Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Kavanaugh’

After Janus, Cities and Towns Are Poised to Become the New Battleground Over “Right to Work”

Thursday, February 28th, 2019

In December 2015, Lincolnshire, Illinois, a Chicago suburb with a population of a little over 7,000, passed a right-to-work (RTW) ordinance. While a slim majority of states have enacted RTW laws over the past several decades, RTW measures at the county or municipal level are rare in comparison. A group of unions quickly sued to strike down the ordinance, and after nearly three years of litigation, the next stop for the legal battle might be the Supreme Court.

The unions have been successful so far in their fight against the ordinance, winning first in the U.S. District Court and then again after Lincolnshire appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. But on February 14, Lincolnshire filed a petitionwith the Supreme Court, which will now decide whether it will hear the village’s appeal. Lincolnshire is being represented in the lawsuit by the Liberty Justice Center, one of the groups that represented plaintiff Mark Janus in Janus v. AFSCME, the case that abolished public-sector fair-share fees nationwide.

The legal arguments in the case, which is named Village of Lincolnshire v. IUOE Local 399, are not particularly complicated. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) clearly allows employers and unions to enter into union security agreements, which require workers to pay union dues (or reduced “fair-share fees” for non-members). However, a provision in the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act allows states to pass RTW laws, which permit workers to refuse to pay union dues while still enjoying all of the benefits of union representation. The unions argue that the Taft-Hartley provision means what it says—that states can pass RTW laws, not counties or cities. Lincolnshire argues that the law’s reference to “states” actually includes states and their subordinate political bodies.

Allowing local RTW ordinances could lead to what the unions described in their Seventh Circuit brief as a “crazy-quilt” of overlapping and inconsistent regulations. Illinois alone could be home to more than 300 different RTW ordinances among counties and municipalities with home rule authority. And numerous different laws could apply to the same collective bargaining agreement, as agreements commonly cover multiple facilities or job sites.

There is reason to suspect that the Supreme Court will decide to hear Lincolnshire’s appeal. The Seventh Circuit’s decision in favor of the unions conflicted with a 2016 decision of the Sixth Circuit, UAW Local 3047 v. Hardin County, which held that counties and municipalities have the legal authority to enact RTW measures. The Supreme Court will often hear an appeal to resolve this kind of conflict, which is called a circuit split. Troublingly, the Supreme Court refused to hear the UAW’s appeal of the Sixth Circuit decision, leaving that decision as law of the land in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, and potentially tipping the justices’ hands on the issue.

In Janus, the right-wing majority of the Supreme Court overturned more than 40 years of precedent to make the country’s entire public sector RTW. There is no reason to expect Justice Kavanaugh to be any more sympathetic to labor rights than now-retired Justice Kennedy. If the Supreme Court decides to hear the case, it may well be the next step in the steady erosion of labor rights that has occurred under the Roberts Court.

Meanwhile, local RTW laws have started to spread elsewhere. Lobbying efforts by the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity have made quick progress in New Mexico, with 10 of the state’s 33 counties and one village passing RTW ordinances since January 2018. The group previously used the same county-by-county approach in Kentucky, where over a dozen counties passed RTW ordinances before statewide RTW legislation passed in 2017.

In Delaware, attacks on unions at the local level have been less successful. In late 2017 and early 2018, two local governments in the state were considering RTW measures. While a proposal in Sussex County eventually stalled following union protests and warnings from the Delaware Attorney General and the county’s own attorney that the county lacked the legal authority to enact the proposal, the town of Seaford quietly enacted a RTW ordinance without holding any public hearings. The Seaford ordinance was quickly quashed in June 2018 when Governor John Carney signed legislation permitting private union security agreements statewide.

Local RTW laws have been slow to spread in part because local governments like Sussex County fear that they violate the NLRA. But with union busters running out of states in which they could realistically seek to pass RTW laws, they have looked to local RTW laws as a way to make inroads into non-RTW states. If the Supreme Court gives local RTW laws their blessing, the significant legal risks will be removed and right-wing groups will begin pushing them on counties and towns throughout the country.

What can the labor movement do in the meantime? One strategy is legislative. In states where Democrats hold the governorship and the majority in both state legislatures, we can push politicians to follow the Delaware approach and enact laws guaranteeing the right to enter into union security agreements. But even after significant Democratic gains in the midterm elections, there are only 13 of these states other than Delaware.

Another strategy is for private-sector unions to conduct vigorous internal organizing campaigns as public sector unions did in preparation for Friedrichs v. CTA and then Janus. Unlike public-sector unions, private-sector unions do not have onerous restrictions on the subjects over which they can collectively bargain, which many public sector unions have been forced to deal with in recent years. These campaigns to increase worker participation in existing unions and to sign up fair-share-fee payers as full members will prepare unions to contend with local RTW laws in unexpected locations, while also building stronger unions if we are fortunate enough to avoid another attack from the Supreme Court.

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 28, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Nick Johnson is a union lawyer in New York.

The Trucking Industry Is a “Sweatshop on Wheels.” Here’s How Kavanaugh Could Make It Worse.

Thursday, October 11th, 2018

While the nation was focused on Brett Kavanaugh’s contentious confirmation process, the Supreme Court began hearing arguments in New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira, a major labor case that could impact thousands of workers throughout the country. The Court will determine whether workers in the hyper-exploitive trucking industry can sue their bosses for breaking the law. Kavanaugh wasn’t present for oral arguments and new Justices often recuse themselves from such cases, but there’s nothing but an unwritten rule preventing him from casting a vote. If Kavanaugh’s vote were to prove decisive, he could choose to participate or the justices could decide to re-hear the case.

New Prime (Prime) is a transportation outfit that runs an interstate trucking company. Dominic Oliveira claims that he participated in Prime’s apprenticeship program and was told by the company that he’d make more money as an independent contractor than he would as an actual employee. Oliveira signed an Independent Contractor Operating Agreement which allowed him the flexibility to determine his own schedule and work for companies besides Prime. However, Oliveira claims that Prime had a “pervasive involvement” in his work which prevented him from working for other places, despite the fact the company wasn’t supposed to. Oliveira filed suit against Prime in district court, alleging that the company failed to pay him minimum wage, a clear violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Prime’s contract with Oliveira contained an arbitration clause that hypothetically required the two parties to resolve any work disputes through an arbitration process, as opposed to a lawsuit. Prime filed a motion to compel arbitration and dodge the legal action, but Oliveira opposed the action, pointing out that the contract is exempted by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) which makes arbitration agreements enforceable. The FAA exempts “contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.” In 2001, the Supreme Court determined that his exemption applied to “contracts of employment of transportation workers.”

The Supreme Court will now determine whether Oliveira should have been classified as a contractor, and therefore will be forced to settle for arbitration, or whether he will be allowed to take Prime to court. “If the Supreme Court rules for the bosses in this case, it will send a clear message: that big companies that break the law get to decide if and when the rules apply to them,” Ceilidh Gao, a staff attorney who filed an amicus brief in the case with the National Employment Law Project, said in a statement. “If the Supreme Court rules against the workers, it would create further incentives for companies to misclassify their employees as independent contractors. Such a perverse outcome would be an affront to the basic fairness American workers demand.”

The case shines a light on an industry that has become tremendously exploitative over the last 40 years. In the 1960s and 70s, trucking was a lucrative profession with regular hours—drivers were taking home around $100,000 a year in today’s dollars. But things have changed drastically since the business was deregulated in 1980. In his 2000 book Sweatshop on Wheels: Winners and Losers in Trucking Deregulation, analyst Michael H. Belzer sounded an alarm, writing that truckers’ median earnings had dropped 30 percent. Eighteen years later, things have gotten even worse: After factoring inflation, the wages for truckers have fallen since 2003.

Deregulation also had the predictable effect of weakening the industry’s unions and increasing the number of “independent contractors” like Oliveira who end up owing their company money as a result of the associated expenses. “In the modern unregulated industry, the solution has been to shift the risks of truck ownership to the workers themselves,” explained Steve Viscelli, economic sociologist and author of The Big Rig Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream, in a 2016 interview. “Companies insulate themselves from the costs of market [and fuel-price] volatility by getting the workers themselves to buy the trucks and pay the operating expenses. That’s what they’ve achieved with these independent contractors.”

Oliveria’s case is just one of three arbitration cases that the Court is scheduled to hear this term, with Kavanaugh recently added to the bench. Typically, Justices don’t cast a vote in cases where they weren’t present for oral arguments. Most recently Justice Gorsuch recused himself from cases that had been heard before he was confirmed. However, there’s nothing compelling Kavanaugh from participating and he could weigh in if he wanted to.

Kavanaugh’s judicial career indicates that he’ll consistently side with business over workers. In 2008, he dissented from a ruling that established undocumented workers as employees who can start a union. In 2016, he wrote for the majority in a case that overruled an NLRB decision which allowed Verizon workers to adorn their vehicles with pro-union messages. Most infamously he sided with SeaWorld after one of its trainers was killed by a whale, criticizing calls to sanction the company and impose regulations on it.

The case is also being heard amid dozens of gig economy lawsuits filed by workers fighting to be classified as employees. One recent suit showed that Uber saves $500 million a year by classifying drivers as independent contractors in California. Early analysis of New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira indicates that the Court might be more skeptical of the employer’s claims than initially expected, but it remains to be seen whether a surprising outcome can be won on a Supreme Court that will now presumably remain conservative for decades to come.

Clarification: An earlier version of this piece implied Kavanaugh would definitely be voting in this case. Although that is a possibility, Justices often recuse themselves from cases in which they weren’t present for oral arguments.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on October 10th, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

Kavanaugh Is Terrible on Workers’ Rights—And That’s Anti-Woman, Too

Monday, October 8th, 2018

On October 6, the Senate voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh, the Republican federal appellate judge accused by multiple women of sexual assault, to the Supreme Court.

In light of the allegations—which include attempted rape—the opposition to Kavanaugh has been dominated by concerns about the impact he will have on the lives of women. In addition to his alleged history of physical and sexual violence, protesters fear what Kavanaugh’s “radical” conservatism may augur for reproductive-rights victories, namely Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that expanded the legal right to abortion in the United States. Yet these don’t constitute the only perils of the judge’s appointment: Kavanaugh bears a pattern of anti-worker adjudication—a stance that inordinately harms women.

Kavanaugh’s catalog of judicial decisions indicates a clear predilection for the capitalist class. In 2008’s Agri Processor Co. Inc. v. National Labor Relations Board, Kavanaugh argued that a kosher-meat wholesaler, Agri Processor Co., wasn’t required to bargain with an employee union. Before the suit, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) after Agri Processor Co. refused to bargain. Kavanaugh upheld the company’s claim that the workers who had voted in the union election were undocumented workers and therefore didn’t qualify as “employees” protected by the National Labor Relations Act—and thus were prevented from unionizing, so their votes in the union election were invalid.

There are numerous other examples of Kavanaugh issuing anti-worker rulings. In 2015, Kavanaugh ruled in favor of a Las Vegas casino that requested that police officers issue criminal citations against demonstrators protesting the lack of collective-bargaining rights of casino employees. And in 2013, he argued that a Black woman, LaTaunya Howard, couldn’t pursue a race discrimination suit after being fired from her position at the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House of Representatives for “insubordination.” Howard alleged that her termination was both racially motivated and in response to complaints she’d made about racial pay disparities at her place of work. What’s more, Kavanaugh helped thwart an NLRB order that would have required the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino to bargain with the United Auto Workers.

This anti-labor positioning is particularly injurious to women, who benefit disproportionately from union membership. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that women covered by a union contract earn an average of 30.9 percent more per week that women with non-union jobs, compared to men’s increase of 20.6 percent. Correspondingly, the wage gap between men and women workers is more narrow among those with union representation than those without it. The Economic Policy Institute reported last year that female union workers earn 94 cents for every dollar their male peers earn, versus 74 cents on the dollar without union safeguards.

Kavanaugh also has a history of jeopardizing the work benefits that inform earnings. Workers with union representation enjoy greater access to family, medical and maternity leave—an advantage for women, who are more often tasked with child and elder care than men, and often lose wages as a result. Unionized women are much more likely to have at least partially paid health insurance than those who aren’t unionized: Notably, 73.1 percent of women in union jobs have employer- or union-provided health insurance, an advantage only 49.1 percent of their non-union counterparts receive. It’s virtually the same case for retirement: The ratio of unionized to non-unionized women with employer-sponsored plans is 74.4 percent to 41.8 percent.

If unions and earnings among women are to be examined, it’s necessary to consider the huge impact a figure like Kavanaugh could have on Black women. Though the unionized workforce has decreased precipitously over the last several decades, Black women have traditionally had a higher rate of unionization, particularly in public-sector jobs, than women of other racial and ethnic groups. As of 2013, Black women outnumbered white, Latinx and Asian-American women in terms of unionization. And by 2015, unionized Black women outnumbered unionized Black men.

This is essential for a demographic that, research shows, would have to work an additional seven months to receive the same pay as white men, despite working more hours than white women. (Black women are also paid less than white men for the same job, independent of education level.)

The same urgency for protections applies to Latinx women, who are now the least likely of all women to have union representation. Statistics show that they’re in the most dire need of the boons of organized labor: Latinx women, for example, make 54 cents for every dollar earned by white men. As Esther López of United Food and Commercial Workers urges, “There exists a sure-fire way for Latina women to earn the better wages they deserve: joining a union in their industry. Latina women who have joined a union earn more than their non-union counterparts—$242 more per week, in fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.”

Another concern arising from Kavanaugh’s anti-labor record—and one particularly pointed in the wake of the allegations levied against him—is women’s vulnerability to workplace sexual harassment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that “25 percent to 85 percent of women report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.” Echoing López, writer Michelle Chen contends that collective bargaining is a viable means of combating this. “Union agreements,” she writes, “protect equality at work, provide everyday organizational support for workers, and promote public accountability by establishing legally binding conditions of employment,” and can pursue such measures as municipal anti-harassment ordinances.

Heeding Kavanaugh’s roster of rulings, the AFL-CIO, Communications Workers of AmericaNational Nurses United and other unions have formally opposed the now-Supreme Court associate justice. NNU has cited specific concerns for women, stating his assaults on collective bargaining rights and workers’ healthcare render him “unfit to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States.” The subtext is that women will pay the greatest price.

This article was originally published at In These Times on October 8, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Julianne Tveten writes about the intersection of the technology industry and socioeconomic issues. Her work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Outline, Motherboard, and Hazlitt, among others.

Scott Mugno: Rising from the Dead?

Wednesday, September 26th, 2018

While Rod Rosenstein and Brett Kavanaugh may be on their way out, OSHA nominee Scott Mugno and other Department of Labor nominees may be on their way in according to intrepid Bloomberg reporter Chris Opfer.

You may recall that business interests, who hate, hate, hate the idea of Democrat Mark Pearce getting another term on the National Labor Relations Board had reportedly quashed a potential compromise that would have re-appointed Pearce in return for the Dems allowing the confirmation of Mugno, Cheryl Stanton at Wage & Hour and William Beach for the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  But now that deal seems to be back on the table at the White House as the Senate Finance Committee plans to consider Gordon Hartogensis’ nomination to run the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation  on Thursday. There may even be some judicial nominations in the pot.

Not that business interests — especially the Chamber of Commerce — would be too disappointed. Mugno is, after all, their guy.

According to Opfer

If the deal comes to fruition, it will likely be within the coming weeks. Lawmakers are expected to flee Washington in early October for one last campaign push before the midterm elections. There’s no telling whether any agreement would still be on the table after the smoke clears from the ballot box. Look for the Senate to potentially use unanimous consent to speed the nominations to the floor and confirm Pearce and others by voice vote shortly before they head home to campaign.

No word as to whether Mugno is still looking forward to trading his leisurely retired life in Florida for a cold, slushy winter in Washington DC — to be followed by the prospects of all oversight all the time if/when the Dems take back the House (and possibly the Senate) in November.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on September 24, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Kavanaugh's SeaWorld dissent shows he wants to drag workers back a century

Tuesday, September 25th, 2018

During his years as a judge on the D.C. Circuit court, Brett Kavanaugh has dedicated a solid amount of time to writing extremist dissents to show us just what kind of a deciding vote he would be on the Supreme Court. One of those is his notorious SeaWorld v. Perez dissent, in which Kavanaugh said SeaWorld shouldn’t be held responsible for the killing of a trainer by an orca. Steven Greenhouse writes that the dissent is “remarkable because Kavanaugh shows far less sympathy to the whale trainer who was dismembered and killed than he shows to SeaWorld for being the victim of what he sees as government overregulation and overreach,” and that he “seemed to lack an empathy gene.”

It’s not just a lack of empathy, though. Kavanaugh’s dissent, Greenhouse suggests, is either profoundly ignorant of history or is an active attempt to undo historical progress:

He said that state tort law—for instance, lawsuits that workers bring against their employer because a machine chopped off an arm—would pressure SeaWorld to assure safety to its workers. But Kavanaugh bafflingly fails to realize that the workers compensation system was set up in the early 1900s in large part to prohibit workers from filing tort lawsuits against their employers. Moreover, state tort law compensates employees only after an arm is amputated or a worker is crippled, while government regulation in the form of OSHA aims to prevent such horrific injuries from ever happening.

In likening Dawn Brancheau to NFL players and NASCAR drivers, Kavanaugh essentially embraced a pro-corporate legal doctrine that was prevalent in the 19th century—that workers assume the risks inherent in a dangerous job. In other words, if Brancheau got killed or injured, well, tough luck. It’s on them. David Michaels, the head of OSHA under President Obama, criticized Kavanaugh for making “the perverse and erroneous assertion that the law allows SeaWorld trainers to willingly accept the risk of violent death as part of their job.” 

Is Kavanaugh that ignorant of history or is he fully aware of the brutal past of American workplaces, and knowingly trying to drag us back to that brutality? Given the totality of what we know about him, the latter seems the safe bet.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on September 24, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

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

Kavanaugh Still Doesn’t Get It

Thursday, September 13th, 2018

Good news!

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh does not think it is unreasonable for workers to expect to come home safely at the end of the day, even if they work in the entertainment industry.

So he claims in his response to a written question from the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Unfortunately, “expecting” isn’t doing. And Kavanaugh, in his dissent from the SeaWorld case, in his testimony before Congress, and now in his written responses, seeks to take away the the ability of workers to make that expectation a reality.

Now, I’m not an attorney, but I do get to play one in this blog — and, at least when it comes to occupational safety law — I seem to have a better understanding of occupational safety and health law than a certain person who may take a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court of the United States before the autumn leaves start falling. And that’s disconcerting.

Background

For those just tuning in, in 2010 SeaWorld killer whale trainer Dawn Brancheau was dismembered and killed by a killer whale during a live show in front of hundreds of horrified spectators, including small children.

OSHA, which had proven that SeaWorld was aware that the whale that killed Brancheau, had been involved in previous trainer fatalities, and that killer whales in general were hazardous to trainers, cited SeaWorld and ordered them to use physical barriers or minimum distances to separate trainers from whales. SeaWorld appealed, and both the OSHA Review Commission and the federal Appeals Court found in OSHA’s favor.

Kavanaugh dissented from the majority opinion, arguing in his 2014 written opinion that OSHA had paternalistically interfered in a worker’s right to risk his or her life in a hazardous workplace, that OSHA had violated its long-standing precedent not to get involved in sports or entertainment, that the agency had no authority to regulate in the sports or entertainment industries and that Congress — and only Congress — could give OSHA that authority.

And during last week’s Senate confirmation hearing, Kavanaugh doubled down on some of the arguments in his dissent while lying about other parts.

The tort system is not an alternative to OSHA protections

Kavanaugh focuses his responses to the Committee’s questions on two shaky assertions that I addressed in my previous post on his responses to Senator Diane Feinstein’s (D-CA) questions at last week’s confirmation hearing: use of the tort system and asserting that close contact in whale training is just as “intrinsic” to whale shows as tackling is to football or fast driving is to auto races.

Kavanaugh continues to insist that even if OSHA can’t act, workers can still use the tort system and file lawsuits to ensure safe workplaces. In fact, his reliance on tort law as a remedy for worker safety problems has become his preferred method of avoiding answering questions about some of the more outrageous statements he made in his SeaWorld dissent:

QUESTION: You also wrote [in your dissent]: “To be fearless, courageous, tough—to perform a sport or activity at the highest levels of human capacity, even in the face of known physical risk— is among the greatest forms of personal achievement for many who take part in these activities.”

Do you believe that fearless, courageous, and tough people do not expect their employer to “furnish to each of [its] employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to [its] employees.”? If not, please explain.

RESPONSE: State tort law helps ensure that workplaces are reasonably safe. Congress may also regulate workplace safety, as it has done. And federal agencies may also do so within the limits of the statutes and precedents.

When asked how state tort law and our civil justice system help promote workplace safety, Kavanaugh responded:

In general, state tort law and our civil justice system can provide an opportunity for people who are harmed by the actions or negligence of others to recover damages. The tort system thereby helps deter negligent actions and encourages or requires reasonable safety measures. Of course, state tort law is often augmented by state or federal regulation. It was the scope of federal regulation that was at issue in the SeaWorld case.

Well, actually, no.  Kavanaugh has it exactly backwards. Tort law — the ability to file a lawsuit — is not a replacement for the Occupation Safety and Health Act.  One fact that Kavanaugh continues to ignore is that workers cannot sue their employers if they are hurt on the job.

A little history.  Prior to workers compensation, workers could sue employers after they got hurt on the job. Employers obviously had the upper hand with far more resources than individual workers. And their arguments — that workers got hurt because they were careless, or that workers had assumed the risk (and liability) when they took the dangerous work — often prevailed with juries.

On the other hand, employer sometimes lost — and lost big. Juries were unpredictable.

State workers’ compensation systems were created in the early 20th century to establish a “no fault” system where employer-provided insurance would reimburse workers for lost wages while providing first-dollar medical coverage and rehabilitation for work-related injuries. In return, workers gave up the right to sue their employer for any injuries (or — theoretically — illnesses) occurring on the job.

The workers compensation premiums paid by employers were supposed to be connected to the rate of injuries in a company (or in an industry sector) and were therefore supposed to provide a incentive for employers to keep the workplace safe. For a variety of reasons, that incentive was never sufficient to protect employees — a problem that led to passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHAct) in 1970 which requires employers to provide a safe workplace — to prevent workers from getting hurt or killed on the job.

So what the hell is he talking about?

We’ve all heard of workers winning lawsuits that are large enough to change or destroy an industry. The most famous is probably the lawsuits against the asbestos industry following the deaths of hundreds of thousands of workers from asbestos-related disease over the past century.  Another example is diacetyl, a popcorn flavoring that destroyed workers’ lungs. Most use of diacetyl were discontinued after disabled workers or their families won massive lawsuits.

But it’s important to remember that those workers did not sue their employers, because suing your employer is prohibited by comp laws.  They sued a “third party,” the manufacturers of the asbestos or diacetyl — companies like Johns Manville.

You can certainly make the argument that lawsuits against companies that made asbestos or diacetyl ultimately contributed to making the workplace safer for employees who came after those killed or disabled.  But Kavanaugh is trying to make this extremely small tail wag a very large dog.

How is that?

First, legal victories in these lawsuits came long after workers suffered and died horrible and preventable deaths. And tens of thousands continue to die each year from asbestos-related disease, despite the successful lawsuits.

Second, the number of successful lawsuits brought by workers against the manufacturers of hazardous chemicals is tiny compared with the thousands of hazardous chemicals in use today.

Finally,  third party lawsuits are pretty much impossible to use in workplace safety incidents — like SeaWorld. What third party does a worker sue when the employer refuses to provide fall protection equipment, or when an employer forces a worker to go down into a deep, unprotected trench?

Clearly there was no third party for Dawn Brancheau’s survivors to sue after a killer whale dismembered and drowned her. (And third-party lawsuits against God — the whale’s creator — are rarely successful.)

Why doesn’t Brett Kavanaugh — or the staff that actually wrote these answers, or the clerks that work for him  — know all of these things?

No clue. Either they’re uninformed, or they hope the Senators (and the American public) are uninformed. Either way, it’s inexcusable.

Getting eaten by a whale is not the same as racing a car

The second thing Kavanaugh insisted on over and over again in his written responses was the erroneous argument that close contact between trainers and whale was “intrinsic” or essential to whale shows.

When asked to explain how close contact between whale and trainer was intrinsic to the killer whale shows at SeaWorld  — especially when SeaWorld had itself imposed the safety measures that OSHA was requiring — Kavanaugh simply repeated what he argued in his dissent, namely that “[t]he Department [of Labor] cannot reasonably distinguish close contact with whales at SeaWorld from tackling in the NFL or speeding in NASCAR.” 

Well, no. Wrong.

First, as I already explained earlier this week, killer whale shows are not sports.

Whale trainers are not athletes; they’re workers in the entertainment industry. There is no fight between whale and human (or there shouldn’t be). No one is trying to win. No one keeps score. No one is supposed to get hurt. No one is supposed to die.

And second, close contact between whales and trainers is not ‘intrinsic” to whale shows and are not comparable to car racing or football. Obviously you can’t have a car race if cars can’t speed.  Football would arguably not be the same if you couldn’t tackle. But, as SeaWorld continues to prove every day, you can have successful, entertaining killer whale shows even without close contact between whale and trainer.

Finally, just because a hazard may be inherent to a job, doesn’t mean that OSHA can’t require feasible safety measures to prevent workers from getting hurt.  You can’t work on top of a tall building without the danger of working at a dangerous height, but you can protect those workers from falling without killing the construction industry. You can’t process chickens without cutting and hanging, but there are ways to prevent poultry processing workers from getting disabling musculoskeletal disorders while still allowing people to enjoy their wings and nuggets. You can’t have killer whale shows that don’t star a 12,000 pound wild animal with large teeth, but you can protect trainers from the hazard while spectators still enjoy the show. That’s why the OSHAct was passed in 1970.

A Comic Interlude

Now never fear, there is one bright spot to this whole sordid tale. If you think that spending your life incorrectly analyzing the law and taking away workers’ rights must be a dreary job, I learned that you can at least entertain yourself and others by occasionally saying phrases like “ipse dixit”  —  a Latin legal term meaning “an assertion made but not proved.”

Kavanaugh argues in his written comments that despite OSHA’s insistence that it would never ban tackling in football, 

that ipse dixit just brings us back to square one: Why isn’t close contact between trainers and whales as intrinsic to SeaWorld’s aquatic entertainment enterprise as tackling is to football or speeding is to auto racing?

Admit it. It’s not possible to say “ipse dixit” without smiling, just a little.

Conclusion: Kavanaugh is a human time machine

Kavanaugh’s responses to his written questions, ipse dixit, just bring us back to our original question: Why is someone who doesn’t understand occupational safety and health law, and who is hostile to worker safety being considered for the Supreme Court?

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on September 14, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Court Orders EPA To Implement Chemical Plant Safety Rule

Tuesday, August 21st, 2018

In a stinging rebuke to the Environmental Protection Agency, a federal court has called EPA’s delay in implementing the Obama administration’s chemical disaster rule “arbitrary and capricious” and told the agency to implement the rule.

EPA had argued that delaying the rule would reduce industry confusion while it figured out whether it wanted to modify or rescind the rule. The court, noting that the Clean Air Act clearly limits such delays to three months, rejected the EPA’s reasoning. The decision means that EPA can no longer delay enforcement of the rule. So far, only provisions regarding local emergency-response coordination requirements are in effect, while other provisions come into effect in 2021.

We have written frequently here about how issuing standards and regulations designed to protect workers, consumers and the environment is a long and difficult process.  Rescinding or even delaying these legal protections is also difficult because an agency is required to justify its actions and provide evidence showing why the previous regulations are no longer needed. And despite all the fanfare that former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt received for being the deregulator-in-chief, the corners he cut have come back the haunt the Trump Administration’s efforts to undermine the laws that Congress passed to protect people from preventable workplace and environmental hazards.

According to Mike Wright, Director of Health, Safety and the Environment for the United Steelworkers union, who successfully sued the agency, “The decision clearly shows that EPA – and by implication OSHA and other federal agencies – can’t just delay a rule protecting the American people on a whim, or to do the bidding of some outside group.”

Background

Following a number of chemical plant disasters, including the 2013 explosion at West Fertilizer that killed 15 people and destroyed much of the town of West, Texas, President Obama issued an Executive Order that, in part, ordered EPA to reconsider its Risk Management Program (RMP). In January 2017, EPA issued a revised RMP regulation that enhanced requirements related to emergency response, provision of chemical hazard information, and requirements for facilities to consider inherently safer processes, as well as post-accident investigations, more rigorous safety audits and improved training.

“The decision clearly shows that EPA – and by implication OSHA and other federal agencies – can’t just delay a rule protecting the American people on a whim, or to do the bidding of some outside group.” — Mike Wright, USW Director of Health, Safety and the Environment

Provisions of the 2017 rule related to clarifying regulatory definitions were scheduled to come into effect on March 14, 2017. Other provisions, including most local emergency-response coordination requirements, were supposed to become effective on March 14, 2018. The requirements for emergency response exercises, public information-sharing and post-accident public meetings, third-party audits, more rigorous post-incident analyses, and safer technology requirements are not scheduled to become effective until March 15, 2021.

The Trump administration, under then EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, delayed enforcement of the rule three times, the last time by issuing the “Delay Rule,” which delayed enforcement of the rule for 20 months while the agency decided whether to modify or rescind the Obama rule. (The EPA did, in fact, issue a proposal to rescind most provisions of the Obama rule last May. That process is not affected by this decision.) A number of organizations, including the United Steelworkers union, sued EPA, arguing that “The Clean Air Act (CAA) is explicit that reconsideration ‘shall not postpone the effectiveness of the rule,’ beyond a three-month period.” A number of other environmental and community groups joined in challenging the delay, along with a number of states.

A Mockery of the Statute

The court found that EPA’s delay rule “makes a mockery of the statute” because it  violates the paragraph in the Clean Air Act that requires EPA rules to “have an effective date, as determined by the Administrator, assuring compliance as expeditiously as practicable.” The court writes that “The Delay Rule does not have the purpose or effect of “assur[ing] compliance”; it is calculated to enable non-compliance.” And the EPA did not consider the delay’s effect on the requirement to “prevent accidental releases,” to “minimize . . . consequences of any such release,” to “protect human health and the environment,” and “to include procedures and measures for emergency response after an accidental release.”

The court criticizes EPA for basing the delay on a bunch of “alleged ‘security risks’ and other hypotheticals raised by industry” without actually explaining why the implementation delay was necessary.

The court also mocks EPA’s explanation that the delay is intended to avoid confusion among the regulated community and local responders who would have to comply with a rule that might later be changed, when it is actually EPA that’s causing confusion “by the almost two-years’ reconsideration it desires in order to decide what it wants to do.”

EPA is also ignoring the express interest of Congress Congress which expressly stated that it wants compliance with rules “as expeditiously as practicable” and therefore  provided “a strict limit of three months on stays of effective dates pending reconsideration” in order to keep any reconsideration from delaying a final rule.

Arbitrary and Capricious

The court found the EPA’s delay rule to be arbitrary and capricious first, because it didn’t explain why it couldn’t revise (or rescind) the rule while the rule was in effect. Second,the Delay Rule didn’t provide a “reasoned explanation” why the original effective date and compliance dates were unjustified, despite the fact that the EPA in the original Obama rule had gone to great lengths to justify the compliance dates and consider comments from the public. EPA also failed to explain “why the detailed factual findings [in the Obama rule] regarding the harm that would be prevented upon implementation of the Chemical Disaster Rule are now only ‘speculative.’”

The third reason the court found the Delay Rule to be arbitrary and capricious is a favorite of mine. The court found that the EPA’s justification of the delay on “‘the timing’ of a finding by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms . . . that the West Fertilizer explosion was caused by arson’ rather than an accident…is not a reasoned basis for delaying the entire Chemical Disaster Rule.”

As readers of Confined Space are aware, in 2016 — days before the end of the RMP rule comment period — the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), found that the fire that led to the catastrophic explosion at West was intentionally set.  (The Bureau used a highly criticized investigative process to make that doubtful finding, but that wasn’t the reason for the Court’s decision.)

The EPA partially based the Delay Rule on arguments made in chemical industry petitions to the EPA stating that they did not have enough time to comment on the BATF finding and if the cause of the fire was actually arson, that might have affected their comments and the final outcome of the rule, especially in the area of emergency response and provision of chemical information to responders and the public.

But the court rejected EPA’s reasoning — particularly as the argument impacted the emergency-response and information-sharing provisions of the Obama regulation:

Even were the court to agree for purposes of argument that the cause of the West, Texas disaster being arson is relevant to some of the accident-prevention provisions of the Chemical Disaster Rule, it is irrelevant to the emergency-response and information-sharing provisions, including those that have indisputably been delayed from the original March 14, 2018 effective date. Given that twelve of the fifteen fatalities in the West, Texas disaster were local volunteer firefighters and other first responders, this would be a fairly weak explanation for delaying provisions that EPA previously determined would help keep first responders safe and informed about emergency-response planning. (emphasis added)

The court also noted that the West disaster was not the only chemical plant incident that EPA cited to justify the original regulation, citing incidents in Hawaii, Colorado, Washington, California, Louisiana and the 2005 BP refinery explosion in Texas City, Texas.

Standing

One other feature of the court decision was that it granted “standing” to the United Steelworkers Union, allowing the union to sue the agency on behalf of its members who work in chemical facilities and live in communities surrounding the plants. As Wright explained,

The Court’s decision on the USW’s standing is especially important. The ruling clearly shows that unions have the right to defend their members, not only in the workplace, but in the broader community. And that’s a right the labor movement should always be exercising.

One final note. The decision notes that Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh was a member of the judicial panel at the time the case was argued but did not participate in this opinion.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on August 17, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Trump's Supreme Court pick is eager to take the war on workers up a notch

Tuesday, July 17th, 2018

Another week, another bout of Supreme Court-related horror for workers. Up this week, Donald Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. It’s bad. It’s really, really bad—a reminder that, even following a disastrous-for-workers Supreme Court session, things can get worse.

  • Daily Kos’ own Meteor Blades wrote about Kavanaugh’s awful SeaWorld dissent, noting that Kavanaugh’s demeanor as he makes the rounds of the senators he needs to vote to confirm him is surely a sharp contrast with “the snarls and sneers and outright contempt contained in his judicial record when he talks about workers.”
  • Brett Kavanaugh once sided with an anti-union company that scapegoated undocumented workers, Ethan Miller writes. Oh, and the son of the owner of that company? Was sentenced to prison, the company’s violations were so egregious … and then Donald Trump pardoned him.
  • Moshe Marvit writes that Trump’s Supreme Court pick could spell a fresh hell for workers, citing repeated cases in which Kavanaugh ruled against the most basic exercises of the right to organize, like wearing t-shirts critical of the employer or displaying pro-union signs in parked cars.
  • And while I haven’t come across any allegations that Kavanaugh has a history of sexual harassment—and in fact the execrable Amy Chua wrote in the Wall Street Journal that he’s been a good mentor to women (I’m not linking, the piece is so disgusting and such an indictment of the elite legal world)—it’s worth noting that Kavanaugh clerked for and remained notably close to Judge Alex Kozinski, who was forced to retire due to a well-established pattern of harassment. Did he know? It’s a question worth asking. And if he didn’t know, how didn’t he know?

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on July 14, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

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

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