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Raising Wages for Women in Retail Would Improve Lives, Boost Economy

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014
Kenneth-Quinnell_small
Raising Wages for Women in Retail Would Improve Lives, Boost Economy

A new report from Demos details how America’s retail businesses keep millions of working women and their families in poverty. The report, Retail’s Choice: How Raising Wages and Improving Schedules for Women in the Retail Industry Would Benefit America, shows how low pay, erratic scheduling and weak benefits have a disproportionate affect on women, who make up the bulk of the retail workforce. One of the purposes of the report, according to Demos, is to shift the debate about gender inequity away from female executives to the lowest-paid positions in the most common occupation in America. Demos estimates that retail industry practices lead to more than $40 billion in lost wages annually.

The report’s author, Amy Traub, directly challenges the retail industry to address the problem:

The nation’s large retailers are in a position to improve the lives of millions of America’s working women and their families—boosting the national economy and creating jobs while also advancing their own outlook for sales growth. Our research shows how improving scheduling, giving workers the hours they need and raising pay to the modest level of $25,000 a year for full-time work can help women succeed.

The report notes that more than 1.3 million women in the retail industry face poverty despite having jobs and that establishing a wage floor of $25,000 for full-time, year-round workers would raise most of those women and their families out of poverty. Additionally, such an increase would benefit many male workers, would boost GDP between $6.9 billion and $8.9 billion and create more than 100,000 new jobs. 

Read the full report.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on June 3, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

Democrats Likely Have the Signatures to Get a Minimum Wage Vote in Arkansas

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

Laura ClawsonChances are looking good that Arkansas voters will have the chance to vote on a minimum wage increase come November, Greg Sargent reports:

Dems organizing the initiative tell me they have now amassed at least 10,000 more signatures than the approximately 62,000 required — which, if true, suggests they have a shot at getting them certified, though this is far from a done deal.“We’re in the 72,000 range, and we still have some volunteer efforts going on in the state, so we’re going to add more on top of that,” Robert McLarty, petition director for the Arkansas Interfaith Alliance, a lead group organizing the effort, tells me. “There could be a challenge from somebody, but we are confident we will get this on the ballot.”

The increase in question, taking the Arkansas minimum wage to $8.50 by 2017, is pretty puny by the standards of recent increases like Seattle’s $15 or the $10.10 passed in a growing number of states, but it’s also substantially better than the state’s current minimum wage of $6.25 an hour, which applies to workers at some small businesses, or the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

Having the minimum wage on the ballot could also have electoral implications. Conservative Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor is facing a tough challenge, and he has endorsed the $8.50 minimum wage (though raising the federal minimum to $10.10 is just too much for him). Getting people out to vote for above-poverty wages could help Pryor defeat Rep. Tom Cotton.

This article was originally printed on the Daily Kos on Jume 3, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

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

The "What Ifs" of a Woman's Retirement

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

seiu-org-logoWhat if I don’t get a promotion? What if I take time off to raise my children? What if I can’t find another job with benefits? The phrase “what if” seems to be a constant part of life for American women as they navigate their careers.

A recent article from CNN Money reporter Melanie Hickin shows how these “what if” questions continue to follow women even after they’ve exited the workforce.

“Gender inequality doesn’t end at the workplace. For many women, the gender gap haunts them well into their retirement years, when far more women find themselves living in poverty,” writes Hickin.

What if we work for unequal pay?
It’s no secret gender inequality still exists in today’s workforce. Women earn significantly less than men and are less likely to have access to an employer-sponsored retirement savings plan. These differences add up to less retirement income for women. On average, women 65 years and older rely on a median income of around $16,000 a year compared to nearly $28,000 for men, according to a Congressional analysis of 2012 Census data.

What if I get married and have kids? 
Women also spend less time in the workforce and take on more family obligations than their male counterparts. While married women tend to do better in retirement, many elderly women are living on their own. Since women live longer than men, they face higher medical costs in retirement, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute.

What if I can’t afford retirement?
Disparities in pay and savings leave many women working past retirement age. However, many are wondering if they’ll ever be able to retire. And if they do what if they can’t maintain a decent standard of living?

This is a question 69-year-old Gaylord Weston of Belgrade, Maine often asks herself since she retired from her public sector job as an administrative worker. Her pension and Social Security benefits combined provide her with $1,700 a month along with a small inheritance from her mother.

But that money is tightly stretched as she pays for auto and homeowner’s insurance, property taxes, a $6,000 annual heating bill and home repairs for her old farmhouse.

“I know I’m very fortunate. But if my car goes, if I need to put a new roof on the house or (buy) a new furnace for the house, these kinds of expenses would put me under the bridge,” Weston told CNN.

What if there’s a solution?
Efforts to address gender inequality (in retirement) received a boost recently in one state as lawmakers passed the Minnesota Women’s Economic Security Act of 2014. This bold legislative package includes provisions to close the gender pay gap, expand family leave and sick leave, and study and create new private sector retirement savings models for workers.

Although the act hasn’t been fully implemented yet, what if more states followed this model? And what if a similar bill were introduced in Congress?

Last week US Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) called on lawmakers to address retirement insecurity for women with an approach that considers all these factors.

“I think sometimes we don’t connect all of the policies that we talk about today, that we think are so important, whether it is making sure you have childcare so that you can stay at work, whether it is pay equity, how that impacts your finances, both today and when you retire,” said Murray.

What if our government took concrete steps to help women eliminate all of these “what ifs” that seem to define our working lives and prospects for a secure retirement? Let’s work together to make that “what if” a reality!

This article was originally posted on SEIU on May 29, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

Author: Keiana Greene-Page

Culinary and Bartenders Unions Call for June 1 Strike in Las Vegas

Monday, May 26th, 2014

Kenneth-Quinnell_smallAt 5 a.m. on June 1, workers associated with the Culinary and Bartenders unions, affiliated with UNITE HERE, will launch a strike against nine casinos in Las Vegas, with plans for the strike to continue until a fair contract settlement is reached. The strike will include housekeepers, restaurant workers, servers, bartenders and other union members who work at the casinos, which are Binion’s, The D, El Cortez, Four Queens, Fremont, Golden Gate, Las Vegas Club, Main Street Station and the Plaza. Union members from all nine unsettled properties have been picketing in downtown Las Vegas after contracts were terminated.

The strike was authorized in a March 27 vote.

Geoconda Arguello-Kline, a leader of the Culinary Union, said:

For nearly 80 years, our unions have made casino jobs good jobs in Las Vegas. Our members downtown deserve to earn a decent living by working hard under a fair contract. They should not be left behind as hundreds of millions of new investments pour in for downtown revitalization.

Ron Gladstone, a cook at The D, added:

I will strike for the opportunity to provide for my family. My co-workers and I will strike to make sure that these jobs continue to be good jobs with affordable benefits, fair wages and job security.

Patricia Montes, a housekeeper at the Four Queens, echoed those sentiments:

We are the people who clean the rooms, cook the food, serve the drinks and provide the quality service that has made the tourism industry flourish in Las Vegas. We are the backbone of downtown Las Vegas and we ask that the community support us by not crossing strike lines.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on May 23, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

Frack Till You Drop

Monday, May 26th, 2014

AUTHORS: Mike Elk, Cole Stangler, and Rebecca Burns

This month, the AFL-CIO unveiled its annual “Death on the Job” report, which highlights the often-overlooked toll of workplace accidents and fatalities. This year’s biggest takeaway: the dangerous—and deadly—consequences of America’s fracking-fueled oil and gas boom.

In recent years, deaths in the oil and natural gas industry have seen an especially sharp rise. The toll jumped by a stunning 23 percent in 2012 alone. This trend dates back to 2008, when horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” ushered in a new wave of oil and gas drilling across the nation. Fracking “boom towns” in states like North Dakota and Wyoming, rich in the kinds of shale formations that frackers lust after for their oil and gas deposits, have in turn seen a wave of industry-related accidents and health problems.

“The escalating fatalities and injuries in the oil and gas extraction industry demand intensive and comprehensive intervention,” the AFL-CIO’s report reads. “Without action, the workplace fatality crisis in this industry only will get worse as production intensifies and expands.”

Oil and natural gas industry workers regularly face hazards such as burns and exposure to toxic substances, which can lead to serious injuries or even death. But there’s reason to believe that fracking workers face further dangers, the long-term consequences of which may not yet have even begun to manifest fully.

Use of frac sand, which typically has high silica content, is an integral part of the fracking process. In industry-speak, it’s known as a “proppant”: Injected deep into rock formations, frac sand creates fissures in the ground, releasing oil and gas. Recent studies suggest that fracking workers are at particularly high risk of exposure to silica dust from that frac sand. Over time, silica dust exposure can cause cancer, silicosis and other fatal diseases.

But while labor has decried the dangers associated with fracking, some unions have been taking increasingly aggressive stances in favor of the practice. In a bid to reverse devastating job losses, energy and construction unions have entered into labor-management partnerships with the American Petroleum Institute (API) and other industry groups, lining up alongside the same interests that oppose union organizing efforts and tougher safety regulations.

“We hear a lot of commotion from those who want to unnecessarily limit job growth, force higher energy bills on us all and stifle opportunity tied to this abundant domestic energy source that is improving our environment and our standard of living,” declared Dennis Martire, vice president and Mid-Atlantic regional manager of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) (an affiliate of the AFL-CIO’s Building Construction Trades Department), in an pro-fracking op-ed that he co-authored with a local Pennsylvania-based Chamber of Commerce president. In a recent statement to the Associated Press, Martire called shale drilling a “lifesaver and a lifeline for a lot of working families.”

This raises the questions of whether some unions are taking a contradictory approach to workplace safety in the oil and gas industry: urging intervention to stop accidents while encouraging expansion of a practice that has increased them. Critics say this approach is a self-defeating one. Now, this tension is playing out in a fight over a long-awaited federal rule that would limit workers’ exposure to silica dust.

Unions say ‘frack it’

Silica exposure is one of the oldest known workplace dangers, but the federal standards regulating it are more than four decades out of date, leaving them out of sync with both changes in the nature of workers’ exposure and the science surrounding silica-related diseases. Now, after years of entreaties by workplace safety advocates, there could be a light at the end of the tunnel for silica-exposed workers.

In April, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) concluded public hearings for a new rule that would effectively halve the permissible exposure limits for “respirable crystalline silica”—that is, the particles that, inhaled over time, can lead to silicosis and other diseases. OSHA estimates that the rule would save 700 lives per year.

While the AFL-CIO and a host of other labor groups struggle to ensure the new rule’s quick approval, they’re facing familiar foes: business lobbyists such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Construction Industry Safety Coalition and the American Petroleum Institute (API), which are lobbying OSHA to withdraw the rule. The API, which represents a slew of companies heavily invested in the fracking industry, charges that the proposed regulation would impose new compliance costs that are too painful for businesses to swallow. This is a familiar complaint from an industry famously averse to regulation.

But even as construction and building trades unions battle with the API over the new rule, they’ve aligned with the industry group when it comes to the expansion of fracking.

In 2009, 15 unions, including the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Building Construction Trade Department (BCTD) of the AFL-CIO, joined the pro-fracking, pro-Keystone XL “Oil and Natural Gas Industry Labor-Management Committee,” billed as “the first time that the oil and natural gas industry and its labor unions have agreed to work together formally.” According to a forthcoming briefing paper from the climate-conscious coalitionTrade Unions for Energy Democracy, the alliance “has been the source of numerous pro-fracking resolutions adopted by state-level federations of the AFL-CIO.  … In [multiple] states, unions have stood alongside the Chambers of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute in supporting and promoting fracking.”

Critics say that the partnership has also locked building trades-affiliated unions into a “transactional relationship” with the oil and natural gas industry (as In These Times has reported previously). The API, for instance, was a key sponsor of the BCTD legislative conference this March. Meanwhile, unions have spent millions lobbying for the expansion of oil and natural gas projects that depend heavily on fracking. In New York State, for example, pro-fracking unions such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) spent $1.4 million between 2007 and 2013 on lobbying in favor of expanded fracking in the state, according to watchdog group Common Cause. In Kentucky, LIUNA quickly emerged as one of the most prominent champions of the now-stalled Bluegrass Pipeline, a project that would transport natural gas liquids from the shale fields of Ohio to Louisiana’s Gulf Coast.

This relationship doesn’t end with drill-to-pipeline projects, either. More recently, building trades and their affiliates have backed industry efforts to start exporting a potentially lucrative and fracking-derived product from the United States—liquefied natural gas (LNG). Most notably, the BCTD has lobbied heavily for the construction of the hotly contested Cove Point export facility in Lusby, Maryland, siding with terminal operator Dominion Energy against a large protest movement. The United Association of Plumbers, Fitters and HVAC Techs, meanwhile, supports reforms that would speed up the federal LNG export-permitting process. Thanks in large part to this swell of pressure from the building trades, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka offered his broad support for gas exports for the first time in January.

In all of these cases, construction and building trades unions say they’re motivated by the prospect of well-paid jobs. And indeed, partnerships with the energy industry have helped some unions win contracts to build energy pipelines and infrastructure serving export facilities. LIUNA Vice President Dennis Martire has said that the number of hours worked by LIUNA members on pipeline projects in Pennsylvania and West Virginia as a result of shale drilling increased from 400,000 hours in 2008 to 5.7 million hours in 2012.

But job figures have often fallen far short of industry projections. While industry-financed studies have claimed that fracking creates as many as 31 new jobs per well, a November 2013 analysis by the Multi-State Shale Research Collaborative, a coalition of policy groups who oppose fracking, found that on average, each new well drilled in the Marcellus Shale region between 2005 and 2012 created fewer than four jobs. And when it comes work at drilling sites, one of the most dangerous aspects of fracking operations, the workforce is still almost exclusively non-unionized.

“For the most part, [fracking jobs] are not good jobs, and they’re highly destructive,” says Joe Uehlein, a former Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Department and current director of the Labor Network for Sustainability. “The idea of being for jobs simply because it’s a job, that’s something we have to re-examine.”

Dust in the wind

Silica-related diseases are typically associated with industries such as mining, construction and masonry. But as the shale boom continues—according to an October 2013 report from Environment America, fracking operations are now under way in 17 states—so, too, do the risks for workers in an industry that’s highly dangerous and still heavily non-union.

Silica-related diseases take far longer to manifest than the burns, broken bones, and the type of fatalities outlined in the AFL-CIO report, but recent evidence suggests that fracking workers are being exposed to alarming concentrations of silica. OSHA and NIOSH issued a hazard alert in 2012 after nearly 50 percent of air samples taken from a field survey of 11 fracking sites in five states were discovered to have silica rates exceeding the current rule’s permissible levels. That’s particularly notable because many safety experts consider the current exposure limit to be inadequate.

“These exposures were, in some cases, 10 times the amount of the allowable limits,” says Peter Dooley, a health and safety consultant for the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH) who testified before OSHA last month.

OSHA has said that approximately 25,000 workers at 444 fracking worksites would benefit from the proposed new rule, and estimates that additional protections—including better ventilation, a misting system and enclosed “operator booths” for the most exposed workers—would be required for 88 percent of fracking workers in order to comply with the change.

Concerned with the costs of compliance, business and industry groups are lobbying OSHA to withdraw the proposed new rule. “In drafting the Occupational Safety and Health Act, Congress never intended to protect employees by putting their employers out of business,” the American Petroleum Institute said in its written comments to OSHA, also arguing that while silica exposure does pose a hazard to workers, existing methods of reducing this exposure have been effective.

Meanwhile, a host of labor groups have testified in favor of the new rule, including the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America (LHSFNA), the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department and the International Union of Operating Engineers.

During API’s April 4 testimony, Walter Jones, associate director of occupational safety and health for LHSFNA, rebutted arguments made by the industry group on a number of points.

Though API has criticized OSHA for relying on insufficient evidence in its rulemaking, Jones notes that the industry group has kept its own data on fracking-related silica exposure—gathered through a survey of the fracking industry, as part of a voluntary safety effort focused on respirable silica—close to the vest. Currently, the API survey results are not available to federal regulators. A spokesperson for the STEPS Network, the API-coordinated safety effort, told In These Times in mid-May that the study was still ongoing, and that the data hadn’t been released simply because there wasn’t yet enough data to make analysis worthwhile.

But LHSFNA’s Jones calls API’s unwillingness to share this existing data “unfair and unfortunate.”  Following the OSHA hearings, he told In These Times, “The issue for me was that API member organizations are out there right now characterizing exposures and looking at controls, and I’d like for them to submit that to the record so that we can have a fuller picture of what’s going on.”

API also contends that silica-related deaths are decreasing, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control. In response, Jones contends, “Fracking is a relatively new phenomenon, and silicosis has a latency period of up to 20 years. This is a case where there are long-term consequences that we [typically] don’t deal with until after the bodies start piling up.”

An unsavory alliance

The fate of the proposed rule still remains uncertain. After extending its initial public comment period this year by nearly two months following pressure from industry groups, OSHA will now continue taking post-hearing arguments and briefs until July, leaving any potential regulation still a long way off.  While LIUNA and a number of other unions can attempt to counter API efforts to slow or weaken the new regulations during the hearing process, they remain key members of the Oil and Natural Gas Industry Labor-Management Committee. To some critics, this strategy—opposing API’s stance on a particular regulation, while allying with it and other industry groups on wide-ranging policy issues—looks a lot like labor shooting itself in the foot.

The new silica rule is the latest in a long line of workplace safety regulations opposed by API. The institute has fought union-led efforts to implement new regulations reducing workers’ exposure to the carcinogenic element benzene, as well as the lead in gasoline. API opposition to such regulatory efforts may have delayed these rules from coming into effect sooner, thereby putting affected workers’ lives at risk. In the same fashion, API’s demand that OSHA withdraw its current proposal on silica exposure could delay the rule’s future implementation.

Some in organized labor say the oil and gas industry can be made safer—it’s just going to take better regulation and eventual union representation of workers at drill sites.

On a press call discussing the new AFL-CIO report, In These Times asked AFL-CIO Director of Safety and Health Peg Seminario if she believed that labor-management partnerships in the oil and gas industry were productive in light of the sector’s alarming workplace fatality rate.

“I think it is a sector that needs organization, as do many,” Seminario said. “One of the things I would compare is what the experience has been in coal mining, for example. Which is a very dangerous industry where you’ve had a strong union and you have strong government oversight and has made a huge difference. I think we need to … bring that into oil and gas because clearly it’s just as hazardous.”

But others point out that the path of labor-management partnerships is unlikely to produce strong regulations. “I don’t recall a single time that API did anything other than obstruct, delay or file lawsuits over the introduction of any worker safety and health program,” says Bob Wages, former president of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW). “I can’t understand why [the building trades] would have anything to do with people who absolutely don’t give a shit if people die on the job.”

Moreover, this sort of approach still neglects the industry’s environmental impact, says Bob Wages, whose union mobilized a highly successful labor-environmental partnership during the 1973 Shell Oil Strike.

“The idea that a union will sit back and say, ‘Well, we’re going to cooperate with them because if we’re there, we’re gonna enforce health and safety, and that’s gonna have a positive effect on the environment’—I’ve never seen it [play out] in terms of how the industry responds to any of these concerns,” he says. “That’s just happy talk. There’s no relationship between building [a facility], and enforcing health and safety regulations in that phase of it, and what the industry does generally once it comes to pollution, [flouting] environmental regulations and damaging the environment.”

Some trade unionists have another path in mind: They argue that it’s time to seriously consider moving beyond fossil fuels. Not only is renewable energy generation better for the planet in the long-term, they note, it’s far safer for workers and their communities in the here and now.

The Canadian union UNIFOR, for example, has been at the forefront of such a forward-thinking approach within labor’s ranks, arguing that energy workers must also consider the health of the communities they work and live in. Even though the union represents workers in the oil and gas industry, last November it passed a resolution calling for a nationwide fracking moratorium.

“We’re going to find a way to build a sustainable future, we’re going to find a way to solve the climate crisis,” says Joe Uehlein of the Labor Network for Sustainability. “Labor will be far better off if it figures out how to get on that train and be a part of that movement, as opposed to sitting back and fighting it the way they often do.”

(In These Times reached out to the offices of the Building Trades Unions and the Laborers’ Mid-Atlantic region for comment, but did not receive a response).

 This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on May 23, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.
About the Authors: Cole Stangler, Rebecca Burns and Mike Elk are Schumann Fellows at In These Times magazine.

U.S. Rated Alarmingly High in Global Survey of Worst Places for Workers’ Rights

Monday, May 26th, 2014
U.S. Rated Alarmingly High in Global Survey of Worst Places for Workers’ Rights

The United States lags far behind other nations in protecting workers’ rights, according to a new survey from the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). The rankings are based on 97 internationally recognized indicators and standards to assess where workers’ rights are best protected, in law and in practice.

ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow said:

Countries such as Denmark and Uruguay led the way through their strong labor laws, but perhaps surprisingly, the likes of Greece, the United States and Hong Kong, lagged behind. A country’s level of development proved to be a poor indicator of whether it respected basic rights to bargain collectively, strike for decent conditions or simply join a union at all.

The nations are ranked on a scale from 1 (the best with just irregular violations of workers’ rights) to 5 (with no guarantee of workers’ rights at all).  The United States received a mark of 4, which, according to the ITUC system, means:

Workers in countries with the rating of 4 have reported systematic violations. The government and/or companies are engaged in serious efforts to crush the collective voice of workers putting fundamental rights under continuous threat.

Along with the United States, 29 other nations received a 4 rating, including Argentina, Botswana, Iran, Mexico, Pakistan and Thailand. Belgium, Finland and South Africa were among the 18 nations that received a 1 rating, while 24 countries were rated 5, including Belarus, Bangladesh, Egypt, Guatemala and Qatar. Eight countries where the rule of law has broken down received a special 5+ grade.

The report also found that in the past year, governments of at least 35 countries have arrested or imprisoned workers as a tactic to resist demands for democratic rights, decent wages and safer working conditions and secure jobs. In at least nine countries, murder and disappearance of workers were commonly used to intimidate workers.

Burrow also noted that the ITUC Global Poll 2014 found nearly two-thirds of people want governments to do more to tame corporate power.

The World Bank’s recent Doing Business report naively subscribed to the view that reducing labor standards is something governments should aspire to. This new Rights Index puts governments and employers on notice that unions around the world will stand together in solidarity to ensure basic rights at work.

In the map above, nations in red have the worst workers’ rights ratings while lighter-shaded nations are rated progressively better.

Read the full report, ITUC Global Rights Index: The World’s Worst Countries for Workers.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on May 22, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

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

Pregnant Workers Need More Protection than Walmart's Giving Them

Monday, May 26th, 2014
Laura ClawsonWalmart’s habit of making pregnant women choose between their paychecks and their health by denying them light duty got the retail giant enough bad publicity to spur a change in policy. The new policy leaves Walmart a whole lot of wiggle room to continue putting pregnant women in difficult positions, but it’s an improvement. However, Elizabeth Stoker wonders why Walmartisn’t giving pregnant women the same moral standing it gives veterans, who the company is making a big push to hire:

There’s no material reason veterans make better candidates for employment at Wal-Mart than any other candidate, especially for the low-skilled labor being performed on the floor of retail shops. And yet Wal-Mart’s commitment to veterans doesn’t seem entirely out of line, as veterans are seen as people with a different moral standing than others: They have contributed something of value, and therefore are valued.Wal-Mart notably doesn’t categorize pregnant women in that same class of morally valuable person. Benefits and accommodations in work are not offered to pregnant women insofar as they are pregnant, but only insofar as they are disabled in a medical sense by the effects of pregnancy. In other words, pregnancy has simply been subsumed under the preexisting criteria of disability rather than granted its own category of consideration. [...]

After all, pregnant women are at the final analysis socially valuable and morally distinct as a category of person. They ensure the ongoing life of society, and do so at personal cost: sometimes great, sometimes minor. If Wal-Mart is willing to recognize the moral significance of veterans in those terms, why not pregnant women?

The answer to the question is “because there isn’t as much public pressure and Walmart doesn’t do anything for workers without public pressure.” Besides, all it’s actually doing for veterans is hiring some of them to crappy Walmart jobs and giving some money to veterans’ programs to make itself look good. There’s no reason to believe veterans won’t be treated as badly as any other Walmart worker.Whatever your reasoning, though, pregnant women deserve stronger workplace protections than they currently have. It shouldn’t take bad publicity to get businesses to offer women light duty when they have a doctor’s note saying they need it, and policies offering accommodation shouldn’t have as much wiggle room as Walmart’s does. For that matter, women shouldn’t have to depend on having a decent boss to be able to keep working safely through pregnancy. That should be a matter of the law. Instead, pregnant women now face discrimination and Republicans are predictably standing in the way of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would strengthen protections for all pregnant women, not just the ones whose employers have gotten bad press.

This article was originally printed on the Daily Kos on May 23, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

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

 

Fast food workers and SEIU President arrested outside McDonald's HQ

Monday, May 26th, 2014

seiu-org-logoAdriana Alvarez has worked at McDonald’s for 4 years and makes just $8.75 an hour. She’s fighting for $15 an hour to win a better life for herself and her two year-old son Manny.

Just now, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, Adriana and more than 120 fast food workers from across the country were arrested outside of McDonald’s corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, where hundreds of workers are refusing to be silenced before their shareholder meeting.

These fast food workers need your help. Call McDonald’s and tell them you stand with Adriana and the other workers right now: 888-979-7395. Tell them that it’s time for $15 an hour and the right to form a union without intimidation.

Adriana and her fellow McDonald’s employees were arrested for their brave act of peaceful civil disobedience. Each of them was standing up for themselves, the families their wages support, and pretty much every fast food worker everywhere. Mary Kay Henry was arrested alongside them to send a clear message to fast food workers everywhere that the 2.1 million members of SEIU — home care workers, child care workers, adjunct professors, security officers, hospital workers and many others — proudly stand with them.

Please show your support now for these unbelievably courageous workers by calling McDonald’s this minute: 888-979-7395.

Tell McDonald’s that you support these workers. Tell them that it’s shameful that workers have to be arrested in order to be heard.

Just to be extra clear: Workers have already risked a lot by going on strike last Thursday in the biggest fast food action in world history. And it’s even scarier to go straight to the source and speak up for what they believe in. But Adrianna is doing it, and so are dozens of others. It’s pretty amazing.

Now it’s your turn to speak up for what’s right. Pick up the phone and call McDonald’s now: 888-979-7395.

The McDonald’s shareholder meeting starts in less than 24 hours and we have to make sure they hear us. No one who works for a living should be forced to live in poverty. No one who works for a corporation that makes more than $5 billion in profit should have hungry kids at home.

We’ve been live tweeting today’s action from Oak Brook at @SEIU, so check out our Twitter feed for of-the-moment updates. You can also visit FastFoodGlobal.org to stay updated as news breaks.

This article was originally printed on SEIU on May 21, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

Author: Flora Johnson, Home Care Worker, SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana

Turkey Erupts Over Mining Tragedy; Many Blame Privatization

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014

A horrific mining disaster in Turkey on Tuesday claimed the lives of at least 298 workers, a toll that continues to climb. Callous responses from both the Turkish government and the company that operates the mine have triggered widespread anger, leading trade unions to launch a one-day strike on May 15 in protest of the country’s poor mining safety record.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdo?an rushed to the site of the accident in the southwestern Aegean town of Soma. “These types of accidents are regular occurrences…there are no such things as having no accidents,” he said, reading from a list of global mine disasters since the 19th century that have had higher death tolls, highlighting cases in China and India. In response, an infuriated crowd repeatedly kicked his vehicle and attempted to encircle him, calling for his resignation. The callousness of his statement triggered a wave of backlash on social media and in the streets, as the official death toll swept above 200 on Wednesday evening and hundreds of the mine’s 5,800 workers reportedly remained trapped. Unofficial reports estimate anywhere from 400 to 600 deaths. (The exact numbers are difficult to pin down because the accident occurred during a shift change.)

Protesters, numbering in the thousands in some major cities, continued to spill into the streets throughout the week holding placards that read, “This is not an accident, it’s a massacre.” In Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, police intervened with tear gas and water cannons.

Soma Coal Mining Co., the private company contracted to operate the government-owned mine, is denying that the accident was due to negligence, but admitting that there were no functioning refuge chambers in the mine at the time. At a press conference on Friday in Soma, company owner Alp Gürkan expressed his condolences and explained that the sole safety chamber was in an area that was no longer being actively mined, but that the company was planning to build a second one when the accident occurred. He noted that Turkish mining laws do not require refuge chambers.

The company says the accident was due to a fire whose causes are still under investigation. Operating manager Akin Çelik said at the press conference that such a fire could have happened in a mine anywhere in the world. Turkey’s Labor and Social Security Minister Faruk Çelik added that there had been no missteps in safety checks and inspections prior to the accident.

Details remain murky, however, and allegations of negligence abound. The Izmir branch of the Chamber of Electrical Engineers, which sent a committee of engineers to the scene to investigate the incident, said the mine’s ventilation systems and poisonous and explosive gas detectors were inadequate and outdated. Others have noted the lack of heat-resistant power transformers and electric equipment

Nedret Durukan, director of the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects, says that mine workers describe long hours underground, lack of rest, lack of safety equipment and inadequate safety training. “Training and education of workers … is viewed as taking away from working hours,” she says.

Turkey’s largest unions staged a one-day strike on Thursday over the mine tragedy, demanding that the government enforce mine regulations. “This is not the first disaster we’ve experienced. In the past few years, we’ve seen hundreds of incidents, and we’ve lost thousands of workers, ” the Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions (TÜRK-??) general secretary Pevrul Kavlak said in a statement to the press this week, listing off previous mining accidents in Af?in-Elbistan and Zonguldak

In 2005, Soma Holding took over the reins of the mine from the government amid a push for privatization that began in the 1980s and has become a pillar of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) neoliberal restructuring. Recent laws allow the government to sell “royalty tenders,” in which the operation of the mine is awarded to whichever company offers the cheapest coal extraction bid. The coal is then sold back to the government for the market. Some say the profit-driven cost cuts, heightened production targets and slackened government oversight came at the expense of worker safety.

“The private mining sector has enforced an intense working tempo in order to extract more coal, which can result in cracks in worker safety,” Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions of Turkey (Dev Maden-Sen) representative Tufan Günay told a local publication. Soma Coal Mining Co.’s Gürkan said at the Friday press conference that the company has a narrow profit margin of only 10 to 15 percent at the Soma mine, and that any increases in profits have stemmed from more advanced production techniques.

Video footage of Turkey’s Energy Minister Taner Y?ld?z praising the company last year for “prioritizing workers’ safety” has made the rounds on social media this week, receiving biting comments from viewers.

While China and India may be typically associated with poor worker safety standards, the disaster at Soma sheds light on Turkey’s shortfalls. According to figures from the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, more miners die every year per million metric tons of excavated coal in Turkey than in China, where fatality rates have fallen since 2000 as the central government closed small, under-inspected rural mines, instituted new safety standards and cranked up fines for company negligence.

The latest disaster also underscores Turkey’s lack of domestic natural gas and oil production, which leaves it heavily reliant on coal and on other countries for energy imports. Despite an ongoing push for natural gas, coal still accounts for about 26 percent of Turkey’s energy consumption. As Turkey continues tapping into its domestic coal reserves in spite of ongoing mine accidents, Soma has jolted the country into self-reflection not only over occupational safety standards, but also over energy consumption.

Another glaring detail that has drawn fire in the wake of the accident is that two weeks ages, the ruling AKP party quashed a motion in parliament by the opposition Republican People’s Party to investigate work-related accidents at Soma coal mines. Also troubling are widespread, though unproven, assertions that Soma Holding handpicked the union leaders who were representing Soma’s mine workers.

On Friday, the AKP submitted a proposal for a parliamentary inquiry into the accident, though no top managers or company executives have been implicated as of yet. The prosecutors investigating the case have said the managers they planned to arrest had died in the mines.

Finally, labor unions have long criticized big factories and mining companies for outsourcing to subcontractors, which are notorious for lacking regulation and pushing boundaries on employee rights. Soma Holding has officially denied using subcontractors, but journalists in Turkey have raised speculation that it was indeed employing uninsured workers through subcontractors. “This disaster should be a lesson for those who have turned this country into a heaven for subcontractors and for those who have created an order based on exploitation,” said Kavlak.

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on May 17, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sisi Tang is a former student in history, now a writer and traveler in Istanbul.

Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts Says Turkey Mine Disaster is a 'Punch in the Gut' for All Coal Miners

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014

Jackie TortoraUnited Mine Workers of America (UMWA) International President Cecil E. Roberts issued the following statement Thursday:

“The horrific news coming from the coal mine near Soma, Turkey where nearly 300 miners have been killed and scores more are missing is a punch in the gut for every coal miner everywhere in the world. The hearts and prayers of every UMWA member and our families are with the families of the miners who lost their lives, and we sincerely hope that rescue efforts are possible and successful for those who remain trapped.

“The magnitude of this tragedy is appalling. I see where the media is calling this an industrial ‘accident,’ but a disaster on this scale is no accident. This mine was clearly a bomb waiting to go off. There could not have been any regulatory enforcement or company oversight of what went on in that mine.

“It has been nearly a century since we have seen disasters on this scale in the United States or Canada. Through strong laws and regulations, we have been able to develop workplace protections that keep our miners safe from the kinds of conditions that must have existed in that Turkish mine.

“What we have done here isn’t magical. It can be and has been applied elsewhere in the world. We stand ready to work with the Turkish miners and their government to help develop safety and health procedures that can help put an end to the possibility of these sorts of massive disasters in the future.”

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on May 16, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jackie Tortora is the blog editor and social media manager at the AFL-CIO.

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