That didn’t take long. As the West Virginia Legislature opened Wednesday, the first bill out of the gates was “right to work” legislation that does nothing more than attack the rights of working people. As the video above shows, workers weren’t happy about the proposal and flooded the Capitol to express their opposition to the dangerous bill.
We’ve already seen what right to work does elsewhere, like Oklahoma, which became a right to work state in 2001. In 2006, Jesse Isbell from Oklahoma City lost his job of 36 years. While in West Virginia to speak out against right to work on Wednesday, Isbell said: “In my case, and in the case of 1,400 brothers and sisters at that facility, the law did not work as advertised. There’s absolutely no anecdotal or empirical evidence that right to work has benefited the Oklahoma state economy in any way. The truth is that it has driven down wages.”
A better approach, Isbell said, is to focus on education and workforce development: “If Oklahoma would have taken this approach 10 years ago instead of the disastrous right to work route, I wouldn’t be talking to you here today. I’d be working at the Bridgestone–Firestone plant in Oklahoma City.”
Proponents of right to work in West Virginia point to a deeply flawed study from West Virginia University but, as the Economic Policy Institute notes, that study gets basic facts wrong, doesn’t follow standard economic models and really only includes one state from which to come to its conclusions. EPI analyst Elise Gould explains:
In a WVU study about the effect of right to work on employment growth, the authors mismeasured both right to work status and employment growth….The point of so-called right to work laws is to hamstring unions, thereby lessening workers’ bargaining power and driving down their wages. This law has the potential to hurt all workers in West Virginia, union and nonunion alike.
EPI makes the case against right to work in West Virginia:
Right to work is associated with lower wages and benefits for both union and nonunion workers. In a right to work state, the average worker makes 3.2% less than a similar worker in a non right to work state.
Through cutting wages, right to work may undermine West Virginia’s small businesses, which depend on the state’s residents having wages to spend.
Many of the arguments made by advocates of right to work ignore that under federal law it is already illegal to force anyone to be a member of a union, and it is already illegal to force workers to pay even one cent to political causes.
Companies that are primarily interested in cheap labor are going to China or Mexico, not to right to work states like South Carolina or Arizona.
This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on January 15, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Kenneth Quinnell is a long time blogger, campaign staffer, and political activist. Prior to joining AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as a labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars. He was the past Communications Director for Darcy Burner and New Media Director for Kendrick Meek. He has over ten years as a college instructor teaching political science and American history.
When a parking lot attendant dared to recycle trash he picked up outside an upstate New York Walmart, the store fired him. Now generous strangers are trying to help cushion his sudden fall.
Thomas Smith, 52, had been earning $9 an hour at an upstate New York Walmart for less than three months when his manager terminated him over the cans. Smith was in charge of rounding up shopping carts from the lot outside the store, and started collecting trash from the lot while making his rounds. After storing up cans for a couple months, he recycled them in the store’s machines in early November. He got $5.10 for them.
Then he got fired. His manager told Smith his actions were “tantamount to theft of Walmart property,” the Albany Times Union reports, and said he would have to repay the $5.10 or lose his job. Smith, who commuted an hour by bus from Albany for the job, returned to the store two days later with the cash. But he’d already been fired.
“I didn’t know you couldn’t take empties left behind. They were garbage. I didn’t even get a chance to explain myself,” Smith told the paper. He also said his manager told him that a coworker who’d been caught stealing cash from a store register was allowed to keep her job because she repaid the theft and “because she has five kids.”
That thief was white. Smith collected trash while black.
The store manager who made the decision refused to speak with the Times-Union, and a Walmart spokesman told the paper it does not comment on personnel matters. After the story got picked up by local TV news, a company representative claimed Smith had admitted to stealing from inside the store itself. “They certainly didn’t indicate that both when I talked to them and our attorney talked to them,” Alice Green of the Center for Law and Justice said of that claim. Smith says he wrote out a statement for managers acknowledging he’d recycled the cans and no more.
Smith’s story has prompted strangers to send money through the crowdfunding site GoFundMe. So far the effort has collected more than $2,200 – an amount Smith would’ve had to work more than six weeks at full-time hours to earn.
While going viral for his sudden termination from a low-wage job has provided some short-term help, Smith will likely still have a hard time getting back on his feet. He was paroled in May after more than a dozen years in prison for armed robbery. He’d spent four months homeless after his release before finding housing through a charitable group. The Walmart job would have been one of his first, if not his very first, opportunities since his release for earning a living and achieving a degree of economic independence.
Formerly incarcerated people face immense hurdles to re-entering society and the workforce. Trust is hard to come by. Many job applications feature a check-box requiring applicants to volunteer information about their criminal history, which generally ruins their chances of even getting an interview.
The rejection naturally encourages desperate people to return to criminal activity for an income, as Glenn Martin, who now runs a non-profit that works with the formerly incarcerated and wasturned away from 50 different jobs in the month after his own release from prison, has described. Activists like Martin say efforts to reform the criminal justice and prison systems should include “ban the box” measures to restrict how hiring managers can ask about criminal histories – something President Obama recently did for federal hiring practices – and a revamp of education programs behind bars.
Since being fired, Smith has gotten plugged in with a legal aid group in Albany that is helping him recover his footing and that may eventually help him sue Walmart over his treatment. For now, though, he’s more worried about how he’s going to buy Christmas presents for his two teenage children.
This blog was originally posted on Think Progress on November 20, 2015. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Alan Pyke is the Deputy Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress.org. Before coming to ThinkProgress, he was a blogger and researcher with a focus on economic policy and political advertising at Media Matters for America, American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, and PoliticalCorrection.org. He previously worked as an organizer on various political campaigns from New Hampshire to Georgia to Missouri. His writing on music and film has appeared on TinyMixTapes, IndieWire’s Press Play, and TheGrio, among other sites.
On September 24, just after 3 PM, a 36-year-old Haitian immigrant named Marianie Sanon was sitting on a particleboard bench in the back of a van overcrowded with 22 other Haitian temp workers on their way to the night shift at a factory in Evansville, Indiana. She noticed that the van driver seemed to be driving dangerously fast down Interstate 69. Sanon had recently moved from Miami to Washington, Indiana, on the hope of landing a good job at the local branch of a temp agency called ServiceXpress. This would have been her fourth day temping at a plant operated by AmeriQual, an Evansville, Indiana-based manufacturer of prepackaged military food for the Department of Defense.
The last thing Sanon remembers of the van ride was watching the driver—a 30-year-old man named James Allen who helped his father run a van service that he called “Haitian Transportation”—attempt a high-speed, slalom-like maneuver to get around a truck.
Three days later, Sanon emerged from a coma in a hospital in Evansville, Indiana. She had suffered severe head trauma, had several fractured vertebrae, a bone in her left arm had been shattered and she still had shards of glass still imbedded in her body.
The accident had left two of her fellow passengers dead. As it tumbled across the interstate, the van disintegrated, ejecting Sanon onto the pavement and sending more than a dozen other survivors to the hospital. As she lay in her hospital bed and gathered information about her co-workers, Sanon says she began to wonder why she had heard nothing from the temp agency—ServiceXpress, a subsidiary of Delaware-based Service General—that deployed her, or from AmerQual itself. Not only had there been no offer of help, but not a single person from either firm had checked in, called, visited or sent a letter, Sanon says.
Sanon called ServiceXpress and spoke with a manager. “She said she was sorry for what happened to me,” Sanon told me, “but that she cannot do anything for me.”
Sanon soon received a letter from ServiceXpress.
We thank you for your time that you have been with ServiceXpress; we want to help in some way from the traumatic experience that you have been through. We hope this gift card and food basket can help you get back on your feet. We want to wish you the best regards in everything you do.
Aside from the $50 Walmart credit, Sanon says that she soon received a paycheck from ServiceXpress that came to $71.00. (She says she never received the food basket referenced in the letter and has heard nothing from AmeriQual.) Meanwhile, Sanon, who was airlifted from the crash site, began receiving the first of her medical bills (many more are on their way), which quickly amounted, she says, to roughly $105,000.
Out of work and unable to pay rent on her apartment, Sanon soon became homeless. She currently sleeps in a women’s shelter in downtown Evansville.
The subcontractor maze
Steven Chancellor is the Chairman of AmeriQual, according to Bloomberg. He has an ardent passion for big-game hunting on African safari trips and has even used his wealth and influence to lobby the Botswanan government to lift its ban on lion hunting. Chancellor has also proven an energetic Republican activist, hosting a high-profile fundraiser for Mitt Romney in 2012. Before that, he reportedly held a Republican fundraiser in 2004 election of President George W. Bush who, from the White House, assisted Chancellor’s crusade against Botswana’s lion hunting ban.
Immediately after the I-69 van crash, AmeriQual expressed sympathy for the victims but also made clear that it had enlisted the workers through ServiceXpress, which sent the temps to the factory for $11 per hour. Yet ServiceXpress, in turn, emphasized that the van’s driver worked for a different business. James Allen, the van’s driver, was recently arrested for his role in the van crash and Neil Chapman, Sanon’s attorney, says Allen likely has little in assets for the crash victims to draw from. (AmeriQual declined to provide comment for this story.)
Since the Great Recession, the temporary staffing industry has boomed, and temp employment has accounted for significant portions of rebounding job growth. Temps—who are employed by agencies and whose labor is simply rented out by third-party businesses—have become seen as some of America’s most vulnerable workers. Labor advocates say that, in treating workers as replaceable units of labor, the temp industry can overlook workers’ most basic human needs. Through the layering of contractors and subcontractors, many corporations who rely on temps have effectively shielded themselves from numerous forms of liability for temps they retain through third-party agencies.
Labor advocates across the country have identified the safety of vans that transport temp workers to job sites as a key issue. In 2013, ProPublica published a diagram, drawn by a temp worker, of an overcrowded van said to be a typical feature of the New Jersey temp economy. Workers in New Jersey I spoke with this week say that they are still being transported in woefully overcrowded conditions.
“The problems with the vans from the agencies is that they pack them in over capacity,” a Spanish-speaking temp worker in northern New Jersey told me through a translator and labor organizer named Louis Kimmel, the executive director of New Labor. “Logically when it’s over capacity and no one has seatbelts on, for example—and sometimes drivers might be driving when they’re still drunk—we’re putting ourselves at risk just by getting into a full van like that.”
Sanon herself expressed surprise at the lack of responsibility assumed by AmeriQual and ServiceXpress after the crash. “I was like, how am in the hospital and why am I not hearing from anyone?” Sanon said. “I’m very strong, but really, I need help. I cannot do this by myself.”
“A heroic effort”
Bamdad Bahar, the president of ServiceXpress, said that his office in Indiana did more than just send Walmart cards and food baskets. “[O]ur team there provided round the clock support for the employees, including taking family members to and from the various hospitals,” Bahar said in an email. “It was truly a heroic effort.” Bahar said that he had taken out life insurance plans that would provide the families of each deceased worker with a $5,000 payment.
Bahar also reiterated that his company has nothing to do with the accident. “I mentioned we provided maximum support feasible. This was NOT a workmans comp case, and was NOT an industrial accident. The driver and van company are NOT part of our company, and we are NOT responsible for the accident, the blown tire etc.” He added that he is looking into filing a libel suit against the local newspaper in Indiana, the Evansville Courier & Press, for its coverage of the accident. “There is really NO need to refer to us in relation to the accident,” Bahar said in a subsequent email. “I shut my operation in Indiana because of all this negative press.”
After the accident, Jacques Estime, who is involved in Washington, Indiana’s Haitian community, launched a fundraiser for the victims of the I-69 rollover crash. After securing enough money to pay for the funerals of the deceased, Estime said he split the leftover money 17 ways among the injured victims, who will each receive a check from Estime for $196.95.
In late September, shortly after the van crash, AmeriQual announced in a Facebook post that it would launch a donation drive among its full-time employees to compensate the injured temps. Yet Sanon has heard nothing about AmerQual’s fundraiser. It is unclear if the company gathered a single donation. Estime said the ServiceXpress had donated one thousand dollars to a funeral fund.
Estime told me that the victims are coping with an array of physical and psychological injuries. “Some of them are badly hurt, some of them need therapy,” Jacques told me. “Some haven’t been sleeping well. They’ve been having horrible nightmares. All they see are people dying.”
In late October, a Gibson County prosecutor reportedly filed 19 criminal charges against the van’s driver, James Allen, who had tested positive for marijuana during a blood test taken just after the crash. The charges against Allen range from “causing death while operating a vehicle under the influence of a controlled substance” to “causing serious bodily injury while operating under the influence,” according to the Evansville Courier & Press.
Last week, Sanon’s attorney, Neil Chapman, filed a suit against not only James Allen and his father, Robert, who owns the van, but also against Ameriqual and ServiceXpress. The civil complaint seeks to dispute any notion that the Allens’ transit business operated with autonomy from Xpress and AmeriQual, and asserts that the three businesses were operating as a joint venture. “A principle motivating factor for Ameriqual to choose ServiceXpress was because it offered a competitive advantage of other temporary agencies: transportation of the Haitian employees free-of charge as a part of its advertised, integrated incentive package to its factory clients.”
Sanon told me that, before the accident, she still owed $50 to a man she had paid $200 to bring her from Miami to Washington, Indiana. Although the AmeriQual wage was modest, it was the best she could find, she said, and she had hoped to use the earnings to become debt-free. With medical bills that she estimates total over $100,000, that goal now seems impossible.
“I’m struggling for my life right now,” Sanon said. “I cannot do this by myself.”
This blog was originally posted on Our Future on November 18, 2015. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Spencer Woodman is a journalist based in New York. He has written on labor for The Nation and The Guardian. You can follow him on Twitter at @spencerwoodman and reach him via email at Contactspencerwoodman@gmail.com.
Paid sick leave isn’t just the right thing to do for people who currently face the choice of going to work sick, or going without pay. It’s a public health issue.
Fifty-one percent of food workers — who do everything from grow and process food to cook and serve it — said they “always” or “frequently” go to work when they’re sick, according to the results of a survey released Monday. An additional 38 percent said they go to work sick “sometimes.” […]But it’s not as if these sick food workers are careless. Nine out of 10 workers polled in the new survey said they feel responsible for the safety and well-being of their customers. Yet about 45 percent said they go to work sick because they “can’t afford to lose pay.” And about 46 percent said they do it because they “don’t want to let co-workers down.”
That means that customers are exposed to those sick workers’ illnesses. And that, in turn, can be a serious issue:
“One of the most egregious examples that I describe in the book is a worker at a Fayetteville, N.C., Olive Garden [who] was forced to work with hepatitis A because [Olive Garden] doesn’t have an earned sick leave policy,” [Saru] Jayaraman says. As a result, Jayaraman says, 3,000 people had to be tested for hepatitis A at the Cumberland County, N.C., health department.
Most cases aren’t that dramatic, of course, but norovirus is often spread by food workers, and you really don’t want norovirus. Yet somehow Republican morality says that these workers in one of the lowest-paying industries should stay home to protect the rest of us while being denied basic protections themselves, and risking their ability to pay the bills and put food on the table for every day they stay home sick.
Paid sick leave is gaining momentum in the United States, with four states—Connecticut, Oregon, California, and Massachusetts—now having laws requiring it for most workers. But it will never be federal law as long as Republicans have the ability to block it.
This blog was originally posted on Daily Kos on October 22, 2015. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: The author’s name is Laura Clawson. Laura has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and Labor editor since 2011.
It’s a good thing when we use real words to describe the truth. When bankers rip off people with mortgage scams, it’s robbery–even if they get away with it because we have a government unwillingness to jail them. And, once and a while, a politician gets it right.
Kudos to NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for calling the wage theft of fast food workers what it is. A crime. No, a crime wave:
At a press conference at his lower Manhattan office, Mr. Schneiderman, a Democrat, linked the recent decision against Ronald Johnson of New Majority Holdings, LLC—who a judge found had rounded down workers’ hours, paid below minimum wage and failed to reimburse upkeep costs of delivery vehicles—as part of a larger string of abuses his office has uncovered. The attorney general highlighted underpayment at 21 other fast food restaurants citywide—at franchises like Domino’s Pizza and McDonald’s—affecting 16,000 workers and for which has reaped $19 million in recovered wages.“There is an effort by thousands of businesses, unfortunately, to underpay workers what they are legally owed. And we have to go after them and treat it like a crime wave, which is what it is. It’s a crime wave. We’re talking about millions and millions, even hundreds of millions of dollars,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “If this money was just being stolen, by some organized gang of crooks, you bet everyone would know about it and be on it. This is something we treat just as seriously.”[emphasis added]
His point is that this goes way beyond one particular fine. It’s broad, it’s deep, it’s persistent.It’s a crime.
Maybe he needs to school the people at the Justice Department about what a crime is. And to call it like it is.
About the Author: Eric Schneiderman is a political/organizing/economic strategist. President of the Economic Future Group, a consultancy that has worked in a couple of dozen countries on five continents over the past 20 years; his goal is to find the “white spaces” that need filling, the places to make connections and create projects to enhance the great work many people do to advance a better world. He’s also publisher/editor of Working Life.
See more at: http://www.workinglife.org/the-bio-stuff/#sthash.zfgd8cpI.dpuf
In our Discrimination section we’ve added a new page on genetic information discrimination, including the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (“GINA”). As technology progresses by leaps and bounds, new issues of privacy and discrimination can come up in the workplace. This page answers questions that many workers may have about how accessible their genetic information is to employers.
In our Harassment section our new page on the effects of domestic violence in the workplace helps victims of domestic violence to understand how their situation at home may affect their work and what rights they have when they are treated negatively because of it.
Finally, in our Unions and Collective Action section we’ve added information about the 24 states that currently have right-to-work laws, and what that means for workers. This page provides an explanation of what right-to-work laws are, and what they mean for workers in states that have instituted them.
The bills in the House and Senate are ALEC model bills, inspired by none other than Wisconsin union-buster Gov. Scott Walker. Quick story: In early 2011, Walker pushed and passed a preemption law in Wisconsin, completely invalidating the will of Milwaukee voters who had just passed a sick days ordinance.
All workers deserve the opportunity to earn paid sick days, so that not another person has to make their choice between going to work sick and not making rent, or not being able to eat, or not being able to care for their child.
But even the threat of workers in a few cities and towns having this basic right has the restaurant lobby and ALEC running scared, using their politician pawns to introduce ridiculously undemocratic preemption bills that won’t create a single job. Since when did these “small-government” obsessives get into the business of telling cities and towns how to conduct their business?
This article was posted on the AFL-CIO on May 7, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: 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).
With 12 votes needed, only 11 members of the Philadelphia City Council were willing to override Mayor Michael Nutter’s veto of the sick leave bill. For the second time in three years, corporate interests defeated a measure that would allow more than 180,000 Philadelphians to finally earn sick days.
“I’m very disappointed,” said city councilman Bill Greenlee, who tried but failed to get the 12 votes needed to override Mayor Nutter’s veto. “I’m particularly disappointed for the 180,000 workers who could have had a benefit that other cities are providing.”
Instead of listening to the people of Philadelphia, Mayor Nutter sided with business interests: specifically the Philadelphia-based ALEC corporation Comcast, who spend more than $100,000 opposing sick leave in 2011 and is a big contributor to Mayor Nutter’s campaign.
“We’re not surprised the mayor vetoed this….he hasn’t exactly been a champion of workers,” said Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Elizabeth McElroy. “The majority of the City Council and the majority of Philadelphians wanted this—it’s the right thing to do, and we’ll keep working on it.”
Comcast also contributed $3,000 to Councilman Brian O’Neill and $1,500 to Councilman Denny O’Brien, both who voted against the sick leave bill and refused to override Mayor Nutter’s veto. All of this despite the fact that 77% of Philadelphians favor the sick leave policy.
Not all hope is lost, however. Working America worked with a broad coalition to drive thousands of messages and phone calls to Mayor Nutter and members of the Philadelphia City Council. And while sick leave proposals move forward in Portland, Oregon, New York City and elsewhere, there will be more pressure on city officials as time goes on.
The fight isn’t over for bill sponsor Councilman Greenlee either:
“I still believe in and want to have earned paid sick leave in Philadelphia. So we’ll see what the future holds on that,” he said.
This article was posted on the AFL-CIO on April 11, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: 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).
This weekend, Missouri working families went door to door to tell their friends and neighbors about a series of anti-worker bills Republicans are pushing in the state legislature. Across the state, Missourians described the right-wing push that is advancing paycheck deception, anti-prevailing wage and “right to work” for less bills.
“I’ve been knocking doors to hold my state senator accountable for siding with special interests and extremists over working people. Voters at home need to hear what’s really going on in Jefferson City,” said Bradley Harmon at Saturday’s canvass in Springfield. “It is time our elected officials start working for the voters, not special interests.”
A rally also was held in St. Charles on Monday. Attendee Laura Kelley said:
The response at the door has been overwhelmingly positive. A lot of voters don’t know what’s going on in Jefferson City, but when they hear what working people are facing and how wages will fall if these bills are passed, people are very concerned. Politicians should realize that constituents are paying attention.
This article was originally posted on the AFL-CIO on April 8, 2013. 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.
Walk through any supermarket poultry section and you can marvel at the wonders of the modern food processing industry: antiseptic aisles packed with gleaming, plump shrink-wrapped chickens, sold at bargain prices under the labels of trusted agribusiness brands like Tyson and Pilgrim’s. But all that quality meat doesn’t come cheap: it’s paid for dearly by factory workers who brave injury, abuse and coercion every day on assembly lines running at increasingly deadly speeds.
According to newly published research on Alabama poultry workers by the civil rights group Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the business model of the sector has sacrificed health and safety on the factory floor for the Tayloristic efficiency demanded by American appetites.
The supersized industry, which churns out about 50 pounds of chicken per American stomach annually, dominates many struggling towns in Alabama, a mostly non-union state, supporting about 10 percent of the local economy and some 75,000 jobs. But according to the SPLC’s researchers, the production line is butchering workers’ health:
Nearly three-quarters of the poultry workers interviewed for this report described suffering some type of significant work-related injury or illness. In spite of many factors that lead to undercounting of injuries in poultry plants, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reported an injury rate of 5.9 percent for poultry processing workers in 2010, a rate that is more than 50 percent higher than the 3.8 percent injury rate for all U.S. workers.
Alabama workers interviewed by the SPLC reported being routinely subjected to unsafe working conditions that led to severe health threats, from repetitive stress injuries to respiratory issues to chemical burns. Adding insult to injury, employers often ignored workers’ debilitating problems or punished them for asserting their rights. Evoking images reminiscent of Upton Sinclair’s century-old expose on the meat-packing industry The Jungle, workers reported that problems like crippling hand pain would be diverted to the company nurse, rather than more intensive care by an outside doctor. Others were fired before they could become more of a liability.
One worker, a black woman in her 30s, recounted in an interview being pressured to shield her company from responsibility for her injury:
“I shouldn’t say it’s work-related. If I say my pain comes from something I did at work, then I will be laid off without pay and three days later get fired. So, when I go to the nurse I tell her that I hurt my hands at home.”
In towns that lack decent job opportunities outside of the poultry industry, these workers face an oppressive workplace culture that undermines not only their health but their dignity. Workers reported “being discouraged from reporting work-related injuries, enduring constant pain and even choosing to urinate on themselves rather than invite the wrath of a supervisor by leaving the processing line for a restroom break.”
Conditions may soon worsen, the SPLC notes, because the Department of Agriculture is seeking to alter regulations to allow even faster line speeds. That means the already frenzied pace of production–whipping bird carcasses into hermetically sealed flesh pellets in a matter of seconds–might speed up even more under a controversial set of proposed changes to plant inspection protocols.
The planned reforms have been criticized as counterproductive because they transfer control of inspections from federal inspectors to company employees. The revamped inspection process would, according to critics, both give corporations more power to regulate their own henhouse while accelerating the already frighteningly hectic pace of production. Some USDA inspectors have criticized the proposal, warning that with the combination of sped-up lines and company-controlled oversight, these industry-backed efforts to “modernize” the production chain may create more safety risks. So safety standards for both consumers and workers might be further weakened. (Industry representatives dispute the SPLC’s research, insisting that the proposal would not harm safety standards.)
Underlying labor injustices have exacerbated the immediate workplace hazards. The mostly black and Latino workforce, which includes many documented and undocumented immigrants, generally have little recourse against abusive employers. Many saw their pay arbitrarily cut by deductions for housing expenses and other fees. Meanwhile, for female workers, sexual harassment was a commonly reported issue. Harsh immigration enforcement laws, which were recently tightened by state legislation that seeks to further criminalize undocumented Latino workers, has made them even more economically insecure and socially marginalized.
One structural problem making poultry workers especially vulnerable, the researchers argue, is thatdespite some general occupational safety guidelines for poultry plants, OSHA “has no set of mandatory guidelines tailored to protect poultry processing workers,” which constrains workers’ ability to take legal action against unsafe working conditions or unfair treatment.
The report’s author, SPLC advocate Tom Fritzsche, says that while OSHA can enforce general workplace protections, regulatory gaps nonetheless enable the industry to structure its labor system around loophole-ridden standards for food production, which are not focused on worker safety. “This specific [line speed] rule from USDA is not really intended originally as a worker protection standard… The speed that they currently run at is based more on whether the inspectors can see the chickens, rather than how the workers can do the work safely,” he says. As a result of these regulatory lapses, “We’ve kind of ended up in a world where this is the only limit on speeds.”
Until state and federal regulators start prioritizing workers’ labor rights and health needs, the unsafe work environment, Fritzsche adds, “ultimately comes from the fact that the whole industry is just operating in this kind of race to produce as many chickens as they can in as little amount of time as they can. And so it affects every aspect of the worker’s job.”
But all those bitter hardships are stowed far away from the millions of super-clean, ultra-cheap drumsticks that will end up on American dinner tables tonight. Countless consumers will enjoy their meals without any conception of how perfectly the poultry industry masks the true price of its brutal efficiency.
About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain.