Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for August, 2018

“Safety Is Our Top Priority”

Wednesday, August 29th, 2018

I read a lot of articles about workers getting killed on the job in preventable incidents. They’re always upsetting.

But one of the things that infuriates me most is the all-too-common statement from a company spokesperson that “Safety is our top priority” after a preventable fatality.

Now, I’m not doubting that losing an employee is a devastating experience for any company owner. The remorse is sincere. But if safety was really the company’s “number one priority,” why is the worker dead?

Here for example we have the Oakland-based Shimmick Construction whose employee, Patrick Ricketts was killed earlier this month.

Family, friends mourning death of construction worker killed in Twin Peaks Tunnel

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (KTVU) – Family and friends are mourning the death of a construction worker, killed after he was hit by a steel beam in the Twin Peaks Tunnel in San Francisco on Friday. Loved ones have identified him as 51-year-old Patrick Ricketts.  “Safety is always our number one priority,” said San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority (SFMTA) Deputy Spokeswoman Erica Kato.

And the spokesperson for Shimmick said in a statement, “Safety is core to everything we do….”

If safety was really the company’s “number one priority,” why is the worker dead?

I’m not sure how SFMTA, which didn’t look up Shimick’s record, defines “always,” or how Shimick defines “core,” but it seems that the company has a rather checkered history when it comes to workplace safety according to the San Francisco Examiner:

Public records reviewed Wednesday revealed another case where the contractor under scrutiny after a steel beam fell and killed a worker in a San Francisco Muni tunnel faced fines for serious and willful safety violations.

Yet as the San Francisco Examiner reported Tuesday, the Oakland-based Shimmick Construction told transit officials last November it had not been cited for a “serious and willful violation” in the past decade when it filled out an application to work on the seismic retrofit of the Twin Peaks Tunnel.

Shimmick Construction has been linked to nearly 50 workplace safety violations since 2008, including serious citations for an accident in 2016 in which a forklift driver was crushed in Southern California. The record raises questions as to whether the company followed safety regulations in the Twin Peaks Tunnel.

Of course, neither SFMTA nor Shimick are alone in suddenly discovering that safety is their top priority after a worker dies or gets hurt.

TPI Composites hires George W. Bush administration official to help fight OSHA citations

Newton, IA — In June, the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration alleged an array of safety problems at TPI’s wind blade factory in Newton. T.J. Castle, TPI’s senior vice president of North American operations… referred to previous TPI statements that identified workplace safety as a top priority.

Amazon Prime Day created a surge in health and safety complaints from exhausted workers

Great Britain — Amazon Prime Day broke records last week – with more than 100 million products sold – but proved the most controversial deal day to date with strikes breaking out across Europe and health and safety complaints from Amazon UK workers soaring by 209 per cent, according to workplace digital campaigning platform Organise. “Ensuring the safety of associates is our number one priority,” Amazon’s spokesperson said.

Birds Eye workers hospitalized after ammonia leak

Darien, — Authorities haven’t disclosed the extent of injuries to 15 people who had “serious exposure” to an ammonia gas leak Sunday morning inside the Birds Eye food packaging plant, but the 15 were transported to five different area hospitals, a hazardous materials team official on the scene said. Janice Monahan, a representative from Pinnacle Foods and Birds Eye, the two companies affiliated with the Darien plant, said in a statement Sunday afternoon that “the safety of our employees is our top priority and focus right now.”

Construction worker injured at Las Vegas stadium site

Las Vegas, NV — A construction worker was rescued today after suffering an injury three stories off the ground at the Las Vegas stadium site, according to the Clark County Fire Department and the developer.  “The worker was evaluated by the project’s onsite medical personnel and taken to an area hospital for further evaluation,” project developer Mortenson-McCarthy said in a statement. “The worker was alert prior to transport. Safety is our top priority on this and every project.”

Chemical Safety Board Suspects Faulty Valve Led To Superior Refinery Explosion

Superior, WI — The U.S. Chemical Safety Board said Thursday that a malfunctioning valve in an alkylation unit appeared to allow a flammable mixture to form and likely caused the explosion at Husky Energy’s refinery in Superior on April 26.. Husky spokesman Mel Duvall said in an email Thursday that the company will continue to work with the CSB to understand the cause of the explosion. “The safety of our employees and the community remains our top priority and we will continue to work collaboratively with the CSB and other investigating agencies,” wrote Duvall.

Accidents at Amazon: workers left to suffer after warehouse injuries

Guardian investigation reveals numerous cases of Amazon workers being treated in ways that leave them homeless, unable to work or bereft of income after workplace accidents. “Amazon has created over 130,000 jobs in the last year alone and now employs over 560,000 people around the world. Ensuring the safety of these associates is our number one priority,” said Amazon spokesperson Melanie Etches in an email.

OSHA opens probe into man’s death

NEW BREMEN, OH  – The Occupation Safety and Health Administration is investigating a worker’s death after an accident at Crown Equipment Corp. on Monday.

The accident is still under investigation, but preliminary information provided by Crown Equipment indicates that employee Travis Temple, 49, Celina, was struck by a lift truck.

“As with any death, the incident is being investigated by the New Bremen police,” according to department news release. “Employee safety is of the utmost importance to Crown,” a company news release states

What’s the Problem?

So what’s the problem with claiming that safety is your top priority?

Well, first, it generally isn’t true. Survival of the company, production, profit, image, etc. are often higher priorities. And in our economic system, that makes sense. A company needs to make a profit to survive.  But tempering that profit motive is why we have laws and regulations — and enforcement of those laws — to ensure that the quest for higher profits doesn’t result in injury, death, pollution or theft.

Now most business owners don’t actually come out and say that profit is more important than safety. Former Massey Coal owner Don Blankenship was an exception, sending memos to his managers urging them to “run more coal” and not waste their time on safety-related work. Partially based on the evidence contained in those memos, Blankenship, who is attempting to run against Joe Manchin for West Virginia Senator, spent a year in jail related to the deaths of 29 miners who died in an April 2010 explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine.

If you ask the CEOs of companies who take this seriously, my bet is you won’t hear the same old tired line that “safety is a priority.”  — Dr. David Michaels

And then there’s the implication that if safety is really management’s top priority, the fatality or injury must have been because the worker didn’t make safety a priority. Or maybe it was just a “freak accident.”

But the main reason not to claim safety as a top “priority,” is that priorities change depending on what’s happening at the time. True, safety may be a top priority today, but tomorrow there may be other “top” priorities. Just ask Elon Musk.

The fact is that safety shouldn’t just be a priority, it should be integral in the way a company does business.

As former OSHA head David Michaels explained in the Harvard Business Review:

Today and every day in the future, corporate leaders need to reassess what safety means and how their company can achieve it. They need to recognize that safety is a value proposition, that safety management and operational excellence are inextricably linked. If you ask the CEOs of companies who take this seriously, my bet is you won’t hear the same old tired line that “safety is a priority.” They understand that safety is not a priority — it is an essential precondition of their work. It is a fundamental component of their operating culture. Safety, ultimately, is at the core of what they do.

So call me cynical, call me a downer. But I reflexively shudder whenever I hear the words “Safety is our top priority.” Better to just express your sorrow and regret, and recommit yourself to learning the lessons and taking whatever measures are necessary to make sure that your safety system actually ensures that all of your other employees will come home alive and healthy at the end of the shift.

***

Coming next in the series of Things that Drive Me Crazy: Employers who call their employees “team members.”

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on August 28, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and I spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Federal Judge Rules Trump’s Anti-Worker Executive Orders Unconstitutional

Tuesday, August 28th, 2018

When Donald Trump issued a series of executive orders attacking the rights of federal government workers, he wasn’t prepared for the response from working people. Our response, led by AFGE, included filing lawsuits to stop the orders and rallying across the country in support of federal workers. Now a federal judge has agreed with working people that these executive orders are illegal.

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson ruled that key provisions of the three executive orders are either unconstitutional under the First Amendment, violate congressional intent or exceed the president’s authority.

AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. lauded the ruling:

President Trump’s illegal action was a direct assault on the legal rights and protections that Congress specifically guaranteed to the public-sector employees across this country who keep our federal government running every single day.

We are heartened by the judge’s ruling and by the huge outpouring of support shown to federal workers by lawmakers from both parties, fellow union workers and compassionate citizens across the country. Our members go to work every single day to serve the American people, and they deserve all the rights and protections afforded to them by our Founding Fathers.

Now that the judge has issued her decision, I urge all agencies that have attempted to enforce this illegal executive order to restore all previously negotiated contracts and to bargain in good faith with employee representatives on any future changes as required under the law.

Regardless of what attacks on working people corporate interests and their allies dream up next, the labor movement will continue to stand up against any attempts to weaken our rights.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on August 27, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

Facing rising temperatures and pollution, farmworkers are being left behind by Florida lawmakers

Monday, August 27th, 2018

APOPKA, FLORIDA — An election is happening on Tuesday, but Florida’s farmworkers seem largely underwhelmed.

“I don’t think they care, to tell the truth, I really don’t think they care,” says Linda Lee as she sits in front of her small house near the sprawling Lake Apopka, just northwest of Orlando.

A former farmworker and vocal activist, the 66-year-old grandmother is hardly an apathetic presence. What happens in the state’s capital, Tallahassee — and in the nation’s further north in Washington D.C. — impacts Lee’s family and life. But years of silence from lawmakers have taught farmworkers in this area that if they want things to change, they’ll have to be the ones to drive the conversation.

For decades, farmworkers in the Sunshine State have waged war — against pollution and pesticides, against hardline immigration laws, against low wages. Now, amid warming temperatures and shifting weather patterns, they are increasingly turning their attention to climate change. And they plan to address the issue with or without the willing cooperation of lawmakers.

Orlando, the metropolis neighboring Apopka, is home to the sprawling tourist attraction Disney World. Where Orlando offers glitter and glam for millions of visitors every year, the area surrounding Lake Apopka is a study in contrasts. The area is traditionally home to farming country, with an emphasis on the citrus so often associated with Florida.

That claim to fame has a tragic coda. Pesticides associated with agriculture have contributed to making Lake Apopka one of the state’s leading cautionary tales. Pollution in the lake is overwhelming. Once a fisherman’s paradise, the area is now infamous for the deformities alligators and other animals have developed thanks to exposure to insecticides like dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT.

What has happened to Lake Apopka’s wildlife is well-known, but the trauma haunting the area’s residents has largely been glossed over.

Exposure to pesticides has plagued Apopka’s farmworkers for generations, something people like Linda Lee know well. Lee lost both a daughter and a granddaughter to the inflammatory disease lupus, something she believes is likely the result of their proximity to pesticides in the area.

Their deaths have haunted her, but she remains committed to fighting for her community and for herself. These days, that means broadening the conversations farmworkers have about issues like pesticides, or the hardline anti-immigration policies that directly impact undocumented workers.

“We can’t stop God, for one thing,” Lee says, referring to climate change. “But I think that people, especially the people sitting up in Washington, they need to do more.”

Farmworkers have long been among the most vulnerable people in the United States, largely cut out of labor protections and provided few rights under the law. Most are Black and Latinx, many are immigrants, and virtually all are low-income. Their vulnerable status has often seen them left out of conversations surrounding issues like climate change.

That’s something people like Jeannie Economos want to change. Economos works with the Farmworker Association of Florida, or FWAF, an organization that has fought to protect the state’s farmworkers and advocate for them.

Much of her work with FWAF has been focused on “health and safety” concerns relating to pesticides, Economos says, but that’s changing.

“For the past few years,” she continues, “with the changing climate and hotter temperatures, we’ve been more concerned about [the] impact of heat stress.”

In July, FWAF joined a coalition of 130 organizations calling on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to require employers to protect workers from the heat. Mandatory rest breaks, access to shade, and frequent hydration are among the demands included in a petition sent to the agency.

According to the petition’s analysis, heat has killed more than 780 workers across the country between 1992 and 2016, and seriously injured nearly 70,000. With climate change, heat stress is likely to get worse and put more people at risk.

Economos says joining the OSHA petition was a “no-brainer” for FWAF, but she emphasized that for local activists, the effort is only one part of a larger fight.

“We’re really concerned about the effects of both climate change and heat, in many ways, in Florida,” she says. “We’re concerned about the acute and immediate impacts of heat, the long-term impact of heat-exposure and chronic dehydration, [that it could] shorten a person’s work years and possible their life.”

But the sun isn’t the only problem. Climate change is also warming waters off of Florida’s coast, something that scientists say is exacerbating the intensity of hurricanes. And when those hurricanes hit, they destroy property along with agriculture, a dual blow for farmworkers.

“Hurricane Irma did a lot of damage to the crops in Florida,” Economos says, pointing to the major storm that hit the state last fall. “A lot [of areas] had damage, a lot of rental homes were impacted. And farmworkers, living in trailers, even if [the trailers] were damaged, they had to pay rent. The crop was also damaged. They had no work and they had to pay rent.”

Talking about climate change doesn’t mean advocates are abandoning their focus on other issues. But global warming is becoming a major focus of groups like FWAF. And they’re not alone — in the midst of a heated election year, climate issues have taken center-stage in Florida, with sea-level rise and a toxic algae bloom crisis emerging as major themes, along with long-standing points of contention like offshore drilling.

Whatever way the wind blows on Tuesday during Florida’s primary elections, Apopka area residents like Lee say they are ready to hold lawmakers accountable to the farmworkers they have long ignored.

“When they get in office, they close and lock their doors. You call them on the telephone, [their assistants say] they’re in Washington, they’re in Tallahassee, they’re never where you need them to be until it’s time to vote,” says Lee.

She smirks. “And it’s coming time to vote.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on August 27, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: E.A. Crunden is a reporter at ThinkProgress focused on environmental and world issues, as well as immigration and social justice in the U.S. South and Appalachia. Texpat. She/her, they/them, or no pronouns. Get in touch: ecrunden@thinkprogress.org.

Southern Cities Are Passing Paid Sick Leave—But Republicans Won’t Let Them Have It

Friday, August 24th, 2018

On August 16, the San Antonio city council voted 9-2 to pass a paid sick leave ordinance that will allow residents to earn an hour of time off for every 30 hours worked up to six days a year at small employers and eight at larger ones. 

The United States is alone among 22 wealthy countries in having no national guaranteed paid sick-leave policy. As a result, states are left to pass their own laws, and in those like Texas where GOP legislatures stand opposed to paid sick leave, it’s up to the cities.

San Antonio became the 33rd city in the country to take such a step, and the second in the South after Austin passed a similar law in February.

The San Antonio law is supposed to go into effect in January, and Austin’s was scheduled to go into effect in October. But the fate of both laws is up in the air.

The very day after San Antonio’s ordinance passed, an appeals court temporarily put Austin’s law on hold in the midst of a lawsuit brought by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation— a member of the Koch-backed State Policy Network—that claims the law violates the Texas Minimum Wage Act.

Even if that lawsuit fails, many Republican members of the Texas legislature have vowed to pass legislation to block such local progressive laws throughout the state. Lawmakers are expected to take up broad preemption legislation as a top priority when the next legislative session begins in the new year.

Texas cities have watched the state erase their laws before. After he took office in 2015, Gov. Greg Abbott pledged to preempt cities’ ability to pass their own ordinances. In 2017 he explained this decision would “continue our legacy of economic freedom” and “limit the ability of cities to California-ize the great state of Texas.” In 2015, the state blocked cities from regulating oil and gas drilling activity, including fracking, and it has also banned local laws that would create sanctuary cities.

It’s a growing trend in legislatures controlled by Republicans. At least 25 states have passed preemption laws that block cities from raising the minimum wage, and 20 have banned cities from instituting paid sick leave. The majority of these laws have been enacted since 2013 and advocates for higher workplace standards say the trend is only accelerating.

Texas advocates for paid sick leave haven’t given up hope, however. They plan to wield the sheer amount of popular support for these ordinances in their favor and against the state politicians who block them. “Our state leadership is out of touch with what the majority of Texans believe and want for their communities,” says Michelle Tremillo, executive director of the Texas Organizing Project, a community organizing group behind the paid sick leave ordinance.

Two years ago, the Texas Organizing Project began surveying working families in San Antonio about what issues were most important to them and what would most improve their lives. “It was very clear…that issues addressing economic security were at the very top of the list,” Tremillo says. Number one was access to jobs that pay well, but in Texas only the state can raise the minimum wage, followed by benefits and the ability to get paid time off for illness, understandable since an estimated 350,000 city residents don’t have access to paid sick days.

Advocates also eagerly watched what happened in Austin. “It just made sense that we would figure out how to make that happen in San Antonio as well,” Tremillo says.

Her group and others decided to take the issue directly to city residents. In San Antonio, anyone can put an issue before the city council by collecting signatures from 10 percent of the eligible voting population in the previous municipal election. If they succeed, the city council can either decide to vote on the topic directly or reject it, thus sending it to the ballot for voters to weigh in on. To hit the 10 percent requirement, paid sick leave advocates needed to collect at least 70,000 signatures to force the issue.

Within ten weeks they managed to collect more than double that number, eventually receiving more than 144,000. “The response was forceful. People wanted to sign it,” Tremillo says. “People understand immediately how important that basic right is, it is a basic right to take care of yourself and your family.”

It was the first time in Rey Saldaña’s seven years on the city council that he saw any issue get above the 70,000-signature threshold, he says. “It was an easy sell, easier than many folks had actually thought,” he says. Surprised at the level of support behind the issue, the mayor and Saldaña’s fellow council members decided to take it up and pass the ordinance themselves.

Saldaña, who supported paid sick leave from the beginning, chalks the support up to the fact that so many people in the city work in the service industry where paid sick day are uncommon. “Many of them know what it feels like to have to make decisions between going in sick or taking a pay cut that week,” he says. “[But] they didn’t realize that they had that power to try to ask the government to step in and intervene on some of the pressures they have in life.”

That support, he believes, will make it hard for state lawmakers to reverse the progress made. “The time is going to expire on the state of Texas’s ability to ignore that issue,” he says.

“Unfortunately we have a state leadership that is determined to interfere with our cities’ ability to do what’s best for their citizens,” Tremillo says. “We have a state leadership that is not at all concerned about improving conditions for working people.”

“The state has turned its back on working Texans and turned its back on solutions,” Saldaña agrees. “It does not surprise the city of San Antonio, just like it does not surprise Austin or Dallas or Houston, that the state wants to step in and keep cities from innovating and applying rules and laws that support the working men and women who prop up our economies.”

But that only adds urgency to the campaign to protect the laws that cities have passed on their own. Advocates pledge to keep up the momentum no matter what the state does. “We will continue to fight at the city level and at the state level for what people really need and want,” Tremillo says.

And she notes that San Antonio’s experience, with over a hundred thousand people voicing their support, shows that the state is up against a swell of popular support. “These are large numbers of voters and people in our community who are demanding improvements to working conditions,” she says. “I think our numbers are only going to get bigger. I think people are going to stand up against our state leadership… We’ll continue to increase the number of people participating in our democracy.”

She adds, “They should stay out of interfering with what our cities are doing and they should start listening to the needs of regular Texans.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on August 24, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bryce Covert is an independent journalist writing about the economy. She is a contributing op-ed writer at the New York Times, has written for The New Republic, The Nation, the Washington Post, The New York Daily News, New York magazine and Slate, and has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC and NPR. She won a 2016 Exceptional Merit in Media Award from the National Women’s Political Caucus.

Trump's war on workers is flying under the radar, but it's relentless

Thursday, August 23rd, 2018

It’s no secret that Donald Trump is not exactly out serving as the champion of workers he suggested he’d be during the 2016 campaign. But the scope of the attack he’s mounted on working people is staggering … and mostly under the radar.

Steven Hill rounds up some of the damage at Working In These Times: The Trump administration killed the Obama-era rule requiring federal contractors to disclose violations of labor law when they bid for contracts. They stopped the Obama administration’s effort to expand overtime eligibility so that millions more people would get overtime when they work more than 40 hours a week.

Then there’s the string of damaging National Labor Relations Board decisions, including a ruling against small unions within larger workplaces, the decision that got McDonald’s off the hook for workers in its franchise restaurants, and:

— Reversing a 2004 decision bolstering workers’ rights to organize free from employer interference.

— Reversing a 2016 decision safeguarding unionized workers’ rights to bargain over changes in employment terms.

— Overturning a 2016 decision that required settlements between employers and employees to provide a “full remedy” to aggrieved workers, instead of partial settlements.

Over at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, meanwhile, they’ve delayed three important workplace safety rules. And, of course, the Supreme Court has said that employers can force workers into mandatory arbitration, denying them their day in court, and has also attacked public unions in the Janus decision.

These haven’t been high-profile issues, for the most part—they haven’t gotten the attention of the Muslim ban or family separation or Trump’s hostility to allies—but they stand to affect tens of millions of workers’ lives, and even to end some of those lives.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on August 25, 2018. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

Court Orders EPA To Implement Chemical Plant Safety Rule

Tuesday, August 21st, 2018

In a stinging rebuke to the Environmental Protection Agency, a federal court has called EPA’s delay in implementing the Obama administration’s chemical disaster rule “arbitrary and capricious” and told the agency to implement the rule.

EPA had argued that delaying the rule would reduce industry confusion while it figured out whether it wanted to modify or rescind the rule. The court, noting that the Clean Air Act clearly limits such delays to three months, rejected the EPA’s reasoning. The decision means that EPA can no longer delay enforcement of the rule. So far, only provisions regarding local emergency-response coordination requirements are in effect, while other provisions come into effect in 2021.

We have written frequently here about how issuing standards and regulations designed to protect workers, consumers and the environment is a long and difficult process.  Rescinding or even delaying these legal protections is also difficult because an agency is required to justify its actions and provide evidence showing why the previous regulations are no longer needed. And despite all the fanfare that former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt received for being the deregulator-in-chief, the corners he cut have come back the haunt the Trump Administration’s efforts to undermine the laws that Congress passed to protect people from preventable workplace and environmental hazards.

According to Mike Wright, Director of Health, Safety and the Environment for the United Steelworkers union, who successfully sued the agency, “The decision clearly shows that EPA – and by implication OSHA and other federal agencies – can’t just delay a rule protecting the American people on a whim, or to do the bidding of some outside group.”

Background

Following a number of chemical plant disasters, including the 2013 explosion at West Fertilizer that killed 15 people and destroyed much of the town of West, Texas, President Obama issued an Executive Order that, in part, ordered EPA to reconsider its Risk Management Program (RMP). In January 2017, EPA issued a revised RMP regulation that enhanced requirements related to emergency response, provision of chemical hazard information, and requirements for facilities to consider inherently safer processes, as well as post-accident investigations, more rigorous safety audits and improved training.

“The decision clearly shows that EPA – and by implication OSHA and other federal agencies – can’t just delay a rule protecting the American people on a whim, or to do the bidding of some outside group.” — Mike Wright, USW Director of Health, Safety and the Environment

Provisions of the 2017 rule related to clarifying regulatory definitions were scheduled to come into effect on March 14, 2017. Other provisions, including most local emergency-response coordination requirements, were supposed to become effective on March 14, 2018. The requirements for emergency response exercises, public information-sharing and post-accident public meetings, third-party audits, more rigorous post-incident analyses, and safer technology requirements are not scheduled to become effective until March 15, 2021.

The Trump administration, under then EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, delayed enforcement of the rule three times, the last time by issuing the “Delay Rule,” which delayed enforcement of the rule for 20 months while the agency decided whether to modify or rescind the Obama rule. (The EPA did, in fact, issue a proposal to rescind most provisions of the Obama rule last May. That process is not affected by this decision.) A number of organizations, including the United Steelworkers union, sued EPA, arguing that “The Clean Air Act (CAA) is explicit that reconsideration ‘shall not postpone the effectiveness of the rule,’ beyond a three-month period.” A number of other environmental and community groups joined in challenging the delay, along with a number of states.

A Mockery of the Statute

The court found that EPA’s delay rule “makes a mockery of the statute” because it  violates the paragraph in the Clean Air Act that requires EPA rules to “have an effective date, as determined by the Administrator, assuring compliance as expeditiously as practicable.” The court writes that “The Delay Rule does not have the purpose or effect of “assur[ing] compliance”; it is calculated to enable non-compliance.” And the EPA did not consider the delay’s effect on the requirement to “prevent accidental releases,” to “minimize . . . consequences of any such release,” to “protect human health and the environment,” and “to include procedures and measures for emergency response after an accidental release.”

The court criticizes EPA for basing the delay on a bunch of “alleged ‘security risks’ and other hypotheticals raised by industry” without actually explaining why the implementation delay was necessary.

The court also mocks EPA’s explanation that the delay is intended to avoid confusion among the regulated community and local responders who would have to comply with a rule that might later be changed, when it is actually EPA that’s causing confusion “by the almost two-years’ reconsideration it desires in order to decide what it wants to do.”

EPA is also ignoring the express interest of Congress Congress which expressly stated that it wants compliance with rules “as expeditiously as practicable” and therefore  provided “a strict limit of three months on stays of effective dates pending reconsideration” in order to keep any reconsideration from delaying a final rule.

Arbitrary and Capricious

The court found the EPA’s delay rule to be arbitrary and capricious first, because it didn’t explain why it couldn’t revise (or rescind) the rule while the rule was in effect. Second,the Delay Rule didn’t provide a “reasoned explanation” why the original effective date and compliance dates were unjustified, despite the fact that the EPA in the original Obama rule had gone to great lengths to justify the compliance dates and consider comments from the public. EPA also failed to explain “why the detailed factual findings [in the Obama rule] regarding the harm that would be prevented upon implementation of the Chemical Disaster Rule are now only ‘speculative.’”

The third reason the court found the Delay Rule to be arbitrary and capricious is a favorite of mine. The court found that the EPA’s justification of the delay on “‘the timing’ of a finding by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms . . . that the West Fertilizer explosion was caused by arson’ rather than an accident…is not a reasoned basis for delaying the entire Chemical Disaster Rule.”

As readers of Confined Space are aware, in 2016 — days before the end of the RMP rule comment period — the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), found that the fire that led to the catastrophic explosion at West was intentionally set.  (The Bureau used a highly criticized investigative process to make that doubtful finding, but that wasn’t the reason for the Court’s decision.)

The EPA partially based the Delay Rule on arguments made in chemical industry petitions to the EPA stating that they did not have enough time to comment on the BATF finding and if the cause of the fire was actually arson, that might have affected their comments and the final outcome of the rule, especially in the area of emergency response and provision of chemical information to responders and the public.

But the court rejected EPA’s reasoning — particularly as the argument impacted the emergency-response and information-sharing provisions of the Obama regulation:

Even were the court to agree for purposes of argument that the cause of the West, Texas disaster being arson is relevant to some of the accident-prevention provisions of the Chemical Disaster Rule, it is irrelevant to the emergency-response and information-sharing provisions, including those that have indisputably been delayed from the original March 14, 2018 effective date. Given that twelve of the fifteen fatalities in the West, Texas disaster were local volunteer firefighters and other first responders, this would be a fairly weak explanation for delaying provisions that EPA previously determined would help keep first responders safe and informed about emergency-response planning. (emphasis added)

The court also noted that the West disaster was not the only chemical plant incident that EPA cited to justify the original regulation, citing incidents in Hawaii, Colorado, Washington, California, Louisiana and the 2005 BP refinery explosion in Texas City, Texas.

Standing

One other feature of the court decision was that it granted “standing” to the United Steelworkers Union, allowing the union to sue the agency on behalf of its members who work in chemical facilities and live in communities surrounding the plants. As Wright explained,

The Court’s decision on the USW’s standing is especially important. The ruling clearly shows that unions have the right to defend their members, not only in the workplace, but in the broader community. And that’s a right the labor movement should always be exercising.

One final note. The decision notes that Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh was a member of the judicial panel at the time the case was argued but did not participate in this opinion.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on August 17, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Arkansas’ minimum wage fight will be on the ballot in November

Monday, August 20th, 2018

A proposal to raise Arkansas’ minimum wage to $11 an hour by 2021 gained enough signatures to qualify for the ballot in November. The group gathered over 16,000 more signatures than necessary to make the ballot.

The current minimum wage is $8.50, and the last time Arkansas voters approved of a minimum wage raise was in 2014. The Arkansas minimum wage is not among the lowest state minimum wages in the country and is higher than many of the states that surround it. Kansas and Oklahoma, for example, have a $7.25 minimum wage, the same as the federal minimum wage. Missouri’s minimum wage is $7.85. Still, supporters of the measure — which will be Issue Five on the ballot this year, according to the Associated Press — say that it’s unacceptable for Arkansas to live on only about $18,000 a year.

Stephen Copley, executive director of Faith Voices Arkansas, said in a release to the Arkansas Times, “Today’s minimum wage is about $18,000 a year for someone working full time. With prices going up all the time, you can’t raise a family on that.”

Some economic policy experts say that the federal minimum wage is far too low. According to the Economic Policy Institute, despite productivity roughly doubling since 1968, workers who are paid the federal minimum wage now make 25 percent less than workers making the federal minimum wage that year. As Rajan Menon recently explained in The Nation, over the past decade, the $7.25 federal minimum wage lost almost 10 percent of its purchasing power, thanks to inflation, which means that for someone to make the same as the 2009 minimum wage, they’d have to work 41 additional days.

A 2016 analysis from the White House Council of Economic Advisors that looked at 18 states that raised the minimum wage above $7.25 found that these raises “contributed to substantial increases in average wages for workers in low-wage jobs, helping to reverse a pattern of stagnant or falling real wages” and that “this has occurred without any sign of an impact on employment or hours worked.”

Arkansans for a Fair Wage is leading the effort behind the initiative. David Couch, a lawyer in Little Rock who leads the ballot committee, told the Arkansas Times that the group raised $155,300 and spent $101,000 to pay canvassers to gather signatures. The Fairness Project, a nonprofit founded for the purpose of getting minimum wage increases on the ballot, gave $100,000 in funding to the group and the National Employment Law Project, a nonprofit workers rights group that conducts policy research, gave $500,000. The Fairness Project is also working on a minimum wage initiative in Missouri, and has worked on campaigns for raising the minimum wage in Arizona, Colorado, California, Maine, Washington state and Washington, D.C.

There is also an initiative to get a minimum wage raise on the ballot in Michigan, gradually raising it from $9.25 to $12 in 2022 that is supported by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC). ROC also supported Initiative 77 in Washington, D.C. to raise the minimum wage for tipped workers. Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda have come out in support of the wage increase. In July, the board of state canvassers were deadlocked on approval for the ballot proposal. In Missouri, Proposition B is on the ballot, which would raise the state minimum wage from $7.85 to $12 in 2023. Some of the same organizations support this ballot initiative as the one in Arkansas. The National Employment Law Project and the Fairness Project and local officials and mayors, such as St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, have supported it.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on August 17, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress covering economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.

A Rundown of All the Ways Trump Is Overseeing an All Out, Under-the-Radar Attack on Workers

Friday, August 17th, 2018

Amidst headlines about porn stars and bromance with Russian President Vladimir Putin, it can be hard to track the many ways the Trump administration is hurting workers in the United States. The Supreme Court’s Janus ruling that struck a blow to unions’ ability to collect membership dues held a brief spotlight in the national news churn. But in a more-quiet fashion, the Trump administration already has been slowly dismantling worker protections, especially those enacted under the Obama administration.     

During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly proclaimed that he would help workers. He even boasted, “I have great relationships with unions.” But actions speak louder than words, and the policies pursued by the Trump administration have directly targeted middle and lower-income workers and labor unions.

The anti-labor attack gained momentum in the last weeks of 2017. President Trump had to wait until his two nominees to the five-member National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) were confirmed. Those new members flipped the board’s majority from Democratic to Republican. The NLRB, which oversees collective bargaining law and enforcement of U.S. labor laws and standards, then quickly issued a slew of key decisions that rolled back a number of worker- and union-related reforms.

In one of the most important changes, the NLRB reversed a 2011 ruling that helped workers form smaller unions within a single workplace. The precedent set under Obama allowed the holding of a union election without including all the different types of jobs within that business that don’t share similar job duties, wages and working conditions. Employers complained that it led to “micro unions.” In a specific case, after 100 welders unionized at a large manufacturing plant, the NLRB ruled that the smaller organizing unit was illegitimate since any union election would have to include all 2,500 workers at the company, spanning 120 job classifications. The NLRB ruled 3-2 along partisan lines.

Another consequential case decided under Trump will hurt low-income fast food workers. The Trump board overturned a major 2015 decision that ruled employers are responsible for bargaining with workers, even if they have only indirect control over those workers’ employment. Fast-food companies like McDonald’s license smaller franchise businesses to run most of their restaurants. McDonald’s instructs these franchises on how to operate but leaves them to control many aspects of their day-to-day business. For decades, franchise employees who wished to bargain collectively were caught in a vicious trap. Their boss, the franchise operator, could insist that McDonald’s controlled the terms of their employment. But if they tried to bargain with McDonald’s, the company would insist that the franchise operator was their true employer.

Obama’s NLRB solved this problem by clarifying that companies like McDonald’s are, jointly with franchise operators, employers of these workers and can be forced to the bargaining table. This new standard permitted much more meaningful collective bargaining among millions of low-wage workers. Longer term, that ruling on joint employers would have dramatically improved collective bargaining rights in the fast-food industry. But the GOP majority on the NLRB scrapped this standard, returning to an old, stringent policy that requires employers to exercise “immediate and direct” control in order to be liable under labor law.

Other damaging decisions by Trump’s NLRB include:

— Reversing a 2004 decision bolstering workers’ rights to organize free from employer interference.

— Reversing a 2016 decision safeguarding unionized workers’ rights to bargain over changes in employment terms.

— Overturning a 2016 decision that required settlements between employers and employees to provide a “full remedy” to aggrieved workers, instead of partial settlements.

All of these were 3–2 decisions, with Republicans in the majority and Democrats dissenting.

Beyond the NLRB

But the NLRB is only one federal agency. Trump’s Labor Department has also rolled back several rules and executive orders that the Obama administration issued to protect workers. Those include the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule, which required companies bidding for large federal contracts to disclose and correct past labor and safety violations. Another rescinded rule had established guidelines for when states can drug-test applicants for unemployment insurance benefits. Also rescinded was the “persuader rule,” which required law firms to publicly disclose any work they do for employers trying to fight against union organization efforts.

Meanwhile, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has delayed three workplace safety rules issued during the last year of Obama’s presidency. Those rules required certain employers to submit injury and illness data electronically to OSHA for publication on the agency’s website; tightened exposure standards for silica dust, which is often breathed in by certain construction workers and linked to lung disease; and weakened workplace exposure limits for beryllium, an industrial mineral linked to lung cancer.

The Supreme Court also ruled to allow employers to require workers to sign arbitration agreements that waive their rights to file class or collective action lawsuits. Last June, Trump’s acting solicitor general filed a brief with the Court that took the opposite stance from the Obama administration, asserting that mandatory arbitration agreements do not violate the National Labor Relations Act and are enforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act.

Another important ruling made under the Obama administration regarded which workers were eligible to receive overtime pay. The Obama-era rules required nearly everyone paid less than $47,476 a year to be eligible for time-and-a-half overtime pay when they worked more than 40 hours a week. That was a big jump from the $23,660 threshold in place since 2004, and a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s efforts to lift wages. But a federal judge in Texas blocked that rule a week before it was scheduled to take effect, and Obama’s Labor Department appealed. However, Trump’s Labor Department filed a brief in federal appellate court indicating it will not advocate for these overtime changes.

In addition to all that, the Trump administration has proposed $2.6 billion in budget cuts—an enormous 21 percent—to the Department of Labor. Those cuts include a proposed elimination of four department programs and their services, such as training for worker-safety and for migrant farmworkers. The budget also seeks to significantly slash funding for Job Corps, a program that provides job training to disadvantaged youth, by $407 million, or 24 percent. Dimitri Iglitzin, a labor attorney in Seattle, says that “Of all of the ways that the Trump administration has been crushing labor, the most important has been the neutering of the Department of Labor. On a day-to-day basis, the agency that should be fighting for working people is doing so no longer.”

Typically, when the U.S. government shifts from a Democratic presidential administration to a Republican one, a certain level of pro-business policies and erosion of labor rights is expected. However, many labor experts say that the presidency of Donald Trump has led to a repeal of Obama administration regulations that is unprecedented, and is proceeding faster than is typical under a new GOP administration. Celine McNicholas, labor counsel at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington D.C., says the Trump rollbacks of various pro-labor rules and regulations, in addition to deep cuts to the Labor Department’s budget, have been devastating to U.S. workers and “are not business as usual.”

In just over a year and a half as president, Donald Trump has wiped away a number of the modest policy gains that organized labor made during the Obama years. The nominees he chose to fill crucial regulatory roles already are making it more difficult for workers. Taken together, this blizzard of decisions will hurt millions of workers and weaken their abilities to unionize and bargain collectively.

Another way forward

But it does not have to be like this. Germany, Sweden and other EU member states show another path that is better for workers and that creates a stronger relationship between businesses, employees and trade unions.

Countries like Germany and Sweden have stronger labor laws than in the United States, and consequently more influential trade unions. In addition, many EU member states benefit from what is known as “co-determination,” which includes works councils at every job site and worker-elected boards of directors for the biggest of businesses, including Fortune 500 companies. Imagine if Walmart and Amazon were legally required to allow its workers to elect up to 50% of the members of its board of directors? It’s unimaginable to most Americans, yet this is standard practice throughout Europe. Co-determination fosters a “culture of consultation” and a degree of economic democracy. As a result, there is more broadly shared prosperity, with social supports like universal health care, child care, affordable university education, affordable housing, job training/re-skilling, workplace protections, a decent retirement and more.

In an age of growing inequality, the European practice of co-determination has broken with a strictly “shareholder model,” and has set a standard for corporate governance that holds great potential for the digital age if used in a widespread fashion.

Labor attorney Thomas Geoghegan has proposed that U.S. states should try out codetermination. Geoghegan says states should offer tax breaks to companies that allow rank-and-file employees to elect a third to a half of its corporate board of directors. Doing so, says Geoghegan, would allow U.S. companies to test drive an alternative model to the current dysfunctional stockholder model. Also, states could try out this model by requiring that nonprofits, NGOs and universities allow their employees to elect a portion of its board of directors or trustees.

Three senators (Democrats Tammy Baldwin, Elizabeth Warren and Brian Schatz) have introduced legislation that would require that companies allow workers to elect one-third of their corporate board. The bill is not expected to pass, and while the AFL-CIO has endorsed this legislation, historically unions and labor advocates have not taken up this cause. Yet labor leaders don’t seem to have any other proposals that might stop the hemorrhaging of union members.

Certainly such progressive proposals are going nowhere at the federal level under the administration of Donald Trump. So the landscape for political change has shifted to states and to cities where Democrats and progressives are more dominant. Still, even when Democrats have been in control, whether at the federal level under President Obama or in heavily Democratic states like California, Maryland and Massachusetts, there has been little appetite to push the boundaries of ways to support labor unions or progressive labor reform.

Which is surprising, since the unionization rate in the United States has fallen to fewer than 7 percent in the private sector and 11 percent of all workers. And future prospects don’t look too bright.

In an age when many workers are becoming freelancers and contractors who supposedly are the “CEOs of their own business” (whether driving for Uber, or being a hotelier for Airbnb, or a freelancer for Upwork and dozens of other online platform companies), the fate of labor unions hasn’t been this threatened in nearly a century. The Trump administration is just the latest nail in a slowly closing coffin that has been in process for decades. It’s time for U.S. labor unions to try new tactics.

This article was originally published at In These Times on August 17, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Steven Hill is a senior fellow at FairVote, a former senior fellow and political reform program director with the New America Foundation, and former Holtzbrinck fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. For more information, visit Steven Hill’s website at www.Steven-Hill.com and follow him on Twitter @StevenHill1776.

Why the Thrillist strike is so important for digital media unions

Thursday, August 16th, 2018

Workers at Thrillist, a website that covers travel, culture, and food, went on the first known work stoppage at a digital media publication this week. Thrillist’s unionized staff voted to authorize a strike “should we not make sufficient progress at the table.”

On Monday, workers overwhelmingly voted in favor of going on strike, at 91 percent of union members, and they did not report to work. Workers were back on the job on Tuesday but are ready for another work stoppage if necessary.

On Monday, Thrillist workers said their Slack accounts and emails had been deactivated and one worker said their card to get into the building would not work. An hour and a half later, staff had their Slack and email reactivated, according to Splinter.

Thrillist workers voted to unionize last year and are still trying to negotiate a contract with the publication’s parent company, Group Nine Media.

Thrillist staffers said in statement that “livable salary minimums and fair annual increases” are at issue and that Group Nine Media has only put “scant, inadequate economic terms” on the table in response.

In February of last year, workers said that reasons for unionizing included increasing diversity of staff, having “common-sense standards for judging performance,” and more transparency about job responsibilities. Writers Guild of America, East is its collective bargaining representative. The publication had over 80 percent of its writers, editors, and social media staff sign cards choosing Writers Guild of America, East.

But Group Nine Media has resisted unionization efforts, with its founder and CEO Ben Lerer saying he is concerned about “the effect the union would have on our unique culture,” according to Deadspin and made some statements about union contracts that were just plain false. Lerer described unions as necessary for some industries and businesses but suggested that it did not make sense for workers at Thrillist or in journalism, with the “new types of personal career growth that we traditionally have.”

Talking about a “unique” culture and how a particular industry may not benefit from unionization is par for the course for anti-union rhetoric, including in journalism.

Last year, Slate Group Chairman Jacob Weisberg wrote that Slate’s “flexibility and fluidity” would be hampered by unionization, according to Splinter. He added that a union is “filled with bureaucracy and procedure,” and “That world is just not Slate-y….A union fosters a culture of opposition, which is antithetical to our way of doing things.”

Vox Media’s publisher, Melissa Bell, wrote a letter last year in response to unionization at Vox Media. Bell wrote, “… we are still in a precarious industry, and we want to ensure that our business remains strong and competitive by maintaining the flexibility necessary to adapt and innovate. Doing so is imperative to our ability to provide jobs and career paths to employees.”

Last year, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti responded to a question about unions in a companywide meeting. He said he is not against unions personally but does not believe that unionization is right for BuzzFeed, BuzzFeed News media and politics reporter Steven Perlberg tweeted at the time.

But many journalists and other media professionals have decided to unionize precisely because they work in a precarious industry. Journalists are concerned about low pay and long hours and mass layoffs.

Nastaran Mohit, organizing director of the NewsGuild of New York, told Columbia Journalism Review, “Looking at previously non-union digital publications, I think younger journalists recognize the instability and precarity of the industry, and they see the value of coming together to secure a seat at the table.”

Group Nine Media hired Proskauer Rose LLP, a law firm with 13 offices that represents major sports organizations and had 14 of its lawyers named in a 2018 guide on the top 100 “leading corporate, defense-side employment lawyers.”

A number of digital media outlets began unionization efforts in the past few years, including ThinkProgress, The Intercept, Vice Media, HuffPost, MTV News, The New Yorker, Salon, Los Angeles Times, Jacobin, Fast Company, Mic, The New Yorker, and Gawker, which is now defunct.

Fast Company’s union announced plans to unionize in June and was recognized at the end of July. The New Yorker staff had a similar timeline. It announced plans to unionize in June and and received recognition in July. CNN reported that in their letter to management, New Yorker staff said, “Salaries often vary significantly among people who hold the same position, and we have seen a steady stream of our colleagues leave for jobs that provide more tenable wages. Some of us have worked for years as subcontracted employees, without health insurance and other basic benefits, though we do the same jobs as the staff members who sit beside us.”

In June, Slate staffers said management insisted on an open shop so that union members can decide not to pay union dues and that 94 percent of the unit had signed onto a letter opposing an open shop. Unlike in the cases of The New Yorker and Fast Company, Slate took a lot longer to recognize the union: 10 months.

Thrillist workers said they decided on a work stoppage and called a meeting to authorize a strike now because, after a series of negotiations in July, Group Nine Media appeared to be dragging its feet in negotiations and workers were losing patience. There is a bargaining meeting set for September.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on August 15, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress covering economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.

Brett Kavanaugh dissent shows how far he'll go to side with the boss over workers

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018

It’s starting to look like a requirement of being nominated to the Supreme Court by Donald Trump is having at least one gratuitously, ludicrously anti-worker dissent in your record. Neil Gorsuch had the frozen trucker, and as for Brett Kavanaugh, Dave Jamieson offers a candidate. Kavanaugh was the lone dissenter on a case in which a company was found to have created a spin-off company solely for the purpose of busting its union.

In the case, Island Architectural Woodwork, a unionized company, created Verde Demountable Partitions, which was non-union. Verde operated from an Island-owned building, used the same equipment, and was run by the daughter of Island’s chief executive. It was a thin fiction:

According to court filings, Island provided Verde with free equipment and rent but didn’t even bother to document its dealings with the supposedly separate company until after it was subpoenaed.  

As the appellate court later noted, “Island made no formal valuations of its assets before handing them off to Verde” ? an unusual move if the two companies were disconnected as they claimed.

On top of all that, Island’s president, Edward Rufrano, tried to make it a condition of a new contract for Island’s workers that their union sign away its right to organize the Verde workers. But to Kavanaugh, this wasn’t enough to show that Verde existed to avoid worker organizing:

“The Board … seems to have found something shady in the fact that Verde was started and primarily owned by two daughters of Island’s primary owner,” Kavanaugh wrote, making it clear he saw no such shadiness.

What would make Kavanaugh see something done by a business owner as shady? 

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on August 15, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

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