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Archive for February, 2016

Uranium Mine and Mill Workers are Dying, and Nobody Will Take Responsibility

Monday, February 15th, 2016

To talk to former uranium miners and their families is to talk about the dead and the dying. Brothers and sisters, coworkers and friends: a litany of names and diseases. Many were, as one worker put it, “ate up with cancer,” while others died from various lung and kidney diseases. When the former workers mention their own diseases, it’s clear, though unspoken, that they’re also dying. Some don’t wait for the disease to take them: “Poor guy says he don’t wanna be in a diaper,” says one worker of his brother-in-law, a former miner with lung disease who was facing hospice. “He got a gun and shot himself.”

Women who worked in the mines and mills also bore the risk of reproductive disorders and babies with birth defects. “[Supervisors] told me … as long as I could do the job, there was no reason to worry about my baby,” says Linda Evers, 57. Both of her children had birth defects. Her daughter was born without hips.

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Linda Evers, who worked in a uranium mill in the 1970s, says, “Every day, they told us we were doing our part for the Cold War effort.” (Photograph by Joseph Sorrentino)

I spent a week interviewing former uranium workers (those who worked in the mines and the mills and, sometimes, both) and their families in the towns of Grants and Church Rock, N.M.: ground zero for uranium mining from the mid-1950s until the early 1980s. Years, sometimes decades, after laboring in the mines and mills, workers exhibit diseases associated with uranium exposure. The federal government, under a program called the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), has paid more than $750 million in restitution to uranium workers on nearly 8,000 claims. But in order to receive compensation, workers have to have been employed before 1972—the year the federal government stopped purchasing uranium for its nuclear arms build-up. The workers I spoke with are part of a group of thousands who worked in uranium mines or mills after December 31, 1971, and have diseases linked to uranium exposure, but, so far, cannot get compensation from RECA.

Spouses of former workers also suffer health effects, even though they may have never set foot in a mine or mill. The Post ’71 Uranium Workers Committee, an advocacy organization cofounded by Linda Evers, surveyed 421 wives of uranium workers and found that 40 percent reported miscarriages, stillbirths or children with birth defects. One vector of contamination may have been laundry brought home from the mines. Cipriano Lucero, 61, worked in the Anaconda mill, where uranium was processed into yellowcake, a toxic substance. “[His clothes] were stinky and yellow and no matter how much bleach, they would never come out, they were still yellow,” says his wife, Liz, adding, “I would wash his clothes with our clothes.”

Liz was diagnosed with tumors in her ovaries when she was 28 and had to have a hysterectomy. She says the doctor told her it was uranium-related. Liz and Cipriano cofounded the Post ’71 Uranium Workers Committee with Evers.

So who’s to blame?

Uranium mining has long been known to be dangerous work. As early as 1546, in Schneeberg, Germany, it was noted that large numbers of uranium miners were dying from lung disease. The first scientific report linking uranium mining and lung disease was published in Germany in 1879, and that disease was shown in 1913 to be lung cancer. More scientific articles in the 1930s and 1940s seemed to indicate that radon and “radon daughters,” byproducts of uranium decay, were the primary cause.

But, driven by the Cold War push for nuclear arms, uranium mining continued unchecked with “little attention… paid to the health of uranium miners,” according to a Department of Labor historian.

In 1950, an Irish-Navajo sheep herder named Paddy Martinez found a bright yellow rock of uranium ore near Haystack, N.M. That set off a mining boom in the Four Corners (where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado meet), providing sorely needed jobs.

“[The men] wanted to provide for their families, and the [mining] companies came in and said, ‘Hey, you guys are gonna make good money, have good benefits,’ ” says Liz Lucero. When she and Cipriano first got married, in 1976, he was working in a gas station for $3.85/hour. He took a job at the Anaconda mill the next year in order to get benefits and more money; about, he figures, $6 an hour. “Had to,” he says. “Had to support our family.”

Companies also lured workers with patriotism. “Every day, they told us we were doing our part for the Cold War effort,” says Linda Evers. “They’d tell us, ‘We won the Cold War because of you guys.’”

As the boom took off, Grants declared itself “The Uranium Capital of the World.”

Workers like Evers say they didn’t understand the dangers of uranium exposure, in part because the diseases take years to manifest. “When I was working, no one had been getting sick,” says Evers.

During the 1960s, Navajos working in uranium mines, few of whom smoked cigarettes, started experiencing high rates of lung cancer. Advocates and workers pressured the federal government—the sole purchaser of uranium from 1948 until 1971—for remedies. In 1979, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) introduced the first bill to compensate uranium workers and others for diseases attributable to radiation exposure, but it wasn’t until 1990 that RECA became law. With RECA, the government recognized its responsibility for the harm done to uranium miners and apologized “on behalf of the nation.” A 2000 bill expanded RECA to cover uranium mill workers, ore transporters and above-ground miners. Workers with diseases such as lung cancer, pulmonary fibrosis and silicosis are eligible for $100,000 in restitution. But the act only covers workers who were employed before 1972.

The Four Corners mining boom continued, however, thanks to nuclear power. It didn’t slow until 1979, when a glut of uranium on the world market led to a steep price drop, and layoffs began. By 1989, the last conventional uranium mine in New Mexico had closed.

All of the dozen former workers interviewed for this article worked after 1971 and are therefore denied RECA benefits. Tommy Reed, who worked in the mines until 1983 and has a constant cough, as well as skin and lung problems, finds this untenable. “We did the same work, have the same diseases, but we’re not covered,” he says. “What’s the rationale behind that?”

According to Chris Shuey, who directs the Uranium Impact Assessment Study at the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, the government reasoned its responsibility ended in 1971 when it stopped purchasing uranium. Many Congress members, he adds, believe the new standards on radiation exposure passed in 1969 protected uranium workers. Yet, post-1971 workers are still dying. Something didn’t work.

A failure to regulate

Health and safety protections for uranium workers were, for many years, spotty at best and negligent at worst. The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Mines (BOM), established in 1910 to reduce accidents, had little regulatory authority and was also tasked with “mineral resource development.” State laws were piecemeal: In 1958, for example, New Mexico instituted a policy to “clear all areas” of mines that exceeded safe levels of radon, but “there was limited enforcement,”according to a 2002 National Institutes of Health paper by Doug Brugge and Rob Goble.

Federal responsibility for mine safety was reshuffled twice in the 1970s. The Mining Enforcement and Safety Administration(MESA) took over for the BOM in 1973 due to concerns about conflicts of interest. In 1978, the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) replaced MESA as part of the sweeping reforms of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act. MSHA also assumed responsibility for uranium mills.

MSHA’s motto is “Protecting Miners’ Safety and Health Since 1978.” Former uranium workers interviewed—all of whom worked at mines and mills from the mid-1970s through 1982 or 1983— don’t believe it did a very good job.

Radon is “one of the most potent carcinogens known,” according to Dr. Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility. But during the 1970s, government regulations didn’t mandate regular federal inspections to measure radon levels at uranium mines. Neither MSHA nor the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (which inherited some of the BOM’s responsibilities) could provide In These Times with confirmation that the government conducted inspections for radon levels at that time. Companies were supposed to self-monitor, and if they detected high levels of radon, implement safety measures.

By 1981, MSHA was supposed to be checking radon levels at the mines annually. Several workers remember inspections, but told In These Times that when inspectors were coming, supervisors had workers barricade the unsafe areas. When the inspectors left, the barricades came down and the workers went back in. At mills, “[inspectors] never got out of the trucks,” says Evers. “Maybe they did, but I never saw them.”

One effective way to reduce exposure to radon is through ventilation. All underground mines are supposed to be well-ventilated, and according to 1973 guidelines, uranium mines specifically had to have “an adequate quantity of good-quality air” in working areas so as to keep radon levels below the threshold. But in a survey of 1,302 post-1971 workers conducted by the Post ’71 Uranium Workers Committee in 2009, only 14 percent said their work areas had adequate ventilation; 36 percent said no and almost half answered “sometimes.”

The ventilation guidelines didn’t extend to uranium mills, despite exposure hazards there as well. At mills, uranium ore is refined into yellowcake, which is 80 percent to 90 percent uranium oxide. When inhaled, it can become embedded in the lungs, increasing the risk of pulmonary fibrosis, which can be fatal. When ingested, it can damage the kidneys.

Cipriano Lucero worked in uranium mills from 1977 to 1982. He has pulmonary fibrosis, and one of his kidneys failed when he was 48, necessitating a transplant. He uses a continuous positive pressure airway machine at night and uses an oxygen tank during the day. Asked whether there was proper ventilation in the mills where he worked, Lucero simply replies, “Not really.” Linda Evers says the dust was so bad in mills that she sometimes couldn’t see. “They had exhaust fans,” she says, “but it wasn’t anything different than an oversized box fan. They just moved [the dust] around.

“We were allowed one dust mask a month, a paper dust mask,” she continues. “After one shift, they were clogged, so we just wore bandanas, or nothing.”

Lucero agrees: “We had masks but they were useless … paper masks only. Sometimes you wouldn’t even have a mask, breathing in all that dust.” Workers often coughed up black soot.

Given the dangers of working with uranium, it would seem that companies should have provided extensive training on radiation hazards—but they did so at their own discretion. “We had a class, lasted about an hour or two,” said Lucero. “Mostly about first aid, if you hurt yourself, how to wrap it.” They didn’t talk about radiation. Larry King, who worked in the mines, mainly as a surveyor, for eight years, said he had only one safety meeting and that was when he started work.

“No one told us of the hazards of radiation, uranium or radon,” he says. Seventy-nine percent of the workers questioned in the Post ’71 survey believed that safety measures—including information and equipment—were inadequate.

Surrounded

Church Rock is located in the Navajo Nation, 55 miles west of Grants. Nestled in red rock hills, the town gets its name from a formation that looks like a steeple. Local Navajo were drawn to the mines, like the residents of Grants, because of the well-paying jobs. Because Navajo miners often worked within walking distance of their homes, their risk of exposure was heightened.

Larry King, who is Navajo, lives about five miles from the entrance to Church Rock Mine, off a gravel road just past a hand-painted “Old Church Rock Mine Road” sign. In addition to the overwhelming likelihood of uranium exposure at work in the mine, there’s a strong chance he was, and may still be, exposed at home. His house is a short distance from where, on July 16, 1979, a tailings pond dam broke, releasing 93 million gallons of radioactive water. It was, by volume, the largest single release of radioactivity in the United States.

King is a sturdy-looking 58-year-old, but he suffers from respiratory problems that leave him fatigued and short of breath when he works on his property, which includes 13 cattle. “I used to do quite a bit of work several years ago, and now I’m limited,” he says.

Five miles north of where King lives is the home of Edith Hood, also a Navajo former mine worker. She worked as a probe technician in the Kerr McGee mine for a total of six years. A quiet 64-year-old, she’s still energetic despite having been diagnosed with lymphoma in 2006. Her front yard is less than half a mile from the abandoned mine where she once worked. Just a short distance away is a buried tailings pile—mine waste that contains uranium and may still be giving off radon. “Since we live and work here,” she says, “it’s a double whammy.”

Waiting

In 2015, bills to amend RECA to include post-1971 workers were introduced in the House and Senate, spearheaded by three Democratic New Mexico legislators: Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and Rep. Ben Ray Luján.

It’s the fourth attempt since 2000. Keith Killian, a private attorney in Grand Junction, Colo., who is fighting to get compensation for post-1971 workers, sees reason for “guarded” optimism. “There are bipartisan sponsors,” he says. “That’s really good. In the past we didn’t have a lot of Republicans interested.”

Still, no bill has received a hearing and nothing is scheduled. Neither Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) nor House Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte responded to requests for comment.

Cipriano Lucero, a soft-spoken man of few words, did what he was told when he worked in the mills. He, like many other uranium workers, said if he complained about working conditions, he risked losing his job. One of his tasks, washing uranium off air filters, required him to stand in foot-deep water containing uranium runoff. Doctors, he says, told him radiation exposure had made his left leg brittle; it broke three times and eventually had to be amputated. Now he has a prosthesis, with a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe on it. Lucero has trouble walking and usually uses a cane or, when he gets too tired, a motorized wheelchair.

“Some days are terrible,” he says. “I can barely get out of bed. I just wonder how I’m gonna die…suffocate or whatever.” He’s only 61.

“It’s haunting us,” says Jerry Sanchez, who worked as both a miner and miller. “If you worked there, you got it coming. If you don’t have it, it’s coming.”

Grants is the quintessential boom town, post-boom. Now, the best jobs are in the prisons. Along its main street, a stretch of Route 66, there are almost as many weed-infested lots as there are occupied buildings. A half-mile stretch contains six payday loan companies—four in one block. A few large neon signs beckon people to buildings that no longer exist. An abandoned gas station has a large sign advertising Marlboro for $1.69 a pack. Lucero says that in its prime, Grants had “lots and lots of people. … The restaurants were full all the time, people [were] buying cars and houses.” But the streets are mostly deserted now. Asked if his friends and family have moved away, he answers, “No. Most of them died because of cancer.”

Eli Massey contributed research to this article.

This blog originally appeared in inthesetimes.com on February 15, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Joseph Sorrentino is a writer and photographer. He has been documenting the lives of agricultural workers on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border for 12 years.

Trade Deals Like TPP Encourage 'Business Decisions' Like This Heartbreaking One from Indianapolis

Friday, February 12th, 2016
Kenneth Quinnell

In this video, workers at the Carrier plant in Indianapolis react to the company announcing that it will ship 1,400 local jobs to Mexico in what they described as “strictly a business decision.” You can hear the heartbreak and outrage in the voices of the workers who must now scramble to figure out how to take care of their families. Carrier makes heating, air conditioning, ventilation and other systems. The layoffs are scheduled to begin in 2017.

Aside from corporate greed, the main reason that Carrier can get away with something like this is the major flaws that have been built into international trade deals like North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. These kinds of deals make sure that these types of tragic moments happen more frequently.

First off, these deals provide companies that want to offshore to trading partners with extraordinary powers and legal rights they do not have under U.S. law–powers and rights that shift the balance of power further away from working people. Second, these deals put U.S. manufacturers in closer competition with foreign companies that pay low wages and don’t respect labor rights. This encourages U.S. companies to offshore in order to keep up with those foreign companies.

The third reason these deals encourage outsourcing is that they fail to level the playing field in terms of taxes. Such a deal could set a minimum level for corporate tax rates or create rules to prevent companies from gaming the tax system and pitting countries against each other. With those options left off the table, a race to the bottom is encouraged, where companies shift jobs to countries with lower tax rates, which, in turn, encourages higher-tax rate countries to lower taxes and the ripple effect those lower rates have on the economy and the government’s goods and services. A trade deal meant to create U.S. jobs would address this.

And lastly, of course, these trade deals eliminate tariffs in the trade zone, further encouraging companies to shift jobs to trade partners because corporations know they can ship goods back into the United States without paying tariffs, thus using the tariff cuts to increase U.S. imports instead of increasing U.S. exports.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on February 11, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Kenneth Quinnell is a long time blogger, campaign staffer, and political activist.  Prior to joining AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as a labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.  He was the past Communications Director for Darcy Burner and New Media Director for Kendrick Meek.  He has over ten years as a college instructor teaching political science and American history.

Why Shouldn't Education Be Free?

Thursday, February 11th, 2016

image1Why shouldn’t higher education be free for everyone?

Higher education is not a commodity. It is a social good. It’s increasingly necessary to get a good, middle-class job. A more highly educated workforce can be more adaptable and make the country more competitive. So why shouldn’t it be free for everyone?

The United States’ $1.3 trillion and growing student debt problem isn’t going away. Neither is the demand for highly educated workers, even while wages stagnate or decline. Unless something is done to lower the cost of high-quality post-secondary education and help those already dealing with student debt, we face a rather bleak future.

Fortunately, some policy makers seem to know this, though there are differences between the most popular ideas for how to best fix the broken system.

The differences between the plans largely revolve around one of the six principles behind the debt-free higher education movement: “Is the aid distributed progressively—investing most in those who may not attend or complete college, or not maximize their participation in the economy after college, due to student debt?”

In a political reality in which there have been massive cuts to funding for public higher education, with teaching jobs turned into precarious, low-wage work that makes it hard for teachers to teach, it makes sense to allocate student financial aid based on need as a way of leveling the playing field. Those who truly can afford to pay out of pocket should do so. This way, programs maintain funding and quality, while everyone is provided equal access to the public resource of higher education.

Or maybe funding for tuition-free higher education can come from a small tax on financial transactions on Wall Street, so everyone can go for free.

The point is that everyone should have the opportunity to access high-quality public higher education regardless of how much money their families have or don’t have. This isn’t just a moral argument, it’s an economic one: the more educated a workforce, the better off the economy is. Even workers with less education benefit from “education externalities.”

So let’s think big—how do we ensure every single person who wants to get an education can? That’s a challenge every candidate must answer.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on February 9, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Sarah Ann Lewis, esq., Senior Lead Researcher, Policy.

Londrigan: Judge's Ruling Against County RTW Ordinance a Victory for Kentucky's Working Families

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016

berry craigThis post originally appeared at Kentucky State AFL-CIO.

Federal District Judge David Hale’s decision striking down Hardin County’s “right to work” ordinance was a victory for Kentucky’s working families, said Bill Londrigan, president of the Kentucky State AFL-CIO. He continued:

These illegal ordinances would have affected all working people, union and nonunion, by decreasing wages, lowering median household incomes, increasing poverty and undermining workplace safety. In short, these ordinances are wrong. The courts rejected out-of-state special interests’ attempt to take over local governments by pushing a radical outside agenda.

In January 2015, nine unions filed suit against Hardin County’s right to work ordinance, arguing that federal labor law permits only states and territories to pass right to work laws. Eleven other counties approved similar ordinances and Hale’s ruling, in effect, invalidates them, too.

Both sides stated their cases before Hale in Louisville in August 2015. He ruled in favor of the unions on Feb. 3.

Londrigan continued:

We would like to thank all of the working families and elected officials that fought hard against these illegal ordinances. The Kentucky AFL-CIO and hardworking Kentuckians will continue to fight for fair wages, more good jobs and more investment in education—and fight hard against unfair, illegal and unnecessary legislation. It is unfortunate that out-of-state special interests wasted taxpayers’ money with these attacks on Kentucky workers by pushing a radical out-of-state agenda. Our mission is to improve the lives of all working Kentuckians and raise the standard of living for all Kentuckians. We salute the working people of Hardin County for taking a stand against out-of-state corporate interests.

The pro-right to work Americans for Prosperity Kentucky contributed a $50,000 grant to a legal defense fund for counties that faced legal action for passing RTW ordinances, according to Kevin Wheatley of cn/2 Pure Politics.

Buddy Cutler of Louisville, attorney for the unions, said Hale’s opinion was solid, well-reasoned and followed established law. “It is a victory for working people that honors Congress’ intent and implements the wise federal labor policy that companies and unions should be free to negotiate contracts without undue interference from local officials.”

Hale said the National Labor Relations Act “preempts the right-to-work, hiring-hall, and dues-checkoff provisions of Hardin County Ordinance 300.” He also ruled that “Section 14(b) is the only exception to NLRA preemption of the field of labor relations, and it does not extend to counties or municipalities. Because Ordinance 300 does not fall under §14(b)’s narrow exception, sections 4, 5, and 6 of the ordinance are preempted and thus invalid.”

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on February 9, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Berry Craig is an emeritus professor of history at the West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance writer. He is a member of American Federation of Teachers Local 1360, the recording secretary for the Western Kentucky Area Council, AFL-CIO, and the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War, Hidden History of Kentucky Soldiers and Hidden History of Western Kentucky.

This week in the war on workers: Chicago teachers protest planned cuts and layoffs

Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

Chicago schools and teachers are once again under serious attack from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, and once again, the Chicago Teachers Union is showing that it is a powerful force. Thousands of teachers and supporters rallied Thursday, with 16 people arrested, protesting massive proposed cuts and layoffs:

Officials with Chicago Public Schools said Tuesday they’re ready to cut $100 million from school budgets and force teachers to pay more pension costs after their union rejected the latest contract offer, ratcheting up the tone of contentious negotiations that have lasted over a year. […]

The latest flare-up followed an offer a CTU bargaining team rejected Monday, after both sides had deemed it “serious.” The proposal included pay raises and job security, but union officials said it didn’t address school conditions or a lack of services.

The teachers have authorized a strike, though that wouldn’t happen until spring if it happens at all.

? Weeks after the West Virginia Senate passed an anti-union bill, the state House followed suit. A PPP poll conducted for the state AFL-CIO found high support for unions and opposition to laws weakening them.

? A union has filed a National Labor Relations Board petition to represent New York Uber drivers.

? Speaking of which, New York Uber drivers are pissed, with good reason.

A crowd of 600 drivers gathered outside the Uber office in Long Island City, Queens, to protest a 15 percent reduction in fares last month, which also means 15 percent lower wages. That pay cut is on top of Uber’s 20 percent slashing of fares in 2014. All things being equal, drivers who began less than two years ago have seen their pay tumble a whopping 35 percent.

Actually, it’s not just New York.

Last September, Dallas-area drivers for UberBlack, the company’s high-end car service, received an email informing them that they would be expected to start picking up passengers on UberX, its low-cost option.

The next day, when the policy was scheduled to go into effect, dozens of drivers caravaned to Uber’s office in downtown Dallas and planted themselves outside until company officials met with them.

? Indiana repealed prevailing wage protections to let them lower wages on public construction projects … and costs have gone up since then.

Not your typical Alabama labor story:

The state’s largest employer – the University of Alabama at Birmingham and UAB Medicine – plans to raise employees’ minimum wage to $11 an hour beginning in March.

UAB employs more than 23,000 faculty and staff. The institution currently pays $8.24 an hour, about a dollar higher than the federally mandated minimum wage.

? For union members: seven steps to opening up bargaining.

?

This blog originally appeared in dailykos.com on February 6, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and Labor editor since 2011.

Colombia Must Protect All Workers

Monday, February 8th, 2016

The government of Colombia continues to allow employers to undermine workers’ rights and fails to effectively inspect and prosecute alleged violations of labor laws. Violence against trade unionists often occurs without any effective government response.

President Barack Obama will have an important opportunity to raise these concerns during Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ visit to Washington, D.C., this week. In unison with our partners in Colombia, the AFL-CIO supports the peace negotiations and again stresses that worker and human rights issues must be addressed to build a lasting and sustainable peace inclusive of the interests of all workers, Afro-Colombians and indigenous communities.

Any sustainable solution to the crisis in Colombia must include respect for workers’ rights, access to decent work and a commitment to shared prosperity. Real change requires a change in commitment and practices: the U.S. and Colombian governments must stop looking the other way when employers violate the law. We have shared these priorities with the current administration.

The armed conflict has been used by the Colombian government for decades to systematically deny basic labor and human rights. Since 2000, more than 1,100 trade unionists have been murdered and another 5,000 have received death threats by paramilitary, government and armed guerilla forces for exercising fundamental labor rights. Despite the commitments of the 2011 Labor Action Plan to increase legal protections for organizing and collective bargaining and to bolster formal work, little progress has been made. This is yet another example of trade agreements failing to live up to their promises for workers.

Years after Plan Colombia went into effect, the government of Colombia refuses to investigate violence against labor activists, allows employers to deny labor rights and neglects to inspect, much less prosecute, alleged violations of labor laws. Yet, the U.S. Trade Representative has not acted.

The AFL-CIO joins many civil society allies in calling on the U.S. government to fulfill its commitment to proactively monitor ongoing violations of the Labor Action Plan and broader human rights concerns. The U.S. government support must assist Colombia in building a sustained peace, inclusive of the needs of all Colombians. As presidents Santos and Obama meet this week, the AFL-CIO has communicated to the Obama administration our support for high-level engagement but also that cooperation between Colombia and the United States must address concerns that have been largely neglected over the 15 years of Plan Colombia.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on February 5, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Brian Finnegan is a Global Worker Rights coordinator for the AFL-CIO.

This Bill Would Force Large Corporations To Pay a Fine if They Don’t Pay Workers a Living Wage

Friday, February 5th, 2016

FullSizeRender (1)A group of Chicago-area progressive groups and unions are backing a bill that would punish large companies who don’t pay their workers a living wage.

The Responsible Business Act would charge corporations who employ more than 750 Cook County workers at less than $15 per hour fees for paying what advocates call poverty-level wages. Since it was introduced in October last year, the act has gained the support of unions and grassroots organizations fighting for economic justice.

Two actions in support of the proposed Responsible Business Act (RBA) took place in Cook County on Monday. In Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, Organizing Neighborhoods for Equality: Northside, or ONE Northside, led a teach-in at their offices and canvassed outside of corporate stores. Supporters of the RBA including IIRON and the Reclaim Campaign held an action at a Walmart store in suburban Bedford Park, just outside the city limits.

The RBA is a county-level act and is sponsored by Commissioner Robert Steele of the Cook County Board of Commissioners. It currently has three co-sponsors: Joan Patricia Murphy, Luis Arroyo, Jr. and Jerry Butler; organizers say they also have two commitments to vote “yes” from Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and Larry Suffredin. Three more commissioners need to support the act in order for it to pass through the 17-member board. Monday’s actions called on 11th District Commissioner John Daley and 10th District Commissioner Bridget Gainer to back the bill.

At the canvassing event organized by ONE Northside, supporters of the RBA called for Gainer to co-sponsor the proposal. They engaged pedestrians outside of Target, Starbucks and McDonald’s—all corporations that would potentially be affected by the RBA.

“The CEOs of these big corporations continue to make massive profits while the workers, who are responsible for the functioning of the corporations, are forced to rely on public services to survive off their poverty wages,” said Eugene Lim, a member of the group’s Workers’ Rights Team.

Commissioner Gainer did not respond to a request for comment.

The Responsible Business Act would give corporations with over 750 employees a choice: either raise their employees’ wages to a living wage—determined by Cook County Chief Financial Officer Ivan Samstein at $14.57 per hour without benefits and $11.66 per hour with benefits—or pay a $750 fee for each dollar paid below the hourly living wage per employee.

For example, a corporation where 100 workers earn $13.57 per hour (one dollar below the living wage of $14.57 per hour) would have the choice of raising their hourly wage by $1 for each worker, or paying a fee of $75,000 ($1 times 100 workers, times the $750 fine). This fee is designed to supplement the housing and childcare assistance, Medicaid costs and other services out of reach for workers earning poverty wages. The fees would be earmarked specifically for public assistance programs and distributed by the county.

Seventy-five percent of the revenue would be placed into a newly established Family Sustainability Fund, 20 percent would go to pre-existing health care spending and the remainder would be spent on administrative costs. A nine-person commission would advise the Cook County Board of Commissioners on allocation of the collected funds.

Monday morning’s South Side action took place at the Walmart store at 7050 S. Cicero Avenue. About 50 people, including low-wage workers, students and members of IIRON, Reclaim Campaign, the Bridgeport Alliance and National Nurses United were present. At 11 A.M., the protesters entered Walmart, carrying signs and chanting “Hey you, millionaires, pay your fair share!”

Gianna Chacon is an undergraduate at Roosevelt University. She says her $10 per hour retail job at Marshalls isn’t enough to cover her living expenses. “These companies can afford to pay us enough to live on, but instead they choose to squeeze their workers and make a few million more,” she told the crowd.

The group brought with them a 3′ x 5′ invoice for what they say is the $33 million owed by Walmart to workers and taxpayers. The number is an estimate of the amount of taxpayer money that goes to supporting Walmart employees to provide essential services that they are unable to afford. According to a study by the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), the Responsible Business Act would affect 67 employers in Cook County and raise the wages of over 16,000 workers. The average increase would be $7.11 per hour, per worker.

Yamara Ayala, a mother of two and a home care aide for her father, said at Monday’s action that she has high hopes for the Responsible Business Act. “I’m hoping it does go forward because it will help so many families. … None of us are getting our fair share, and that’s what we’re fighting for.”

Monday’s South Side action was one of the first to target 11th District Commissioner John Daley, who has yet to pledge support for the Responsible Business Act. Tom Gaulke, a leader with IIRON and the Bridgeport Alliance, addressed Daley during Monday’s action: “You have the power to help us make large corporations like Walmart pay their fair share to workers and pay their fair share to our communities.”

Commissioner Daley did not respond to a request for comment.

If implemented, the act would incrementally raise the minimum wage that large employers are required to pay employees to avoid fees. The rate would increase by $1.35 per year, from the current minimum of $8.25 in Cook County, to a high of $15.00 over five years. The UIC study found that the Act could raise up to $500 million during the four year phase-in, and $200 million after it is fully implemented.

Emiliano Vera, a Northwestern University undergraduate and a low-wage worker himself, said at Monday’s action that “We need to speak up to challenge that blatant lie [that low wage work is justified], and tell the story that the real culprits are the corporations that refuse to pay a living wage.”

This blog originally appeared in inthesetimes.com on February 3, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Justyna Bicz is a freelance journalist based in Chicago, and an editorial intern with In These Times.

Trumka: TPP Is a New Low

Thursday, February 4th, 2016
Kenneth Quinnell

In a new op-ed for the Hill, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka explains the key reasons why the Trans-Pacific Partnership is bad for working people, both in the United States and overseas. Trumka describes the deal by saying that “the TPP is a giveaway to big corporations, special interests and all those who want economic rules that benefit the wealthy few.”

An excerpt:

We’ve been down this road before. The Wall Street and Washington elite always tell us that this time will be different. The truth is these trade deals have ripped apart the fabric of our nation. We see the shuttered factories. We visit towns that look like they are stuck in the past. We talk to the workers who lost everything, only to be told they should retrain in another field—but Congress has been slow to fund and authorize those programs. From NAFTA to CAFTA to Korea and now the TPP, these agreements have continually put profits over people. By driving down our wages, they make our economy weaker, not stronger.

In many ways, the TPP is a new low. A quick search of the agreement shows no mention of the terms “raising wages” or “climate change.” And by ramming through fast track legislation earlier this year, Congress effectively barred itself from making a single improvement to the TPP.

Working people deserve a better process and a better product. We understand better than anyone that the TPP is just another tool to enrich corporations at the expense of everyday families. We cannot and should not accept it.

Because it can’t fix the TPP, Congress has to take the step of saying to 11 other countries, “No, not this TPP.” Taking that brave step is necessary to create trade rules that lift people up, not crush them under crony capitalism.

Read the full op-ed.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on February 3, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Kenneth Quinnell is a long time blogger, campaign staffer, and political activist.  Prior to joining AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as a labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.  He was the past Communications Director for Darcy Burner and New Media Director for Kendrick Meek.  He has over ten years as a college instructor teaching political science and American history.

What Is “Economic Freedom,” And Who Is It For?

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016

Terrance Heath

The Heritage Foundation has released its annual “Index of Economic Freedom.” As America enters an election season increasingly influenced by anger at an economy rigged in favor of the wealthy, maybe it’s time to ask: What is “economic freedom,” and who is it for?

What does economic freedom mean to you, personally? Given that we only recently recovered from a serious national bout of “Powerball Fever,” it’s a safe bet that for most people it means not having to worry about having enough money. It means earning a livable wage; enough to meet basic needs, like food, shelter, transportation, and medical care. It means earning enough to support your family, and having leisure time to enjoy your family. It means being able to educate your children — or yourself — without putting yourself in hock with debt. It means having a fair shot at reaching the next rung on the economic ladder, and securing a better future for your children. It means being able to retire with a decent standard of living.

For the Heritage Foundation, “economic freedom” is “the fundamental right of every human to control his or her own labor and property.” Who’d disagree with that? However, the Heritage definition quickly moves from a focus on the individual to a society in which “governments allow labor, capital, and goods to move freely, and refrain from coercion or constraint of liberty beyond the extent necessary to protect and maintain liberty itself.”

It sounds good, until you realize we’re not talking about the rights or freedoms of persons like you and me, but wealthy people and “corporate persons.” Heritage breaks “economic freedom” down into four pillars: “Rule of Law,” concerning property rights and “freedom from corruption”; “Limited Government,” concerning “fiscal freedom” and government spending; “Regulatory Efficiency,” concerning “business freedom”, “labor freedom”, and “monetary freedom”; and “Open Markets,” concerning “trade freedom”, “investment freedom,” and “financial freedom.” They repeat the word “freedom” as often as possible, but what do all of those things mean in reality?

If you’re an average worker, it means little to no “regulations concerning minimum wages.” So employers can pay you as little as they like. If you can’t live on what they pay, you’re free to try to earn more elsewhere. Good luck with that, because who gets rich paying higher wages than their competitors? Several of the countries in the Heritage’s “economic freedom” top 10 had the lowest hourly minimum wages, including Chile ($2.20) and Estonia ($2.70). Others have no minimum wage.

There are some developed countries with no minimum wage on Heritage’s index, like Switzerland (number 4) and Denmark (number 12, just behind the U.S.), but they tend to rely on strong trade unions to negotiate fair wages for workers.

If you’re an American worker, it means driving down wages with trade agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), that institute what Heritage calls “trade freedom,” defined as “the absence of tariff and non-tariff barriers” on imports and exports of goods and services. The top 10 on Heritage’s index is almost a membership list of TPP countries, including Singapore, New Zealand, Chile, Australia and Canada.

It means there are few, if any, labor laws prescribing maximum working hours. There’s no limit on how many hours your employer can require you to work. It means you don’t even have a right to a two-day weekend.

It means there are few, if any, “laws inhibiting layoffs,” “severance requirements,” or “measurable regulatory restraints on hiring and hours worked.” In other words, forget about “right to work” states. It’s a “right to work” world, in which you have the right to work harder and longer for less.

It means no Social Security as we know it. In fact, it means no government programs, as Heritage’s index uses zero government spending as a benchmark. (So underdeveloped countries with little governmental capacity may receive “artificially high scores” for government spending.) The government won’t have anything to spend anyway, because “fiscal freedom” means a low top marginal income tax rate, and a low top marginal corporate tax rate. The lower the rates, the higher the “fiscal freedom” score. Serving as a tax haven for corporations and wealthy individuals seeking to avoid taxes back home, under the banner of “investment freedom,” can earn countries like Ireland (number eight on Heritage’s index) high “economic freedom” scores.

How does all this “economic freedom,” mostly for the wealthy and “corporate persons,” work out for the rest of society? According to Heritage, more “economic freedom” is supposed to mean less inequality. Yet, some of the highest ranking countries on Heritage’s index have the highest rates of inequality.

? Despite being number one on Heritage’s index, Hong Kong’s yawning gap between rich and poor has fueled protests, despite increasing minimum wages.
? Number two on Heritage’s index, Singapore has one of the highest rates of inequality, leading to calls for the government to take action.
? The “miracle of Chile” (number seven on Heritage’s index), so christened by conservative economist Milton Friedman, has lost its shine as Chile’s plantation economy has made it one of the countries with the most serious inequality problems.

Every year Heritage comes out with a new “economic freedom” index, and every year the questions behind the numbers is the same: What is economic freedom, and who is it for? The answer remains the same, too. Heritage’s “economic freedom” is freedom for the wealthy and giant corporations to further consolidate their wealth and power, and not much else.

This blog originally appeared in ourfuture.org on February 2, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Terrance Heath is the Online Producer at Campaign for America’s Future. He has consulted on blogging and social media consultant for a number of organizations and agencies. He is a prominent activist on LGBT and HIV/AIDS issues.

Detroit teachers sue school district to fix crumbling schools and fire emergency manager

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016

The Detroit Federation of Teachers joined with some parents Thursday to sue the school district over conditions in the schools and call for the dismissal of state-appointed Emergency Manager Darnell Earley.

“Asking a child to learn or a teacher to instruct with steam coming from their mouth due to the cold in the classroom, in vermin infested rooms, with ceiling tiles falling from above, with buckets to catch the rain water falling from above, or in buildings that are literally making them sick is more than what is legally or constitutionally tolerable,” the lawsuit says.

The complaint also alleges that Earley, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder and has sweeping powers, has neglected his duties and made the district’s financial problems worse. Officials have said DPS is in danger of running out of cash in April or May.

The plaintiffs are asking a judge to remove Earley and restore local control to the school district. They also want the district to be ordered to fix the building problems, promptly investigate complaints and create a long-term capital plan.

Earlier in the week, a Detroit student explained why she supports her teachers:

Trying to silence teachers by threatening to take away their jobs is childish and unfair to my education. When you have lost these teachers, how will you replace them? Who wants to work in a school district where ceilings fall on student’s heads, and mushrooms grow in the hallways? I did not have an English teacher for the first
four months of school, and last year I did not have a French teacher the whole first semester. With a history of all these vacancies, how will firing 23 teachers help your case at all. […]

Legislators, the Emergency Manager and others have said that teachers are hindering our education by doing these sickouts, but the reality is that none of you live in Detroit, and none of you have children who go to a DPS school. None of you have to come to school every day and share books (if we even have books), or be in the middle of doing work and the lights cut off. None of you have to worry about your safety everyday of your life, or walk past mushrooms growing in the hallway. None of you have to skip lunch every day because the food is moldy, and the milk is old. None of you experience what we experience, and until you have, you have no right to speak on anything happening in our district. Our teachers are doing what is best for us, and my education is not being hindered any more than it was when I went a whole Semester without a French/English teacher.

When you’re talking about kids facing unsanitary conditions and hunger and being deprived of a chance at an education, you find the money to fix it. Just like you don’t poison a city’s water supply. Except if you’re Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and his cadre of emergency managers, apparently.

This blog originally appeared in dailykos.com on January 28, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and Labor editor since 2011.

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