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Posts Tagged ‘labor standards’

Lost wages, serious illness and poor labor standards: The dangers of rebuilding Texas and Florida

Monday, September 11th, 2017

As Texas prepares to rebuild after Hurricane Harvey devastated much of the state, and Florida starts picking up the pieces from the destruction wreaked by Hurricane Irma, emergency workers may face exploitation for the sake of greater profits and speedier project completion.

Past abuses after similar natural disasters have left laborers without all of their wages and with serious illnesses that could have been prevented with proper supervision and training, labor experts say. A large portion of these workers are undocumented and likely afraid to alert authorities when their rights are violated. On top of that, the Trump administration’s approach to labor protections doesn’t inspire confidence, according to workers’ safety experts who spoke to ThinkProgress.

Forty percent of Houston construction workers do not have health insurance, retirement, life insurance, sick leave, and paid time off, according to a 2017 report from the Austin-based Workers Defense Project, an organization that advocates for better health, safety, and labor standards. The report was the result of interviews with over 1,400 construction workers. On average, a construction worker dies once every three days in Texas because of unsafe working conditions.

Texas is also the only state in the country that doesn’t require any form of workers compensation coverage, said Bo Delp, Director of the Better Builder Program at Workers Defense Project.

“After disasters like Katrina, there is a lot of construction going on — rebuilding, repairs, and remodels, and a lot of exploitation as well. Texas is a uniquely bad state for construction workers in terms of conditions,” Delp said. “That is compounded with a disaster like Harvey, when we know, in other contexts, that this has led to exploitation on an unprecedented scale.”

“After disasters like Katrina, there is a lot of construction going on — rebuilding, repairs, and remodels, and a lot of exploitation as well.”

Studies after Hurricane Katrina found that wage theft and unhealthy working conditions were rampant and that undocumented workers were particularly vulnerable. A 2006 study from the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice found that 61 percent of surveyed workers had experienced workplace abuses such as wage theft and health and safety violations. A similar 2009 study by the University of California, Berkeley found that there were concerning differences in conditions for undocumented versus documented workers. Thirty-seven percent of undocumented workers said they were told they might be exposed to mold and asbestos, while 67 percent of documented workers reported they had been informed. Only 20 percent of undocumented workers said they were paid time and a half when they worked overtime.

Delp said that there are “good honest contractors” in the state, but he is concerned about “fly-by-night” contractors who will eschew safety measures to get things done cheaply and quickly.

Sasha Legette of the Houston Business Liaison works alongside community partners and policymakers, including the mayor’s office, to ensure better wage and safety conditions for workers. So far, she said that she has been impressed with Mayor Sylvester Turner’s response to the disaster. But she hopes the state doesn’t rush it in a way that could harm workers.

“We know that the water and flooding has created a very toxic environment and what we don’t want to see happen is that workers or that the city is so eager to rebuild that the safety of those who are going to do that work is not taken under consideration,” Legette said.

“They can identify hazards and prevent the need for OSHA to have to enforce after the fact,” Goldstein-Gelb said.

Sharon Block, executive director of Harvard University’s Labor and Worklife Program and former principal deputy assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Labor, said she is concerned about the administration’s potential response to the recent disasters.

Often, OSHA will begin with “compliance assistance mode,” which means they will help employers comply with rules, and then will eventually move to enforcement mode. But the Bush administration never moved into enforcement mode after Katrina, and she worries that the Trump administration could do the same.

Block is also worried about whether there are enough resources at the agency. In addition to the proposed cuts and business-friendly approach of the administration, there is no OSHA chief.

“They don’t have real leadership in the agency,” Block said. “So having watched Sandy and the Gulf oil spill, these sort of unexpected disaster responses, even for an agency like OSHA, it’s really complicated and it’s really resource intensive.”

“Based on their level of staffing and resources and everything else about their approach on worker protection issues, I’d be worried about how workers post-Harvey and post-Irma are going to be effective.”

“There is a lot at risk,” Block added. “Based on their level of staffing and resources and everything else about their approach on worker protection issues, I’d be worried about how workers post-Harvey and post-Irma are going to be effective.”

There are some potential downsides to not having an OSHA chief at a time like this, such as getting assistance from FEMA to do work on the ground to address workers’ health and safety needs, said Barab.

“A lot of the activity around these national disasters involves agencies working together,” Barab said. “It requires agencies having frank and candid conversations, [such as] getting FEMA to be more accommodating to the health needs of workers. It always helps to have a higher level person doing that.”

In order to get OSHA staff to hurricane-affected areas in Texas or Florida, OSHA would have to transfer some compliance and enforcement staff there temporarily. But this is expensive and the agency has been chronically underfunded. To reimburse the expenses of doing this, FEMA can provide supplemental assistance, Barab explained, but the state must request this and, on top of that, the state has to contribute 25 percent of the funding.

“To pony up about 25 percent of cost — we haven’t seen a lot of states willing do that. I am not optimistic about Texas and I don’t see them wanting to spend money to get more OSHA enforcement there,” Barab said. “FEMA has the ability to waive that requirement, but they generally don’t, and didn’t, in fact, after [Hurricane] Sandy.”

 One of the other challenges facing OSHA will be outreach to undocumented workers who may be concerned about reporting safety and wage violations. Barab said the government needs to send a message that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency will not be involved if workers want to report violations. But because many workers will feel uncomfortable going to a government official in any situation, OSHA needs to maintain relationships with local nonprofits.

“We already had pre-existing relationships with nonprofits that were continuing to train immigrants and day workers during [Hurricane] Sandy,” Barab said. “In terms of being able to reach out to OSHA, the nonprofits had a relationship with these workers and other groups had relationship with OSHA.”

Marianela Acuña Arreaza, executive director of Fe y Justicia Worker Center in Houston, an organization that helps low-wage workers learn about their rights and organizes workers, said the group has been through post-disaster health and safety trainings and has a healthy relationship with the local OSHA office. The center is educating workers on what kind of respirators to use if they’re working in a structure that has mold, for example, while also keeping an eye on any worker safety and wage violations. The center has also benefited as subgrantee from the Susan Harwood program for the last five years.

“Undocumented workers specifically fear retaliation in terms of losing a job or an employer calling ICE on them, and that happens a lot. It is definitely a barrier for people to come forward,” Acuña Arreaza said. “Even other immigrants who have other statuses — some of the fears are similar because they are still worried about losing their job or having their employer retaliate.”

“We try to repeat that and and say, ‘No, you have rights.’ And people start getting it after we repeat it enough.”

By having a staff of mostly immigrants, she said the organization has created an environment where undocumented workers would feel comfortable, never asking workers about immigration status, and working with other nonprofits and local churches to encourage people to come in.

“We try to repeat that and and say, ‘No, you have rights.’ And people start getting it after we repeat it enough,” Acuña Arreaza said. “But there is a huge disconnect that comes from documentation but also comes from not being able to speak English or fully speak English, other cultural barriers, and racism. Lacking papers does not help, but there is this layered separation from justice in the system of worker rights.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on September 11, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress. She covers economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.

The UAW Vote in Mississippi is a Battle for the Soul of the U.S. Labor Movement

Friday, August 4th, 2017

After years of painstaking work by United Auto Workers (UAW) organizers to build support for a union at the big Nissan auto and truck assembly plant near Canton, Miss., the workers themselves will vote today and tomorrow on whether to accept UAW their collective bargaining voice at the plant.

“I think it [union approval] will pass,” UAW president Dennis Williams told a press conference just days before the vote, “but we’re doing an ongoing evaluation. We’ve been thinking about it for six to seven months,” roughly since the UAW held a large march and rally at the factory attended by Bernie Sanders. The union says it is particularly concerned about a surge in the kind of unlawful management tactics to scare workers that brought charges against Nissan this week from the National Labor Relations Board.

The Canton factory is one of only three Nissan factories worldwide where workers do not have a union. Built in 2003, it is one of a spate of auto “transplants,” or foreign-owned factories built with state subsidies for the past three decades, largely in the South and border states.

Many see the upcoming vote as another test of whether unions can thrive in the South, where union membership has historically been well below the national average. However, the battle is far greater. Now the corporate strategies and values of the South have persisted and influenced multinational companies, as well as labor relations and politics in the North. The Nissan campaign is best conceived as a battle for the U.S. labor movement.

Nissan has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Organizing the South

Organized labor, usually prodded by leftists in the movement, has undertaken high-profile campaigns in the South to organize unions across the racial divides. Such drives were especially prominent during the 1930s-era organizing upsurge and the post-World War II “Operation Dixie,” which lacked adequate support from existing unions and was plagued by internal political divisions.

The UAW has, at various times, escalated organizing in the South, especially when General Motors was considering relocating much production there in the 1960s—and when the transplant growth surged in recent decades.

Despite the shortcomings of labor’s campaigns, many union strategists think that unions can only reverse their decline by directly tackling the racist strategy of employers and their conservative political allies. But employers have many tools to divide workers, such as Nissan’s employment of temporary, contract workers to divide a predominately African-American workforce.

In recent years, the South has suffered key organizing blows, including the big defeat in January for the Machinists’ union trying to organize the new Boeing factory in Charleston, S.C., and the limited UAW success organizing a skilled trades union at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tenn. against a supposedly neutral employer. Such defeats typically inspire funereal chants for labor rights and unions, but sound like party music for managers and investors.

Yet, some organizers dispute that the South is impossible territory. One veteran organizer with the AFL-CIO, who has overseen many organizing drives in the South and asked not to be identified or directly quoted, said that he thought it was not significantly more difficult to organize in the South. It just took more time and more money.

The organizer cited one success that defied expectations: the campaigns over roughly 15 years to organize 26,000 workers and preserve business at Louisiana’s giant Avondale shipyards for a shifting cast of corporate owners doing repair and rebuilding work mainly on military contracts. Ultimately, a decline in military orders led its latest owner to close the shipyards, wiping out the organizing victory.

“The unions often do not realize it, but they have been winning in the South more than in the Midwest for years,” says Kate Bronfenbrenner, a Cornell University labor relations professor who specializes in research on union organizing. “Because [in the South] there are more women working, more African Americans, and because there’s less high-tech work.” Each of those categories of workers is more pro-union than their counterparts, thus building in a small theoretical advantage in the South.

The South’s poor labor standards are spreading

In the end, it may be that the poor labor standards of the South are spreading nationwide. The ascendant conservative political power of the new Republican Party, linked with the more aggressively anti-worker and anti-union policies of big corporations and financial firms, indicate that, in this country’s long Civil War, the South is gaining ground.

Consider what has occurred from 1983, when Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” ads were on the horizon, as well as in 2016, when Donald Trump pledged to “make America great again.” Then and now, most people would consider Michigan and Wisconsin as typically northern, in terms of labor conditions and union density. Yet over that period, federal data shows that the percentage of all workers in Michigan who were covered by union contracts dropped from 32.8 percent in 1983 to 15.5 percent in 2016. For Wisconsin, the share dropped from 26.9 percent to 9.0 percent.

Unions are losing members and failing to gain new ones at an adequate rate to avoid the rough halving of the union share of the workforce over the past 15 years in most of both the South and the North.

Assault on workers knows no boundaries

It will be better for workers everywhere if the Canton, Miss., workers vote for the union, but management still has the upper hand. Workers are still weak and getting weaker nearly everywhere, with partial exceptions, like the Fight for 15 movement, which flourishes in nearly all of the country.

“Right to work” laws threaten unions nationwide, by prohibiting them from charging agency fees to workers who do not join the union but benefit from actions it takes. In recent years, the widespread passage of such laws outside of the South—now extending to half of all states—is a clear indication of the decline in union power.

Workers in Canton may win a union for a variety of reasons beyond the basic proposition that they need collective power to counter the power of their bosses. Or they may reject the union due to fear engendered by Nissan and its anti-union campaign, out of conservative political beliefs or for other reasons.

The best union organizers—and some very good organizers have played a major role at Nissan—understand how important it is to involve workers themselves as-organizers in reaching out to workers. In addition, organizers recognize it is vitally important to mobilize the progressive leaders and groups in the community for support, and employ a wide assortment of tactics to minimize the influence of the boss’s war on unions—a war conducted in large part on turf and terms favorable to the employer.

However, if the labor movement is striving to with significant gains for workers, it must create a progressive strategy for politics, workplace organizing and culture that focuses on the working class very broadly construed, including multiple levels of poverty, affluence and job histories. U.S. union organizing will need to strengthen and expand its community activities to develop a broader range of strategies to defeat racism. Within such a political context, union organizing might prosper—and workers might do so as well.

Whether the UAW does or does not win this summer, future successful organizing of workers in their communities and workplaces require an alternative political force that is more supportive and transformative.

 This piece was originally published at In These Times on August 3, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

TPP: Four Potential Partners Don’t Comply with International Labor Rights

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

charlie fanningA new AFL-CIO report released today finds that four nations that would be major players under the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are out of compliance with international labor standards and, therefore, with the commitments they would undertake under the TPP. The report—The Trans-Pacific Partnership: Four Countries That Don’t Comply with U.S. Trade Laws—finds that workers in Mexico, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei face ongoing and systematic abuse and violations of workers’ rights with the complicity or direct involvement of the governments.

The Obama administration is pressing Congress to grant it Fast Track trade authority for the TPP, the largest Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in history. Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO is pressuring lawmakers to hold potential trading partners to comply with U.S. trade laws and international labor standards.

Under Fast Track, the public, lawmakers and others would have no input in a trade deal that would grant countries with troubling human and labor rights records greater trading privileges without having to first undertake fundamental reforms.

The highest labor standards the United States has embedded in FTAs require parties at a minimum to adopt and implement laws that protect the rights enshrined in the International Labor Organization’s (ILO’s) Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

The report points out that previous FTAs have forced countries to compete on the basis of lowering labor costs and attracting business by ignoring, or in some cases actively interfering with, the fundamental labor rights.

By not requiring fundamental changes of these countries first, the TPP gives away leverage that could be used to protect workers and raise standards. If workers do not have the legal freedoms to act collectively, they will not be able to exert the power needed to raise wages, increase worker protections or gain the social policies necessary for the creation of a middle class and broadly shared prosperity.

Tell Congress to stop Fast Track on the TPP because we should not turn a blind eye to countries that abuse workers.

Here are just some of the ways the four nations violate these core labor standards:

 Mexico is currently facing a human and labor rights crisis. The recent disappearance of 43 students, now declared dead, from the teachers’ college in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, by local police and criminal gangs is a horrific example of violence, corruption and dissolution of the rule of law. Corruption, abuse and impunity are also root causes of the near absence of genuine industrial relations in Mexico, which artificially depresses wages and limits economic growth. Many workers are covered by collective agreements (“protection contracts”) they have never seen or ratified through a vote. When workers attempt to organize independent unions, employer-dominated unions respond with threats and intimidation. Further, child labor, forced labor and inhumane working conditions exist on farms that export fresh produce into the United States, which is then sold at major retailers, including Walmart and Safeway.

 Malaysia has grave problems with forced labor and human trafficking, especially in the electronics, garment and palm oil sector, which also contains child labor. Malaysia currently has the lowest possible ranking—tier 3—in the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report, meaning the government “does not fully comply with the minimum standards and is not making significant efforts to do so.” Because of this pervasive exploitation, virtually everyone who regularly uses electronics in the United States has come in contact with forced labor. Some of the most recognizable electronics brands source components from Malaysia, where about 28% of electronics workers toil in conditions of forced labor.

Vietnam has an authoritarian government that tightly controls political rights, freedom of speech and other civil liberties. The government maintains a prohibition on independent human rights organizations and other civil society groups and restricts union activity outside the official unions affiliated with the Communist Party of Vietnam’s Vietnam General Confederation of Labor (VGCL), which actually controls the union registration process. Vietnam also has significant problems with forced labor and child labor in the production of bricks and garments,  Many of the clothes produced in Vietnam contain textiles from small workshops subcontracted to larger factories. These workshops frequently use child labor, including forced labor involving the trafficking of children from rural areas into cities.

Brunei is ruled by a repressive regime and offers few human rights protections. Last year, the sultan of Brunei, whose family has ruled Brunei for more than six centuries, imposed a strict penal code based on Sharia law. The Islamic criminal law includes punishments such as flogging, dismemberment and death by stoning for crimes such as adultery, alcohol consumption and homosexuality. Under emergency measures in place for 65 years, freedom of speech is severely limited and the country’s legislature has a limited role. Further, the government prohibits strikes, and the law makes no explicit provision for the right to collective bargaining.

This article originally appeared in aflcio.org on February 23, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Charlie Fanning is the Global Advocacy and Research Coordinator at AFL CIO

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