Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Lindsay Beyerstein’

Amendment to Thwart Airport Security Officers’ Bargaining Rights Defeated in Senate

Friday, February 25th, 2011

photo_4940On Tuesday, the Senate voted down a Republican-authored amendment to the FAA Authorization Act that would have eliminated the collective bargaining rights of baggage screeners at the Transportation Security Administration.

These workers, also known as TSOs, were granted limited collective bargaining rights on February 4 in a historic decision by TSA Administrator John Pistole, who was making good on a campaign promise by Barack Obama to allow bargaining rights for the nation’s 40,000 TSOs.

The amendment would have left intact the right of TSOs to belong to a union (12,000 TSOs are already exercising that right as dues-paying union members). However, the amendment would have outlawed collective bargaining, i.e., authorizing the union to negotiate on behalf of TSOs.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.)

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.)

The lead sponsor of the amendment was Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who argued that giving TSOs the right to bargain collectively could harm national security by limiting the agency’s flexibility. Perhaps he didn’t realize that under the terms of Pistole’s determination, a future TSO union would be barred from negotiating issues that directly affect national security.

Like all federal public sector unions, a TSO union would not be allowed to negotiate salaries. Pistole will not even allow the union to negotiate on basic issues like disciplinary standards.

On the eve of the vote, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) took to the floor of the Senate to urge his fellow legislators to defeat the amendment. The senator argued that TSOs should be granted collective bargaining rights as a matter of national security.

He noted that a recent ranking of “Best Places to Work” put the TSA in 220th place, out of 224 federal agencies and departments. Turnover and injury rates at TSA are among the highest in the federal government.

“Low morale and high turnover at a frontline security agency are a recipe for disaster,” Harkin said. “TSA determined that collective bargaining will address those problems and improve the Agency’s ability to fulfill its mission.”

Harkin challenged the assumption that unionization is incompatible with national security, noting that most federal security employees, including Border Patrol personnel, Immigration and Custom Officials, Capitol Police officers and Federal Protective Service Officers have collective bargaining rights.

Wicker argued that TSOs should be treated like the CIA and the FBI, which do not have collective bargaining rights. This despite what seems fairly obvious: The job of a TSO seems to have a lot more in common with that of customs officials in the same airport than with that of an FBI special agent or a CIA operative.

The defeat of the amendment eliminates a major hurdle to TSO collective bargaining. TSOs are scheduled to vote on representation starting on March 9.

Feds Crack Down on America’s Worst Bosses-But Fines Still Trivial

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010

Time and time again, inspectors found that miners at the Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia were trudging through inches-deep drifts of combustible coal dust. The mining company, Massey Energy, paid the fine, stalled through endless procedural challenges or just ignored the citation all together. The bottom line was that the dust kept piling up…until disaster struck.

In late April, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration unveiled a new program to get tough on the worst offenders, the Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP). Beginning in June, the SVEP will step up enforcement against employers that have shown “indifference” to the safety of their workers through “willful, repeated, or failure-to-abate violations.”

Combustible dust violations will be a high enforcement priority for SVEP, as will amputation hazards, unsafe excavation practices, and silica dust exposure.

Fines for safety violations have been increased only once in the last 40 years. Needless to say, they haven’t kept pace with inflation.

OSHA, which is part of the Department of Labor, plans to increase the costs of non-compliance. Right now, the stiffest possible penalty for a serious violation, i.e., an infraction that could kill or seriously injure someone, is just $7,000. The current maximum penalty for a willfull violation is $70,000. Under the SVEP, the average penalty for a severe infraction will rise from about $1,000 to $3,000-$4,000.

Still a pretty trivial penalty for risking someone’s life or limb, but it’s a step in the right direction.

This post originally appeared in Working In These Times on May 3, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Lindsay Beyerstein, a former InTheseTimes.com political reporter, is a freelance investigative journalist in New York City. Her work has appeared in Salon.com, Slate.com, AlterNet.org, The New York Press, The Washington Independent, RH Reality Check and other news outlets. Beyerstein writes a daily foreign affairs bulletin for the UN Foundation’s UN Dispatch website and covers healthcare for the Media Consortium. She is the winner of a 2009 Project Censored Award. She blogs at Majikthise.

Exploding Rig’s Operator Has History of Safety Violations

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

Eleven oil workers are still missing after a massive explosion and fire late Tuesday night on an oil rig off the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico. The rig was under contract to BP Exploration and Production (BPEP).

Working In These Times has determined that BPEP has a history of safety violations, according to public records on file with the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the division of the federal Department of the Interior that oversees offshore drilling.

Penalties assessed to BPEP during the past decade include:

  • $41,000 for a “loss of well control.” MMS found that BPEP “failed to verify employees were trained to competently perform the assigned well control duties.”
  • $190,000 for an improperly installed fire diverter system. The lapse was discovered in the wake of a fire that damaged property and the environment.
  • $80,000 for bypassing relays for the Pressure Safety High/Low on four producing wells.
  • $70,000 for low pressure in the fire water system
ire boats battle the fire on April after a massive explosion on the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon, off the coast of Louisiana. The rigs contractor, BP Exploration and Production, has a history of safety violations.  (Photo by U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images)

Photo by U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images

The Tana Exploration Company, LLC was fined $190,000 after BPEP employees, working as contractors, bypassed the safety valves on a Tana rig. Investigators found that the rig failed to shut down in an emergency because the safety devices had been bypassed.

As a result, “[t]he pipeline experienced overpressure and the flange gasket ruptured allowing gas/condensate to escape,” according to MMS records.

The Wall Street Journal reports that BPEP’s parent company was fined $87 million for failing to make agreed upon safety upgrades to a Texas refinery after an explosion and fire that killed 15 people.

It is still unclear who was responsible for the April 20 explosion.

*This post originally appeared in Working in These Times on April 22, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Lindsay Beyerstein, a former InTheseTimes.com political reporter, is a freelance investigative journalist in New York City. Her work has appeared in Salon.com, Slate.com, AlterNet.org, The New York Press, The Washington Independent, RH Reality Check and other news outlets. Beyerstein writes a daily foreign affairs bulletin for the UN Foundation’s UN Dispatch website and covers healthcare for the Media Consortium. She is the winner of a 2009 Project Censored Award. She blogs at Majikthise.

It’s Official: Three Unions Merge to Form Nurses ‘Super Union’

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

Nurses have been called the new face of organized labor. Like an increasing percentage of the rest  of America’s labor movement, the typical RN in the U.S. is female, college-educated, and working a non-outsourceable job in the service sector.

This week, American nurses banded together to weild unprecedented power in the workplace and in national politics. Delegates in Phoenix yesterday approved a three-union merger to create National Nurses United (NNU), the nation’s largest union of registered nurses.

Eight months in the making, the merger joins the California Nurses Association, the United American Nurses, and the Massachusetts Nurses Union to create a new super union with a combined strength of 150,000 members.

NNU hopes to use its increased clout to influence the national healthcare debate. The timing is fortuitous. The new super union is coming online just as the Senate is debating its version of the healthcare reform bill.

Near the top of NNU’s legislative wishlist is S.1031, AKA The National Nursing Shortage Reform and Patient Advocacy Act. The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Ca), would require hospitals to maintain a minimum ratio of nurses to patients in ERs, operating rooms, critical care units, and nurseries. Hospitals would be forbidden under the Act to use mandatory overtime or layoffs to meet the target ratio.

Most registered nurses in the U.S. do not belong to a union, but NNU is thinking big. The new union hopes to organize tens of thousands of non-union RNs nationwide.

*This post originally appeared in Working in These Times on December 8, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Lindsay Beyerstein, a former InTheseTimes.com political reporter, is a freelance investigative journalist in New York City. Her work has appeared in Salon.com, Slate.com, AlterNet.org, The New York Press, The Washington Independent, RH Reality Check and other news outlets. Beyerstein writes a daily foreign affairs bulletin for the UN Foundation’s UN Dispatch website and covers healthcare for the Media Consortium. She is the winner of a 2009 Project Censored Award. She blogs at Majikthise.

Your Boss Swears Your Job is Perfectly Safe

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

We’re accustomed to reading statistics from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration about workplace injuries. Every year, for instance, there are 4 million work-related injuries.

But ever wonder where OSHA gets those numbers?

According to a new report by the Government Accountability Office, the Department of Labor and OSHA may not be doing enough to make sure these numbers reflect reality. For one thing, inspectors don’t always talk to the workers they’re supposed to be protecting.

OSHA gets its information about workplace accidents and injuries from employers. Employers have incentives to downplay injuries on their job sites. A high injury rate makes a company look bad. Reporting too many injuries could open the door to a lawsuit or an investigation. (See below for a new video from Brave New Foundation on the fatal effects of lax enforcement of OSHA regulations.)

Most people are honest, but realistically, there will always be a certain number of bad actors who game the system and slackers who only make a half-assed effort. The bias is toward underreporting: cheaters could be artificially driving down injury statistics or the whole country.

To help keep employers honest, OSHA audits about 250 of the 130,000 high-hazard worksites that it monitors. The auditors check to make sure that the auditee’s reports to the government square with the companies’ internal records. But those audits won’t catch employers who don’t record injuries in the first place. Maybe workers aren’t telling their bosses about incidents because they’re afraid of being penalized. Or maybe they are telling management and management isn’t writing it down.

GAO found that OSHA doesn’t routinely interview workers. This is partly because there is a two-year lag between the audit period and the time the inspectors show up. By that point, workers may not remember, or they may no longer be working at the same job.

The report recommends that OSHA routinely interview workers about safety and minimize the lag between the time an incident is reported and the time OSHA inspectors show up.

The recommendations section doesn’t specifically address what OSHA should do to make random audits more effective. All the advice is geared toward investigating incidents that have been reported. You’d think that they’d be at least as worried about employers that haven’t reported injuries.

And here’s “16 Deaths Per Day,” the new five-minute video from Brave New Foundation about the weak laws protecting U.S. workers from on-the-job injuries—and death:

*This article originally appeared in Working in These Times on November 17, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

**For more information on workplace health and safety issues visit our Workplace Fairness resource page.

About the Author: Lindsay Beyerstein, a former InTheseTimes.com political reporter, is a freelance investigative journalist in New York City. Her work has appeared in Salon.com, Slate.com, AlterNet.org, The New York Press, The Washington Independent, RH Reality Check and other news outlets. Beyerstein writes a daily foreign affairs bulletin for the UN Foundation’s UN Dispatch website and covers healthcare for the Media Consortium. She is the winner of a 2009 Project Censored Award. She blogs at Majikthise.

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