January 31, 2006

All Bush Job Growth due to Government Spending

As this EPI study details, subtract out the government-funded jobs, mostly due to the defense sector, and NO net jobs have been added under Bush's watch.  So that means tax cuts have accomplished ZILCH in encouraging private sector job creation.  It's all increased government spending. I wonder if Bush will salute FDR as his model for job creation?

Tip from Max

Posted by Nathan at 04:04 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

January 27, 2006

The Battle Of Sago: Mine Company Tries To Run Off The Union

By Jordan Barab, Reprinted from Confined Space

The Alma mine in Logan Country, where two miners were killed last week, lies in the shadow of Blair Mountain, site of the famous battle between miners and company guards over unionization of West Virginia's coal mines.

This week another battle is brewing between the miner's union and the company that owns the Sago mine where 12 workers died -- International Coal Group -- over the union's participation in the investigation of the Sago mine disaster. So far, the union seems to be winning -- with the help of the federal government.

Yesterday, ICG guards blocked UMW representatives from accompanying investigators from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) from entering the Sago mine to begin the investigation. Although Sago miners are not represented by the UMW, several families of the dead miners designated the UMW as their representatives. MSHA agreed with the union and sought a court order to force ICG to allow union representatives onto company property to participate in the Sago Mine disaster investigation.

Today, U.S. District Judge Robert E. Maxwell ordered ICG to allow the union representatives to enter the mine.

The battle over the Sago investigation had been brewing for weeks, ever since the company objected to the union sitting in on MSHA's interviews with surviving miners and then claimed that most of the miners had signed a petition requesting that three Sago miners -- and not the union -- be designated as their representatives.

MSHA, however, citing Section 103(f) of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, which provides that miners' representatives can accompany MSHA investigators "during the physical inspection of any coal or other mine," recognized the UMW as the workers' representative, along with the company's preferred representatives. MSHA noted Section 103 also recognizes situations where there the agency may permit "more than one representative from each party [that] would further aid the inspection."

According to an MSHA press release,

"MSHA is doing everything it legally can to enforce the rights of the miners' representatives to participate in MSHA's underground investigation into the Sago Mine accident," said Ed Clair, a top MSHA lawyer. "Together, the state and MSHA made a commitment to the families that we could conduct a fair, open investigation, and we decided we needed to take this extraordinary step to keep that commitment," Clair said in a prepared statement.
ICG claimed that it was "disappointed" that MSHA was being "guided by political pressures."
Unfortunately, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) is trying to insert itself into the investigation in a self-serving attempt to boost their organizing efforts. Yielding to UMWA political influence, the Mine Health & Safety Administration (MSHA) and the West Virginia Office of Miner Health, Safety, & Training (WVOMHST) are trying to force our company to allow the union's participation in the investigation without satisfying the associated regulatory requirements.
UMW reps were incredulous at the company's actions, saying that the investigation was "dissolving into a travesty."
"This is absolutely ridiculous," said Tim Baker, a UMW safety official taking part in the Sago probe.

"This company is spending more time and money and energy trying to keep us out than they have trying to figure out what happened," Baker said. "We all have the same goal in mind, so let's get on with it."

Judge Maxwell agreed, stating that
the UMW has decades of expertise in mine disasters to offer.

"There's no question that the public interest is best served by a complete and thorough investigation into the occurrence of the problems at the Sago Mine," Maxwell said. "There is a strong public interest in allowing miners to play a role in this investigation, as it is their health and safety that is at issue."

MSHA attorney Tim Williams said the teams of investigators would probably need seven to 10 days underground to gather evidence. The company had asked the judge to impose a 10-day limit on the union's involvement, but he refused to do so.

ICG claimed that it was particularly disappointed because 90 Sago miners had signed a petition designating three miners to be their representatives and not the union, an effort undertaken by Sago miners "without the initiation, direction or involvement of company management." But certainly not without interest and approval of company management:
On January 20, MSHA officials were presented with a petition from Sago hourly employees that rejected UMWA representation in favor of having three of their coworkers serve as miner representatives. That petition has now been signed by 90 Sago hourly employees – which represents 93% of the active hourly workforce. Those true Sago miner representatives have been participating in the mine reentry process since it began.
OK, without "initiation, direction or involvement" of the company. Now, how do we imagine this went? You've got 150 miners suddenly out of work, with no good prospects for the forseeable future -- unless the nice benevolent company offers them jobs in other area mines. And look over there, out-of-state union thugs causing trouble. Will no one rid me of this meddlesom union? Nod, nod, wink, wink.

Meanwhile, back in Washington DC, the battle over Sago was joined a different level when AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Richard Trumka accused the International Coal Group of misleading potential investors by hiding the deteriorating safety conditions at the Sago Mine.

In a letter, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka urged the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate and take action against ICG and its founder, New York billionaire Wilbur L. Ross Jr.

Trumka alleged ICG wrongly claimed in its initial public offering for stock purchasers that its operations had a good safety record.

At the same time, Trumka said, federal inspectors were citing the company for hundreds of safety violations, including many that "would cause serious or deadly injury if not corrected.

"These serious risks existed and were known to ICG while they were preparing for and conducting the IPO, yet the company did not disclose them to potential investors," wrote Trumka, a former United Mine Workers president.

"We believe this failure was in violation of the fundamental requirements of the nation's securities laws to provide investors with all material information necessary to make a reasonable investment decision," Trumka wrote in his Monday letter to SEC enforcement director Linda C. Thomsen.

All of this death, destruction and conflict has apparently been too much for Ross and his wife who have been spotted in Palm Beach at various charity affairs, antique shows and parties, and the cute couple was "photographed wearing color-coordinated outfits at a lunch for Prince Edward and his wife, Sophie, the countess of Wessex, at Wall Streeter Tom Quick's lush estate."
"It's a tricky business, but they're not going to stop their lives because of it," said Quest [Magazine] editor David Patrick Columbia. "I think it's a very rough time for them.
Yeah, I guess it's rough all over.
Posted by Jordan Barab at 07:04 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 26, 2006


First posted on Edwize.

“Follow the money.” This admonition, Woodward and Bernstein wrote in All The President’s Men, was the advice ‘Deep Throat’ gave as they pursued the Watergate scandal. Last year’s revelation that ‘Deep Throat’ was Mark Felt, second in command at the FBI, came as Washington found itself swept up in the vortex of yet another far-reaching scandal, this time around such key Republican lobbyists and Congressional leaders as Jack Abramoff, Michael Scanlon and Tom DeLay.

In today’s Lobbygate Scandal, Felt’s counsel to “follow the money” seems almost prescient. The Washington power nexus of money and politics is involved in every public allegation of wrongdoing to date, from the millions of dollars in kickbacks and the defrauding of American Indian tribes to the misuse of charities and the ‘laundering’ of illegal campaign contributions. The DeLay-Abramoff campaign to remake the high finance, special interest world of ‘K’ Street lobbying into a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party is an ever-present backdrop to all of these deeds. If we needed reminding, Lobbygate affirms once again an old truth: unregulated and uncontrolled money in politics corrupts republican government “of, by and for the people.”

Now that Abramoff has entered into a guilty plea to charges of conspiracy to bribe elected officials, mail fraud and tax evasion as part of a bargain with prosecutors which requires his cooperation, investigators into Lobbygate have access to his voluminous e-mails and related documents. As many as twenty members of Congress and Congressional aides are believed to be targets of the ongoing investigation, and a small tidal wave of members of Congress has rushed to announce that they were returning campaign donations from Abramoff in the wake of his pleas.

When one ‘follows the money’ in the current scandal, one of the trails leads directly to Primedia, a major for profit media corporation and the parent company of the commercial in-school television network Channel One. According to Senate and House records, Primedia paid two firms in which Abramoff was a prominent partner hundreds of thousands of dollars over a number of years for lobbying work on behalf of Channel One. Primedia first hired Abramoff and the Preston Gates firm while he was a leading partner there; when Abramoff moved to the Greenberg Traurig firm in 2001, the Primedia contract followed him. In early 2004, with the first signs of Lobbygate appearing on the political horizon, Primedia pulled its contract with Greenberg Traurig, then the fourth largest and arguably most powerful national lobbying concern.

Channel One was founded by educational entrepreneur Chris Whittle, who went on to form the largest for profit educational corporation in the US, Edison. According to Primedia, 8 million school children in some 12,000 schools view Channel One on a daily basis — although it refuses to publish a list of the schools. But the numbers of students watching Channel One might even be its least controversial aspect. It has drawn intense criticism from all sides of the political spectrum, as many on both the right and the left feel that schools have no business force feeding commercial advertising to a captive audience of impressionable youth. Critics charge that Channel One advertising promotes tobacco use, junk food, corporate branded apparel and violent entertainment.

Primedia has been less than completely forthcoming on how Abramoff earned these payments. To date, they have limited their commentary to what he did not do — Abramoff’s work “did not include any effort to secure government agency advertising,” according to a Primedia spokesperson. As for the rest, the most the company would say was that “Abramoff and Greenberg Traurig worked for Primedia several years ago. The work was performed well and was on budget.”

Primedia’s targeted denial is significant because the economic balance sheet of Channel One fell into a major tailspin after it cut loose Abramoff and Greenberg Traurig. Channel One is one of those ‘free market’ operations in education that depends heavily upon political connections and government funds to turn a profit. A considerable portion of its revenues came from federal government advertising — especially armed forces recruitment and anti-drug spots from the Centers for Disease Control and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy — and these ads have declined 31% over 2005, with a drop of 76% in the last quarter. Primedia explains this decline in government advertising revenue, which coincided with the departure of Abramoff, as a function of budget tightening due to the war in Iraq. It is a little difficult to understand, however, how the war in Iraq and the difficulties it has created for military recruitment would not have resulted in an increased demand for armed forces recruitment advertising.

Interestingly, two leading conservative movement leaders who loom large in Lobbygate and in numerous Abramoff projects — former Christian Coalition head and brain trust Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform — both joined Abramoff in work on behalf of Primedia. In 1999, at approximately the same time it took on Abramoff, Primedia hired Ralph Reed to work with Abramoff in a successful effort to delay and then diminish hearings into Channel One by the Senate’s Health, Education and Labor Committee. In September 2002, Reed helped Primedia avoid a proposed Texas Board of Education resolution urging school districts to throw Channel One out of the schools. Grover Norquist, who played the role of the ‘ideas man’ and ‘publicist’ in a number of joint ventures with Abramoff, appeared on the op-ed page of the Washington Times, declaring that “an independent news media outlet not controlled by liberals has seeped into the public schools,” and that “the liberals are hysterical in trying to stop it.” Especially ironic, given Channel One’s dependence upon politically connected government advertising, was Norquist’s line that it “has come up with a brilliant free-market innovation that can translate into lower taxes.”

Another alpha conservative who is a leader in the movement for school vouchers, Clint Bolick, figures prominently in a particularly squalid Abramoff venture. Bolick, President and General Counsel of the Alliance for School Choice, was a prominent publicist for an Abramoff and Norquist campaign on behalf of sweatshop owners on the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands [CNMI], a Pacific archipelago captured by the US in World War II. Under the 1976 covenant establishing it as a commonwealth of the United States, CNMI is exempt from US minimum wage, labor and immigration laws, but its manufacturing products are considered ‘Made in the USA’ and not subject to trade restrictions. Taking advantage of this unique status, numerous sweatshop businesses have set up shop on the islands. [Registration Required.] Most notoriously, a number of Chinese businesses established factories in CNMI, bringing with them 32,000 Chinese, mostly indentured workers, with contracts that would appear to be open violations of the Thirteenth Amendment’s prohibition of “involuntary servitude” enforced on American soil by agents of the Chinese state. According to two reports produced by the Democratic Party staff of the House Committee on Resources [Economic Miracle or Economic Mirage? (1997) and Beneath the American Flag: Labor and Human Rights Abuses in the CNMI (1998)], “systematic patterns of violations of labor right and human rights” occur in CNMI. Labor camps were marked by “hazardous working conditions,” and were “unsanitary and dangerous.” The government of the Philippines found so many “wage violations, poor working conditions and physical abuse” of Filipino workers, the largest foreign workforce in CNMI, that it declared a moratorium on their further deployment in 1995. Numerous instances of women laborers from China and the Philippines being forced into prostitution and the sex trade have been documented.

Abramoff organized a major campaign on behalf of the CNMI sweatshops to stop Congressional efforts to extend the full protections of American labor law to the islands. Over 100 Congressional aides, journalists and conservative policy advocates were taken on Abramoff arranged junkets to CNMI. Along with Bolick, there were Washington Times editorial writers, the managing editor of the Public Interest, staff of the Traditional Values Coalition and representatives of a host of conservative think tanks, from the Cato Institute to the American Enterprise Institute to the Heritage Foundation. Upon their return, they proclaimed the ‘free market’ miracle of CNMI, and denounced the proposed extension of labor law as, in the words of Daniel Mitchell of the Heritage Foundation in the Washington Times, “the modern siege of Saipan.” Bolick himself penned commentary supporting the agenda of the CNMI sweatshops in the Wall Street Journal and Human Events.

Earlier this month the Washington Post reported that in return for a donation of a half million dollars from CNMI textile companies to the U.S. Family Network closely tied to Tom DeLay, the owners of those companies received DeLay’s public commitment that he would block any legislation which would increase their labor costs. (Although it was organized as a not for profit organization, the U.S. Family Network spent little on public advocacy or education; the bulk of expenditures were used for DeLay’s political and lobbying efforts in apparent violation of the Internal Revenue Service law.) In the wake of the Abramoff’s guilty pleas, Congressman George Miller [D-CA] has called upon the Republican leadership of the House to undertake a full investigation of “a long-standing but unresolved scandal involving Abramoff, members of Congress, their staff, and others to prevent Congress from passing legislation to end serious labor, human rights, and immigration abuses in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and to investigate interference with local elections in that U.S. territory.”

Oh, and by the way, Channel One faithfully “reported” on the Abramoff scandal — without a single mention of itself or Primedia.

Posted by Leo Casey at 06:19 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 24, 2006

2005: Labor Adds $70 million in Annual Income

The Department of Labor has released its report on union membership in 2005 and the labor movement addeda net of 200,000 members in 2005. Which meant that even with an increased working population, unions held even as a percentage of the workforce.

A small comfort possibly given the low percentage that labor has dropped to, but the point of the headline is for progressives to recognize that, when you are talking about the labor movement, small statistical fluxuations mean a hell of a lot of money.

Adding 200,000 members multipled by a conservative estimate of monthly dues of $30 adds up to $70 million in additional income for unions-- which if used right translates into hiring hundreds of new organizers, researchers and communication specialists to help organize additional workers.

One reason I'm an optimist on labor's revival -- other than knowing how many times labor was declared dead in this country only to rise again even stronger -- is that labor has this inherent virtuous cycle built into its structure, where a tipping point of success inherently leads to more resources and more success. New workers organized help fund the next round of organizing, so success inherently feeds success.

I don't know if 2005 is the quiet tipping point where labor kicks starts a new period of rapid expansion, but $70 million of new income doesn't hurt the chances for that to be true.

Posted by Nathan at 07:50 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Why Dems Should Fight Corruption on Health Care

The Dems seem to be getting ready to run in 2006 on the corruption scandal. The real question is, will they have the guts/brains to connect the dots to an issue Americans care about -- health care. The obvious place to start is the Medicare drug benefit fiasco, which is endangering the health and lives of thousands of Americans. But there are plenty of other places to fight. Here's one from today's Washington Post:

House and Senate GOP negotiators, meeting behind closed doors last month to complete a major budget-cutting bill, agreed on a change to Senate-passed Medicare legislation that would save the health insurance industry $22 billion over the next decade, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office....

The change in the Medicare provision underscores a practice that growing numbers of lawmakers from both parties want addressed. More than ever, Republican congressional lawmakers and leaders are making vital decisions, involving far-reaching policies and billions of dollars, without the public -- or even congressional Democrats -- present.....

"I have worked many [budget] bills, and this was the most closed that I've ever seen," said one prominent Republican health care lobbyist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of jeopardizing his access to Congress.Another health care lobbyist, not involved with the issue, said the result was a major victory for health insurers: "That's a $22 billion difference; $22 billion is a lot of money."

If the Dems have any spine left, they should ram this issue down the Republican's throats. Of course, they would have to actually offer an alternative. It would be great if they would do a push to make health care affordable for all. But even going after the absurd influence the health care industry has over Medicare spending would be a great start. Conservatives have been arguing that we're going to have to cut back dramatically on Medicare spending in the next few decades so the government goesn't go bankrupt. As this fiasco demonstrates, there's plenty of room for saving money without hurting seniors. All the Dems would have to do is fight for a bill that brought back the $22 billion in savings and pushed for changes that would make it harder for the health care industry to keep robbing taxpayers.
Posted by RalphTaylor at 06:09 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 23, 2006

New Global Labor Strategies Blog

Check out this new blog focused on how labor is dealing with globalization, with a few good posts dealing with the immigration reform debate to kick things off.

Posted by Nathan at 06:27 AM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Transit Workers and Democracy

The transit workers in NYC have narrowly rejected the contract negotiated by their leadership.

I'm not going to second-guess the wisdom of the rank-and-file but just take a moment to celebrate the moment as showing what most of the media ignores-- that unions are some of the only real democratic institutions in our society. It's almost Orwellian that you hear about isolated cases of corruption far more than the commonplace stories of workers exercising democratic votes in the workplace everyday through their unions.

Let's just trace the democratic decision-making that got us to that transit contract vote.

  • First, the transit workers got to decide whether to have a union in the first place.
  • Then, the current leadership led by Roger Toussaint won office in a vibrantly contested vote against an incumbent
  • The rank-and-file then voted on whether to give the leadership strike authorization
  • And now, the members get to reject the handiwork of the leadership and send them back to the bargaining table.

    Contrast that with other major institutions in our society-- corporations where shareholders can't even propose alternative candidates to incumbent directors, non-profit organizations with self-selected boards of directors, and a range of other institutions where leadership has little accountability to the broad membership.

    Plenty of unions can improve their internal democratic procedures and a few are basketcases, but compared to a democracy where Tom Delay and Jack Abramoff bought and sold favors for the last decade, unions like the Transit Workers are De Toqueville's ideal of Democracy in America.

    Posted by Nathan at 06:07 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack
  • January 20, 2006

    Wal-Mart Workers-- Why Wait for the NLRB?

    Down in Florida, Wal-Mart workers have decided not to wait for permission from the National Labor Relations Board to be a union-- and have started acting like one right now, leading petition drives demanding restoration of cut hours, protesting firing of workers, and generally demanding better treatment.

    The vehicle is the Wal-Mart Workers Association (WWA), a growing group of 300 current and former Wal-Mart workers in over 40 stores started with seed money from various unions and run in conjunction with ACORN (a community advocacy group).  As this article details

    Non-majority unions such as the WWA don't wait for a court to license workers' use of collective action. They harness that anger and ingenuity to both win day-to-day victories and launch longer-term pressure campaigns. The strategy has roots in industries in which union recognition is rare: retail chain workers, state workers, and computer programmers and manufacturers.
    One of the early focus of the campaigns is Wal-Mart's inconsistent scheduling system where workers see their hours cut semi-randomly.  But WWA has launched an innovative strategy to pressure Wal-Mart:
    To counter the widespread problems of inconsistent and under-scheduling, the WWA launched a campaign to encourage Wal-Mart workers to file for unemployment compensation.

    Smith estimates that "hundreds, if not thousands" of Wal-Mart workers have filed for unemployment as part of the WWA's campaign. They usually win, according to Smith, costing Wal-Mart tens of thousands of dollars, and when they lose, they force Wal-Mart into a lengthy and revealing appeal process.

    As a result, a number of Wal-Mart stores with higher levels of WWA member activity have changed their scheduling policy.

    The point of all of this is not to talk to Wal-Mart workers in theory about what a union can do for them, but to demonstrate through smaller campaigns what worker solidarity does -- and make the case for why even greater solidarity can only make their lives better.

    There's no reason any set of workers have to wait for a majority of their fellow workers to join them in order to demand better treatment from their employers.  And given Wal-Mart's determination to fight any NLRB-style approach to organizing a union, this non-majority union approach to organizing is probably the only way to step-by-step build a critical mass to take on the company.

    And it may be a model for revival of the union movement as a whole.  Stay tuned.  

    Posted by Nathan at 09:38 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    January 17, 2006

    Dealing with Immigration: Increase Immigrant Rights

    While I was on my honeymoon, the Drum Major Institute -- founded by among others Martin Luther King Jr.'s son -- released a good report highlighting one of the counterintuitive, but important imperatives that should underlie any immigration reform, namely that the best way to decrease problems from illegal immigration is to expand the rights of those immigrants.

    This can seem odd at first blush but the reasoning, as the Drum Major Institute outlines, is relatively clear:

    As long as a cheaper and more compliant pool of immigrant labor is available, employers are all too willing to take advantage of the situation to keep their labor costs down and are less willing to hire U.S.-born workers if they demand better wages and working conditions. So, U.S.-born workers are left to either accept the same diminished wages and degraded working conditions as immigrants living under threat of deportation or be shut out of whole industries where employers hire predominantly undocumented immigrants. The solution is to eliminate the second-class labor market in this two-tiered system and allow immigrants and U.S.-born workers to compete on an even playing field by guaranteeing immigrants—including undocumented workers—equal labor rights and making sure that employers cannot use deportation as a coercive tool in the labor market.
    Or to put it a different way, it's employer demand that drives immigration and if employers can't use legal threats to pay undocumented workers less than native workers, a lot of the demand for that immigration will disappear. And for the immigration that continues, if wages are not pushed down, any costs of immigration to native workers will be far less and the gains from immigration will be enhanced through those immigrants having the ability to drive job creation through their greater consumer spending.

    The logic of this approach is clear and the AFL-CIO and other labor groups are committed to it as public policy. The politics of the argument are "challenging", as the Drum Major Institute acknowledges, but the reality is that harsher attacks on immigrants are not likely to stem that immigration, but just increase their fear and isolation and drive their wages further down, and thereby make other workers even worse off.

    But read the report. It's a good addition to the debate on immigration reform and labor rights.

    Posted by Nathan at 07:03 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    January 16, 2006

    MLK Jr. Died at a Union Picket Line

    Most people have seen clips of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I've been to the Mountaintop" speech in Memphis where he died, but relatively few know that he was there as part of a sustained campaign to support an AFSCME strike of santitation workers demanding a union.  

    In the dumbing down of celebrations of Martin Luther King Jr. as a national icon, the relatively radical demands for economic justice that he was making in his later years tend to disappear.  

    But Martin Luther King Jr. had made a strike of public employees in Memphis a centerpiece of his efforts to launch the "Poor Peoples Campaign" of his final year.  You can read more details about the strike at this website commemorating the strike, but it's worth understanding that Martin Luther King Jr., even as he rightly criticized the exclusionary rules of some individual unions, always saw a strengthening of unions and labor as critical to achieving long term justice for African Americans.  

    As this archive details, in his whole career he saw unions as critical.  A few excerpts:

    Less than a century ago the laborer had no rights, little or no respect, and led a life which was socially submerged and barren....American industry organized misery into sweatshops and proclaimed the right of capital to act without restraints and without conscience. The inspiring answer to this intolerable and dehumanizing existence was economic organization through trade unions...

    By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them...

    That is why Negroes support labor's demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature, spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.
    --Speaking to the AFL-CIO on Dec. 11, 1961

    He attacked anti-union right-to-work laws:
    In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as 'right to work.' It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. It is supported by Southern segregationists who are trying to keep us from achieving our civil rights and our right of equal job opportunity. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone...Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights. We do not intend to let them do this to us. We demand this fraud be stopped. Our weapon is our vote."
    --Speaking on right-to-work laws in 1961
    If you want to honor Martin Luther King Jr., you should honor the labor struggles, including those of public employees demanding just economic treatment.  Martin Luther King Jr. never separated collective organization of black workers (along with white workers) from the demands for equal treatment of individuals in the workplace.   Most memory of Martin luther King Jr. emphasizes only individual equality but his legacy, including his death, was also dedicated to the collective organization and empowerment of workers.
    Posted by Nathan at 07:02 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    January 12, 2006

    Privatize SSI Ala Chile? Maybe Not...

    Conservatives love to point to Chile's privatized system of pensions as a great alternative to Social Security. How's the system working these days? In Chile's election, both the left and the right are arguing the system needs a major overhaul.

    Why? For starters, surprise, surprise, investment funds are making out like bandits at everyone else's expense:

    According to a recent study here, Chile's pension funds, whose number has shrunk to 6 from more than 20 as competition has diminished, recorded an average annual profitability of more than 50 percent during a recent five-year period. Other studies, including one conducted by the World Bank, indicate that pension funds retain between a quarter and a third of workers' contributions in the form of commissions, insurance and other administrative fees.

    The other major problem:

    many young people, who should be enrolling in the system early to accrue maximum benefit, are staying out or paying in very little. Some cannot afford to contribute beyond the obligatory minimum payment, which is 10 percent of wages, while others are either self-employed or have been hired by companies as low-paid independent contract workers and therefore do not have to contribute at all.

    "The bottom line is that this system does not work with this labor market," said Andras Uthoff, an economist who is director of the social development division of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America here. If trends continue, he added, "only a small percentage of people are going to be able to finance meaningful pensions. What happens then to the rest?"

    Posted by RalphTaylor at 06:25 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

    January 11, 2006

    The Sago Mine Disaster and the Union

    By Jordan Barab. Reprinted from Confined Space.

    Although United Mine Workers representatives participated in the attempted rescue of the Sago miners last week, the mine was non-union. And that fact may have contributed to the miners' deaths. According to American Rights at Work Chairman David Bonior:

    These workers did not have to die. Accidents happen, but they shouldn’t be as frequent and they don’t have to be fatal. Better safety precautions in the mine could have been achieved had the workers had a voice – a union. This crucial point was echoed yesterday morning when Matt Lauer interviewed John Bennett, whose father James was killed in the mine accident, on the Today Show.

    Bennett told Lauer that he repeatedly pleaded with his father to quit working in the mine because of the pervasive dangers his father frequently recounted to him. Lauer asked Mr. Bennett what questions he would like to ask of the mine operators. “It’s not just the men that go down there every day that know the mines is [sic] unsafe…we have no protection for our workers. We need to get the United Mine Workers back in these coal mines, to protect [against] these safety violations, to protect these workers.” Lauer then asked Bennett “You feel as if the miners speak out they are at risk of losing their jobs?” “Yeah” Bennett answered.

    Note that Bennett says "we need to get the United Mine Workers back in these coal mines."

    Turns out that the Sago mine was once represented by the United Mineworkers when it was owned by Pittston Coal.

    But when the Anker Group bought the mine from Pittston, the UMW lost its representation rights. According to UMW attorneys, when UMW mines are depleted or permanently closed and the bargaining unit members are laid off, the coal company that had the agreement with the union sometimes sells the remaining coal reserves to a new company which then develops a new mine on the property.

    The courts, which are more concerned with protecting the companies' ability to trade capital unencumbered by labor costs than with the miners' ability to enforce their contractual employment rights, have determined that in some cases, when the new company reenters the old mine portals, the UMWA's representational rights can be lost if the new company does not mine in what the courts are characterize as the pre-existing union "operation".

    Because Anker accessed coal from the Sago mine on the old Pittston property through a new mining portal, UMW members, who had been laid off, did not have recall rights. The mine was operated non-union. The Anker Group sold the mine last year to its current owner, International Coal Group.

    Crystal clear? Makes sense?

    Not if you're a miner hoping to make it out of the mine alive every day.

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    Posted by Jordan Barab at 12:52 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    January 10, 2006

    Building a Better World

    I've been reading Neil Gershenfeld's FAB: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop--From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication. In addition to being a fascinating read, it's also a sobering reminder of just how much our world wastes human potential.

    FAB tells the story of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms's experiments with "fabricators" that someone with very little technical knowledge can use to build just about anything. Early in the project, they decided to see if they could create fabs that could be used in the real world by ordinary people. As a result, they've helped to create fab labs from Boston's South End to South Africa to Vigyan Ashram in rural India. FAB documents the end result: an astonishing outpouring of creative solutions to local problems by members of the local community. At Vigyan Ashram, for example, villagers are creating sensors for analyzing whether milk farmers want to sell is sour -- a crucial issue since "if milk from even a single farmer is contaminated (bacterial, others.. ) it spoils the whole batch " -- developing tools to make it easier to rebuild diesel engines used for pumping underground water, and building small wind mills to produce energy.

    Most press coverage of FAB focuses on the future, in which "personal fabricators" will allow us to have this power at our desktop. But today, the existing Fab labs, which cost about about $21,000 each, show us that in the middle of the grinding poverty that Nathan describes below, there are millions of human beings with creativity, vision, and resourcefulness whose abilities are being squandered.

    Will this potential finally be unleashed when inexpensive personal fabricators are created? Maybe. Then again, that's what they said the Internet would do. If groups like the Self Employed Women's Association aren't given the support they need to win the fight for justice, it's quite possible that in the end all the Fab labs will create is another pipe dream of a better future.

    Posted by RalphTaylor at 05:52 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    January 04, 2006

    Behind The Mine Disaster: Act of God or Corporate Shortcuts?

    By Jordan Barab, Reprinted from Confined Space

    (NOTE: This was written last night. Just before going to bed I heard the false report that 12 of the miners had been rescued. I can't imagine what the families and friends of these workers must be going through now.)

    First, in case you're not keeping up with the news, the situation looks increasingly desperate for the 13 miners trapped underground by yesterday's explosion. Air samples from a hole drilled into the main show carbon monoxide levels more than three times the maximum acceptable level for breathing indicating that there was (or still is) a fire burning. Unless the miners managed to barricade themselves in an areas with fresh air, experts are increasingly pessimistic about their chances of survival.

    According to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the Sago Mine had been cited over 200 times in the past year. Because the Mine Safety and Health Act require every mine to be inspected four times a year, numerous citations are not uncommon. The troubling thing is that both citations and injuries have gone up significantly since last year. The mine's injury rate is three times the industry average and it has been plagued by a dozen roof falls in the last half of last year.

    Although there were plenty of injuries, to a certain extent the miners' luck held out -- until yesterday:

    Government documents also show a high rate of injuries and accidents at Sago. Although no miners were reported killed at the mine since at least 1995, 42 workers and contractors were injured in accidents since 2000, records show. The average number of working days lost because of accidents in the past five years was nearly double the national average for underground coal mines, MSHA documents show.

    Some serious accidents caused no injuries. For example, in the past year, large sections of the mine's rocky roof collapsed on at least 20 occasions -- but not when workers were in the affected tunnels. Some of the collapsed sections were rocky slabs of up to 100 feet long. The most recent roof collapse occurred on Dec. 5, less than a month before Monday's explosion.

    Former Mine Safety and Health Administrator Davitt McAteer observed that:
    "When the numbers are going in the wrong direction, management has not been doing its job. It's not the worst mine record, but when you've got three times the national accident rate, something is wrong."

    Meanwhile, in the spirit of taking full responsibility, International Coal Group Inc., which owns the Sago mine, is blaming the explosion on an act of God:
    "It's a horrible freak accident," [International Coal Group Chairman Wilbur] Ross said in an interview yesterday. "Apparently a lightning bolt struck the mine."
    Yeah, and apparently there are monkeys flying out of your ass.

    Experts are quite skeptical about the lightning theory. McAteer thinks that while it is possible that lightning may have ignited the explosion, he isn't aware of any other such instances. There are several other causes that are more likely. First, even if lightning did strike the mine and somehow find its way underground, the lightning would only be the ignition source. An explosion also needs fuel. There are two likely fuel sources in mines: methane gas and coal dust. The Sago mine reportedly had low levels of methane, although a rise in the barometric pressure can cause methane to be liberated faster. For this reason, MSHA has a system of winter alerts.

    Coal dust is a more likely problem. A small explosion that kicks up a cloud of coal dust can generate a much larger secondary explosion. The mine was cited by MSHA 21 times last year for an "accumulation of combustible materials." Dry winter air also makes coal dust explosions more likely.

    Finally, McAteer notes that the mine had just been started up after being shut down for the holidays. Startups after idle periods are problems.

    Meanwhile, back here in the nation's capital, the President Bush announced that the miners are in his prayers.

    May God bless those who are trapped below the earth and may God bless those who are concerned about those trapped below the earth.
    Well, that just about covers everyone.

    The explosion even headlined Presidential Press Spokesman Scott McClellan's daily press briefing:

    Good afternoon everyone, and welcome back; Happy New Year. I want to begin with just an update on the situation in Upshur County, West Virginia, and the coal miners who have been trapped there.

    The President continues to be kept informed about the situation. He was briefed this morning. He has reached out to the governor, as well. We are praying and hoping for the best. The miners and their families are in our thoughts and prayers. The federal government is actively helping in the rescue.

    OK, that's all well and fine. I'm happy that the President is so concerned and I look forward to a significant increase in MSHA's budget. But the President and Scotty should also be aware that in addition to this extremely tragic event involving the lives of these 13 men and those who love them, 15 workers die in workplace accidents every day in this country. Take a look at the last Weekly Toll that lists only 75 of the approximate 200 workplace deaths over the past two weeks. Why are these souls any different or less worthy of the President's prayers than the 12 West Virginia miners?

    One reason: Most of the these workers died one at a time, hardly even noticed by their local newspapers, much less the President of the United States. Nevertheless, they should be no less deserving of the nation's attention, resources or commitment.

    The fact is that President Bush has not requested budgets for OSHA or MSHA that even keep up with the rate of inflation and mandatory pay increases over the past several years while penalties for OSHA or MSHA violations remain laughably low. The highest penalty of the more than 200 citations received last year by the Sago mine was $878. But that was the exception. Most of the others were $250 or $60. At that rate, it's hardly a good business decision to even bother fixing anything. And the administration has shut down any new worker protection standards in OSHA and MSHA.

    It's not hard to imagine why this state of affairs exists in an administration dominated by energy interests. As James Ridgeway points out in the Village Voice, out of $2.3 million in coal company contributions to federal candidates during the 2004 election cycle, 90 percent went to Republican candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

    So, Mr. President, until you can put some real money down on the table, and appoint some people who aren't afraid to rock the boat to protect workers' lives, save me your crocodile tears. These miners and millions of other workers who go to work every morning fearing they may not come home alive at night are literally putting their lives on the line to support their families.

    They deserve better.

    Posted by Jordan Barab at 07:32 AM | Comments (12) | TrackBack

    Top Ten Workplace Health and Safety Stories of 2005

    By Jordan Barab. Reprinted from Confined Space

    Another year has gone by, OSHA and MSHA continue to do a heck of a job protecting the nation's workforce and once again it's time for the eagerly awaited Top Ten Health and Safety Stories of the past year.

  • BP Amoco Explosion: An explosion ripped through BP Amoco's giant Texas City refinery on March 23, 2005, killing 15 workers and injuring 170. Faced with evidence that alarms and meters hadn’t been functioning correctly and that the plant had experienced previous similar incidents that had not been adequately investigated, the company took full responsibility by blaming the workes and firing six of them. All of the fatalities were in or near office trailers that had been placed too close to the unit that exploded.

    OSHA fined BP $21.3 million, the largest fine in OSHA's history, sending shockwaves through the company when it was discovered the fine amounted to just over 2 hours of BP profits. BP has established an independent panel to review safety systems at all BP facilities in the United States, at the request of the US Chemical Safety Board, which is conducting an thorough investigation of the explosion.

  • Alliances and Voluntary Programs: Courageously confronting the rising number of workplace deaths, disproportionately high rates of workplace fatalities among immigrant workers, its growing budget problems and a monumental (if un-noticed) health and safety crisis among dog groomers, OSHA took the bold step of forming an alliance with the International Society of Canine Cosmologists.

    Moving from the ridiculous to the tragic, in August, OSHA granted the prestigious "Star" Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) status to corporate killer W.R. Grace which was indicted earlier this year for knowingly exposing thousands of workers and community residents to deadly asbestos dust.

    Finally, the agency decided to lend a helping hand to the financially struggling American Chemistry Council by forming an alliance with the chemical manufacturers association that seemed intended to help the association bolster its plummeting membership numbers.

    And what, you may be asking, is OSHA in effect saying to the General Accounting Office which warned the agency in 2004 that there is no evidence that these costly programs are effective in reducing health and safety problems?

    "Bite me."

  • Elimination of the AFL-CIO Health & Safety Department: After accusing the rival "Change to Win" coalition of attempting to rip the guts out of the AFL-CIO, Federation President John Sweeney ripped the guts out of the AFL-CIO himself by eliminating its highly touted Safety and Health Department, cutting half of its staff and moving the remainder into the Legislation Department. The bone-headed elimination of the department was allegedly intended to put more resources into organizing, although by weakening one of the major reasons for workers to join unions, it is more likely have the opposite effect.

  • New OSHA and MSHA Directors: Suddenly remembering that OSHA and MSHA had been lacking permanent leadership for almost a year, President Bush finally got around to nominating a permanent director for the agencies on the same day: Edwin G. Foulke for OSHA and Richard Stickler for MSHA.

    Foulke’s chief claim to fame was his term as Chair of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission during the Bush I administration, but his years since those glory days have been spent heading up the OSHA practice at Jackson, Lewis, a huge law firm notorious for its aggressive union busting practice, and heading up the Greenville, South Carolina Republican Party in his spare time.

    Foulke will replace acting Assistant Secretary Jonathan Snare, a Texas Republican political operative who, before coming to Washington, played a major role in the infamous Texas re-redistricting and made money defending Metabolife, whose main product, ephedra, was finally banned by the FDA after killing more than 150 people.

    Meanwhile, Stickler, who was most recently head of mine safety in Pennsylvania during the Quecreek Mine near-disaster was notable chiefly for managing coal mines that had injury rates that were double the national average.

  • Health and Safety Journalism: Although American journalists inexplicably failed to pick up on the crisis in the canine cosmology industry, 2005 did produce a number of great workplace safety media stories. One of the best was the disturbing Sacramento Bee series by Tom Knudson and Hector Amezcuaon on the Pineros, the immigrant workers who work the pines, but end up paying the usual price in injuries and abuse, all under the watchful eye of the federal government. The series has already led to proposals for sweeping changes to better protect the Pineros from injury and abuse on the job.

    The Kansas City Star ran an excellent series by Mike Casey on the sham that this nation's attention to workplace safety has become while Dan Frosh penned an informative piece in AlterNet on the rising number of deaths in the steel industry.

    Unlike most articles about trench deaths, Heidi Shrager's article about a fatal Staten Island trenching fatality actually explored in-depth the employer's conscious decision to violate OSHA's trenching standard, sending an immigrant worker to his death. I don't know if Shrager's article gets the credit, but the case has resulted in manslaughter charges.

    And finally, that radical anti-capitalist publication known as the Wall St. Journal had a couple of good pieces on the failure of U.S. programs to regulate exposure to toxic chemicals, and corporate influence on the science that determines chemical regulations. If only their editorial staff actually read their own newspaper...

  • Hurricanes and the Unlearned Lessons of 9/11: A number of important lessons were learned from the cleanup operation following the destruction of the World Trade Center towers which left thousands of workers with serious long-term health problems. Reports over the past several years have faulted OSHA for failing to enforce OSHA standards at the World Trade Cener site, neglecting to ensure proper use appropriate respirators and ignoring the health and safety problems of mostly low paid immigrant workers who were exposed to with toxic dust while doing cleanup work outside the main WTC site.

    With these lessons under its belt, OSHA then responded to the hurricane Katrina disaster by failing to enforce OSHA standards, neglecting to ensure proper use appropriate respirators and ignoring the health and safety problems of mostly low paid immigrant workers working with toxic molds and other hazards for employers who were not under FEMA contracts.

  • Chemical Plant Security Legislation: After spending $13 gazillion, causing the needles deaths of over 2,000 American soldiers and tens of thousands Iraqi civilians without finding a single weapon of mass destruction, the Congress and the Bush administration have failed for the fourth straight year to pass legislation that would address the 15,000 weapons of mass destruction littered around the United States by imposing new security requirements on the plants, particularly a requirement that they seriously consider the use of inherently safer technologies.

  • OSHA Deform Legislation: Responding to rising number of workplace fatalities, paltry penalties and skeletal budgets that would take OSHA 108 years to visit every American workplace, Senator Michael Enzi addressed the problem by introducing a conglomeration of OSHA bills that ease the "burden" on small business. One of the most important provisions would gives busy small businessmen a "get out of jail free" card if they misplace their OSHA citations and miss the 15 day deadline for filing an appeal. While automatic extensions in the case of lost homework win the support of my kids, few experts expect it to have much impact on the workplace death rate. At the last minute, Enzi removed an planned provision that would have increased OSHA penalties, muttering under his breath, "Now, where the hell did that come from?"

    And apparently greatly impressed by OSHA's resolution of the health and safety crisis in the Canine Cosmology industry, Enzi's bills would also encourage OSHA to increase its voluntary activities.

    And finally, Enzi's bills would allow OSHA for the first time in its history to penalize employees for not wearing personal protective equipment like hard hats and gloves. Neither OSHA nor Senator Enzi seem to be aware that by failing to issue OSHA's long awaited standard that would require employers to pay for workers' personal protective equipment, the agency is essentially penalizing employees for using the safety equipment.

  • Penalties -- Carrying a Bigger Stick: Facing the fact that Congress refuses to deal with the problem of ridiculously insigificant OSHA penalties, more creative minds are dealing with the problem in other ways. Local jurisdictions are filing manslaughter and homicide charges against companies that willfully kill employees. In Arizona a water and sewer company was convicted of negligent homicide, aggravated assault, violating a safety standard causing the death of an employee in a confined space. A Michigan construction company was found criminally responsible for the death of an employee in a trench, and put "on probation," which meant that it could not bid on state contracts until 2013. Meanwhile, manslaughter charges were filed against a Staten Island construction company for the death of a worker in a trench collapse.

    On the federal level, prosecutors at the Justice Department have been indicting business owners using environmental laws that carry much stronger penalties than the OSHAct. W.R. Grace & Co. and seven of its current or former executives and department heads were indicted in February for attempting to hide the fact that toxic asbestos was present in vermiculite products at the company’s Libby, Montana plant. Grace had not only exposed workers at its plant, and the entire community of Libby, but also workers at plants across the United States where the vermiculite was processed.

    Following a puny $175,000 fine against Motiva Corporation for the 2001 death of Jeffrey Davis who was killed when a tank full of sulphuric acid exploded, the Justice Department fined the company an additional $10 million last year for knowingly putting workers in danger. (The company was aware that the tank was leaking explosive vapors.) The size of the fine was a result of enforcement under environmental laws that permit EPA to cite companies if employers knowingly commit environmental violations that also endanger or kill a worker. (Fish were killed in the acid spill). The lesson: If you're a worker who's going to die on the job, make sure you take a bunch of fish with you.

  • LabourStart Launches Health and Safety Newswire: In a never-ending struggel to make the public aware that workers really do face serious health and safety problems on the job, LabourStart, the trade union news service and Hazards Magazine (edited by Rory O’Neill, the International Federation of Journalists’ health, safety and environment officer) launched a new newswire that provides health and safety news updated every 15 minutes. Check over on the upper right column of Confined Space for a sample. Click here for information on how to put it on your website. And that's all for 2005 folks.
    Posted by Jordan Barab at 01:05 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack