Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Not Winging It, a Deal in Vegas, and a Scary Bridge

June 4th, 2014 | Laura Clawson

Laura ClawsonA $15 minimum wage for Seattle has been in the works for a while, and now the City Council has made it official:

The unanimous vote of the nine-member Council, after months of discussion by a committee of business and labor leaders convened by Mayor Ed Murray, will give low-wage workers here — in incremental stages, with different tracks for different sizes of business — the highest big-city minimum in the nation.“Even before the Great Recession a lot of us have started to have doubt and concern about the basic economic promise that underpins economic life in the United States,” said Sally J. Clark, a Council member. “Today Seattle answers that challenge,” she added. “We go into uncharted, unevaluated territory.”

Even socialist Council member Kshama Sawant voted for the increase despite having pushed to eliminate some exceptions and speed the path to $15; under the plan that passed Monday, $15 an hour won’t be fully phased in until 2021, though workers at large employers that don’t provide health coverage will get there by 2017. A strong majority of Seattle voters support the raise.

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

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

Permalink


Big Victory at Northeastern University Powers Fast Growing Adjunct Action Campaign

June 4th, 2014 | SEIU

seiu-org-logoYes. Yes to a union. Yes to a collective voice for adjunct faculty. Yes to a better education for students. Yes to forming the biggest adjunct union in Boston.

That’s what happened on May 15 in a small room filled with a lot of excitement at the National Labor Relations Board in Boston, as adjunct faculty from Northeastern University (NU) and representatives from the National Labor Relations board gathered to count the votes for Northeastern adjuncts’ union election. And the adjuncts won, a huge victory in the ongoing adjunct organizing campaigns in Boston and across the country.

After applause and hugs, Ted Murphy, an adjunct faculty member for 8 years at Northeastern, had one word to describe his feelings about the victory: “Ecstatic.”

“It’s been a long time coming,” Murphy added.

The adjuncts at Northeastern are now part of a group of more than 21,000 adjunct and contingent faculty who have organized under the banner of Adjunct Action/SEIU. Today’s vote count for Northeastern University, one of the largest private universities in the U.S., is the fourth time in a month adjuncts across the nation have voted to join SEIU and to improve conditions and draw attention to higher education’s increasing reliance on contingent faculty.

Adjunct Organizing Demonstrates Democracy In Action

On May 14, adjuncts at Mills College in Oakland, California voted to form a union with SEIU/Adjunct Action. In late April, adjuncts at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, MD, and Howard University in Washington, D.C. voted to form a union and join SEIU Local 500.

It was a focused democracy in action as ballots were counted at the NLRB after a strong campaign by the adjunct faculty at NU, who worked tirelessly over the past several months to fight for some basic, but important changes: job security, more equitable pay, professional development opportunities, and the chance to give their students the best education they can.

The ballots are checked, the numbered ballots read off the names list. Ballots 451, 477, 146. “Is the ballot in the blue envelope?” “We’re still 45 minutes from the ballots being counted.” Quiet chatter, focused counting. Democracy in action. A group gathered around the table as the green ballots were counted in batches of 50. Yes. Yes. More yes votes.

Cal Ramsdell, an adjunct faculty member in School of Business who has taught for 15 years, watched closely as the count progressed. “I got involved because Northeastern University’s mission is student-centered education, and adjuncts are a major part of this mission,” said Ramsdell, who served on the organizing committee. “Adjuncts are a major part of the day in day out of the university; we’re working with students, and are devoted to our work, but at the same time make a lower salary and have higher course load than full-time faculty.”

EmpowerAdjuncts.jpgAnd so it went. Months of passionate conversations, meetings, emails, and advocacy distilled into piles of simple paper ballots. And in the end, the yeas had it.

Ramsdell hugged her fellow adjunct faculty when victory was announced, tears in her eyes. “At first I was afraid, and then there was just one day when I decided this was a good fight,” she said. “Sometimes there are times in life when it’s just a good fight to fight. And I put my name out there, and that was the turning point.”

Bill Shimer, an adjunct in the School of Business said the campaign started as a series of individual stories and experiences that once strung together formed a powerful narrative and a force of change.

Talking to fellow adjuncts throughout the campaign Shimer said he began to realize “that my story is their story. My concerns were their concerns, and there was a sense of a solidarity building. We grew from a nucleus into an entire community.”

Troy Neves a sophomore at NU and the campus worker justice co-chair of the Progressive Student Alliance (PSA) came to the vote count to show his support for the adjunct faculty. The PSA and other students showed strong support for NU adjuncts throughout the campaign. “It’s been amazing to see this from the beginning of the year,” Neves said. “It has been truly inspiring, and I’m really excited to continue to working with our adjuncts.”

Many of the adjuncts emphasized how the union would benefit their students and the larger educational community at Northeastern. “The better adjunct faculty are treated, the better we can serve the students,” said Abby Machson-Carter, a contingent faculty who teaches writing at NU.

“I work at a couple of different schools, and this effort is going to raise standards for adjuncts all over the city. Instructors like me are going to work with dignity and feel like we’re part of the university and that our voice matters,” Machson-Carter added.

Part-time faculty at dozens of schools are working to unite with their colleagues in SEIU, and many are scheduled to vote soon or have filed for union elections, including adjuncts at the University of the District of Columbia (DC), the San Francisco Art Institute in the Bay Area, Laguna College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, Seattle University in Washington State, Marist College in New York State and Hamline University and Macalester College in Minnesota. The Northeastern adjunct faculty join their colleagues at Tufts University and Lesley University in forming a group of 2,000 adjuncts in Boston who are unionized with SEIU/Adjunct Action.

Ramsdell emphasized the sense of community the experience of forming a union has created, for the entire university. “A stable Northeastern adjunct faculty can only strengthen Northeastern, and benefit the entire community,” she said “It’s a win-win all around.”

Join the Adjunct Action Network

The Adjunct Action Network is an online platform and community for all adjuncts — union members or not — to organize and fight for improvements on campus and advocate for policies that raise standards in higher education.

Sign up here to join and help build a movement for educational justice across America.

Keep up with the Adjunct Action campaign by following them on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally printed on SEIU on May 27, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

Author: Mariah Quinn, Adjunct Action

Permalink


Texans Say No to Steel Dumping, Yes to Jobs

June 4th, 2014 | Mike Hall

Image: Mike HallMore than 1,000 United Steelworkers (USW) members, their families, allies, lawmakers and U.S. Steel Corp. officials rallied Monday outside the company’s Lone Star, Texas, plant to spotlight the dumping by foreign manufacturers of specialty steel products vital to energy production and to urge the U.S. Commerce Department to enforce the nation’s anti-dumping trade laws.

Failing to fully enforce our trade laws puts more than 500,000 American jobs on the line and risks outsourcing the benefits of America’s energy boom.

One USW member urged Washington to create a level playing field for the nation’s steel industry:

We cannot compete in an unfair market. We need our trade laws enforced. We make the best steel in the world. As long as Washington enforces the rules, we can compete with anyone.

The products are Oil Country Tubular Goods (OCTG), and the U.S. industry is being squeezed by dumped imports from South Korea and other nations.

There is overwhelming evidence that these foreign OCTG products are being illegally dumped in the U.S. market—at prices below fair value and in deceptive ways designed to circumvent international trade laws.

Last year, the USW and U.S. steel manufacturers filed a case with the Commerce Department and a ruling is expected later this month or early July.

Click here and tell your elected officials you’re counting on them to stick up for America’s workers when the Commerce Department makes its critical ruling in the OCTG trade case.

Hat tip to the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM) blog. Learn more about the OCTG crisis from the AAM and from the USW.

Rallies are scheduled for June 16 in Fairfield, Ala., and June 23 in sites to be determined in Minnesota and Virginia.

This article was originally posted on AFL-CIO on June 3, 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.

Permalink


Walmart Moms’ Walkout Starts Friday

June 4th, 2014 | Sarah Jaffe

sarah jaffeIn 2008, political commentators made a lot of fuss about “Walmart Moms,” a demographic that was supposedly key to the election. The Walmart Mom was an updated, service-economy version of the blue-collar worker: Someone without a college degree, working and raising a family, usually white, possibly religious. She was courted heavily by both parties and perceived, at least in recent decades, to be swinging right.

Six years later, the real-life Walmart Moms are going on strike. According to a Thursday conference call hosted by theOrganization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), hundreds of mothers who work at Walmart stores throughout the country will begin walking off the job on Friday, a week before the company’s shareholders meet in Bentonville, Arkansas. The action will culminate in a nationwide strike on Wednesday, June 4.

Linda Haluska and Lashanda Myrick are two of those mothers, both tired of struggling to support their children on what Walmart pays. “We are Walmart moms; we’re not some political category,” said Haluska, who’s worked at the Glenwood, Illinois store for 8 years, on the call. “We’re real people who are struggling to create happy stable homes for our kids.” Walmart moms, in other words, want politicians and pundits to listen to what they really need, not pander to their perceived political biases.

Bethany Moreton, author of To Serve God and Wal-Mart, noted in a 2010 piece that Walmart itself worked to create and maintain the “Walmart Mom” identity. In her book, Moreton points out that the company’s supposed commitment to “family values,” which it expresses in both its marketing and its internal messaging, came directly from its early employees, many of them wives and mothers who’d never worked outside the home before. These early “Walmart Moms” accepted low wages for service work that they understood as part of a Christian service ethic. Caring for customers, caring for coworkers, and caring for one’s family all went together. Yet in 2014 America, the company’s faced repeated charges that it discriminates against the women it employs and retaliates against workers who dare to speak out about their treatment on the job.

Myrick, who plans on striking in addition to traveling from her home in Denver, Colorado to Bentonville to deliver her message at the shareholders’ meeting, has had enough of the company’s pretense of caring. She has two children—an 18-year-old son who graduates from high school next Tuesday, and a 12-year-old daughter—and, she tells In These Times, her meager paycheck forces her to make impossible decisions about priorities.

“A parent shouldn’t have to make a choice of who’s going to be able to get shoes this week and who’s not going to be able to get shoes this week,” she says. “I teach my kids to stand up for what they believe in, so I don’t want to show them that I’m a hypocrite by not standing up for something that I believe in. [I'm] showing them that I believe in this and I’m not worried about retaliation, I’m not worried about anything to come my way.”

The tipping point for her came this November, when one of her coworkers sent her an email showing pictures of the food drive at a Canton, Ohio Walmart. Bins were set out at the store asking for workers to “Please donate food … so associates in need can enjoy Thanksgiving dinner.” Myrick says, “My thought was, ‘Why would we hold a food drive for our employees when clearly [Walmart has] enough money to make sure all its employees will have a decent Thanksgiving?’ That right there really touched my heart and made me say, ‘I need to stand up, because this doesn’t make sense for us to be working for a billion-dollar company and we can’t even feed our families.’”

Liza Featherstone, author of Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart, noted to me in a recent interview that Walmart’s caring culture has, in the past, helped to insulate its workers from its low-wage regime, as they helped to support each other when money became tight. In recent years, however, that protection has slowly eroded. When the company began, after all, many of its workers were married to someone working full-time; the old norms of gendered work meant that women were not expected to be breadwinners, and jobs that were done by women paid less overall. Those jobs also tend to require skills, emotional and interpersonal, which women are usually socialized to possess but are not considered “hard skills” warranting better wages. Now, though, the company is not only the nation’s largest employer of women but its largest private employer, period. That means a whole lot more people are depending on those low-wage jobs to support their families—while, Ellen Bravo of Family Values at Work noted on Thursday’s call, our work-family policies are still “set in a Mad Men era.”

That means more and more workers are starting to doubt that Walmart shares their values, after all. Featherstone said that during interviews for her book, which documents the Dukes v. Wal-Mart sex discrimination suit, plaintiff Edith Arana told her that “Walmart is like a bad boyfriend. They tell you exactly what you want to hear and that’s how you get caught up, and you just keep coming back.” Just the willingness of women to file a lawsuit against the company for sex discrimination, Featherstone said, was a huge step forward—and the strikes, which began in 2012, surprised the country.

The company made a few changes in the past year, as strikes and protests have continued to buffet it. After worker-shareholders introduced a proposal to change the company’s policy toward pregnant workers, Walmart issued a new one this March, saying that pregnant employees “may be eligible for reasonable accommodation” if they have a temporary disability caused by their pregnancy. Women’s groups and workers said that the company’s earlier policy, which did not allow for such accommodation, violated federal law. The corporation also recently determined that workers can search for available shifts in order to pick up more hours.

But, Haluska says, those changes aren’t enough. She and the other members of OUR Walmart are demanding that the company pay its workers at least $25,000 a year, create full-time jobs and stop its retaliation against employees who go on strike or speak up at work. In addition, activists are building a campaign asking shareholders to vote against Rob Walton, scion of the billionaire family that founded the company, as chairman of the board. Instead, their resolution, which will be introduced and backed by union funds, calls for an independent chair.

It’s going to take a lot of people standing up to fight, but Myrick does believe that Walmart will eventually change when they realize OUR Walmart is not going to back down.

When asked what she would say if, on her trip to Bentonville, she got a chance to sit down with new Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, famously a former hourly associate himself, Myrick responds, “I would ask him where his morals are.”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on May 29, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media, and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet, and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television.

Permalink


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

June 4th, 2014 | Kenneth Quinnell
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.

Permalink


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

June 4th, 2014 | Laura Clawson

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.

Permalink


The "What Ifs" of a Woman's Retirement

June 4th, 2014 | SEIU

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

Permalink


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

May 26th, 2014 | Kenneth Quinnell

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.

Permalink


Frack Till You Drop

May 26th, 2014 | Mike Elk

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.

Permalink


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

May 26th, 2014 | Mike Hall
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.

Permalink



Your Rights Job Survival The Issues Features Resources About This Blog