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Posts Tagged ‘BP’

Assert Yourself, America; Don't be an Illegal Trade Victim

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

Leo GerardLong-suffering victim is hardly the American image. Paul Revere, Mother Jones, John Glenn, Martin Luther King Jr. — those are American icons. Bold, wry, justice-seeking.

So how is it that America finds herself in the position of schoolyard patsy, woe-is-me casualty of China’s illegal trade practices that are destroying U.S. renewable energy manufacturing and foreclosing an energy-independent future?

Come on, America. Show some of that confident pioneer spirit. Stand up for yourself. Tell China that America isn’t going to hand over its lunch money anymore; international trade law will be enforced now.

That’s the demand the United Steelworkers (USW) union made this week when it filed a 5,800-page suit detailing how China violates a wide variety of World Trade Organization (WTO) obligations.

The case, now in the hands of the U.S. Trade Representative, shows how China uses illegal land grants, prohibited low-interest loans and other outlawed measures to pump up its renewable energy industries and facilitate export of those products at artificially low prices to places like the United States and Europe.

The U.S. aids renewable energy industries, like solar cell and wind turbine manufacturers, but no where near the extent that China does. And the American aid lawfully goes to renewable manufacturers that produce for domestic consumption. China, by contrast, illegally subsidizes industries that export, a strategy that kills off competition.

The USW recognizes and appreciates that trade with China has lifted millions there out of poverty. But truly fair trade would benefit workers in both China and the United States. And that is what the USW is demanding.

The USW is far from alone in accusing China of violations. New York Times reporter Keith Bradsher described them in a story Sept. 8, titled “On Clean Energy, China Skirts Rules.” It ends with this quote from Zhao Feng, general manger of Hunan Sunzone Optoelectronics, a two-year-old solar panel manufacturer that exports nearly 95 percent of its products to Europe and is opening offices in three U.S. cities to push into the American market:

“Who wins this clean energy race really depends on how much support the government gives.”

The U.S. isn’t providing support that violates WTO regulations. China is. And it’s hundreds of billions — $216 billion from China’s stimulus package, another $184 billion to be spent through 2020, $172 million in research and development over the past four years.

Bradsher’s story details illegal aid given Sunzone and says that it’s common, not exceptional. It includes China turning over land to Sunzone for a third of the market price and government-controlled banks granting Sunzone low-interest loans that the provincial government helps Sunzone repay.

In addition, the USW suit notes that China, which accounts for 93 percent of the world’s production of so-called rare earth materials like dysprosium and terbium essential for green energy technology, has severely restricted their export. That practice, illegal under WTO rules, forces some foreign companies to move manufacturing to China to get access.

And when corporations move, China routinely – and illegally — mandates they transfer technology to Chinese partners, which often means U.S.-tax-dollar-supported research and development benefits China.

That is one reason China rose to first in the world in clean energy so quickly. China now leads globally in producing solar panels. It doubled its wind power capacity in one year – 2009. Worldwide, Chinese manufacturers supply at least half of all hydropower projects and fabricate 75 percent of all compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Meanwhile, here in the United States, BP shut down its solar panel manufacturing plant in Maryland this year and Evergreen Solar of Marlboro, Mass., plans to close its American plant, eliminating 300 U.S. jobs. Both are moving manufacturing to China.

Germany’s Solar World still manufactures in Europe and the United States, and its chief executive, Frank A. Asbeck, told Bradsher the German solar industry association is investigating whether to file a suit of its own to try to stop China’s illegal practices:

“China is cordoning off its own solar market to fend off international competition while arming its industry with a bottomless pile of subsidies and boundless lines of credit.”

The Times story also says China’s “aggressive government policies” are designed to ensure “Chinese energy security.”

China’s illegal aggression to secure its energy independence and dominate world production of green technology threatens the energy security of the United States.

America turned to renewables not just to diminish climate change but also to reduce dependence on foreign oil, an addiction that has entangled the U.S. in costly and bloody wars.

If the United States can’t build its own renewable energy products, it will forfeit the next generation high technology industry and good manufacturing jobs, and it will remain dangerously beholden to foreign nations for energy.

China agreed to follow international regulations when it joined the World Trade Organization. This pledge was crucial because China’s economy is government-controlled, very different from the free market economies of the United States and most Western nations.

Faced with blatant rule-flouting that has cost USW members their jobs and threatens to cost their children high-technology manufacturing of the future, the USW is demanding the American government put a stop to it.

That is how a true American acts. Americans have a sense of justice. They follow the rules and expect trading partners to do the same. When they don’t, Americans do something about it.

A Second Disaster Coming to the Gulf? Hazards Abound for Cleanup Workers

Friday, July 30th, 2010

enku ideJason Anderson, one of 11 workers killed during April’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, had warned his family that BP was pushing speed-up and straying from safety protocols.

Without a union to take his concerns to, Jason turned to his wife, Shelly. “Everything seemed to be pressing to Jason, about getting things in order, in case something happened,” Shelly confessed during an NBC interview.

Today, 27,000 workers in the BP-run Gulf cleanup effort may still be in danger. Some are falling sick, and the long-term effects of chemical exposure for workers and residents are yet unknown.

Workers lack power on the job to demand better safety enforcement. They fear company retaliation if they speak out and are wary of government regulators who have kept BP in the driver’s seat.

BP carries a history of putting profit before worker safety. A 2005 refinery explosion in Texas City, Texas, killed 15 and injured another 108 workers. The Chemical Safety Board investigation resulted in a 341-page report stating that BP knew of “significant safety problems at the Texas City refinery and at 34 other BP business units around the world” months before the explosion.

One internal BP memo made a cost-benefit analysis of types of housing construction on site in terms of the children’s story “The Three Little Pigs.” “Brick” houses—blast-resistant ones—might save a few “piggies,” but was it worth the initial investment?

BP decided not, costing several workers’ lives. Federal officials found more than 700 safety violations at Texas City and fined BP more than $87 million in 2009, but the corporation has refused to pay.

BP NO EXCEPTION

According to the Steelworkers union, the oil industry saw 13 fires that caused 19 deaths and 25 injuries during April and May alone, including Deepwater Horizon. Oil refineries across the U.S. averaged a fire each week.

Jim Savage, local president at a south Philadelphia refinery, sits on the USW’s national refinery bargaining council. Savage said BP is no exception. Safety violations are rampant in the industry, especially in the hectic final 12 hours before production starts up—the same period when the Deepwater disaster took place.

The Steelworkers requested in early July that the oil giants reopen bargaining over health and safety, after they turned aside the union’s proposals in negotiations last year. The oil firms have refused.

CLEANUP RISKS

Now workers in the cleanup effort face similar challenges to those Jason Anderson and his 10 slain co-workers woke up to each morning. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) policy analyst Hugh Kaufman says workers are being exposed to a “toxic soup,” and face dangers like those in the Exxon Valdez, Love Canal, and 9/11 cleanups.

The 1989 Exxon Valdez experience should have taught us about the health fallouts of working with oil and chemical cleaners, but tests to determine long-term effects on those workers were never done, by either the company or OSHA. It appears they have faced health problems far beyond any warnings given by company or government officials while the work was going on.

Veterans of that cleanup, such as supervisor Merle Savage, reported coming down with the same flu-like symptoms during their work that Gulf cleanup workers are now experiencing. Savage, along with an estimated 3,000 cleanup workers, has lived 20 years with chronic respiratory illness and neurological damage.

A 2002 study from a Spanish oil spill showed that cleanup workers and community members have increased risk of cancer and that workers with long-term exposure to crude oil can face permanent DNA damage.

So far, Louisiana has records of 128 cleanup workers becoming sick with flu-like symptoms, including dizziness, nausea, and headaches, after exposure to chemicals on the job. BP recorded 21 short hospitalizations. When seven workers from different boats were hospitalized with chemical exposure symptoms, BP executives dismissed the illnesses as food poisoning.

BP bosses have told workers to report to BP clinics only and not to visit public hospitals, where their numbers can be recorded by the state.

Surgeon General Regina Benjamin has said that without the benefit of studies, or even knowing the chemical makeup of the Corexit 9500 dispersant (which its manufacturer calls a “trade secret”), scientific opinion is divided on long-term health impacts to the region.

Workers in the Gulf are not receiving proper training or equipment, says Mark Catlin, an occupational hygienist who was sent to the Exxon Valdez site by the Laborers union.

EQUIPMENT LACKING

BP has said it will provide workers with respirators and proper training if necessary, but the company has yet to deem the situation a health risk for workers. The Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) provided respirators to some workers directly, but BP forbade them to use them.

One rationale behind banning respirators is that they could increase the likelihood of heat-related illnesses, but Kindra Arnsen, an outspoken wife of a sick fisherman turned cleanup worker, points out that many workers are fishermen accustomed to the Gulf heat who can work safely given enough hydration and time for breaks.

Workers who question the safety of their assignments, choose to wear their own safety equipment, or speak out about the risks are threatened with losing their jobs, according to Arnsen and LEAN’s executive director Marylee Orr.

Arnsen has also spoken out in fear for her community of Venice, Louisiana. She describes illnesses and rashes her young children and husband have suffered since the explosion and cleanup and says there are days when officials tell residents to stay indoors.

PR POWER

The Center for Research on Globalization has speculated that banning respirators and other protective gear for workers is part of BP’s public relations campaign to control how bad the disaster looks. This follows a pattern of threatening reporters who get too close to the hardest-hit areas, blocking media access to workers, exaggerating claims of mitigation of the spill’s impact, and using dispersants that make much of the oil invisible.

Both the EPA and OSHA have criticized BP’s safety plan, which allows workers without respirators to stay in an area when air pollutants are high, doesn’t evacuate workers when conditions become unsafe, and contains no upper limits of exposure to carcinogenic gases found in crude oil.

Catlin, the occupational hygienist, says the protocol seems to be written in a way that allows BP to continue operating under conditions that, in other settings, would halt work.

Fishery industry organizations have joined with environmental groups to demand respirators and other safety equipment and training for workers. The coalition has launched bpmakesmesick.com, aimed at pressuring the Obama administration to better enforce health codes during the cleanup.

About The Author: Enku Ide is an intern with Labor Notes from Hattiesburg, Mississippi.  He has been an active member of United Students Against Sweatshops, the Student Farmworker Allinace, Amnesty International and Solidarity.  He has also been active in struggles for LGBTQI liberation.

Can You Succeed in Business Without Being a Jerk?

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

Image: Bob RosnerWhen Kobe Bryant was recently asked what his fifth championship meant to him he replied, “One more than Shaq.”

Which got me thinking, why does it appear that so many successful people are jerks?  Or worse. Do good guys really finish last?

When it comes to success and the jerk factor, you quickly discover that there is an embarrassment of riches to plume. And I do mean embarrassment.

John Thune, the former CEO of Merrill Lynch who managed the remarkable trifecta of bludgeoning his company’s market value, laying off thousands of people and doing a one million dollar plus remodel of his own personal office.

Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein who sold his customers financial products and then bet that these products would fail. He then had the temerity to call his performance, “Doing God’s work.”

Tony Hayward, BP CEO. The jerk of not only the year, but of the decade. Tony, the only person who wants you to have your life back more than you do, is the rest of us. Really.

Enron, Lehman Brothers…okay, this is too easy.

It’s unfortunate that many jerks in the workplace are successful. And often their success can be tracked to their jerkiness. However, that begs the most interesting question here. Can you be successful without being a jerk?

Yes, I believe that you can. For the simple reason that I believe that jerks often instill fear in the people around them. And fear works, for a while. But eventually people realize that there are sane bosses out there, that they don’t have to tolerate boorish behavior at work. That good guys mostly finish first and that’s a much better team to be on.

Jerks succeed in spite of who they are, not because of it. Thankfully, the jerkiness eventually has a way of biting them in the butt.

About The Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Check the revised edition of his Wall Street Journal best seller, “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.

Oil Worker Safety Hearing Yields Real Concerns

Friday, June 25th, 2010

Ravi BakhruOil rig worker safety has been in the news a lot lately. Nearly every major media outlet and blogger in the entire Nation has directed its attention to arguably the worst environmental disaster in our history. As a result, the headlines and attention have been comprehensive, ranging from BP’s efforts in responding the disaster, to the safety of oil rig workers and those commissioned to help clean up the coastline.

To that end, The House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing on Wednesday to discuss worker safety oversight from the oil rig to the shoreline. Pointedly, Chairman George Miller tasked the hearing with determining whether the current regulatory framework is appropriate and effective, specifically referencing the coordination and delegation of oversight between various federal agencies. Before the committee were representatives from the Coast Guard, NIOSH, the DOL, and BOE (formerly MMS).

Major Points From The Hearing:

Whistleblower Protection. Chairman Miller at one point asked whether workers on these rigs had the benefit of whistleblower protection to provide an avenue by which they could report dangerous conditions. While OSHA provides whistleblower protection, it is clear that the agencies responsible for worker safety oversight do not have a process by which such complaints can be processed. What’s even more startling is that OSHA, the agency responsible for enforcing whistleblower statutes, has no jurisdiction where many of these rigs operate. OSHA’s jurisdiction ends 3 miles outside of the coast line, where the US Coast Guard takes over, and what became clear during this hearing is that the US Coast Guard and MMS/BOE do not have legislation in place for whistleblower protection.

“Who’s In Charge?” Ranking Republican John Kline started with a question that seemed to be a topic members were confused with. At one point the Congressman compared the current system of oversight to the lack of coordination in the intelligence community immediately after 9/11. On a related issue, the Committee seemed to gloss over the fact that the Coast Guard and BOE had a memo of understanding between them, distributing inspections over specific items on board rigs. Although the organizations meet quarterly to review their inspections, I can’t help look at this as wholly inefficient. Now, this doesn’t necessarily apply to an accident response framework. Rear Admiral Kevin Cook from the Coast Guard made it clear that the Coast Guard’s Federal On Scene Coordinator was doing a tremendous job coordinating the help from all federal agencies at the accident site. Credit should be given in this regard.

Staggering Deficiencies. Committee members asked in several different ways whether the agencies before them had the necessary resources to perform their oversight functions and the resounding answer was in the negative. David Michaels, representing OSHA, was asked to expand on a comment made during a Senate hearing explained that their resources were barely sufficient to handle their present functions, let alone take on new inspections of offshore drill sites. Doug Slitor explained his agency had a total of 56 inspectors (some with purely administrative and supervisory responsibilities) in the Gulf of Mexico for 3500 site inspections every year.

Safety Systems Management. The Committee made it very clear they consider OSHA to be the experts when it comes to safety oversight, and who would disagree with them? Sure, OSHA has their own problems as Mr. Michaels pointed out, when it comes to worker safety OSHA has the framework in place to broaden their scope if need be. Of particular concern was the current system in place, which at the moment is largely voluntary. Not only voluntary, Chairman Miller also noted the framework was largely due to suggestions from the oil industry itself. It seems clear that many are not pleased with the oversight framework currently in place, and want to see changes made. The phrase “like a duck” kept jumping out as the camera swung over to Mr. Slitor’s responses. Though he remained calm, I imagine his legs were churning furiously underwater.

We don’t yet know what caused the explosion itself, and perhaps we will never truly know. But the fact remains, something went wrong aboard that oil rig leading to the deaths of 11 workers. Hearings are a good start, but when you see problems in communications and standards, it’s time to act. Committee members repeatedly stated the need to ensure an efficient and protective system before the next disaster. I sincerely hope they live up to that.

About The Author: Ravi Bakhru is a third year law student at George Washington University. He currently works as an intern for Workplace Fairness, and has an interest in pursuing employee rights law in the future. To get in touch with Ravi, you can email him at Ravi.Bakhru@gmail.com.

American Wind Turbines Sound Like Freedom

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

Leo GerardThe sound that American wind turbines produce as their giant, breeze-propelled blades whip around is a distinctive: Neh-neh-neh-neh-neh-neh.

The anticipation is that those energy-generating, whirling arms would create a whooshing sound. And maybe they do in some countries. But here, in America, they echo the almost melodic taunt of a schoolyard victor — Neh-neh-neh-neh-neh-neh: You can’t get me.

That’s because American wind turbines are the manifestation of freedom from foreign oil. The more American wind turbines, the fewer barrels of oil America must import to meet its energy needs. And American-built wind turbines help propel the nation out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression by generating good-paying American jobs.

President Obama talked about the ugly results of the nation’s refusal to solve its dependency problem – its guzzling of 20 percent of the world’s oil while controlling less than two percent of the world’s reserves. America’s combination of oil addiction and lack of adequate oil resources enslaves the nation to foreign sources, often foreign sources hostile to America. A generation ago, former President Jimmy Carter warned of the consequences of this abusive relationship as Iran held 52 Americans hostages and long lines formed at gasoline stations during a season of shortages.

Carter installed on the White House roof a symbol of the solution — solar panels. His successor there, Ronald Reagan, pulled them down. And the nation went on its merry way forgetting the once-empty gasoline stations and ignoring its ever-increasing foreign dependency – even as the Exxon Valdez mucked Prince William Sound two months after Reagan left office.

Here’s what Obama said about that wasted opportunity:

“And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires. Time and again, the path forward has been blocked – not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor.

The consequences of our inaction are now in plain sight. Countries like China are investing in clean energy jobs and industries that should be right here in America. Each day, we send nearly $1 billion of our wealth to foreign countries for their oil. And today, as we look to the Gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude.”

The explosion of the Deep Water Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, the deaths of 11 workers, the uncontrolled gushing of more than 50,000 barrels of oil a day into the sea, and the mucking of brown pelicans and four states’ coastlines have given Obama the ability to take up Carter’s righteous clean energy campaign. And Obama accepted the challenge:

“The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now. Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash America’s innovation and seize control of our own destiny.”

The president noted that wind turbines are being built in retrofitted factories that were once abandoned right here in America. That happened in Pennsylvania. The wind turbine manufacturer Gamesa converted defunct mills into centers for wind turbine construction. And it cooperated with the United Steelworkers (USW) to provide good-paying union jobs.

That is the potential President Obama sees – independence from foreign sources and resurgence of America’s economy. It is the potential that the USW and the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) pictured when they agreed earlier this month to work together to accelerate development and deployment of wind energy production in the U.S.

Like the Steelworkers, the national trade association of America’s wind industry believes the U.S. must move toward renewable energy sources and must construct them itself. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio explained it simply when the USW and AWEA announced their partnership:

“We can’t replace our dependence on foreign oil with a dependence on Chinese-made wind turbines. It’s critical that American manufacturers have the resources to develop and deploy wind energy components. Clean energy will help America regain its leadership in manufacturing. We need to ensure American workers and manufacturers are building the clean energy components that will be used around the world.”

Obama called on Americans to “seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels.” But like any rehab program, success won’t come easily. Oil companies will continue to lobby against it. Swayed by their money, some politicians will oppose the legislation essential to encourage it.

But symbolic solar panels must remain on the White House roof this time. Renewable energy, as Obama said, enables America to shape its own destiny

The President urged the nation to free itself from its oil dependency now:

“As we recover from this recession, the transition to clean energy has the potential to grow our economy and create millions of jobs – but only if we accelerate that transition. Only if we seize the moment.”

This is the time for wind turbines. For solar. For hydro. This is the moment to hear increasing numbers of rotor blades whipping up the sound of independence.

Carpe diem.

About The Author: Leo Gerard is the United Steelworkers International President. Under his leadership, the USW joined with Unite -the biggest union in the UK and Republic of Ireland – to create Workers Uniting, the first global union. He has also helped pass legislation, including the landmark Canadian Westray Bill, making corporations criminally liable when they kill or seriously injure their employees or members of the public.

Workplace Deaths An Epidemic

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

Tom O'Connor Amid the horrific scenes of the BP oil spill, we should not neglect the fact that 11 workers died on the rig when it exploded April 20. Nor should we neglect the daily carnage that workers suffer on the job in America.

It’s been a very bad couple of months for worker safety: Seven dead in Washington following the explosion of the Tesoro refinery.

Six dead in Connecticut in the Kleen Energy power plant explosion.

Twenty-nine dead in West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch Mine disaster.

And 11 dead in the Gulf of Mexico oil rig collapse.

But behind the headlines on the latest disaster is a far quieter but equally disturbing story.

In the same week as the Massey mine disaster in West Virginia, local media outlets around the country carried dozens of stories with headlines like “Man Killed in Trench Collapse” or “Fall from Roof Fatal.” The toll of these routine incidents _14 deaths a day from injuries in America — is obscured because most occur one death at a time.

Month after month, workers die, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration slaps the employer on the wrist (a median penalty of only $3,675 per death in 2007).

Like those who died on the BP oil rig or in the Massey mine, the vast majority of deaths on the job are entirely preventable. The problem is not technical but political: Our national system for ensuring health and safety in the workplace is broken.

We know how to prevent trenches from collapsing — by using trench boxes to shore them up. We know how to prevent falls from roofs from becoming fatal — by properly using safety harnesses. We know how to prevent coal mine explosions by minimizing the buildup of coal dust and monitoring methane concentrations.

But employers routinely refuse to use these established precautions, and OSHA does not force them to.

So why aren’t our laws enforced? First, it’s a problem of resources: OSHA’s budget for enforcement is pitiful, a situation that has worsened since deregulation began in the Reagan era. In the late 1970s, OSHA had one inspector per 30,000 covered workers; today it is one per 60,000.

Second, obstacles to any new workplace safety rules, put in place by deregulation ideologues in Congress, have brought OSHA to a standstill. In the last 13 years, OSHA has issued exactly one new health standard establishing the maximum safe exposure level to a chemical, and that under the duress of a court order.

Third, OSHA’s promise that all workers have the right to speak up about unsafe or unhealthy conditions without retaliation is a cruel joke. The agency’s whistleblower protection program is totally ineffective: Non-union workers who file OSHA complaints routinely lose their jobs.

The solutions to this sorry state of affairs are not complex. Congress should boost the budget for OSHA enforcement. Plus, it should protect whistleblowers and require serious penalties for egregious violators.

Under current law, even the worst case of employer neglect can result in no more than a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum six months in jail. That’s got to change.

There is a bill sitting in Congress that would accomplish much of this. But the Protecting America’s Workers Act is stalled in committee while Congress members pound their fists and demand “something be done.” Now is the time for action, before more workers die.

Reprinted with permission by The Progressive, Inc.

About The Author: Tom O’Connor is executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.

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