Archive for the ‘worker’s rights’ Category
Friday, April 15th, 2016
Ninety percent—or 60 million of the world’s estimated 67 million domestic workers, some 80 percent of whom are women—labor without any basic social security protections, says a new International Labor Organization (ILO) report. Developing countries have the biggest gaps in coverage but wealthier nations are not immune to this problem.
According to the report, 60 percent of domestic workers in Italy are outside the country’s social security system, as are 30 percent of domestic workers in France and Spain. And here in the U.S., domestic workers—housekeepers, house cleaners, nannies, child and elder care providers among others—are not covered by many of the basic workplace protections that most employees take for granted.
“I would like that we stop being invisible to society,” says Maria Esther Bolaños, who works as a housekeeper in Chicago. Domestic workers “want to be respected and valued,” says Magdelena Zylinska, a domestic worker, also in Chicago who’s been cleaning homes since 1997. “That’s so little really, just to be treated with respect,” says Zylinska. “Everybody who works wants that. We’re not asking for anything extraordinary.”
Historically, most U.S. domestic workers have been excluded from labor protections granted other workers, explains Zylinska. But “we are normal people with children and financial responsibilities,” she says. “That’s why I think it’s important that people recognize us as workers in general and give us more support and rights just as regular workers.”
Both Bolaños and Zylinska are working with groups that are part of the National Domestic Workers Alliance for passage of an Illinois state law that would extend basic employment protections to domestic workers. Among these provisions are written contracts, schedules that specify work hours, meal and other breaks and coverage by state laws that guarantee minimum wages, one day of rest in seven and those of the Illinois Human Rights Act.
If passed, the Illinois bill—known as the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights (HB1288)— would be the seventh such U.S. state bill. So far only California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York and Oregon have comparable laws.
Nationally, U.S. domestic workers are covered by Social Security but not by the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Nor do they receive benefits of the Family and Medical Leave Act, Americans with Disabilities Act or the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. And until 1974, when Congress extended the Fair Labor Standards Act to cover domestic workers, U.S. workers employed directly by households were without minimum wage and overtime protections. In 2013, a new Department of Labor rule revised regulations to better cover domestic caregivers under the Fair Labor Standards Act, but leaves U.S. domestic workers without many basic employment protections.
“We have no basic benefits like sick leave,” explains Sally Richmond, who has worked for years providing child care and is a community organizer with the Alliance of Filipinos for Immigrant Rights and Empowerment (AFIRE).
Poor working conditions, long hours and low wages
As described by the ILO report, “Domestic work has traditionally been characterized by poor working conditions, long hours, low wages, forced labor and little or no social protection. In other words, domestic workers are exposed to conditions that are far from the concept of decent work promoted by the ILO. This situation largely reflects the low social and economic value societies usually place on this activity. This is often reflected by the absence of adequate laws and the lack of effective enforcement of those that do exist.”
While domestic work is some of the lowest paid and least protected in the world—in some places earning no more than half the average wage—so many people do this work that, according to the ILO, “if all domestic workers worked in one country, that country would be the world’s tenth largest employer.” Domestic workers also have some of the longest and most unpredictable work hours of any employees.
Add to this, the fact that most of the world’s domestic workers are women, makes this workforce socially and economically vulnerable to additional discrimination, says the ILO. Extending basic social protections to domestic workers is key to fighting poverty and promoting gender equality, said Philippe Marcadent, Chief of the ILO’s Inclusive Labour Markets, Labour Relations and Working Conditions Branch in a statement. The ILO report also points out that many of the estimated 55 million women engaged in domestic work around the world—a number that is likely an undercount—are also migrants, which adds to their vulnerability to discrimination and unfair labor practices.
“Most of us are immigrants and come from really poor countries,” says Zylinska. There are many domestic workers that are supporting “not only their families here but also families in their [home] countries.” Language differences and concerns about immigration status add to the daily employment uncertainties for many domestic workers, say Bolaños and Zylinska.
ILO agreement on domestic workers rights—not ratified by the U.S.
As part of its efforts to improve working conditions and labor protections for domestic workers, in 2011 the ILO adopted what’s called the Domestic Workers Convention that requires countries that ratify the agreement to ensure that domestic workers labor rights are no “less favorable” than those of other workers—including with respect to social security protection and maternity protections. The Convention outlines basic labor rights to include working hours, wage, occupational health and safety, child and migrant workers protections. It also underlines the importance of organizations that represent both domestic workers and those who employ them. But so far, only 22 countries have ratified the Convention. The United States is not among them.
Unlike those employed by more formal workplaces—those outside private homes—around the world, domestic workers typically lack comparable enforceable policies on working hours, occupational health and safety protections, maternity leave, workplace inspections and access to information on labor rights—including the right to organize and form unions.
Many domestic workers “are afraid to complain for fear of losing their job,” says Richmond. “My hope is for this work to be professionalized,” she says. Working with the Union Latina, helps “teach us how we can protect ourselves against abuse and wage theft and how we can take sick days,” says Bolaños. “We don’t have contracts, today I have a job, tomorrow I don’t have a job. It’s a very unregulated business,” explains Zylniska.
But all these basic workplace and labor protections are feasible and affordable, says the ILO report—even for middle and low-income countries. Yet while it documents increasing social security coverage for domestic workers worldwide, these policies often exclude migrant workers who make up at least one-sixth of this global workforce. While fixing these problems can’t be accomplished by one single policy model, said senior ILO economist Fabio Duran-Valverde in a statement, “mandatory coverage (instead of voluntary coverage) is a crucial element for achieving adequate and effective coverage under any system.”
While U.S. law provides protections for domestic worker not guaranteed in other countries, this household-based workforce still lacks coverage provided to other American employees. And given the nature of the domestic workplace ensuring change even when policies shift can be difficult.
“The laws on the books are one thing, but we’ve always been really aware that conditions for domestic workers don’t automatically change when a bill is signed into law,” says National Domestic Workers Alliance campaign director, Andrea Mercado. To make these changes, “It’s going to require a culture shift and a public conversation around domestic work and care work and why we should value it,” she says. “That’s kind of our struggle,” says Zylinska.
The Illinois Domestic Workers Bill of Rights now has 21 Senate and 33 House sponsors. A spokesperson for lead sponsor state Senator Ira Silverstein said the bill is expected to be reintroduced this month and could move swiftly toward a vote.
This blog was originally posted on inthesetimes.org on April 12, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.
Wednesday, April 13th, 2016
Leaders of the unions representing nearly 40,000 Verizon telecommunications workers in big cities and small towns from Maine to Virginia announced today that their members would be going on strike at 6 a.m. Wednesday without “a major change in direction” in contract talks now underway, according to Communications Workers of America (CWA) president Chris Shelton.
The unions—CWA and IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers)—are fighting to keep high-quality working class jobs in the United States.
Jobs in the two major categories of work pay relatively well—about $60,000 a year for call center workers and about $85,000 to $90,000 a year for technicians who install and service the telecom network, according to Bob Master, assistant to the CWA New York area vice-president Dennis Trainor.
Verizon is flush financially. It earned $18 billion in profits last year and about $1.8 billion a month so far this year. Last year it spent about $13 billion in buying back its stock, a dubious strategy to enrich stockholders. Now it is trying to buy Yahoo!, a long-shot target for a $35 billion speculative bet.
With the salaries that their union contract provides and the skills they learn, Verizon workers can provide their communities and families stable and supportive leadership. It will be harder to play that role with the lower wages, lesser benefits and less stable work routines that Verizon’s proposals would provide.
For example, Dan Hilton, a cable splicer from Roanoake, Va., who has been with Verizon for 20 years, often is sent out to provide cable service for an entire community or to restore service after disasters. The company has become addicted to such flexibility, but it means that its employees can not be at home when their family needs them.
“My wife had back surgery last year and needed my help, and I want to enjoy time with my grandkids,” he says. “We want to do a good job, go home and spend time with our spouses. … We’re just ordinary working people, doing our job, hoping for our company to succeed. That’s what life’s all about.”
But his job—and the company’s success—also involves serving people like himself in his community. He wants Verizon to expand FiOS, the company’s bundled Internet access, telephone and television service, in his home area, something he is not available to do when he is dispatched far away for long times. But he and CWA vice-president Ed Mooney see the company’s failure to build out fiber optic networks or to explain why they are adopting such a policy as representing Verizon’s disinterest in caring for needs of long-term customers.
Workers like Hilton and union leaders think that Verizon is narrowly focused on profit maximization, not the long-term well being of the company, the community or its employees. In the current negotiations over a contract that expired last June, Verizon wants lower health care costs regardless of the consequences. For their part, union negotiators have offered some changes to save some money, such as encouraging more use of preferred providers. But the unions are resisting pension cutbacks that Verizon demands.
The telecom industry has undergone decades of tumultuous change. Now even Verizon, a traditional land line telephone service provider, is ditching as much as it can of the land line business as possible and emphasizing cell phone service. It is no coincidence that Verizon has also been most intensively fighting recognition of unions in its cell phone operations.
“Our major issues involve contracting out of work,” says Trainor. That practice accounts for much of the 40 percent loss of jobs over the past decade, according to Master. The technicians, for example, not only feel pressure to work away from home for long periods but also the threat that if they do not, Verizon will turn to non-union subcontractors to do their work. On the other hand, call centers workers face the prospect of Verizon closing more of their centers and moving the work to Mexico or the Philippines.
Telephone strikes can be tough battles, with managers trying to handle much of the immediate service and repair work in central facilities as they can. But Verizon workers have some experience preparing for strikes and for ways to make their case to customers that the workers and the union are on their side, even more than Verizon itself.
This blog originally appeared in inthesetimes.com on April 12, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thursday, March 10th, 2016
Last week, award-winning labor and business reporter Steven Greenhousepublished a comprehensive article on T-Mobile’s disgraceful labor and consumer practices.
T-Mobile is currently the golden child of the telecom industry, with a media-friendly CEO and high profits. But, as Greenhouse writes, the company faces allegations of the law in nearly every part of its operation:
On top of all of this, T-Mobile continues to be one of the most aggressively anti-union companies in the industry.
Joshua Coleman was one of the top performers at the T-Mobile call center in Wichita, Kansas—the company even awarded him a free vacation to Puerto Rico. But when they discovered Coleman was a union supporter, they not only canceled his vacation, but fired him. When the NLRB dinged them for unlawful dismissal, T-Mobile settled for $40,000 without admitting wrongdoing.
And if workers at any company need a union, it’s T-Mobile. In contrast to the company’s laid-back, “un-carrier” image, employees in T-Mobile call centers are subject to high-stakes metrics that take into account everything from number of seconds on a call to when they go to the bathroom. Severe anxiety and panic attacks are common.
Greenhouse interviewed former customer service rep Julia Crouse, who reported vomiting from stress before work and that her manager “often ordered employees who had the worst sales numbers or longest average call times to wear a dunce cap.”
Help might soon be on the way. The organization T-Mobile Workers United has brought together employees from all over the country to support each other and push to change T-Mobile’s policies. This week,TU became an organizing local with the Communications Workers of America (CWA), with none other than fired worker Joshua Coleman as one of its leaders.
This article originally appeared on aflcio.org on March 10, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Doug Foote is the Social Media and Campaign Specialist at Working America. He joined Working America in 2011 after serving as New Media Director for the successful 2010 reelection campaign of Senator Patty Murray (D-WA).
Friday, February 26th, 2016
Workers at the Donald Trump co-owned Trump International Hotel Las Vegas voted to unionize. When hotel management challenged the union vote, the National Labor Relations Board rejected the challenge. But the Trump Organization fights on—to deny its workers their right to organize. The claim, of course, is that the big bad union intimidated the workers into voting to unionize:
“We will continue our fight to ensure a fair election for our valued associates, many of whom vigorously oppose union representation,” said Jill Martin, an attorney for The Trump Organization, in a statement to reporters. “The hearing officer’s recommendations erroneously disregarded the severe misconduct undertaken by Union agents, which clearly impacted an incredibly close election.” Trump management has until next week to formally challenge the NLRB recommendation, and then the Board’s regional chapter will determine whether or not to certify the union. Even if the local board backs the workers, Trump can further delay by appealing their ruling to the federal board in Washington, D.C.
That intimidation claim is what the NLRB’s local hearing officer already rejected. There is good reason, though, to believe that the vote was fraught with intimidation and retaliation … coming from management:
For some workers, like Donato, that wait is especially painful. After three years working at the hotel, Donato was suspended and then fired shortly after the union election, which he thinks was retaliation for his open support for the union. He is desperately hoping to win his job back as part of the bargaining process, and says he is mostly worried for his elderly mother and siblings in the Philippines, who depend on the money he sends them.
That wasn’t the first time the Trump hotel management went after a worker for exercising their legal right to organize. But even if all of management’s claims that the union harassed workers into voting yes are thrown out in the end, they can delay the final recognition of the union and delay a contract for months, at least, inflicting pain on the workers who’ve already risked so much to fight for a better workplace.
This blog originally appeared in dailykos.com on February 24, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and Labor editor since 2011.
Monday, February 22nd, 2016
Vermont is about to become the fifth state in the U.S. with a paid sick leave law. The state House, which had previously passed a sick leave bill, this week passed the state Senate’s version of the bill, described as “somewhat more business-friendly.” That usually means “somewhat less worker-friendly,” but it’s still a major advance:
The measure calls for employers to provide workers three paid sick days a year for the first two years that the law would be in effect and five thereafter.
It does not cover employees working fewer than 18 hours a week or 21 weeks a year.
The bill is headed to the desk of Gov. Peter Shumlin, who supports it. Vermont will join Connecticut, California, Massachusetts, and Oregon as states with paid sick leave laws. A number of other American cities and towns—many of them in New Jersey—have similar laws. And, of course, most other countries in the world have this basic, common-sense policy.
This blog originally appeared in dailykos.com on February 18, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and Labor editor since 2011.
Monday, February 15th, 2016
To talk to former uranium miners and their families is to talk about the dead and the dying. Brothers and sisters, coworkers and friends: a litany of names and diseases. Many were, as one worker put it, “ate up with cancer,” while others died from various lung and kidney diseases. When the former workers mention their own diseases, it’s clear, though unspoken, that they’re also dying. Some don’t wait for the disease to take them: “Poor guy says he don’t wanna be in a diaper,” says one worker of his brother-in-law, a former miner with lung disease who was facing hospice. “He got a gun and shot himself.”
Women who worked in the mines and mills also bore the risk of reproductive disorders and babies with birth defects. “[Supervisors] told me … as long as I could do the job, there was no reason to worry about my baby,” says Linda Evers, 57. Both of her children had birth defects. Her daughter was born without hips.
Linda Evers, who worked in a uranium mill in the 1970s, says, “Every day, they told us we were doing our part for the Cold War effort.” (Photograph by Joseph Sorrentino)
I spent a week interviewing former uranium workers (those who worked in the mines and the mills and, sometimes, both) and their families in the towns of Grants and Church Rock, N.M.: ground zero for uranium mining from the mid-1950s until the early 1980s. Years, sometimes decades, after laboring in the mines and mills, workers exhibit diseases associated with uranium exposure. The federal government, under a program called the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), has paid more than $750 million in restitution to uranium workers on nearly 8,000 claims. But in order to receive compensation, workers have to have been employed before 1972—the year the federal government stopped purchasing uranium for its nuclear arms build-up. The workers I spoke with are part of a group of thousands who worked in uranium mines or mills after December 31, 1971, and have diseases linked to uranium exposure, but, so far, cannot get compensation from RECA.
Spouses of former workers also suffer health effects, even though they may have never set foot in a mine or mill. The Post ’71 Uranium Workers Committee, an advocacy organization cofounded by Linda Evers, surveyed 421 wives of uranium workers and found that 40 percent reported miscarriages, stillbirths or children with birth defects. One vector of contamination may have been laundry brought home from the mines. Cipriano Lucero, 61, worked in the Anaconda mill, where uranium was processed into yellowcake, a toxic substance. “[His clothes] were stinky and yellow and no matter how much bleach, they would never come out, they were still yellow,” says his wife, Liz, adding, “I would wash his clothes with our clothes.”
Liz was diagnosed with tumors in her ovaries when she was 28 and had to have a hysterectomy. She says the doctor told her it was uranium-related. Liz and Cipriano cofounded the Post ’71 Uranium Workers Committee with Evers.
So who’s to blame?
Uranium mining has long been known to be dangerous work. As early as 1546, in Schneeberg, Germany, it was noted that large numbers of uranium miners were dying from lung disease. The first scientific report linking uranium mining and lung disease was published in Germany in 1879, and that disease was shown in 1913 to be lung cancer. More scientific articles in the 1930s and 1940s seemed to indicate that radon and “radon daughters,” byproducts of uranium decay, were the primary cause.
But, driven by the Cold War push for nuclear arms, uranium mining continued unchecked with “little attention… paid to the health of uranium miners,” according to a Department of Labor historian.
In 1950, an Irish-Navajo sheep herder named Paddy Martinez found a bright yellow rock of uranium ore near Haystack, N.M. That set off a mining boom in the Four Corners (where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado meet), providing sorely needed jobs.
“[The men] wanted to provide for their families, and the [mining] companies came in and said, ‘Hey, you guys are gonna make good money, have good benefits,’ ” says Liz Lucero. When she and Cipriano first got married, in 1976, he was working in a gas station for $3.85/hour. He took a job at the Anaconda mill the next year in order to get benefits and more money; about, he figures, $6 an hour. “Had to,” he says. “Had to support our family.”
Companies also lured workers with patriotism. “Every day, they told us we were doing our part for the Cold War effort,” says Linda Evers. “They’d tell us, ‘We won the Cold War because of you guys.’”
As the boom took off, Grants declared itself “The Uranium Capital of the World.”
Workers like Evers say they didn’t understand the dangers of uranium exposure, in part because the diseases take years to manifest. “When I was working, no one had been getting sick,” says Evers.
During the 1960s, Navajos working in uranium mines, few of whom smoked cigarettes, started experiencing high rates of lung cancer. Advocates and workers pressured the federal government—the sole purchaser of uranium from 1948 until 1971—for remedies. In 1979, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) introduced the first bill to compensate uranium workers and others for diseases attributable to radiation exposure, but it wasn’t until 1990 that RECA became law. With RECA, the government recognized its responsibility for the harm done to uranium miners and apologized “on behalf of the nation.” A 2000 bill expanded RECA to cover uranium mill workers, ore transporters and above-ground miners. Workers with diseases such as lung cancer, pulmonary fibrosis and silicosis are eligible for $100,000 in restitution. But the act only covers workers who were employed before 1972.
The Four Corners mining boom continued, however, thanks to nuclear power. It didn’t slow until 1979, when a glut of uranium on the world market led to a steep price drop, and layoffs began. By 1989, the last conventional uranium mine in New Mexico had closed.
All of the dozen former workers interviewed for this article worked after 1971 and are therefore denied RECA benefits. Tommy Reed, who worked in the mines until 1983 and has a constant cough, as well as skin and lung problems, finds this untenable. “We did the same work, have the same diseases, but we’re not covered,” he says. “What’s the rationale behind that?”
According to Chris Shuey, who directs the Uranium Impact Assessment Study at the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, the government reasoned its responsibility ended in 1971 when it stopped purchasing uranium. Many Congress members, he adds, believe the new standards on radiation exposure passed in 1969 protected uranium workers. Yet, post-1971 workers are still dying. Something didn’t work.
A failure to regulate
Health and safety protections for uranium workers were, for many years, spotty at best and negligent at worst. The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Mines (BOM), established in 1910 to reduce accidents, had little regulatory authority and was also tasked with “mineral resource development.” State laws were piecemeal: In 1958, for example, New Mexico instituted a policy to “clear all areas” of mines that exceeded safe levels of radon, but “there was limited enforcement,”according to a 2002 National Institutes of Health paper by Doug Brugge and Rob Goble.
Federal responsibility for mine safety was reshuffled twice in the 1970s. The Mining Enforcement and Safety Administration(MESA) took over for the BOM in 1973 due to concerns about conflicts of interest. In 1978, the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) replaced MESA as part of the sweeping reforms of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act. MSHA also assumed responsibility for uranium mills.
MSHA’s motto is “Protecting Miners’ Safety and Health Since 1978.” Former uranium workers interviewed—all of whom worked at mines and mills from the mid-1970s through 1982 or 1983— don’t believe it did a very good job.
Radon is “one of the most potent carcinogens known,” according to Dr. Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility. But during the 1970s, government regulations didn’t mandate regular federal inspections to measure radon levels at uranium mines. Neither MSHA nor the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (which inherited some of the BOM’s responsibilities) could provide In These Times with confirmation that the government conducted inspections for radon levels at that time. Companies were supposed to self-monitor, and if they detected high levels of radon, implement safety measures.
By 1981, MSHA was supposed to be checking radon levels at the mines annually. Several workers remember inspections, but told In These Times that when inspectors were coming, supervisors had workers barricade the unsafe areas. When the inspectors left, the barricades came down and the workers went back in. At mills, “[inspectors] never got out of the trucks,” says Evers. “Maybe they did, but I never saw them.”
One effective way to reduce exposure to radon is through ventilation. All underground mines are supposed to be well-ventilated, and according to 1973 guidelines, uranium mines specifically had to have “an adequate quantity of good-quality air” in working areas so as to keep radon levels below the threshold. But in a survey of 1,302 post-1971 workers conducted by the Post ’71 Uranium Workers Committee in 2009, only 14 percent said their work areas had adequate ventilation; 36 percent said no and almost half answered “sometimes.”
The ventilation guidelines didn’t extend to uranium mills, despite exposure hazards there as well. At mills, uranium ore is refined into yellowcake, which is 80 percent to 90 percent uranium oxide. When inhaled, it can become embedded in the lungs, increasing the risk of pulmonary fibrosis, which can be fatal. When ingested, it can damage the kidneys.
Cipriano Lucero worked in uranium mills from 1977 to 1982. He has pulmonary fibrosis, and one of his kidneys failed when he was 48, necessitating a transplant. He uses a continuous positive pressure airway machine at night and uses an oxygen tank during the day. Asked whether there was proper ventilation in the mills where he worked, Lucero simply replies, “Not really.” Linda Evers says the dust was so bad in mills that she sometimes couldn’t see. “They had exhaust fans,” she says, “but it wasn’t anything different than an oversized box fan. They just moved [the dust] around.
“We were allowed one dust mask a month, a paper dust mask,” she continues. “After one shift, they were clogged, so we just wore bandanas, or nothing.”
Lucero agrees: “We had masks but they were useless … paper masks only. Sometimes you wouldn’t even have a mask, breathing in all that dust.” Workers often coughed up black soot.
Given the dangers of working with uranium, it would seem that companies should have provided extensive training on radiation hazards—but they did so at their own discretion. “We had a class, lasted about an hour or two,” said Lucero. “Mostly about first aid, if you hurt yourself, how to wrap it.” They didn’t talk about radiation. Larry King, who worked in the mines, mainly as a surveyor, for eight years, said he had only one safety meeting and that was when he started work.
“No one told us of the hazards of radiation, uranium or radon,” he says. Seventy-nine percent of the workers questioned in the Post ’71 survey believed that safety measures—including information and equipment—were inadequate.
Church Rock is located in the Navajo Nation, 55 miles west of Grants. Nestled in red rock hills, the town gets its name from a formation that looks like a steeple. Local Navajo were drawn to the mines, like the residents of Grants, because of the well-paying jobs. Because Navajo miners often worked within walking distance of their homes, their risk of exposure was heightened.
Larry King, who is Navajo, lives about five miles from the entrance to Church Rock Mine, off a gravel road just past a hand-painted “Old Church Rock Mine Road” sign. In addition to the overwhelming likelihood of uranium exposure at work in the mine, there’s a strong chance he was, and may still be, exposed at home. His house is a short distance from where, on July 16, 1979, a tailings pond dam broke, releasing 93 million gallons of radioactive water. It was, by volume, the largest single release of radioactivity in the United States.
King is a sturdy-looking 58-year-old, but he suffers from respiratory problems that leave him fatigued and short of breath when he works on his property, which includes 13 cattle. “I used to do quite a bit of work several years ago, and now I’m limited,” he says.
Five miles north of where King lives is the home of Edith Hood, also a Navajo former mine worker. She worked as a probe technician in the Kerr McGee mine for a total of six years. A quiet 64-year-old, she’s still energetic despite having been diagnosed with lymphoma in 2006. Her front yard is less than half a mile from the abandoned mine where she once worked. Just a short distance away is a buried tailings pile—mine waste that contains uranium and may still be giving off radon. “Since we live and work here,” she says, “it’s a double whammy.”
In 2015, bills to amend RECA to include post-1971 workers were introduced in the House and Senate, spearheaded by three Democratic New Mexico legislators: Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and Rep. Ben Ray Luján.
It’s the fourth attempt since 2000. Keith Killian, a private attorney in Grand Junction, Colo., who is fighting to get compensation for post-1971 workers, sees reason for “guarded” optimism. “There are bipartisan sponsors,” he says. “That’s really good. In the past we didn’t have a lot of Republicans interested.”
Still, no bill has received a hearing and nothing is scheduled. Neither Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) nor House Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte responded to requests for comment.
Cipriano Lucero, a soft-spoken man of few words, did what he was told when he worked in the mills. He, like many other uranium workers, said if he complained about working conditions, he risked losing his job. One of his tasks, washing uranium off air filters, required him to stand in foot-deep water containing uranium runoff. Doctors, he says, told him radiation exposure had made his left leg brittle; it broke three times and eventually had to be amputated. Now he has a prosthesis, with a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe on it. Lucero has trouble walking and usually uses a cane or, when he gets too tired, a motorized wheelchair.
“Some days are terrible,” he says. “I can barely get out of bed. I just wonder how I’m gonna die…suffocate or whatever.” He’s only 61.
“It’s haunting us,” says Jerry Sanchez, who worked as both a miner and miller. “If you worked there, you got it coming. If you don’t have it, it’s coming.”
Grants is the quintessential boom town, post-boom. Now, the best jobs are in the prisons. Along its main street, a stretch of Route 66, there are almost as many weed-infested lots as there are occupied buildings. A half-mile stretch contains six payday loan companies—four in one block. A few large neon signs beckon people to buildings that no longer exist. An abandoned gas station has a large sign advertising Marlboro for $1.69 a pack. Lucero says that in its prime, Grants had “lots and lots of people. … The restaurants were full all the time, people [were] buying cars and houses.” But the streets are mostly deserted now. Asked if his friends and family have moved away, he answers, “No. Most of them died because of cancer.”
Eli Massey contributed research to this article.
This blog originally appeared in inthesetimes.com on February 15, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Joseph Sorrentino is a writer and photographer. He has been documenting the lives of agricultural workers on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border for 12 years.
Wednesday, February 10th, 2016
This post originally appeared at Kentucky State AFL-CIO.
Federal District Judge David Hale’s decision striking down Hardin County’s “right to work” ordinance was a victory for Kentucky’s working families, said Bill Londrigan, president of the Kentucky State AFL-CIO. He continued:
These illegal ordinances would have affected all working people, union and nonunion, by decreasing wages, lowering median household incomes, increasing poverty and undermining workplace safety. In short, these ordinances are wrong. The courts rejected out-of-state special interests’ attempt to take over local governments by pushing a radical outside agenda.
In January 2015, nine unions filed suit against Hardin County’s right to work ordinance, arguing that federal labor law permits only states and territories to pass right to work laws. Eleven other counties approved similar ordinances and Hale’s ruling, in effect, invalidates them, too.
Both sides stated their cases before Hale in Louisville in August 2015. He ruled in favor of the unions on Feb. 3.
We would like to thank all of the working families and elected officials that fought hard against these illegal ordinances. The Kentucky AFL-CIO and hardworking Kentuckians will continue to fight for fair wages, more good jobs and more investment in education—and fight hard against unfair, illegal and unnecessary legislation. It is unfortunate that out-of-state special interests wasted taxpayers’ money with these attacks on Kentucky workers by pushing a radical out-of-state agenda. Our mission is to improve the lives of all working Kentuckians and raise the standard of living for all Kentuckians. We salute the working people of Hardin County for taking a stand against out-of-state corporate interests.
The pro-right to work Americans for Prosperity Kentucky contributed a $50,000 grant to a legal defense fund for counties that faced legal action for passing RTW ordinances, according to Kevin Wheatley of cn/2 Pure Politics.
Buddy Cutler of Louisville, attorney for the unions, said Hale’s opinion was solid, well-reasoned and followed established law. “It is a victory for working people that honors Congress’ intent and implements the wise federal labor policy that companies and unions should be free to negotiate contracts without undue interference from local officials.”
Hale said the National Labor Relations Act “preempts the right-to-work, hiring-hall, and dues-checkoff provisions of Hardin County Ordinance 300.” He also ruled that “Section 14(b) is the only exception to NLRA preemption of the field of labor relations, and it does not extend to counties or municipalities. Because Ordinance 300 does not fall under §14(b)’s narrow exception, sections 4, 5, and 6 of the ordinance are preempted and thus invalid.”
This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on February 9, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Berry Craig is an emeritus professor of history at the West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance writer. He is a member of American Federation of Teachers Local 1360, the recording secretary for the Western Kentucky Area Council, AFL-CIO, and the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War, Hidden History of Kentucky Soldiers and Hidden History of Western Kentucky.
Wednesday, December 23rd, 2015
The spirit of the season is generosity. Eight toys for Hanukkah. A partridge in a pear tree and 11 other quirky presents. Black Friday. Cyber Monday. Giving Tuesday.
It’s the thought that counts. And the thought is good-hearted. That’s why the season works so well.
To keep it all rolling happily along, however, workers need to earn enough money so that they can afford gifts and charitable donations. With wages stagnant for decades, that’s increasingly difficult.
In keeping with the figgy-pudding and potato latke traditions of the holidays, here’s a recipe for delivering joy to workers so that they can spread holiday merriment:
1 measure outlawing scabs
1 measure banning lockouts
1 measure raising minimum wage to $15 an hour
Knead in trade law enforcement
Filter out currency manipulation
Top it all with campaign finance reform
Start by combining legislation forbidding both scabs and lockouts. These are two weapons corporations use to ratchet down wages, ruining workers’ holidays.
Right now, for example, Sherwin Alumina and ATI have locked out their loyal workers and replaced them with scabs. That’s thousands of workers forced to walk picket lines and depend on USW lockout assistance and food pantries for holiday meals rather than donating to them.
Prohibiting lockouts and scabs would slightly shift the balance of power toward workers. That’s completely justified considering corporate profits are at record levels while wages are walking backward, lower now than in 2007.
Next, add to the mix a raise to the minimum wage. No one who works full-time should live in poverty. The current $7.25 minimum, moribund for six years, is a Dickensian disgrace, a Bob Cratchit-level degradation.
Increasing the wages of workers at the bottom to $15 an hour will force up the pay of everyone else as well. All workers benefit. Happier holidays for all.
Trade law enforcement must be blended in next. Failure to immediately punish trade law violators has pummeled commodity producers – like aluminum and steel. Mills are closed. Thousands of workers are laid off. No merry holiday for them. Or their communities.
Several foreign countries, but particularly China, illegally prop up their exporting manufacturers. Not only that, they’re also overproducing, flooding the world market and crashing prices.
Workers need laws enabling the government to impose punitive tariffs before American mills close and families suffer. In addition, the government must file and prosecute trade cases to defend American industry, not force labor unions and manufacturers to do it.
The next step in this recipe is pulling currency manipulation out of the international market. Ending this underhanded trade cheat is crucial
Countries including Japan and China deliberately devalue their currency in order to automatically discount the price of their exports, so every day is Black Friday for their international customers. Making matters worse, this scheme simultaneously marks up the cost of products that U.S. manufacturers try to sell in currency-manipulating countries.
This makes for very bad holidays in places like Ashland, Ky., where AK Steel shut down its blast furnace earlier this month and laid off hundreds of workers. They join about 4,000 Steelworkers at plants in Illinois and Alabama threatened with holiday layoffs.
The last ingredient, campaign finance reform, makes the whole recipe possible. Nothing will happen without it.
In a democracy, each citizen should have equal influence over lawmakers. The wealthy and fat-cat corporations shouldn’t get special access and treatment because they’ve given millions to candidates. The only way to stop that is to outlaw massive political bribes.
Gifts should be to loved ones and charities, not to politicians. If gargantuan campaign “presents” aren’t stopped, workers won’t be able to afford Christmas gifts because politicians will continue to ignore their needs and, as a result, their wages will continue to atrophy. Then the holiday season will not work well for anyone.
Workers need to make this holiday recipe happen. It would bring joy to their world.
About the Author: The author’s name is Leo Gerard. Leo W. Gerard, International President of the United Steelworkers (USW), took office in 2001 after the retirement of former president George Becker.
This blog was originally posted on Our Future on December 22, 2015. Reprinted with permission.
Thursday, November 5th, 2015
Ralph knows firsthand that non-unionized workers lack basic rights. Last year he got a text from his boss while at a cancer clinic in Spokane, Wash. After receiving chemotherapy treatment, Ralph learned he was being terminated from his job in the produce transportation industry—a decision his employer had no legal obligation to justify. According to Ralph, he was fired for “insubordination” after he began to question the business’s finances. Now, he’s been forced to take a minimum-wage job and file for bankruptcy, and could lose his home.
“I will not recover from this in my lifetime,” Ralph tells In These Times. “Tell me where the justice is in that.” (Ralph wished to remain pseudonymous because he is exploring filing a suit against his former employer, though lawyers have told him that he probably does not have a viable case.)
Workers without a union contract lack any guarantee of due process on the job, let alone a dignified wage. Other than Montana, no state—nor the federal government—requires employers to give a “just cause” for firings. But a movement in Spokane has gotten a first-in-the-nation Worker Bill of Rights on November’s ballot, which, if passed, would act as a kind of union contract for all workers in the city.
The proposition is being championed by Envision Spokane, a labor-community coalition. Envision Worker Rights, a sister political committee of the group, announced that it would introduce a new, worker-focused measure, and gathered more than 2,600 signatures to ensure its place on the city’s ballot.
Spokane’s Worker Bill of Rights would amend the city charter to provide several new on-the-job protections. It would give all Spokane workers rights to equal pay for equal work and to not be wrongfully terminated, as Ralph believes he was. It would also guarantee a “family wage” sufficient to cover basic necessities such as food, housing, utilities and childcare for workers of large employers. When employers run afoul, workers would be entitled to sue.
This may seem straightforward, but typically workers must hash out these protections through the arduous process of bargaining a union contract. Granting them proactively to all workers represents a promising new paradigm.
Thomas Linzey, executive director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, which is supporting the Worker Bill of Rights, explains that under current law, “in non-unionized, private workplaces, workers have no constitutional rights. It’s why e-mails can be read, urine can be tested, lockers searched. … By prohibiting firings without cause, due process constitutional rights would be afforded to all people working within the City of Spokane.” This departs from the “state-action” doctrine, the bedrock legal principle that the Constitution only protects citizens from the government, not from private entities.
When faced with efforts to protect workers and communities, corporations have often carped that their own rights are being violated. The International Franchise Association (IFA), for example, sued the City of Seattle over a $15 minimum-wage ordinance passed in June 2014, saying, among other things, that it discriminated against franchises and violated their constitutional right to equal protection. A U.S. appeals court ruled otherwise, and Spokane’s initiative is clearly not afraid of violating so-called corporate rights. The amendment declares that corporations “shall not be deemed to be ‘persons’ ” with legal rights if this interferes with the workers’ rights outlined in the measure. While Spokane is unlikely to reverse longstanding legal precedent on its own, advocates see the Worker Bill of Rights as part of a national movement to challenge corporate personhood.
This concept is resonating with many in the region and beyond. Some nine local unions and two regional labor councils have endorsed the initiative, along with community groups such as 15 Now Oregon and national figures like Noam Chomsky. Beth Thew, secretary-treasurer of the Spokane Regional Labor Council, the regional arm of the AFL-CIO, tells In These Times that the Worker Bill of Rights is “basically everything that organized labor stands for.” Given the decline in union density nationwide, she says, it makes sense “to take a more radical tactic.”
The list of backers also includes Democratic and Green Party-endorsed Spokane mayoral candidate Shar Lichty, the self-proclaimed “Bernie Sanders of Spokane.” Lichty acknowledges that “poverty is a huge issue here in Spokane”—more than 15 percent of residents live below the poverty line—and says she will defend the measure if elected.
As a result, Envision Spokane’s message is winning support from people like Ralph, who, though struggling to stay out of poverty himself, is phone banking for the campaign. “People today are just trying to fricking survive till the next day,” he tells In These Times.
The Worker Bill of Rights builds on Envision Spokane’s previous efforts to pass a Community Bill of Rights, which similarly challenged corporate personhood. The measure would have given neighborhoods power over local development and increased local environmental protections, among other provisions. First introduced on the ballot in 2009, the proposition failed to gain a majority of votes, and an updated version lost narrowly in 2011. The measure qualified again in 2013, but that vote has been delayed by a pre-election lawsuit brought by a coalition of county commissioners and business groups. The Washington Supreme Court will hear the case in November.
In August, the Worker Bill of Rights dodged a similar legal challenge, this time by Spokane’s own Republican Mayor David Condon, who sought to keep the measure off the ballot. The City of Spokane filed a lawsuit arguing, among other things, that the provision denying corporate personhood was unconstitutional because it would deny corporations access to the courts. A superior court judge ruled that the mayor did not have legal standing to keep the measure off of ballots, but city officials have persisted in their opposition. City Council members have also added controversial advisory questions about the potential costs of the initiative—whether, for example, the city should raise taxes to pay for it—that could sway voters against the measure.
Brad Read, a longtime Spokane high school English teacher and Envision Spokane organizer, is hoping that voters recognize the critical importance of the Worker Bill of Rights.
“It’s about the rights of real people … taking precedence over corporations,” he says. “If we don’t start to chip away at this edifice that has been carefully crafted for over 200 years, then we’re screwed.”
This article was originally printed on InTheseTimes.org on October 26, 2015. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Simon Davis-Cohen is a New York City-based writer examining the powers of local governments and corporations in the United States.
Tuesday, October 13th, 2015
Thousands of SEIU janitors are traveling to the City of Brotherly Love today to hold a massive rally in support of nearly 75,000 east coast janitors who are negotiating fair wages and benefits this fall. Across the country, thousands more are stickering up in their worksites and marching in the streets to fight for $15 and to #RaiseAmerica with good jobs.
This rally is the latest escalation in a nationwide movement to raise our communities by standing together for good jobs.
Already this year, janitors have won historic wage and job improvement increases. In March 2015, thousands stood in solidarity with Chicago and Cleveland, as they negotiated their contract, and in June we rallied again in solidarity with Detroit and Washington D.C.
More than 50% of janitors with new contracts will make more than $15 an hour by the end of this next contract. And each city has won important additional standards, like increased sick days, full-timing of work, strong non-discrimination language, and protecting employer-paid healthcare.
And we’re not done yet. 130,000 members are standing strong for our east coast brothers and sisters today. In 2016, we’re taking the fight back out West – to Minnesota and LA, Houston, Seattle and Denver. And we’re supporting our brothers and sisters in airports, security, industrial laundry, home care, child care, and in fast food.
We fight because we know our country can do better. We fight because the communities we live in are still fighting for $15 and the right to form a union. We’ve won for working people before, and we will win again. We will keep fighting until every working person in America has $15 and union rights.
This article was originally printed on SEIU in October, 2015. Reprinted with permission.