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Posts Tagged ‘lobbying’

US to Workers Killed on Small Farms: We Don’t Care

Wednesday, August 1st, 2018

Some workers’ lives are worth more than others, according to Congress.

If you’re killed in a factory or construction site due to blatantly unsafe conditions allowed by your employer, OSHA will investigate and likely issue citations and fine the employer if violations of OSHA standards are identified.

But if you’re an employee in a small farm (under 11 employees), and clear violations of OSHA standards lead to your untimely death, Congress has told OSHA “hands off!”

Language in OSHA’s appropriations bill since the 1970’s has prohibited OSHA from conducting any enforcement activities on small farms (as long as they don’t also maintain a temporary labor camp). That means OSHA can’t investigate deaths on small farms, much less issue citations or fine an employer. And it doesn’t matter if it’s just one death, or 10 deaths. OSHA Is not allowed to set foot on the premises.

Congress has a similar prohibition against OSHA enforcement of safety violations in certain small businesses. But in this case, there is an exemption to the exemption.  OSHA is allowed to investigate and cite in the event of a worker complaint or a fatality.  But not even a worker complaint or a bunch of dead workers will get OSHA onto a small farm.

Maurice Kellogg had the bad fortune of getting himself killed on a “farm” that employed fewer than 11 employees.  Although OSHA has a grain facilities standard since the late 1980s that has been remarkably successful in preventing deadly grain facility explosions, the agency “dropped its investigation in late June after learning the privately-owned elevator had too few employees to fall within its jurisdiction.”

And just to add insult to injury, the facility is “also exempt from regular inspections by the Nebraska State Fire Marshal’s Office.”

So, no inspection, no investigation, no findings of why the explosion happened, who was at fault or how to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

Background

Now I don’t know anything about this specific case that I haven’t read in the newspaper, but I do have extensive experience working with the powerful agriculture lobby which gets incensed that the federal government would ever think of meddling in small farms’ right to kill its employees without the interference of government bureaucrats.

After OSHA mistakenly cited a farm that fell under the agriculture exemption in 2012, the agency re-wrote guidance defining where the agency was and was not allowed to enforce in small agricultural facilities.  It turns out that figuring out exactly what a “farm” is isn’t easy. OSHA determined that a farm is where you grow stuff, but what about other processes that exist on a farm — such as processing of products (like apples into juice in machines that might crush hands or electrocute workers) or storage of agricultural products (like grain in grain silos that might explode).

OSHA determined in a “policy clarification” issued in 2014 that operation such as ” storing, fumigating, and drying crops grown on the farm” were exempt as long as they stored or processed their own grain or other products. But if the facility performs activities

that are not related to farming operations and are not necessary to gain economic value from products produced on the farm, those activities are not exempt from OSHA enforcement. For example, if an exempt small farm maintains a grain handling operation storing and selling grain grown on other farms, the grain handling operation would not be exempt from OSHA enforcement under the appropriations rider.

So, we are forced to assume in this case, that Andersen Farms, Inc. was only storing its own grain in the elevator that exploded, killing Maurice Kellogg.  But we will never learn why the facility exploded, what safe work practices were violated, or how future incidents could be prevented.

Because, according to Congress and the agriculture lobby, the official policy of the United States is “We don’t care.”

What Is To Be Done?

Fighting the powerful agriculture lobby (especially if you’re allegedly affecting “small family farms”) is a fools errand. It’s the so-called “third rail” of regulation.

We did make attempts during the Obama administration to soften the exemption — to at least allow OSHA to investigate a fatality, without actually issuing citations. At least in that case, valuable lessons might be learned.

But no dice.  Not even workers’ lives can get in the way of free enterprise on small farm.

This article was originally published at Confined Space on July 24, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

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

The List of the Fight for $15’s Victories—Tangible and Intangible—Is Getting Longer

Tuesday, June 16th, 2015

 

David MobergFast food workers and their allies in New York City, supported by protestors elsewhere around the country, flooded public hearings in New York today with the message that they deserve at least $15 an hour. They testified before a wage board appointed at the behest of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to determine standards for fast food workers in the state.

The board’s work is taking place as a widening movement to raise minimum wages for the growing share of Americans in ill-paid jobs is both raising expectations and winning concrete victories. But the Fight for $15 campaign has also spurred action by many groups of low-wage workers, from home care aides to university adjunct teachers. And it is generating a complex new current within the broader labor movement that goes far beyond even their ambitious wage goals.

The Los Angeles city council’s vote last month to raise the minimum wage in the nation’s second largest city to $15 an hour by 2010 was the latest—but almost certainly not the last—in a series of major local victories by low-wage workers and their advocates that started last year in SeaTac, Washington. The movement then won victories in Seattle, San Francisco and other local jurisdictions. Popular movements in other cities, such as St. Louis and Kansas City, are close to pressuring local legislators to set a minimum wage of $15 an hour.

Some employers, most recently Chipotle, are apparently reading the writing on the wall and improving pay, benefits and work rules (though generally offering much less than workers want).

In Los Angeles, more than 40 percent of its workforce, which has a high proportion of service workers, earn near California’s current state minimum wage of $9 an hour (or less for some tipped employees and for victims of employers’ wage theft, estimated in Los Angeles as afflicting nearly one-fifth of the low-wage workforce).

They also rely heavily on public assistance programs to survive. Such aid effectively amounts to taxpayer subsidies of nearly $7 billion a year across the country to companies like McDonald’s to support the substandard wages of non-managerial fast food workers in the U.S., according to the University of California at Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education.

The contemporary movement to “raise the wage” has roots that are often run deep and wide—for example, in Los Angeles, traditional unions, worker centers and other non-union worker organizations, non-profit research and advocacy groups, faith organizations, immigrant and civil rights groups and dozens of other allies are participating in the movement. Last year, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti advocated raising the minimum to $13.25, but he missed the wave of public opinion that swept away his by then passé proposal. In a poll of Los Angeles residents, 69 percent favored a strong package of workplace improvements, including a minimum of $15.25 an hour.

In Los Angeles, more than 100 groups formed the Raise the Wage coalition. Many of them had been involved in living wage battles or other campaigns to raise wages for specific groups of workers, such as hotel employees or people working at the publicly-subsidized LAX airport, or to raise awareness of how many employers cheated their employees.  As a result of their work, the new law covers every worker and establishes an enforcement agency for the first time.

The coalition drew on studies of the economics of raising the minimum from the Berkeley Center, the Economic Policy Institute and the non-governmental think tank the Economic Roundtable (collaborating with two UCLA research institutes) that promised little or no loss of jobs, an economic shot in the arm (especially in poor areas) and a boost in economic well-being for more than 40 percent of Angelenos.

The minimum wage campaign even drew support from a few small business people. Kevin Litwin, chief operating officer of Joe’s Auto Parks (with 20,000 parking spaces in downtown Los Angeles), was told by his CEO not to fight the wage increase but instead investigate what happened to the company’s branch in Seattle after the local minimum wage rose to $15 an hour. Litwin discovered that revenue increased, workers were more productive, turnover declined, and, he said, “the whole thing seemed to work for us in Seattle. Why not LA? We think this is just good to do, and it was also good for our industry.”

The final legislation rejected requests for exemptions from some businesses, such as the restaurant industry’s standard plea for sub-minimum wages for tipped employees, as well as a labor movement proposal that workers under collective bargaining agreements not be covered.  Business critics pounced on what they claimed was labor hypocrisy and an effort to entice employers to accept unions in order to benefit from the exemption.

But Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center, said, “The concern of labor is for unionized employees’ varying benefits—sick pay, pensions—with an overall package significantly higher than the minimum wage. It was an attempt to respect existing collective bargaining agreements.” The proposed revision may be taken up later, but many council members seemed unsympathetic to the union argument, even though such exemptions are common in local minimum wage laws.

Even if the Fight for $15 was only one Raise the Wage member among many, the broader movement owes much to the fast food fighters. Starting with a one-day strike action two and one-half year ago by several hundred fast food workers in New York City, the organization has spread throughout the country and to other occupations, though the fast food industry is its priority.

Fight for $15 has contributed to the low-wage worker movement its goals—which at first, seemed to be a far stretch—of at least $15 an hour and the right to join a union without harassment. Its grassroots dynamism and direct action tactics have inspired a variety of ill-paid workers but posed a formidable  threat to its foes, most immediately McDonald’s Corporation, the world’s third largest private employer.

“Once you cut the head off the snake, it all falls in place,” says New York City McDonald’s worker and volunteer organizer Jorel Ware. “McDonald’s is the snake.”

Last weekend more than 1,300 Fight for $15 representatives gathered in Detroit for their second annual convention, and judging from their major resolution—and from the keynote speech by Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, their financial and organizational backer—the organization is counting on the New York wage board determination to be good enough to become the standard for the industry.

“We believe New Yorkers are leading the way to a new standard for fast-food workers and our families across the country,” the resolution reads (and Henry said that “New York is on the verge of setting a new standard that will change how we think about wages in this country”).

Despite the overwhelming emphasis on higher pay, the Fight for $15 has always been a fight for a union as well. Yet increasingly leaders at all levels are focusing on the need for a union as well as for a minimum wage raise. But Kendall Fells, national organizing director of Fight for $15, acknowledges that the union cannot organize store by store, but it can keep pressure on the company as a whole until there’s an agreement about how to proceed with  recognition.

“The problem is the process of organizing is too small and Fight for $15 is too big,” he says, but there’s the possibility of organizing all of the stores at once, adding community pressure from clergy, allies and other unions to the pressure, including additional legal action on the company’s labor law abuse.

Meanwhile, even without official recognition of their status, the workers can bring some changes by a variety of challenges at work, in the courts, and before the National Labor Relations Board.  “In these workers’ minds, they already have a union because they’re sticking together and bringing change,” Fells says.

Many workers are not only fighting for the $15 an hour and a union that first drew them to the campaign. They’re fighting for a better world. They see their actions as re-directing the course of history, as building a future for their children and grandchildren, and as helping workers not only in other fast food outlets but also in many other jobs and industries. They are exercising newly discovered rights as citizens of the United States and even enjoy a sense of being linked to workers in other countries. In these ways, they have already taken steps beyond developing a simple trade union mentality towards a consciousness of class that is as much ethical and political as economic.

“Our goal is a living wage when we say $15 and a union,” says Ware, an early supporter of Fight for $15. “That’s why we say $15 and a union. It looks like we’ve got the $15 but it may be a long fight for a union.”

But he notes that next year is an election year, which may open possibilities. Indeed, Hillary Clinton called into the convention saying that she wanted to be the “champion” of the organization and its members. Her move may have been simply political positioning, but it at least indicates that some Democrats may feel momentarily comfortable supporting a labor struggle.

Ware sees their demands as “good for the economy,” since their victories will likely encourage other companies to pay a living wage. And the campaign is good for him, helping him do something he had always wanted but did not know how to do.  “I never thought I’d be doing this,” he said. “I always wanted to help people, but I didn’t know how.”

At his second Fight for $15 convention, Antione Hearon, 22, was impressed by how much the movement had grown in a year, spreading across the country and even around the world. Although he hopes to be able to afford to return to community college, he wants to know that McDonald’s will pay a living wage if he has to rely on it.  But he’s in it for more than himself.

“My family [of 14 children] has been without lights, gas, water. At times we didn’t eat,” he said. “I need the money for myself and my family. I’m doing this not just for myself but for the whole country. I didn’t know anything about unions [before joining the campaign]. I didn’t think fast food workers could have a union. … It shocked me: this is a real thing. … Then there’s the unity aspect of this: there are people who I could go to personally, who have my back. I like that unity.”

At the convention, Connie Bennett, 57, an eight-year veteran at McDonald’s, found herself swapping ideas with other workers about how to recruit people—especially young workers—to the Fight for $15, as well as setting up “pen pal” ties with workers in other cities. She realizes some of them feel they need the job badly and are afraid of losing it, but she explains to them that organizing, even striking, “that’s our freedom, and that’s our right as citizens. I tell them that this is not only their fight but a fight for their children and grandchildren.”

She talks up the union at her bus stop and when she stops by the mid-morning daily coffee club of elderly customers. That paid off when workers at her Chicago McDonald’s went out on strike. The coffee club members joined in. “I can’t put into words how that support made me feel,” she said.

Fifteen dollars an hour might mean that she could take a bus to work all the time, not just half the time. More important, she might be able to visit four grandchildren she has never seen. But the experience of solidarity, of being part of a union, is a reward in itself.

“I believe very much in unions,” she said. “If this is a sign of what a union means, I believe a union will bring the $15 to us. I explain to the members that a union is a big part of what they need. A union will give them freedom of speech, and you’re the ones who make the decisions.”

Even without a formal union or a pay raise, the fighting fast food workers have become winners. They’ve won a new sense of their rights and power and a new view of how they fit in the world. And that’s worth at least as much in its own way as the pay raise they need and deserve.

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on June 15, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is David Moberg. 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. He can be reached at davidmoberg@inthesetimes.com.

Will Washington, D.C., be a national example for fighting Walmart?

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

Laura ClawsonAs we wait for Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray to decide whether to sign or veto the Large Retailer Accountability Act passed by the city council, business lobby groups are insisting that DC’s push to make big box stores pay a living wage of $12.50 an hour is an isolated occurrence, not a sign of things to come:

“This fight in D.C. is being driven by local D.C. politics more than a national agenda,” David French, senior vice president for government relations at the National Retail Federation, told POLITICO.Justin Wilson of the business-funded Center for Union Facts said he believes no national movement will come from the D.C. battle. “I don’t foresee (a national movement) happening,” Wilson said.

Right, and the fight that kept Walmart out of Brooklyn last year was driven by local New York City politics, and the fight to keep Walmart out of Chinatown in Los Angeles is driven by local Los Angeles politics, and the failed effort—passed by the city council and vetoed by then-Mayor Richard Daley—to institute a similar large retailer living wage in Chicago as Walmart was moving in was driven by local Chicago politics. Point being, as Walmart tries to move into cities, the politics are different from its traditional suburban and rural locations. So the whole “just an isolated thing, not going to be replicated anywhere” insistence rings a little hollow.

That’s not to say Walmart doesn’t have the power to push itself into many cities, as it did Chicago. But the opposition is a lot more organized. And with good reason. Trying to move into D.C., Walmart went on a charm offensive, donating millions of dollars to local charities and talking up the great jobs it would allegedly create. But:

[Living wage organizer Mike] Wilson says that activists and community leaders met with Wal-Mart representatives soon after the company announced its intentions to move into D.C., but that it became clear Wal-Mart had no interest in negotiating any kind of binding agreement concerning workers’ wages or benefits. Wal-Mart may have told a group of church leaders it would pay $13 an hour, but on other occasions, the company cited its average pay of $12.78 to activists—a number that made Wilson and others suspicious. That figure, which excludes part-time workers and includes department managers, ishighly disputed.

Walmart can’t be trusted, so Walmart faces a fight. In fact, Walmart drives wages down for workers at other retailers in areas where Walmart stores open, so a $12.50 minimum wage at Walmart and other large retailers in Washington, D.C., would help protect wages at existing smaller stores.

Tell Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray that his city’s big box workers deserve a living wage.

This article was originally posted on The Daily Kos on July 16th 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

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

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