August 31, 2005

Public Employees: Live Like Slaves, Die Like Dogs, Part V

Reprinted from Confined Space

I spend a fair amount of time in this blog ranting about how this country treats public employees as second class citizens -- barely even human. In return for the hard, unpleasant and dangerous work they do, they aren't paid terribly much, don't have the collective bargaining rights in half the states that private sector employees enjoy, and are under constant attack for those benefits they've managed to win by organizing wherever they can.

Public employees, over a third of whom are organized, also provide an example of what America could look like (in terms of pensions, health care benefits and political power) if private sector employers had the same generally passive acceptance of unions that public employers display. In fact, their very organizing success has made public employees and their unions a bigger target for the right wing which fears the example that a well organized sector of the economy makes on the less organized private sector. Their campaigns have focused on reducing the political power of public employees (such as the current "Payroll Protection" campaign in California) and making private sector workers jealous of the benefits that public sector workers haven't yet lost.

But I digress.

What I'm really writing about here is a life and death issue for public employees: the fact that public sector workers in over half the states still are not covered by OSHA -- in other words, they have not legal right to a safe workplace. And it's not just conservative red states, public employees in what is arguably one of the most liberal states in the country -- Massachusetts -- do not have OSHA coverage, often with deadly results:

On the evening of Aug. 3, 2004, Roger LeBlanc was one of nine Massport workers dispatched to restore power to the Hilton Hotel at Logan International Airport. Before beginning repairs, the electricians made sure they de-energized the hotel's switch station. After checking the five cabinets on the right side of the switch station, they turned on the electricity, confident that the five cabinets on the left side were powered separately.

They were wrong. When LeBlanc, 39, touched the top of one of the cabinets on the left, thousands of volts shot through him, and he died hours later. His death has spurred labor unions and workplace safety advocates to unite behind legislation that would strengthen protections for the 150,000 city and state workers in Massachusetts.

City and state workers in Massachusetts are not covered by safety procedures mandated by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, even though private employers have been bound by them since 1970. According to an investigation by the state's Division of Occupational Safety, LeBlanc's death would have been prevented if the Massachusetts Port Authority electricians had followed OSHA rules.

And this statement really pisses me off after 16 years running AFSCME's health and safety program where I almost never made any public statement without mentioning the fact that public employees were not covered by OSHA:

Representative Michael J. Rodrigues, who co-chairs the Legislature's Labor and Workforce Development Committee and has served on the panel for eight years, said he was amazed to learn during a hearing on the bill that OSHA did not apply to public employees.

''I certainly feel that all state employees should enjoy the same protections for health and safety as any private employee in the Commonwealth," the Westport Democrat said last week.

Well, I'm delighted that he's concerned and wants to do something about it, but come on! He never knew? This is something that everyone needs to know, especially state legislators.

Without thinking, most people still view public employees as office workers whose main worries focus on paper cuts, and possibly carpal tunnel syndrome. But, of course, they're wrong:

The dangers that police officers and firefighters face are well-known, but other public employees also contend with workplace hazards. Water and sewer workers have to crawl in confined spaces and breathe contaminated air; airport workers are at risk of hearing loss; and road and bridge crews are threatened by hazardous fumes and dangerous heights. Between 1991 and 2003, at least 94 public employees died on the job, according to statistics compiled by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health.

Those figures are comparable to the fatality rate in the private sector. In 2000, a US Department of Labor analysis of workplace injury and death data found that "the public sector poses the same or even greater overall risk of workplace injury and illness as the private sector."

In fact, in its report released last week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that nationwide, 526 government workers lost their lives on the job in 2004.

Although bills requiring public employee coverage nationwide are introduced into Congress every year, the last significant effort was made in the early 1990's when public employee coverage formed part of labor-sponsored OSHA Reform legislation. The interesting thing was that, although the bill never came close to passage, there was considerable support even among Republicans for correcting this clear injustice.

The public employer organizations -- the League of Cities, Conference of Mayors, National Association of Counties -- opposed OSHA coverage. The states and cities were already doing a fine job protecting their public servants employees, thank you very much, and we don't need no stinkin' laws and regulations.

And we're still seeing the same thing in Massachusetts:

Romney spokeswoman Julie Teer said the administration has concluded that applying OSHA rules to public workers is up to the Legislature, but that the administration has taken other steps to strengthen workplace protections, such as designating a safety representative for each agency. Teer said the administration ''is committed to ensuring a safe workplace for all state employees."

Robert J. Prezioso, who has served as commissioner of the Division of Occupational Safety since former governor William F. Weld's administration, praised Romney's efforts and said his agency provides some safety advice to state agencies, as well as cities and towns.

''As the state's worker health and safety agency, we go out and help agencies protect workers every day, even though we currently don't have a mandate to do so," Prezioso said. He declined to comment on the legislation, or whether his agency would be equipped to enforce it.

But a leading workplace safety expert casts doubt on the efficacy of the state's efforts. Chuck Levenstein, emeritus professor of work environment at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and an adjunct professor of occupational health at Tufts University Medical School, testified on Beacon Hill last spring that, "there is no consistent set of policies across agencies that would provide adequate protection for state workers."

"Serious hazards to public employee could be prevented by extending OSHA coverage to them," Levenstein testified. "The cost of such fairness will be small compared with the great benefits derived from protecting the health and safety of the workers who serve the public."

So what's it going to take?
Unfortunately, it's not until enough momentum is generated around a death that there is action. It shouldn't have taken LeBlanc's death," said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, who heads the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health. "It's always called 'tragic' or 'shocking.' In most cases, it's not shocking at all. It's that basic procedures were not put in place."
No, it shouldn't take LeBlanc's death, nor the hundreds of other preventable deaths and thousands of preventable injuries. But they happen, every day, year after year and our state legislators and governors in 24 states still see no reason to do anything about it.

A couple of years ago, I outlined my idea for a public employee coverage campaign in a letter to former Senator Bob Graham (FL) Florida Senator Bob Graham after one of his famous "workdays" when he does the job of an "average" worker. That time, he spent the day in a public workplace. I suggested that on his next workday, he mount a campaign for public employee OSHA coverage and kick it off by

going down in a 12 foot deep trench that is not shored or sloped. Climb down into a manhole or other confined space that has not been monitored for hazardous chemicals or oxygen deficiency. Go work on a locked, understaffed, overcrowded mental health ward or maybe in a high security prison. Go drive around in some old city vehicles with defective brakes. Maybe you could bring a few Florida state legislators and Governor Bush with you.

Assuming you live through the experience and that you think that this nation's public employees don't deserve to work and die under such conditions, please consider spending whatever time you have left in the public eye fighting for OSHA protections for public employees. They do the jobs that this country demand to make life safe and enjoyable. Safe workplaces are the least they deserve.

We should be sending the same letter challenging every state legislator in every state that doesn't provide OSHA coverage to public employees.

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August 26, 2005

Live Like Slaves (Public Employees Threaten Democracy)

Reprinted from Confined Space

I know I shouldn't let the Wall St. Journal get to me. They just write these stupid articles to make me mad.

This article hearkens back to those thrilling days of yesteryear when men were men and public employees were public servants in the truest sense of the word. Today's contribution to turning-back-the-clock comes courtesy of Terry Moe of the Hoover Institution, who, writing in today's Wall St. Journal, portrays evil public employee unions as powerful, anti-democratic, opposed to the public interest, and just plain bad for America.

Public Employees are Too Powerful:

No other interest groups can match their potent combination of money, manpower, and geographic dispersion. Ask Arnold Schwarzenegger. He has proposed reforms (of public employee pensions, of teacher tenure) that California's public sector unions fiercely oppose. And they have responded with onslaughts of negative ads, combined with noisy demonstrations at his public appearances, that have caused his popularity to plummet from stratospheric highs to abysmal lows.
And this is a bad thing? Actually, I think he gives public employees much too much credit. Arnold has managed to alienate almost everyone in California. After all, brining his approval rating a down to 34% -- down 31 points from this time last year -- is even more than powerful public employee unions can pull off.

The troubling thing is that the only initiative on the Governator's special election this coming November that is winning is the "Paycheck Protection Deception" which would curb the ability of public employee unions to use members' dues for political campaigns. The initiative currently has the support of 58% of likely voters.

Public Employees are Enemies of the People:

On the surface, these unions may come across as a benign presence in our midst. After all, they represent teachers, nurses, and other government employees who perform services that are valuable, sometimes indispensable, to all of us. What's good for them would seem to be good for us -- right? The problem, however, is that this is not even close to being right. What's good for them is sometimes quite bad for us.
Say again? What's good for public employees is quite bad for "us?" Let's put aside for a minute the question of who "us" is. Good for public employees would be...decent pay, safe working conditions, good health care plans, secure pensions, treated with respect at work, consulted during reorganizations....

OK, I'm a bit biased, having worked for AFSCME, the largest public employee union for 16 years. I ran the health and safety program, which means I was quite knowledgable about what public employees actually do every day. And most of it ain't pretty (nor is it well paying, especially where there's no union): wading through raw sewage in sewers and wastewater treatment plants, taking care of our mentally ill in understaffed, underequipped overcrowded institutions, watching over our society's most dangerous individuals in understaffed, overcrowded prisons, dealing with angry social service clients in understaffed, underfunded agencies, dealing with abused children or inspecting housing in neighborhoods that the police won't even go into, taking care of this society's poorest, sickest populations in understaffed, overcrowded public hospitals, and I could (and often do) go on and on and on....

In return, they don't have collective bargaining rights in over half the states, and even in those states only by state law or executive order that can be rescinded at any moment. Public employees in over half the states don't even have a legal right to a safe workplace. A public employee in Ohio or Massachusetts gets killed in a 25 foot trench collapse and it's "Dig him out and get back to work." End of story. Unions aren't just important for public employees, they're often a matter of life and death.

So why is treating them like real people instead of second class citizens bad for "us?" Where does society not benefit from decent treatment of those who do the jobs that this great society needs to function?

Public Employee Unions Are Enemies of Democracy:

At the heart of this problem is a genuine dilemma of democratic government: As governments hire employees to perform public services, the employees inevitably have their own distinctive interests. They have interests in job security and material benefits, in higher levels of public spending and taxing, and in work rules that restrict the prerogatives of management. They also have interests in preventing governmental reforms that might threaten their jobs. To the extent public employees have political power, therefore, they will use it to promote their own job-related interests -- which are not the same as, and may easily conflict with, what is good for the public as a whole.
How dare they be interested in jobs security and material benefits! How selfish can you get? Why can't they just accept their lot in life and assume the position? Interested in "reforms" that might threaten their jobs? What do they think? They have some right to try to keep their jobs?

Their interests may conflict with "what is good for the public as a whole". I guess "good for the public as a whole" is making sure we have a underclass to perform all of those unpleasant jobs that we can't do without and would rather not pay too much for (especially if it means more of the "T-word.") And they whine so much when we allow them to have unions.

The fact is that any time state or local governments are reorganized, it alway works out better when the front line employees are involved -- in an organized fashion. Not that it's appreciated. The irony here is that the state where public employee unions worked best with management to reorganize government most effectively and (relatively) painlessly was Indiana, which then elected Mitch Daniels as governor, who immediately eliminated collective bargaining rights for public employees.

Teachers are bad for children:

Because of union power, it is no accident that removing low-performing teachers from the classroom is virtually impossible, even though this nation has been trying to improve the public schools for decades.
Yeah, take a look around our inner city schools and tell me that teachers are the problem.

Public Employee unions are a bunch of commies:

Nor is it an accident that police officers in San Francisco may retire in their 50s and receive retirement pay equal to 90% of their final salaries for the rest of their lives, when most workers have no employer-provided retirement benefits at all.
It would really be much better for "us" if we just shot them all when they're too old to work.

The solution? Castration:

There is no way to eliminate the conflict of interest between government employees and the public at large. So the solution must focus on weakening the power of public sector unions. A Catch-22 quickly emerges here, because the unions will use all their existing power to defeat any attempts to take it away. Yet for reformers there is no alternative but to try -- by pursuing legislation that prohibits collective bargaining by government workers, for example, and pressuring for "paycheck protection" laws that require unions to get their members' permission before spending dues money on politics.

Success will not come easily, if at all. But for those who believe that democracy should represent the public interest, the fight is a good and noble one. It needs to be fought.

Paging Jerry McEntee and Ed McElroy. Your rooms at the Guantanamo Hilton are ready for check-in.

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August 25, 2005


In a new record for Labor Blogs, Edwize has had its very own denunciatory editorial in the rabidly anti-labor New York Post in the very first week of publication. For our response, with a link to the editorial.

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August 24, 2005

UFT Starts New Group Blog, Edwize

The United Federation of Teachers, the 150,000+ person strong New York City local of the American Federation of Teachers, has begun a new group blog, Edwize. It focuses on educational issues, from a teacher union perspective, and on labor issues, and is produced by a number of UFT staff. We have a spiffy comments section, and welcome your contributions.

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August 17, 2005

Where's the ACLU?

Want to know why unions have so much troubling organizing new workers?

Because they have been stripped of free speech rights in ways most progressive people don't even understand.

For example, down in Florida, the Sheet Metal Workers held a protest with a mock funeral procession carrying a coffin back and forth on a public sidewalk in front of a hospital, as members handed out leaflets discussing recent deaths at the institution.  This was tied to the union protesting use by the hospital of non-union labor for ongoing construction.

A federal district court issued an injunction against the protest and any similar ones, and the US Court of Appeals upheld the injunction. Don't even think about some stereotype of nasty or threatening union folks.  This is from the court decision:

The mock funeral procession was orderly. Traffic was not blocked and pedestrians were not obstructed. The individuals handing out leaflets were orderly and did not interfere or impede with the egress or ingress of any individuals to or from the hospital. No citations or arrests were made.
No, the crime of the union was solely that they violated provisions of federal labor law.  Bear with me for some basic labor law, since most progressives don't understand how fundamentally unions have been denied the most basic rights to protest and bring pressure against bad employers under the law.

The provision as stake is one that says it is "an unfair labor practice for a labor threaten, coerce, or restrain any person engaged in object thereof is...forcing or requiring any person to...cease doing business with any other person." 29 U.S.C. § 158(b)(4)(ii)(B).

What does that mean?  Basically, the union is not allowed to put pressure on the hospital to stop doing business with the non-union contractor. Said the Appeals Court:

As the Supreme Court has explained, Section 8(b)(4)(ii)(B) implements "the dual congressional objectives of preserving the right of labor organizations to bring pressure to bear on offending employers in primary labor disputes and of shielding unoffending employers and others from pressures in controversies not their own."
The joke here is that a big company can deliberately hire a company with rotten labor practices to do their dirty work (literally the case in construction projects), but under the law, they are not an "offending" company against which a union can bring economic pressure or public protest.  

So the union can protest the business practices of the non-union contractor but they can't mount a public protest against the use of that contractor by any other business.  Since the contractor only works at other business premises, that de facto means there is no place where the union can effectively mount a protest.

There's a small provision where the Supreme Court has allowed unions to conduct individual handbilling, unaccompanied by marching or other visual aids, but that doesn't help you much when people are driving by you onto private property.  

And understand-- if the union, even on an innocent handbill, asked workers at the hospital to refuse to work in solidarity with the construction workers, even that handbilling would be illegal as a forbidden "secondary boycott" (i.e. iallegal strike) request.

Creative unions have found the occasional loophole to deliver messages to consumers, but it's a legalistic and draining exercise to potentially litigate every public utterance.  It is a classic case of "chilling speech" yet most progressives don't even recognize this pervasive free speech violation in our society.

You occasionally hear folks say that unions face less repression than back in the "old days", meaning the 1930s, which is just plain ignorant.  Labor law back then didn't have these kinds of anti-speech provisions.  They were only added after World War II in the Taft-Hartley Act and followup legislation, which not coincidentally coincided with the decline in union density in our society.

If all those libertarian-minded liberals out there want a new cause, how about liberty for union protesters?  

(By the way, the ACLU lawyers have supported union free speech cases; it's just the typical ACLU supporters who generally ignore union free speech issues.)

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August 16, 2005

Labor, Politics and Republicans, Oh My!

Reprinted from Confined Space.

It seemed odd at first that eight months after the newly elected Governors of Missouri and Indiana took collective bargaining rights away from public employees, the Wall St. Journal is getting around to reporting it, along with other transgressions by Republican governors against their states' public employees.

Several Republican governors are trying to weaken organized labor in the one place it has remained strong: representing public employees.

First-term Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt rescinded collective-bargaining rights for state employees this year, undoing an executive order issued by a Democratic predecessor, and has eliminated a state board overseeing union elections for public employees. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a former Bush White House budget director, overturned an executive order that for 15 years provided collective-bargaining rights for that state's public employees. And Maryland's Robert Ehrlich, backed by the state Supreme Court, suspended a 2% pay increase unions had negotiated for state employees with his predecessor.

The three governors, following earlier moves by Kentucky's Republican governor, Ernie Fletcher, say that their actions are warranted in an environment where state budgets are just beginning to recover from severe stress, and that public employees' unions waste resources and block government restructuring efforts.

State, county and city employees do not have the right to bargain collectively under the National Labor Relations Act. Those rights have to be provided on a state by state basis. Only 25 states and the District of Columbia have passed comprehensive public-sector labor-relations laws which provide collective bargaining rights to public employees at state and local levels.

The reason for the sudden interest in the right of public employees soon came clear:

the discussion was actually about the alleged rift between the "Change to Win" coalition (primarily SIEU), and the AFL-CIO (primarily AFSCME) over how much support labor should give to Republicans.

The media -- somewhat with assistance of the Change to Win (CtW)coalition -- loves to portray the rift as if one side only wants to organize (CTW) and the other (the AFL-CIO) only wants to play politics.

They also love to point out that SEIU and the Teamsters have given money to Republican politicians and talk of reducing labor's dependence on Democrats, increasing the rift between the two factions.

Last year, SEIU sparked controversy within organized labor by donating more than $500,000 to the Republican Governors Association, one of several ways that its strategy diverged from some other AFL-CIO unions. Organized labor -- particularly public-employee unions -- generally has been more generous to Democrats. Mr. McEntee excoriated the SEIU for funding an association that backs some antiunion governors, including Gov. Blunt. "You have no control over where the money goes," he says.
But generally the media focuses on the issue of labor support for Republicans as a "democracy" issue -- as if it's unfair for unions to strongly support Democrats because there are sizable numbers of members who are Republicans. (This is the alleged reason behind California's upcoming anti-union "Paycheck Protection Deception" initiative, or Proposition 75 which would require public empoyees to annually authorize the use of dues for political purposes.) Of course these articles ignore the fact, highlighted by the Wall St. Journal, that Republicans, with a few notable exceptions, tend to be anti- worker and anti-labor, and that unions would be betraying their members' interests --even Republican members -- by giving money to politicians that attacked their rights. And we're notnot just talking anti-union. We're talking anti-worker, as in opposed to workers -- especially public employees' -- right to bargain collectively, to have a role in their worklife, to have safe workplaces and to be respected as equal partners.
"Missouri taxpayers ought to determine how state employees are compensated, not some arbitrary arrangement between a government bureaucrat and a labor union," Mr. Blunt told the Associated Press shortly after his decision.

Public-employee union leaders are "just concerned with their own welfare," says Spence Jackson, spokesman for Gov. Blunt. "The governor believes that state employees have the best employer in the world -- the taxpayers of this state."

"That's bull," says Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "We have reached out in almost every state to address [efficiency issues]. Who better knows the problems in the states besides public employees?"

AFSCME is often villified as a union too focused on politics because, after all, critics say, they get to elect their bosses. Of course, having worked for AFSCME for many years, the fact is that AFSCME often supports politicians who turn out to forget that support when they're finally elected, and AFSCME will support Governors and Mayors -- Republican or Democrat -- when they treat the unions with respect, and just as vigorously oppose Mayors and Governors -- Republican or Democrat -- when they don't.
Mr. McEntee rejects claims that AFSCME can't work with Republicans; it is the type of Republicans that matters. "We're going to support moderate Republicans, if we can find them," he says, citing relationships with "fair-minded" Republican former governors such as George Voinovich of Ohio, James R. Thompson of Illinois and Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania. Those governors presided over states that have been union strongholds. Almost half of the nation's 15.5 million union members live in six states: California, New York, Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
After all, for all the media's talk of SEIU shunning politics in favor of organizing, the union was no piker in the last election, spending an estimated $65 million to get John Kerry elected. Nor are they avoiding electoral politics now.

The fact is that while there are always going to be questions about how to split the pie, all unions need to organize and be involved in politics at the same time. The real issue may be more of emphasis. Both sides admit that both politics and organizing are important. CtW argues that you can't be politically effective if you don't organize more members, whereas ASFCME and the AFL-CIO argue that until we straighten out the political situation, we'll never be able to organize enough members to make a difference.

And the fact is -- and there is little disagreement between either union group -- that Democrats are generally more pro-labor than Republicans. Of course, as usual, real life is more complicated than that. While it's undoubtedly better for labor to have Democrats in power than Republicans, to what extent do you punish Democrats for supporting anti-labor issues like CAFTA or repeal of the Ergonomics standard? Do you punish Democrats who vote wrong even though it may make it harder to win a Democratic majority? Do you reward Republicans that have supported you even if you're making it harder for Democrats to regain a majority? Do you contribute to entities like the Republican Governors Association because maybe it will earn you some good will after the election even if they use the money to support clearly anti-labor candidates?

These are not easy questions, and union continue to struggle with them, although there seems to be new resolve to punish Democrats who don't support labor on such issues as CAFTA. Nor are the issues so black and white between the AFL-CIO and Change to Win. Both have to play politics -- during elections and in Congress -- if they're going to represent their members well. There are far too many vital legislative issues -- on all levels of government -- that directly affect their members to ignore politics. So both the AFL and CtW are going to continue to wrestle with these issues discussed above -- at the same time they try to organize new members. The decisions will be interesting to watch -- between coalitions, between unions and within unions. One thing is true, however -- no union and no group of unions is swearing off politics or organizing. They've all got to do both to survive.

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August 10, 2005

Why Does the NLRB Hate Freedom?

Reprinted from Confined Space

Thinking about heading out for some brewskies with a couple of co-workers after work today? Think again.

Articles about this National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision has been floating around the internet (here and here) and the blogosphere (here and here)for a while now, but I was avoiding writing about it in hope that someone would reveal it as a hoax or urban myth. But now that Harold Meyerson is writing about it in the venerated Washington Post I figure it must be real and I should probably write about it before your employer makes it illegal to read certain ‘hostile’ blogs, even on your free time.

What the hell I blabbering about now, you ask?

On June 7 the three Republican appointees on the five-member board that regulates employer-employee relations in the United States handed down a remarkable ruling that expands the rights of employers to muck around in their workers' lives when they're off the job. They upheld the legality of a regulation for uniformed employees at Guardsmark, a security guard company, that reads, "[Y]ou must NOT . . . fraternize on duty or off duty, date or become overly friendly with the client's employees or with co-employees."

The board majority held that the guards probably would interpret this to be a no-dating rule, pure and simple. In her dissent, member Wilma Liebman wrote that the rule plainly specifies both dating and fraternizing, a term that covers a range of activities that go well beyond (or fall well short of) dating. That certainly was the reason that a San Francisco security guard local of the Service Employees International Union brought the case to the NLRB in the first place: The rule as written could preclude any attempt by the guards to meet to form a union, or even to talk about work-related issues.

It’s a fact well known to many workers, but not admitted by those “in power,” that certain basic American rights – e.g. freedom of speech and freedom of assembly – only apply until you enter the workplace. Then, as Meyerson says, you go from 21st century America to feudal times:
The brave new world that emerges from this ruling looks a lot like the bad old world where earls and dukes had the power to control the lives of their serfs -- not just when the serfs were out tilling the fields but when they retired in the evening to the comfort of their hovels. But then the Bill of Rights in America has never reached very far into the workplace. And now, the strictures on workers' rights within the workplace are being extended without.
But "feudal" sounds so quaint. This actually sounds more Orwellian or a story we would have used not so long ago to scare Americans into fearing Communism. In fact, if Saddam had done this it would have fit nicely on the Bush Administration’s list of “Reasons We Had To Invade Iraq (now that we can’t find those weapons of mass destruction.)”

So what’s the next step? Restricting who workers can talk to even if they’re not co-workers, restricting what workers can read after work, how late they can stay up, what they can eat?

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