Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for July, 2010

A Second Disaster Coming to the Gulf? Hazards Abound for Cleanup Workers

Friday, July 30th, 2010

enku ideJason Anderson, one of 11 workers killed during April’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, had warned his family that BP was pushing speed-up and straying from safety protocols.

Without a union to take his concerns to, Jason turned to his wife, Shelly. “Everything seemed to be pressing to Jason, about getting things in order, in case something happened,” Shelly confessed during an NBC interview.

Today, 27,000 workers in the BP-run Gulf cleanup effort may still be in danger. Some are falling sick, and the long-term effects of chemical exposure for workers and residents are yet unknown.

Workers lack power on the job to demand better safety enforcement. They fear company retaliation if they speak out and are wary of government regulators who have kept BP in the driver’s seat.

BP carries a history of putting profit before worker safety. A 2005 refinery explosion in Texas City, Texas, killed 15 and injured another 108 workers. The Chemical Safety Board investigation resulted in a 341-page report stating that BP knew of “significant safety problems at the Texas City refinery and at 34 other BP business units around the world” months before the explosion.

One internal BP memo made a cost-benefit analysis of types of housing construction on site in terms of the children’s story “The Three Little Pigs.” “Brick” houses—blast-resistant ones—might save a few “piggies,” but was it worth the initial investment?

BP decided not, costing several workers’ lives. Federal officials found more than 700 safety violations at Texas City and fined BP more than $87 million in 2009, but the corporation has refused to pay.

BP NO EXCEPTION

According to the Steelworkers union, the oil industry saw 13 fires that caused 19 deaths and 25 injuries during April and May alone, including Deepwater Horizon. Oil refineries across the U.S. averaged a fire each week.

Jim Savage, local president at a south Philadelphia refinery, sits on the USW’s national refinery bargaining council. Savage said BP is no exception. Safety violations are rampant in the industry, especially in the hectic final 12 hours before production starts up—the same period when the Deepwater disaster took place.

The Steelworkers requested in early July that the oil giants reopen bargaining over health and safety, after they turned aside the union’s proposals in negotiations last year. The oil firms have refused.

CLEANUP RISKS

Now workers in the cleanup effort face similar challenges to those Jason Anderson and his 10 slain co-workers woke up to each morning. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) policy analyst Hugh Kaufman says workers are being exposed to a “toxic soup,” and face dangers like those in the Exxon Valdez, Love Canal, and 9/11 cleanups.

The 1989 Exxon Valdez experience should have taught us about the health fallouts of working with oil and chemical cleaners, but tests to determine long-term effects on those workers were never done, by either the company or OSHA. It appears they have faced health problems far beyond any warnings given by company or government officials while the work was going on.

Veterans of that cleanup, such as supervisor Merle Savage, reported coming down with the same flu-like symptoms during their work that Gulf cleanup workers are now experiencing. Savage, along with an estimated 3,000 cleanup workers, has lived 20 years with chronic respiratory illness and neurological damage.

A 2002 study from a Spanish oil spill showed that cleanup workers and community members have increased risk of cancer and that workers with long-term exposure to crude oil can face permanent DNA damage.

So far, Louisiana has records of 128 cleanup workers becoming sick with flu-like symptoms, including dizziness, nausea, and headaches, after exposure to chemicals on the job. BP recorded 21 short hospitalizations. When seven workers from different boats were hospitalized with chemical exposure symptoms, BP executives dismissed the illnesses as food poisoning.

BP bosses have told workers to report to BP clinics only and not to visit public hospitals, where their numbers can be recorded by the state.

Surgeon General Regina Benjamin has said that without the benefit of studies, or even knowing the chemical makeup of the Corexit 9500 dispersant (which its manufacturer calls a “trade secret”), scientific opinion is divided on long-term health impacts to the region.

Workers in the Gulf are not receiving proper training or equipment, says Mark Catlin, an occupational hygienist who was sent to the Exxon Valdez site by the Laborers union.

EQUIPMENT LACKING

BP has said it will provide workers with respirators and proper training if necessary, but the company has yet to deem the situation a health risk for workers. The Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) provided respirators to some workers directly, but BP forbade them to use them.

One rationale behind banning respirators is that they could increase the likelihood of heat-related illnesses, but Kindra Arnsen, an outspoken wife of a sick fisherman turned cleanup worker, points out that many workers are fishermen accustomed to the Gulf heat who can work safely given enough hydration and time for breaks.

Workers who question the safety of their assignments, choose to wear their own safety equipment, or speak out about the risks are threatened with losing their jobs, according to Arnsen and LEAN’s executive director Marylee Orr.

Arnsen has also spoken out in fear for her community of Venice, Louisiana. She describes illnesses and rashes her young children and husband have suffered since the explosion and cleanup and says there are days when officials tell residents to stay indoors.

PR POWER

The Center for Research on Globalization has speculated that banning respirators and other protective gear for workers is part of BP’s public relations campaign to control how bad the disaster looks. This follows a pattern of threatening reporters who get too close to the hardest-hit areas, blocking media access to workers, exaggerating claims of mitigation of the spill’s impact, and using dispersants that make much of the oil invisible.

Both the EPA and OSHA have criticized BP’s safety plan, which allows workers without respirators to stay in an area when air pollutants are high, doesn’t evacuate workers when conditions become unsafe, and contains no upper limits of exposure to carcinogenic gases found in crude oil.

Catlin, the occupational hygienist, says the protocol seems to be written in a way that allows BP to continue operating under conditions that, in other settings, would halt work.

Fishery industry organizations have joined with environmental groups to demand respirators and other safety equipment and training for workers. The coalition has launched bpmakesmesick.com, aimed at pressuring the Obama administration to better enforce health codes during the cleanup.

About The Author: Enku Ide is an intern with Labor Notes from Hattiesburg, Mississippi.  He has been an active member of United Students Against Sweatshops, the Student Farmworker Allinace, Amnesty International and Solidarity.  He has also been active in struggles for LGBTQI liberation.

From Civil War to Labor Vision

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

Amy DeanTo the outside world, hearing that unions are fighting amongst themselves does not seem like anything new. Sadly, that’s what a lot of people expect from the labor movement. But the civil war between SEIU and UNITE HERE was a particularly painful internal dispute. It created a rift between two of the most dynamic organizations in organized labor and limited the ability of the entire movement to address critical challenges facing the American economy over the past year and a half.

America is a country of immigrants. The unions at the core of the recent dispute, the former UNITE and HERE, are each deeply rooted in the dreams of immigrant workers to create better lives for themselves, their co-workers, and their families. Organized labor in the United States has always grown with the newest wave of immigrants to our country. Moreover, the labor movement has been the most important institution, bar none, in allowing those who are newly coming to America to enter into the economic mainstream of their communities. It is central to our mission, and the continuing importance of this goal far surpasses any internal disagreements we may have within organized labor. Even while the combination of the two organizations, UNITE and HERE, did not last, the labor movement as a whole should reaffirm the broader principles that inspired the merger.

The immigrants who organized the textile and apparel sector a century ago—immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe, like my grandparents—believed that if working people were going to have strong institutions that could go toe-to-toe with employers, they needed solid infrastructure. So they founded trade unions, and they fashioned institutions like the Amalgamated Bank—which today is a significant asset that was a point of contention in labor’s family feud. We must remember that these institutions are not prizes to be divvied up. They are embodiments of the hard work and foresight of previous generations, who left them so that their children and future generations of working immigrants could create better lives for themselves.

Family feuds are painful. They rip at the very fabric of an institution. Likewise, internal disputes within the labor movement can be deeply harmful, eroding the foundations of organizations that we have worked so hard to build. Like in a family, each side in a dispute believes that it is right. However, within the family, the imperative to resolve a dispute and to mend wounds often outweighs the particulars of any given disagreement. The damage an internal fight can cause is so profound that sometimes being right is not enough.

For this reason, the announcement of a settlement between SEIU and UNITE HERE represents an important moment for the entire labor movement. Going forward, we need to put our unifying mission ahead of any disagreements that divide us.

Today, we face a sea of opponents ready to defame and defeat all unions. The only side that wins when we don’t work hard to put our differences behind us is the side of organized money. When they see us divided, the big corporations and the Glenn Becks of the world laugh all the way to the bank. Every family has its internal disputes. But the labor movement doesn’t have the luxury of fighting against itself any longer

About This Author: Amy B. Dean served as President of the South Bay AFL-CIO in Silicon Valley from 1992-2003 and chaired AFL-CIO President John Sweeney’s committee on the future direction of labor strategy at the regional level. She is co-author, with David B. Reynolds, of A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.

Settling Gender Discrimination Class Actions (Part I)

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

Piper HoffmanEight- or nine-figure settlements of gender discrimination class action lawsuits regularly make news. It seems like discrimination this pervasive – essentially, discrimination as corporate policy – should be a relic of the Mad Men past. To the contrary, in countless companies and even entire industries, discrimination against women is business as usual. The latest example is Novartis, a pharmaceutical company, which settled a gender discrimination class action for up to $175 million last week. (Note that the first legal step in this case was taken seven years ago – keep that in mind before you run out to sue your boss.)

As a lawyer, I spent several years bringing and settling discrimination lawsuits against large employers. I talked with female employees who told similar stories of discrimination derailing their careers and sometimes even damaging their health. I learned that it will take an awful lot to eradicate gender discrimination against women at work.

Company-wide discrimination looks pretty much the same no matter the employer’s industry, region, or public image. Managers deny women opportunities for management training. They deny women in sales the best accounts and territories. When a woman succeeds in building up a previously lackluster account, management takes it away and gives it to a man. Managers exclude women from networking opportunities, management training, and promotions. They deny their female employees awards and recognition that they have earned. Managers penalize women who take legally-mandated leave to give birth or to bond with an adopted child. Offending companies pay men more than their female peers.

Then there is sexual harassment, which can include public humiliation, wildly inappropriate comments, even more wildly inappropriate touching, sexual propositions, public discussions among male employees and managers about their female colleagues’ and clients’ physical appearances or sexual proclivities, you name it. I know of a male manager instructing a female subordinate to unbutton her blouse more before meeting with a male client to increase her chances of making a sale. I know of a male manager raping a female subordinate. And everything in between.

Woe betide the woman who dares to complain about discrimination to Human Resources or to the government agencies responsible for enforcing anti-discrimination laws. The traditional next step is for the company to retaliate against her – never mind that retaliating against someone who complains about employment discrimination violates federal law. Retaliation means not only more of the same for the complaining employee, but worse. A manager who had not been in the habit of humiliating women in front of male colleagues and clients will take it up as a new hobby. Any raises, bonuses, promotions, training opportunities, etc. that management had promised to the woman vanish, never to reappear.

The Novartis complaint includes the detailed allegations of Novartis’s discrimination against 22 women. Combined, their stories cover pretty much all of these bases. One recurring theme is the utter pointlessness of complaining through official channels about discrimination or retaliation. Woman after woman reports that she submitted a complaint to Human Resources, and Human Resources ignored it.

This is not surprising. Human resources originated as a corporate response to the labor movement: companies discouraged employees from organizing unions by offering them newfangled personnel management or human resources departments to address their needs, assuring workers that their employers would take better care of them than unions would. From the beginning human resources was corporate CYA, tasked primarily with protecting the company from threats including unions and legal liability, and only secondarily (if at all) with helping employees. Some companies have moved past that history and created human resource departments that actually support employees, but that is far from the norm.

The Novartis settlement agreement, like many other class action discrimination settlements, focuses on reforming human resources and the complaint process so that it works for employees and not against them. The settlement agreement devotes page after page to detailing the coming reforms.

If all goes according to plan these reforms will be a welcome improvement for Novartis’s women, even if they are only partially successful. Theoretically they will serve three goals: (1) ending ongoing discrimination against individuals who file complaints (“complainants”); (2) preventing retaliation against individual complainants; and (3) deterring discrimination at Novartis. These are all ambitious goals, and perhaps not entirely reachable, but the most implausible is the second. Imagine the scenario: a woman files a complaint with her employer about her male supervisor’s discriminatory behavior. Human resources can warn him not to retaliate; his own bosses can warn him not to retaliate; the company’s lawyers can warn him that retaliation is illegal; but still, realistically, he will retaliate. Maybe he will be smart and it will be subtle. He won’t pal around with the complainant. His performance evaluation of her will be less than stellar. When he has the opportunity to promote somebody, if there is someone else with credentials reasonably similar to hers, guess who will get the promotion. And all this is the best case scenario. A less smart, less subtle supervisor will make the woman’s work life a living hell.

Reforming the human resources department at a company rife with gender discrimination is both necessary and laudable, but it is not sufficient (nor is it all the Novartis settlement agreement provides for – that document is 68 pages long). Ending discrimination can only happen before discrimination starts. Stay tuned for the details in Part II.

About The Author: Piper Hofman is a writer and attorney living in Brooklyn with a B.A. magna cum laude from Brown University and a J.D. cum laude from Harvard Law School.  She has professional experience with the laws related to employment, animal rights, poverty, homelessness, and women’s rights.

Fewer Workers, Bigger Profits—and Endless Recession?

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

Roger BybeeMotorcycle-maker Harley-Davidson is revving up its engines, nearly tripling last year’s profits in the second quarter by hauling in $71 million.

This follows first-quarter profits of $68.7 million. But Harley is still roaring toward a head-on collision with the workers in its hometown of Milwaukee, where the company has been a beloved symbol of the city’s gritty blue-collar image and pride in craftsmanship. Harley is still demanding $54 million worth of wage and benefit cuts, along with changes in work rules, from the United Steelworkers within the next 60 days.

Unless Harley gets the concessions before the current contract expires in April 2012, it has announced that it will zoom off to a new location with at least 1,400 jobs. Harley, like many other U.S. firms, is managing to extract bigger profits despite slow, sometimes declining sales and shrinking workforces, as the New York Times reported:

This seeming contradiction — falling sales and rising profits — is one reason the mood on Wall Street is so much more buoyant than in households, where pessimism runs deep and joblessness shows few signs of easing.

Many companies are focusing on cost-cutting to keep profits growing, but the benefits are mostly going to shareholders instead of the broader economy, as management conserves cash rather than bolstering hiring and production.

Clearly, bigger profits are doing nothing to promote an economic recovery. CEOs have little motivation to invest in new machinery and hire more people as spending power continues to lag badly—due precisely to the widespread wage-slashing and job cutting by other corporations doing the very same thing.

FORD NOW PRODUCING 62% OUTSIDE U.S.

The persistence of high unemployment—widely predicted to extend for as long as another four years or even longer—gives CEOs enormous leverage over workers. Even when profits are roaring back, as at Harley, U.S. corporations face no obstacles to relocating production in low-wage southern states or repressive nations like China or Mexico if workers refuse to concede to their demands.

Ford is cited by the Times as another firm that has managed to make bigger profits with lower sales and fewer workers:

At Ford, revenue in its North American operations is down by $20 billion since 2005, but instead of a loss like it had that year, the unit is expected to earn more than $5 billion in 2010. In large part, that is because Ford has shrunk its North American work force by nearly 50 percent over the last five years.

Somehow the Times’ neglected to mention that 62% of Ford’s production now takes place outside the United States. More generally, the environment of long-term, prolonged joblessness has created an environment where maximum production is squeezed from the fewest workers possible, the Times stated:

Because of high unemployment, management is using its leverage to get more hours out of workers,” said Robert C. Pozen, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and the former president of Fidelity Investments. “What’s worrisome is that American business has gotten used to being a lot leaner, and it could take a while before they start hiring again.”

Corporate America’s no-hiring mode continues a long-term trend, as job growth in the U.S. over the last decade has been under 1% compared with gains in of 22% to 38% every decade since 1940.

While corporations individually have discovered how to profit temporarily from vast reductions in their workforces and the biggest wage-slashing spree since the Great Depression, their strategies offer no way out of the Great Recession. As the Times noted, the increasingly leaner and meaner workplace has a downside:

The problem is that companies are not investing those earnings, instead letting cash pile up to levels not reached in nearly half a century.

“As long as corporations are reinvesting, the economy can grow,” said Ethan Harris, chief economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

“But if they’re taking those profits and saving them, rather than buying new equipment, it hurts overall growth. The longer this goes on, the more you worry about income being diverted to a sector that’s not spending.”

The current direction of Corporate America not only prolongs the
recession. It also re-distributes wealth upward—thereby taking away the very spending power from working families that is needed to break out of the recessionary cycle.

At a moment when the richest 1% already hauls in 23.5% of all annual income in the United States, there is little likelihood that the super-rich will be igniting an economic recovery with even more cash on their hands. They are much more likely to simply add to their already-vast savings:

“There’s no question that there is an income shift going on in the economy,” Mr. Harris added. “Companies are squeezing their labor costs to build profits.”
In fact, while wages and salaries have barely budged from recession lows, profits have staged a vigorous recovery, jumping 40 percent between late 2008 and the first quarter of 2010.

About The Author:

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and progressive publicity consultant whose work has appeared in numerous national publications and websites, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, Yes!, The Progressive, Multinational Monitor, The American Prospect and Foreign Policy in Focus. Bybee edited The Racine Labor weekly newspaper for 14 years in his hometown of Racine, Wis., where his grandfathers and father were socialist and labor activists. His website can be found here, and his e-mail address is [email protected]

A is for Apple. A is also for Arrogant

Monday, July 26th, 2010

Image: Bob RosnerBloggers Confession: I am wrapped around the little finger of the Apple marketing department. I’m writing this blog on my MacBook, while I listen to tunes on my iPod, my iPhone is nearby and so is my iPad. Wow, I knew I was a junkie, but just writing that sentence made me feel like Steve Jobs personal rentboy.

That said, the recent press conference about the iPhone 4 made me extremely sad. Okay, I realize that Apple is a big corporation. And that public pronouncements by the CEO need to factor in competitors, lawsuits and today’s very fickle consumer. But Jobs sounded more like a Wall Street CEO defending the company’s bonuses than the guy who made the products that currently litter my desk.

Arrogant. Obnoxious. Above making mistakes.

How could a company that is so remarkably in tune with its audience’s hopes and dreams, be so annoying when they know there is a problem with their latest product? I’m not saying that they needed to launch a massive recall. But, I believe, Apple did need to accept some ownership for the reception problems plaguing it’s latest iPhone.

Okay, Jobs has been fighting some serious medical issues that could take him off his game.

And some could argue that Apple has always had an attitude and a tendency toward obsessive secrecy. Remember when that guy found a test phone a few months back?

But I fear that it is something else that’s happening here, market-capitalization-disease. Now that Apple has passed Microsoft in terms of the value of the company in the eyes of stockholders, I fear that Apple believes it’s own press clippings.

Steve, all you had to say was that the company always pushed the boundaries of technology, of style and of what’s possible. We get that. And we would have gotten that this glitch was part of what we all value about Apple the most. But when you went all Nixon on us, well it made me sad.

Your success is due to us. Please don’t insult our intelligence when you overreach. Just admit it and we can all move on.

About The Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Check the revised edition of his Wall Street Journal best seller, “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via [email protected]

A Decade of High Unemployment & Falling Wages… Or We Could Create Jobs & Help our Cities

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

amytraub4Left to itself, the U.S. economy may not return to its pre-recession rate of unemployment until 2021, says a new study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Even under the more optimistic growth assumptions of the Congressional Budget Office, we’ve got five more years of high unemployment coming, as CEPR notes.

If that’s not troubling enough, consider this: millions of jobless Americans means lower wages for those lucky enough to be employed. Median wages rose just 0.8% over the last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, failing to keep up with even the low 1.8% rate of inflation. In real (inflation adjusted) terms, that’s a wage drop. “Excess supply in the labor market — 14.6 million Americans were unemployed as of June — has helped keep wage growth in check,” the Wall Street Journal explains. Or, in the more gleeful terms used by a financial analyst quoted by Bloomberg news last month:

“Companies are getting higher-productivity employees for the same or lower wage rate they were paying a marginal employee. Not only are employees higher skilled, you have a better skill match. You have a more productive and more adaptive labor force.”

That’s great for business – and helps explain the 44% increase in corporate profits this year – but considerably worse news for anyone trying to work for a living. Without more job creation or growing wages, economic recovery doesn’t translate into anything that benefits the vast majority of Americans.

So what’s to be done? It would be easy to move from economic despondency to political despair: although smart job creation measures from Congress could brighten the economic picture considerably, the tremendous difficulty of passing even a six-month extension in bare bones unemployment insurance has convinced many analysts that additional federal job creation measures are off the table. Ezra Klein, however, suggests a glimmer of hope: if the Senate is unwilling to pass a job creation bill based on deficit spending, why not call Republicans’ bluff and try to fund specific job creation measures with tax increases the American people support? It all reminds me of the American Jobs Plan the Economic Policy Institute unveiled last year, which proposes a stock transfer tax to fund a local-level public jobs program, budget relief for city and state governments, and investments in school facilities and transportation infrastructure. Just seeing the fight to pass a visionary plan like that would be enough to dispel some gloom.

About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. A native of the Cleveland area, Amy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. She received a graduate fellowship to study political science at Columbia University, where she earned her Masters degree in 2001 and completed coursework towards a Ph.D. Funded by a field research grant from the Tinker Foundation, Amy conducted original research in Mexico City, exploring the development of the Mexican student movement. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers.

On the Border and in the Fields, Dying from the Heat

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

kari-lydersenOn Wednesday July 14, California legislators were debating whether the state’s five-year-old heat safety regulations are strong enough to protect the  650,000 farm workers who harvest the bulk of the nation’s fruit and vegetables in temperatures that regularly climb over 100 degrees.

As the legislators ruminated from the safety of their air-conditioned chambers, 54-year-old Rodolfo Ceballos Carrillo was loading boxes of tables grapes onto trucks at Sunview Vineyards in Kern County, Calif., in 97-degree heat. At 4:30 that afternoon, Carrillo collapsed and died. Another California farm worker also died the same day. They are among four farm workers and a construction worker who have perished in apparently heat-related deaths since June. Another worker had died at the same vineyard doing the same job as Carrillo in 2008.

Many see this as the latest proof that the heat-safety law California passed in 2005 has not saved largely immigrant farm workers and construction workers from painful deaths and health problems caused by toiling often without shade, breaks or water in extreme heat.  Each year since the law was passed, a handful of workers have died – at least 11 between 2005 and 2009 according to a lawsuit filed last year by the United Farm Workers (UFW).

The state occupational health and safety agency (Cal/OSHA) is currently investigating Carrilla’s death, the June 11 death of a plum picker in Tulare County, the June 29 death of a 33-year-old farm employee in Indio and the death of a 57-year-old farm mechanic in Firebaugh, along with the death of a construction worker in San Bernardino. The agency has said it did 1,340 investigations so far this year and has found 316 heat-related violations.

The state heat safety law, considered the first and most stringent in the nation, mandates employers provide adequate rest, water and shade when temperatures top 85 degrees. They must provide enough shade for a quarter of the workers to sit comfortably at one time; and enough cool clean water for all workers.

But critics say there are not near enough enforcers and fines are not hefty enough to make sure employers comply. There are fewer than 200 occupational health and safety enforcers in California for 17 million state workers, including the 650,000 farm workers spread out over thousands of farms.

And under the law, the onus is still on the workers to ask for breaks and water, an unlikely situation when their documentation and employment status makes them feel vulnerable to retaliation; and when they are often paid piece-meal depending on how much they harvest. Workers quoted on the UFW’s website note these situations:

I would work all day without taking a break or going for water because I was afraid of getting fired.

–Erika Contreras,farm labor contractor worker

They give us the water they use to irrigate the fields.
–Pedro Zapien,vegetable worker

We have to pitch in money to have clean drinking water.
–Juan Martinez Vasquez, pea worker

The foreman drinks the water we bring ourselves.
–Francisco Villasaña,cotton worker

When someone wants to drink water, the boss gets mad.
–Imelda Valdivia,grape worker

One foreman carries a gun on his side to scare the workers.
— Alejandro Gil,cotton worker

Being without water is dangerous. We are not camels that can be working without water.
— Jairo Salin Salosairo Luquez, grape worker

In 2008, the state found that more than a third of the employers it did investigate were violating the heat safety law. Last year, the state logged 137 heat-related violations out of 3,501 inspections.

The United Farm Workers website states:

Cal/OSHA has so few inspectors that it simply cannot protect workers in an industry this large, routinely imposes paltry fines even for serious violations and deaths, fails to collect fines it does impose, and allows enforcement actions to be tied up in appeals processes that often delay penalties for years.

Representatives of the group California Rural Legal Assistance are visiting farms in the state’s San Joaquin Central Valley this summer – more than 20 so far – to monitor compliance with the heat safety law and educate employers and workers about the law.They say employers have received them with hostility.

The union and other critics say employers should be forced to provide specific amounts of rest and water in response to certain temperature thresholds, rather than placing the burden on workers to demand their rights.

After the lawsuit was filed last summer, state occupational health spokesman Dean Fryer told media that California had seen improvements and dealt with heat more responsibly than other states.

Cal/OSHA has done an effective job of preventing heat illnesses and fatalities. In fact there has been a downward overall trend of fatalities since the regulation became effective in 2005. Even the CDC, in a 2008 report, showed California fairing better then other states. Their study revealed that North Carolina had the highest heat related deaths among crop workers with a rate of 2.36 per 100,000 workers. This was followed by Florida’s rate of .74 and California’s rate of .49.

In 2008, NPR reported on the heart-breaking death of a 17-year-old Mexican worker:

Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez was tying grape vines at a farm east of Stockton on May 14 (2008), when the temperature soared well above 95 degrees. The nearest water cooler was a 10-minute walk away, and workers say the strict foreman didn’t allow them a long enough break to stop and get a drink.

Vasquez collapsed from heat exhaustion. Her fiancé, Florentino Bautista, cradled her in his arms. “When she fell, she looked bad,” Bautista says. “She didn’t regain consciousness. She just fell down and didn’t react. I told her to be strong so we could see each other again.”

Bautista, 19, had saved up money to buy a gold ring for Maria Isabel, his childhood sweetheart from their indigenous village in Oaxaca, Mexico.

(Last Wednesday, Steve Franklin blogged for In These Times about the grueling and dangerous daily life of a farm worker.)

As workers face torturous conditions and even death in the fields because of this summer’s intense heat, those crossing the border to get such jobs are also succumbing in near-record numbers.

This month, officials in Pima County, Ariz. have dealt with one to four bodies per day of immigrants who perished crossing the border. As of July 16 the Pima County  medical examiner’s office counted 40 bodies this month. The July record from 2005 was 68. So far this year, the medical examiner has logged 134 bodies. That’s compared to 93 by this time last year, and 140 in 2007, the year with the highest number of total deaths.

The economic crisis and escalating costs charged by coyotes in recent years have meant fewer people trying to cross the border, according to various studies. Hence the record-level border deaths likely mean the trek is deadlier than ever thanks to sweltering temperatures and the increasing border security that has driven people into ever harsher and more remote parts of the Arizona desert.

There have in fact been so many deaths of late that a refrigerated truck was rolled out to help handle the bodies overflowing from the Medical Examiner’s office.

In his book “The Devil’s Highway,” author Luis Alberto Urrea describes in excruciating clinical detail what actually happens when one dies of heat. The book is a gut-wrenching journalistic literary account of the deaths of 14 migrants in the Arizona desert over Memorial Day weekend, 2001.

Walkers see demons, see God, see dead relatives and crystal cities. They vomit blood. The only clear thought in your mind now is: I’m thirsty, I’m thirsty…

Based on interviews with survivors, Urrea recreated the death of one specific man:

He went on all fours, and sometimes he went on his knees like a religious penitent. The world of sin and grace spun in flaming disks around his head. He fell. He rose. He lay. He crawled. He tried to rise.

It is indescribably cruel and senseless enough that record numbers of migrants each day are currently dying this way, crossing the desert just to come here to work. And the level of injustice rises even more – if that is possible – when one considers many who have survived that trek are still risking death by heat day in and day out as employers wring – literally – every last drop of profit from their work.

This article was originally published on Working In These Times Blog.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for publications including The Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island.

President Obama Endorses Paycheck Fairness Act

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Ravi BakhruYesterday, President Obama released a statement endorsing the Paycheck Fairness Act and calling on the Senate to pass the legislation.

In America today, women make up half of the workforce, and two-thirds of American families with children rely on a woman’s wages as a significant portion of their families’ income.

Yet, even in 2010, women make only 77 cents for every dollar that men earn. The gap is even more significant for working women of color, and it affects women across all education levels.  As Vice President Biden and the Middle Class Task Force will discuss today, this is not just a question of fairness for hard-working women.  Paycheck discrimination hurts families who lose out on badly needed income.  And with so many families depending on women’s wages, it hurts the American economy as a whole.  In difficult economic times like these, we simply cannot afford this discriminatory burden.

My Administration has already begun to address this problem. In my first week in office, I signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which helps women who face wage discrimination recover their lost wages, and in my State of the Union Address, I promised to crack down on violations of equal pay laws. Today the Equal Pay Enforcement Task Force will present its recommendations, which include ways to better coordinate among enforcement agencies and inform employees about their rights.  These steps support women, and they also support businesses that are doing the right thing and paying their employees what they deserve.

We cannot do this work alone. So today, I thank the House for its work on this issue and encourage the Senate to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, a common-sense bill that will help ensure that men and women who do equal work receive the equal pay that they and their families deserve.  Passing this bill is one of the Task Force’s key recommendations, and I hope Congress will act swiftly so that I can sign it into law.

We encourage you to show your full support for the bill by going here, and contacting your Congressman.

OSHA Launches New Whistleblower Protection Site

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

Image: Mike HallThe Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says that workers who blow the whistle on safety violations and other unlawful practices “play an important role in assuring compliance with federal laws.”

But, say workplace safety advocates, too many times workers don’t speak up about safety and health problems on the job because they fear retaliation from their employers, even though it’s illegal.

OSHA now has a new website specifically dedicated to its whistleblower protection program, www.whistleblowers.gov. The site is designed to provide workers, employers and the public with easily accessible information about the 18 federal whistleblower protection statutes that OSHA currently administers. OSHA chief David Michaels says:

OSHA doesn’t work unless workers feel secure in exercising their rights. This Web page is part of OSHA’s promise to stand by those workers who have the courage to come forward when they know their employer is cutting corners on safety and health.

The new site provides information about workers’ rights and provisions under each of the whistleblower statutes and regulations that OSHA enforces. It also has program fact sheets and information on how a worker can file a retaliation complaint with OSHA. Along with the direct URL, the site can be accessed at www.osha.gov by clicking on the “Whistleblower Protection” link.

Federal workplace safety laws allow workers to file discrimination complaints with OSHA if they believe their employer has retaliated against them for exercising a broad range of rights protected by law.  These rights include filing safety or health complaints with OSHA and seeking an OSHA inspection, participating in an OSHA inspection, participating or testifying in any proceeding related to occupational safety or health, or reporting an injury or illness to their employer.

The Miner Safety and Health Act (H.R. 5663) now before Congress would strengthen whistleblower protections for miners covered by the Mine Safety and Health Administration and workers covered by OSHA.

About The Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.

HR—Friend or Foe

Monday, July 19th, 2010

Image: Bob RosnerLast week a friend stopped by who’d just been riffed by Microsoft (reduction in force, for the luckily uninitiated).

She spoke angrily about the HR woman who answered most of her questions wrong concerning her severance and departure from the company. Initially my friend was told there was no severance beyond six weeks and her layoff would leave her just short of the date where she’d be fully invested in her pension. Later she talked to a more senior HR staffer who reassured her that she would receive enough additional time to receive her pension.

Misinformation. It happens all the time. But I can think of few times more painful than when you are getting laid off to get bad information. In football the term for this would be piling on. And yet I hear from people all the time who have to go through an experience that would be difficult enough by itself, getting laid off, but then the salt water is poured in their wounds by insensitive or incompetent HR or management staff.

Let me lay a card or two on the table. I like the vast majority of Human Resources people I’ve met through the years. I’ve spoken at HR conferences, I’ve written for HR publications and I consider many HR people to be my friends. This shouldn’t be surprising because I like people with heart.

It pains me when people in HR forget that they need to be the bridge between the company and its people, rather than just serving as an agent for the company.

Let me explain. I once spoke at a HR conference. I began by asking if audience members grew up with an adult’s table and a children’s table at big family events like Thanksgiving. Most of the audience smiled and said they had.

I then asked a simple question, as an HR person, which table do you sit at where you work, the adult’s table or the children’s table? For the rest of the session, every person who spoke began by saying that they sat at the adult’s table and then they explained why. “I have a great relationship with the CEO and board.” “I attend executive staff meetings.” “I report directly to the CEO,” were typical responses.

Oh, there was one exception. At the very end of the session one HR director said that she preferred the children’s table because you could play with your food, there weren’t a bunch of annoying rules and meals were always fun.

The correct answer concerning which table is either “both” or “neither.” The most effective HR people must be able to mix it up at both the adult and children’s table, but they should never allow just one audience—executives or employees—to dominate their thinking. Because, to be effective, they need to be a bridge between both groups.

It is tough to have to fit in both in the rarefied air at the top of the corporation and in the trenches where the work really gets done. Let’s just give thanks that there are people out there who can.

About The Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Check the revised edition of his Wall Street Journal best seller, “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via [email protected]

Your Rights Job Survival The Issues Features Resources About This Blog