pay for health care for employees or pay into a state-run fund to provide health care for employees. As more and more companies pay into such funds, they would become the core of state-run health care systems that could supplant employer-run health care across the country.

    Something's got to be done. A society where General Motors goes bankrupt because it takes care of its employees and Wal-Mart thrives because it doesn't is not a viable economic model.

    Posted by Nathan at 08:06 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

    May 05, 2005

    Sweeny v. Stern: Is There Still A Reason To Care?

    If you had asked me that question a week ago, I would have answered a most vigorous YES. The more I had seen of Andy Stern, and the more I had heard about his 'vision' for the American labor movement, the less I had come to like it, and while Sweeney was nothing to write home to Mom about, he looked better and better by comparison.

    But after the Sweeney scalpel has cut much of the good that the AFL-CIO does to shreds, destroying the health and safety and international solidarity sections of the federation and decimating much else, and after that scalpel has been left firmly planted in the back of some of labor's best and most loyal advocates, I find myself wondering if I have a horse in this race. If John Sweeney can downsize with the best of the corporate slashers, why should we prefer him to Andy Stern?

    Stern remains completely unpalatable. As I have listened to him these past months, it struck me more and more that the language of business he habitaully uses -- how competition in the American labor movement was healthy, how the current configuration of the AFL-CIO was a 'restraint of trade,' how the AFL-CIO was a 'business model' that didn't work, how the AFL-CIO need to be more like American Southwest and less like US Air -- reflected a vision of the labor movement that marginalizes what has to be at the core of a vibrant labor movement, values of solidarity and democracy. The focus on union density seemed to rely more upon a conception of union as a business that needs to be sized to fit a market than any strategic conception of union power, and his cyncical overtures to the psuedo-union of the Chinese market totalitarian state betrays a complete disregard for elemental principles of solidarity, let alone democratic unionism. As lightly as the term 'business unionism' is often tossed about in parts of the trade union movement, Andy Stern seems to be the genuine article. And until this week, John Sweeney seemed a whole lot better than Stern's AFL-CIO, INC.

    But when Sweeney decided to destroy the AFL-CIO village in order to 'save it' from the Stern forces, one is left asking what is left worth defending. It might even be better for the Stern gang to be in charge, so that they can at least be formally accountable for what they do, than to have their program enacted by Sweeney, so they don't even have to take responsibility for their actions.

    It's a sad day for the American labor movement, and I don't see better days immediately ahead of us.

    Leo Casey

    Posted by Leo Casey at 04:59 PM | Comments (12) | TrackBack

    Georgia: Taxpayers Must Fund Sweatshops

    Georgia last year passed a law prohibiting local governments -- read Atlanta -- from requiring that taxpayer-funded contractor jobs pay a "living wage." Just to make itself clear, the legislature passed and the Governor just signed a law to prohibit those local governments from even giving preference to companies paying a living wage.

    This wins Georgia the 2005 prize for the most anti-worker piece of legislation passed by a state government.

    Posted by Nathan at 05:43 AM | TrackBack

    When Leaving a Job Isn't an Option

    Conservatives often argue that workplace regulations are unneeded, since the threat of employees quitting for a better job is all the protection any worker needs. Employers compete for employees, so wages and work conditions improve through the wonders of the free market.

    Even if we ignore the horrific conditions of sweatshops, this conservative argument ignores the reality that many employers bar employees from working for competing companies. So once you take a job, you lose the leverage to demand better treatment:

    Thirty percent of human resource executives March 2004 said their companies required employees to sign noncompete agreements...
    Now, there is a good argument that employees shouldn't be able to run off with business secrets and company lists, but if employees are going to be restricted in whether they can leave a firm, they need alternative protections of their rights-- namely strong regulation and, ideally, union collective bargaining rights, a point I made in this law review article a few years ago.

    But the basic point is that "the labor market" doesn't function the way libertarian utopians try to picture, which is why strong regulations and unions are needed in the first place.

    Posted by Nathan at 05:21 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

    Union Pensions Must Support Anti-Worker Policies

    Or So Argues the Bush Administration

    The Bush DOL is threatening to take AFL-CIO unions to court for telling financial firms that they could lose union pension business if they support Bush's social security privatization campaign.

    Two firms in the pro-Bush Alliance for Worker Retirement Security, Edward Jones and Waddell & Reed, dropped out of the lobbying group due to the union-led campaign, leading to this attack on union free speech.

    Coming from an administration massively misusing taxpayer money for partisan lobbying, the threat is Orwellian, but it highlights a broader issue-- the general silliness of pension "fiduciary" law which states that worker representatives should only maximize market returns, as if workers have no other interests in use of their money.

    Capital is power in society and the rich corporations use shareholder money every day to lobby for pro-corporate policies that harm the interests of workers. Yet unions are strung up by various rules to try to bar them from mobilizing the capital they control to fight for alternative investment strategies and political results that are important to the broad interests of working families.

    Pensions don't thrive just by maximizing investment returns. Much or most of their income each year comes from new contributions from existing employees through the companies they work at. If political changes undermine union strength, those contributions fall and benefits for existing retirees may be cut back as well -- as has happened with airline workers, for example, who have seen their pensions gutted due to Bush government action.

    And of course, all retirees have an interest in preserving income from social security, but by Bush administration arguments about the state of pension law, union administrators should ignore the interests of those retirees and stay on the political sidelines -- even as corporations use their capital to mobilize to stomp on political rights.

    The problem in politics is not just that those with money get a disproportionately large voice. Even when workers have money to speak, the corporate right seeks to silence them through legal assault.

    Posted by Nathan at 04:52 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    May 04, 2005

    New Dems Against CAFTA

    Heads up from David Sirota that the New Democratic Coalition -- key Dem supporters of the bankruptcy bill -- have come out against the Central American Free Trade Agreement. This is critical since this could mean nearly unanimous Democratic opposition to CAFTA.

    GOP members in districts losing jobs to exports will end up as the swing voters. Given likely defections, Bush probably can't deliver all Republicans for CAFTA, so this may signal not only the end of this trade treaty but the derailment of Bush's whole trade agenda.

    Posted by Nathan at 03:09 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    May 03, 2005

    AFL-CIO Kills Health and Safety Department

    Reprinted from Confined Space

    AFL-CIO staff wore black to work today, and for good reason. Coming only a few days after Workers Memorial Day, 169 positions were eliminated, including half of the four-person Health and Safety Department's professional staff. Deborah Weinstock and Rob McGarrah have been given notice that their positions will no longer be funded, although it is unclear when these changes will take place. What's left of the department will be merged into the newly-created Government Affairs Department. 52 new positions will be created at the federation.

    This is a sad day for workers, for the labor movement and for all those who care about the health, safety and working conditions of American workers. Workers in this country are faced with going to work every day knowing that the government agency mandated to watch over their lives in the workplace is becoming increasingly irrelevant, the tort system (the ability of people to sue corporations that harm them) is under fierce attack, the advocates of reducing compensation for injured workers are winning in state after state, chemicals continue to pour into the workplaces that destroy workers' health with no government agency able to do anything about it, an asbestos compensation bill that promises to ensure that thousands of workers with asbestos disease don't get compensated is moving through the Senate, "new" issues like ergonomics, longer working hours, speed-ups, stress, work organization changes are being ignored -- and the only voice standing up to this mess -- or even recognizing that all is not well for the health and safety of American workers -- is being dismantled by its own family.

    And as I asked before, how can working people and individual unions working alone be any match for the well funded combined power of the Chamber of Commerce, NAM, NFIB and individual industry associations who have the ability to hire high-priced attorneys, scientists – and legislators? Indeed, champagne corks must be popping in corporate suites all across America. The AFL-CIO's Health and Safety Department has been one of the only forces standing between workers' ability to come home safely at the end of ever day and complete corporate domination of workers' lives and health. And now it's gone.

    So much for fighting for the living, and the dead are rolling over in their graves.

    Jonathan Tasani at Working Life has more details about the AFL-CIO restructuring (excerpts below the fold)

    Field Moblization will be merged with the Political Department into a new department called Political Mobilization, with current Political Dept. head Karen Ackerman heading up the merged department; one of her deputies will be Mike Cavanaugh, who was the acting head of the Field Mobilization after Welch removed Marilyn Schneiderman last year. This is the area that took a huge hit. Every permanent position in the Field was defunded, except for a couple of positions working in Capital Strategies. At the management level, all deputy directors for regions were eliminated, as were all the regional coordinators.

    A new region will be created--in the Southwest--to add to the other four regions. Gerry Acosta will head up the new region; Joe Alvarez, who heads up the Northeast region, is headed to a job at headquarters, with Paul Lemon being made acting director for the Northeast.

    In addition, International Affairs will be folded and all the international work moved to the Solidarity Center, which will continue to be headed up by Barbara Shailor. A new department called Government Affairs will scoop up the previous departments of Legislative, Public Policy and Safety and Health. It's not clear to be at this writing what the staffing will be in those two departments but I'll pass it along ASAP. The magazine, American@Work, will be closed and public affairs will be downsized--that department was funded at $6.1 million last year so that number will likely come down some.

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    Posted by Jordan Barab at 08:37 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    Death of a Corporate Criminal

    Ding, dong, the union busting corporation is dead.

    With Verizon taking over MCI, the telecommunications world has been clensed of one of the worst, most destructive companies in American history.

    Back in the 1960s and 1970s, MCI lied and maneuvered through the regulatory agencies and courts to undermine phone regulations that has benefited poor local phone residents. It also became one of the worst union busters in the industry, fighting to use lower wages and working conditions to win out competitively. With its acquisition by WorldCom, MCI went on to become part of one of the largest corporate frauds in history.

    So this is a good day to celebrate.

    Posted by Nathan at 07:36 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    May 02, 2005

    OSHA, Feds Take A Step Toward Real Workplace Penalties

    Yes, this is Jordan territory, but I always welcome co-conspirators. The more the merrier. This is reprinted from Confined Space.

    I have written before that if you expect to die in the workplace, you’ll have more assurance that your killers will receive the appropriate punishment if you take a few fish and crabs with you. That’s because penalties -- monetary and potential jail time -- for violation of environmental laws are far stiffer than penalties for willfully violating the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHAct) -- even when it leads to the death of a worker.

    Writing in the New York Times, David Barstow and Lowell Bergman, authors of the 2003 NY Times/Frontline Pulitzer-winning series on the crimes of the McWane corporation, identify the increased use of laws other than the OSHAct to bring large fines and long jail terms down upon employers who have killed workers.

    This little noticed, but much welcomed policy change of the Bush administration seeks to address the problem of low OSHA penalties even for willful – knowing – violations of the law that result in the death of workers.

    The initiative involves cooperation between OSHA, EPA, the Department of Justice and other agencies:

    The initiative does not entail new legislation or regulation. Instead, it seeks to marshal a spectrum of existing laws that carry considerably stiffer penalties than those governing workplace safety alone. They include environmental laws, criminal statutes more commonly used in racketeering and white collar crime cases, and even some provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley act, a corporate reform law.
    The article notes the large environmental fine against a Delaware, Motiva refinery (that dissolved a worker in sulphuric acid while killing large numbers of fish and crabs.) Confined Space has also noted the large potential clean air act fines and jail sentences against W.R. Grace for exposing workers and the entire community to asbestos, and the Workers Memorial Day article included a short mention of large fines and potential jail sentences for mail fraud in a case where a worker was killed while working construction on a building under contract with the U.S. Postal Service. In that case, a Brooklyn contractor lied to the Postal Service (through the mail) about what it was paying its workers, thereby committing mail fraud which carries a possible 20 year jail term. The longest possible jail sentence for willful violation of an OSHA standard that results in the death of a workeris 6 months.

    The initiative is clearly a response to the pressure generated from the two 2003 New York Times series that noted how the McWane corporation got away with corporate murder for years without any significant penalties, and the second series that focused on OSHA’s historical statutory inability (combined with political reluctance) to prosecute employers who deliberately ignored the law and killed employees. The Times series

    described a bureaucracy in which aggressive enforcement was thwarted at every level. But as the series also demonstrated, OSHA’s reluctance to seek prosecution had also been fed by an assumption inside the agency that federal prosecutors have little interest in cases that have rarely resulted in prison sentences.
    That assumption was correct -- if prosecutors focus exclusively on the OSHAct. In fact, of the 170,000 workplace deaths since 1982, the Times series found that only 16 convictions involving jail time had resulted—although 1,242 cases involving work deaths were determined by OSHA to involve “willful” violations by employers.

    But despite the weaknesses in OSHA’s legislation,

    All federal environmental crimes carry potential prison sentences, including up to 15 years for knowingly endangering workers. And unlike OSHA, the EPA has some 200 criminal investigators with extensive experience building cases for federal prosecutors. In 2001 alone, the agency obtained prison sentences totaling 256 years.
    In addition, the Justice Department has 40 prosecutors in its environmental crimes section, compared to only one who focuses on workplace safety crimes.

    This whole story has a bit of a “man-bites-dog" flavor to it:

    The effort is noteworthy in an administration that has generally resisted efforts to increase penalties for safety and environmental violations It has declined to support such steps as making it a felony for employers to commit willful safety violations that cause a worker’s death. Such violations are currently misdemeanors, punishable by up to six month in jail. Instead, the administration has emphasized a more collaborative approach, offering companies increased technical assistance, for instance, on how to comply with new regulations.
    But despite the success of this program in several cases, the administration has been reluctant to publicize its efforts. It cancelled a press conference to announce the program, demoted it from a “Worker Endangerment Initiative” to a “policy decision,” and neither acting OSHA Assistant Secretary Jonathan Snare, nor DOL’s head attorney, Solicitor Howard Radzeley would speak to the Times about the program.

    For those of who frequent (and write) Confined Space, these developments are welcome and encouraging, but ultimately barely even half a loaf. First, the Administration’s reluctance to publicize the program indicates that they’re rather intimidated by backlash from their corporate friends. One wonders about the longevity of the program if significant corporate resistance develops. One also wonders about how effective the program's deterrent value will be if it's not widely publicized.

    Finally, while I certainly welcome the large fines and jail sentences in the cases mentioned, these will only apply when investigators can identify other laws – environmental, mail fraud, securities, etc – that have been violated. Where does this leave the guys crushed in collapsing trenches or who fall two stories from an unsafe scaffold? OSHA handed down 446 willful citations in Fiscal Year 2004 (compared with 607 in FY 1999). It is unclear how many of those involved the death or serious injury of a worker, but the handful of cases that OSHA is able to prosecute with the assistance of the EPA or Postal Service will mostly likely not apply to more than a small handful of these.

    The only answer here is to pass legislation that strengthens OSHA’s ability to impose large fines and jail sentences even where no environmental or securities law has been violated -– penalties that will actually create some real deterrence for employers who would seek to cut a few corners and save a few bucks on the lives of their employees.

    Congressman Major Owens (D-NY), along with Senators Jon Corzine (D-NJ) and Ted Kennedy (D-MA) have introduced the "Protecting America’s Workers Act of 2005" (S 947) and the "Workplace Wrongful Death Accountability Act", which increase the penalties that OSHA is able to impose. Until this administration – and Congress – get serious about workplace killing by passing these bills, workers in this country will remain dependent on momentum generated by the few reporters like David Barstow and Lowell Bergman who take the time to do the research and describe the tragedies that too many workers still face and that too many employers still get away with.

    Until then, the main message heard by employers may be “Try not to kill your workers, but for God’s sake, protect those fish!”

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    Posted by Jordan Barab at 10:02 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    Break One Law, Break Many

    Normally, this would be Jordan territory, but this article on workplace safety enforcement by the Bush administration is intriguing.

    Here's the odd thing. Apparently, the administration has latched onto a great strategy for holding corporations accountable for lawbreaking but the politicos at the top may not be happy about it.

    First, the idea: What the agencies have realized is that when they find a company has violated a workplace safety crime, it's a good bet that the company is also violating environmental laws with even more serious penalties:

    With little fanfare and some adept bureaucratic maneuvering, a partnership between the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and a select group of Justice Department prosecutors has been forged to identify and single out for prosecution the nation's most flagrant workplace safety seeks to marshal a spectrum of existing laws that carry considerably stiffer penalties than those governing workplace safety alone. They include environmental laws, criminal statutes more commonly used in racketeering and white-collar crime cases, and even some provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, a corporate reform law. The result, those involved say, should be to increase significantly the number of prosecutions brought against dangerous employers, particularly in cases involving death or injury.
    But the Bush Administration is generally unenthusiastic about publicly promoting the initiative:
    in March, a news conference to announce the initiative was canceled. The name of the program was also changed. What was to have been called the Worker Endangerment Initiative is now described as a "policy decision" - not an "initiative" - aimed at achieving "environmental protection in the workplace."

    Neither Jonathan L. Snare, the acting OSHA administrator, nor Howard Radzely, the Labor Department's top lawyer, would agree to be interviewed about it.

    Which is all very interesting. Is this a sign of a policy that is likely to be suppressed or do you have some agency folks who actually want to do a good thing, but are afraid of the administration's corporate allies suppressing it if it becomes too well-known?

    In any case, recognizing that a corporation that violates one law is likely to be a more pervasive scofflaw is a principle that should be more broadly applied.

    Posted by Nathan at 07:37 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack