New infographics from E-Training and Compliance and Safety show that as the U.S. budget for workplace safety continues to rise, the number of deaths dramatically falls. In 2010, the United States spent a then-high of $558 million dollars a year on workplace safety, and a record low of 4,600 workers died on the job. (Infographic after the jump).
The Obama administration has requested an increase in the Occupational Safety & Health Administration budget every year, but faced opposition from Republicans, who targeted it for steep cuts in the fiscal-year 2012 budget battles.
The charts also make the very interesting case that raising the retirement age above the current 67 could be disaster, as workers over the age of 65 suffer fatal workplace accidents at nearly three times the rate of those between 55 and 64.
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This week, photos of NASA engineers joyously celebrating their successful Mars rover mission went viral on the Internet. However, for another set of NASA workers–the firefighters at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida–there has been little joy in the face of imminent slashes to their retirement benefits by NASA contractor G4S.
Last year, G4S, the third largest employer in the world (and the troubled provider of security for the London Olympics), took over the contract to provide firefighting services at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. G4S continued to employ the 90 firefighters who worked there but demanded contract concessions. For the last year the firefighters have been working under the terms of their previous contract, as negotiated by their union, Transport Workers Union Local 525. But now that the year is coming to an end, G4S is pushing for steep cuts.
Upon taking over the contracts last November, G4S immediately froze the firefighters’ pensions and converted them from a defined pension plan to a 401(k). Now, in negotiations with workers, G4S wants to double workers’ out-of-pocket medical expenses. The company also proposes an 80 percent reduction in its contributions to the firefighters’ retirement plan, forcing workers to pay more out of their own paychecks. The company’s new retirement scheme would cut workers’ retirement income by a minimum of 30 percent, and possibly more for workers who have been there fewer years. Retirement is an important issue for firefighters, who typically retire in their early 50s because of their physically demanding jobs.
“Firemen are walking off [the job] because they are disgusted by [the benefit cuts]. They are finding jobs in other places. Firemen go to work where they know there is a decent wage and they can retire,” says TWU Local 525 President Kevin Smith. “Now the company is giving them such a terrible package that there is no way they can retire like normal firefighters across the country.”
G4S refused to respond to interview requests, saying it could not comment on ongoing negotiations “other than to say that we continue to negotiate with the Transport Workers Union to work towards a successful resolution.“
However, according to TWU Local 525, G4S has said at the bargaining table that the cuts are necessary in order for them to make a profit on the contract, since they can’t get additional money from NASA.“In a lot of contracts, you have a vehicle to get equitable adjustments to meet contract costs. This is a fixed price contract and there is no way to get an adjustment,” explains TWU Local 525 President Kevin Smith.
However, NASA has refused to get involved in the negotiations, saying that legally they cannot do so as a neutral third party.
“I am upset with NASA,” says Smith. “They accepted the bid, so they are responsible for it, but they have no way to fix it. They have a fault with no remedy.”
For now, workers are stepping up their militancy in an attempt to engage NASA. The union firefighters are picketing Kennedy Space Center twice a day, five days a week, demanding simply to maintain the contract they currently have.
“If we don’t stand up to them and fight them, all the other shops are coming through behind us on negotiations,“ says David McGaha, a paramedic and firefighter. “Before you know we are going to be working for minimum wage with no benefits.”
Despite the ongoing picketing, Smith remains pessimistic that the union by itself can successfully pressure NASA to clean up the mess.
“I am certainly not a big enough person to put pressure on NASA,” says Smith. “I have been picketing them for three years and I’m getting nowhere. It’s going to take a Senator or President Obama to step up.”
As high temperature records are broken across the United States, health and public safety advocates are calling on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to finally issue a rule protecting workers from extreme heat. In 1972, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommended a heat standard, but OSHA has still failed to implement it. With global warming likely to make heat related deaths more common, public safety advocates say OSAH must act immediately.
“Some farm workers and construction workers work for hours on end and there are no accommodations for rest breaks. This is what commonly leads to heat deaths” says Dr. Sammy Almashat, a researcher with Public Citizen’s Health Research Group. “We are asking for rest breaks in proportion to the temperature outside as well as employers being required to provide workers with a certain amount of water every hour. This does not require some sort of a technological breakthrough. It’s very easy and inexpensive.”
The failure of OSHA to adopt a heat standard has left many workers unprotected. According to Public Citizen, 563 workers have died from heat-related injuries and 46,000 have suffered serious injuries in the last 20 years.
“These deaths are completely preventable with just a few, inexpensive interventions, some of which have already been implemented in several states,” says Dr. Thomas Bernard, who reviewed a proposed NIOSH heat standard back in 1986. “The time is long overdue for a federal heat stress standard that will protect workers from dangerous heat exposure.”
In a response to a petition launched by Public Citizen, United Electrical Workers, and Farmworker Justice calling on OSHA to implement an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) for extreme heat, Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA David Michaels wrote that “OSHA agrees exposure to extreme heat can lead to death; however workers with adverse health effects from heat exposure experience dehydration, cramps, and exhaustion, and other affects and are able to recover fairly quickly when the appropriate measures are taken.” Michaels then continued:
As you mentioned in your petition, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) stated that the annual rate of heat-related deaths among crop workers from 1992 to 2006 was 0.39 per 100,000 workers. While OSHA acknowledges that these deaths are most likely underreported, and therefore the true mortality rate is likely higher, the mortality rate reported in the MMWR does not exceed those of other hazards OSHA has deemed to be “significant” (e.g. benzene) and therefore, would likely not meet the legal requirement of “grave.”
Michaels then noted that “if OSHA were to determine that a grave danger was present, OSHA must have adequate evidence that an ETS is necessary because no existing OSHA requirements can substantially reduce the grave danger. Additionally, OSHA must show that the ETS would be technologically and economically feasible.”
Almashat says it is fairly easy to implement to prevent heat deaths, noting that the Pentagon has a heat standard in place to prevent heat deaths among soldiers. Almashat also points to a 2008 study by the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries, which showed a net economic benefit for companies in terms of eliminating lost productivity by implementing heat protection rules.
Michaels says that while OSHA is not issuing a rule to force employers to adopt a heat standard it has launched an education and outreach campaign to inform employers of the dangers of extreme heat. But Almashat argues that this isn’t nearly enough.
“Employers aren’t held for accountable for complying with the recommendations of this campaign. There needs to be a standard,” Almashat says. “The federal government isn’t dragging its feet because it’s not feasible or the science isn’t there. This is a case where they are deliberately dragging their feet on a standard in order to placate industry.”
Last year, In These Times detailed how the Obama’s Administration Department of Energy was helping one of its contractors, Honeywell, force concessions on unionized nuclear weapons workers in Kansas City. Now it appears that the Department of Energy for the first time is removing successor contract language that protects unionized workers as a contract shifts from one contractor to another.
Currently, more than 2,400 nuclear weapons workers employed as contractors in both Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Amarillo, Texas, are represented by the AFL-CIO Metal Trades Department. “These two plants have been in existence since the 1940s. Many of the employees are second- and third-generation people who have worked there over the years for different contractors,” says IBEW Government Employees Director Chico McGill.
However, for the first time in their over 60 year history, the Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration plans to consolidate the contracts for the two facilities into one contract which will begin at the end of 2012. And for the first time, the bid language given out to contractors does not include guarantees that require the contractors to rehire the same unionized workers at similar rates.
According to a letter sent by AFL-CIO Metal Trades Department to the Department of Energy, “The NNSA has drafted a final Request for Proposal that does not contain the provisions that would require the successor contractor to employ the existing workforce. The final Request for Proposal also does not contain the provisions that require the successor contractor to maintain the wage rates and fringe benefits that have been provided to all employees in their collective bargaining agreements.”
The Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) did not respond to In These Times’ request for comment about why it would not include these provisions in writing. However, union leaders are worried that not the absence of these provisions could open the door to contractors seeking to union bust at these facilities. AFL-CIO Metal Trade Department President Ron Ault says that he and other union leaders have met with Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu to discuss their concerns, but that the Department has failed to listen to them and address their concerns.
“They have [completely changed] 63 years of procurement history. They just threw everything in the trash,” says Ault. “They are claiming to us that they are telling the contractors that they have to offer protections, but they won’t put it in any kind of writing. They are telling us they will chop the hell out of management, but will leave most of our employees alone. It is insane. They are telling us none of our fears will come to realization, but they will give us no protection in writing.”
Ault is baffled as to why a Democratic Department of Energy would fail to give assurances to protect the livelihood of workers at this nuclear weapons plant.
“Our question is why, after 60-some years of practices—why now? Why are we doing something that gives no written protection? These people … what they do is not making McDonald’s Chicken. They are building, remodeling, and refurbishing nuclear weapons.”
Ault feels that this move is yet another sign that the Obama administration’s Department of Energy is not protecting union workers employed by its contractors. As Ault told me in an interview last November, “Nobody can screw you like your friends. We had better labor relations under [Bush appointed-DOE Secretary] Sam Bodman than Chu.”
A recent Supreme Court ruling in Knox v. SEIU Local 1000 has some labor advocates howling that the Court is beginning to come after workers. The 7-2 ruling last week states that public sector employees must opt in to have their money spent on political action, instead of opting out as had been previously mandated in the case Beck v. CWA. The ruling could dramatically decrease the amount of money that public-sector unions, whose members currently compose 37 percent of all union members, have to spend on political action. Many public-sector union members are already financially strapped and may choose not to give their money to political campaigns.
The drop in the number of public employees giving money could increase dramatically if employers put pressure on public employees to not opt in to giving money to their unions’ political action funds. The recent Supreme Court ruling Citizens United eliminated protections that previously barred employers from pressuring workers on political matters. Now, combined with the Citizens United ruling, employers in the public sector could possibly pressure their employees to decline to give money to their unions’ political action funds.
“Unfortunately this decision continues the attack on the right of public-sector workers to act collectively to impact their workplace on important issues” says SEIU Local 1000 spokesperson Jim Herron Zamora, whose union was sued for imposing an assessment fee for political action on workers without first getting their consent.
“I think it’s more symbolic than anything. It’s going to be a pain for unions. Unions are going to have send in affirmative opt-in notices. The court is right in the basic principle that public employees have a right not to pay for that political work of unions and I agree with that even if it goes against the union,” says Elon University labor law professor Eric Fink. “It bothers me more for what it symbolizes, in that the court is going out of [its] way to fuck unions, and what that symbolizes in future cases”.
A few days after the decision, the Court also struck down a 1912 Montana law that limited the amount of money corporations could spend on local and state elections in Montana. Fink sees the Supreme Court setting a double standard in its increasing regulation of how unions spend political money while deregulating how corporations can spend money.
“Corporations have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders. However, unlike unions, corporations don’t have to ask their shareholders to make any political expenditure,” says Fink. “The Supreme Court doesn’t say a word about that when it comes to shareholders, but they say something about unions. It’s unions that are more democratic than any other institution [and] they want to sit down and micromanage how they spend their money.”
Unions are some of the most heavily regulated institutions in America. Under the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959, every union is required to file quarterly LM forms with the Department of Labor that lay out all of their expenses in detail, including salaries of officials, political action expenditures and reimbursement of expenses. These databases are searchable online at the Department of Labor’s website. Corporations, by contrast, are not required to file forms outlining all of their expenditures.
UE Political Action Director Chris Townsend says that unions must stand and be defiant of this Supreme Court decision and protest it with vigor.
“We can’t let them get away with this decision. If we let them get away with this decision, we are only another two or three court decisions away from the Court saying right-to-work is a constitutional right,” says Townsend. “It’s time for labor to fight back on this issue, and tell the Supreme Court to go to hell if needed. Has the labor movement pressed the current regime to end the intrusive and unfair regulation of unions? Of course not. Until we do, we can expect more of these attacks. Do Democrats stand up for us on this issue, even though they benefit for the most part from labor’s efforts? Of course not.”
A California-based company called VWR is busting its union, moving work to a non-union workforce a few hours away and receiving both federal and state tax incentives to do it. The scandal is yet another example of how companies can game the tax systems while hurting workers, and the government does little to stop them.
In Brisbane, Calif., 183 workers, members of Teamsters Local 853 that work at VWR, will lose their jobs at the end of the year when their scientific chemical warehouse closes. VWR, which is owned by Chicago-based private equity firm Madison Dearborn Partners, is moving the warehouse 230 miles away to Visalia, Calif. At the warehouse in Visalia, workers will be non-union and are expected to make half of what the current workers in Brisbane earn, according to the Teamsters.
The job losses will devastate local workers, many of whom are close to retirement age and will have difficulty finding jobs elsewhere. It will also devastate the city of Brisbane. A study conducted by the Federal-State Inquiry into Job Losses and Misdirected Tax Policy, chaired by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and California State Treasurer Bill Lockyer, found that the warehouse closure will result in the loss of 183 direct jobs and 83 indirect jobs among the suppliers and surrounding community in the Brisbane area. The loss of jobs will also reduce the City of Brisbane’s tax revenue by 18.5 percent.
The company, though, will benefit financially not only from halving workers’ salaries, but from a large amount of federal and state incentives to move. The City of Visalia, where the warehouse is being moved to, has received $2 million in federal Department of Commerce grants to do infrastructure improvements to the industrial park where the new warehouse will be located. VWR will also receive a total amount of $30,000 over a five-year period in tax credits from the state of California for every new worker hired.
“They aren’t creating new jobs, all they are doing is union busting,” says VWR worker John Thomas. “It’s a shame they are getting our tax dollars to destroy good middle-class jobs.”
This isn’t the first time VWR has used the new hire tax credits intended for job creation to simply move jobs from one place to another. Recently, the company received tax credits from Monroe County, N.Y., to move jobs from one warehouse in Towanda, N.Y., to another warehouse in Henrietta, N.Y. The move resulted in the layoffs of 41 warehouse workers in Towanda.
“I think this is a formula that union and non-union companies are using to abuse federal funds. You are not creating new jobs. You are really just transferring jobs and getting paid to screw these people out of their employment,” says Teamsters International Vice President Rome Aloise. “There should be some restrictions on how federal funding is provided to not allow this kind of transfer to occur.”
There are supposed to be “non-relocation” laws in place at the federal level to prevent corporations from receiving federal tax dollars for moving jobs from one area of the country to another area of the country. Teamsters are upset that the Department of Commerce is still providing a $2 million dollar infrastructure improvement grant for a project that will facilitate union warehouse jobs being moved from Brisbane to Visalia. The Department of Commerce counters that it has not violated “non-relocation” laws since the grant was intended to facilitate the creation of other jobs besides VWR ones in Visalia’s industrial park. Furthermore, the Department of Commerce claims it didn’t know about the VWR facility when issuing the $2 million grant.
“The site of the VWR facility was not contemplated as part of the project, nor was it included in any job creation estimates. Moreover, the City advises us that it had no knowledge of VWR’s interest when it applied for EDA funds and that it did not solicit or court the company to relocate,” wrote Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development John Fernandez in a letter to Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa, Jr. “As the decision should be clear from the above, the decision to the Plaza Driver project was entirely independent of the VWR matter.”
However, in a written response to the Commerce Department, Hoffa Jr. argued:
Just as VWR is dealing in bad faith with employees and the City of Brisbane by refusing to explore viable alternatives, VWR and the City of Visalia are dealing in bad faith with the U.S. Department of Commerce, Economic Development Administration and U.S. taxpayer about how will benefit from this public financing. The $2 million grant awarded to the City of Visalia in April 2011 to make infrastructure improvements to Plaza Driver will benefit VWR in its relocation efforts according to city documents and news reporters. However VWR was omitted from the list of companies, Visalia identifies as beneficiaries in its EDA grant application.
As evidence of Visalia’s bad fatih, the Teamsters point to an August 2010 newspaper account that quotes the Visalia City community development director saying that “the planned widening of Plaza… and improvements to Riggin Avenue… (and) the Betty Drive interchange… were big selling points to (VWR).“ But it appears that regardless of whether Visalia told the truth in its application for the $2 million grant, the city will receive the money and Brisbane’s workers will lose their jobs.
Economist Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic Policy and Research, says such schemes are intrinsic to programs that give tax credits to companies hiring new workers.
You inevitably run a risk with new hire credits that most of the hires would have occurred even without the credit,” says Baker. “In those cases, you’re giving money for nothing. Obviously the story is worse when what you’re giving money for is a union-busting scheme. As a practical matter, this can be hard to prevent since there will always be some way to game the system.
WASHINGTON, D.C.—Last week, in a small victory for guest workers activists, the State Department announced that it had debarred guest workers recruiter Council for Educational Travel USA (CETUSA) from the J-1 cultural exchange guest worker visa program. CETUSA had provided student guestworkers to work in Hershey warehouses in Palmyra, Penn. As I reported last summer, these workers went out on strike with the help of local unions to protest being paid only $20-$40 per week after having pay deducted for high rent and other services.
“The State Department’s ban on CETUSA is a big win for the students, and a blow against the larger trend of labor recruiters and companies using guestworkers to hollow out industries and undercut wages and conditions all over America,” National Guest Worker Alliance (NGA) Director Saket Soni said. “Corporations like Hershey’s and labor recruiters like CETUSA have turned the J-1 cultural exchange program into the country’s largest guest worker program, and profited from captive workers earning low wage.”
The debarment of CETUSA is a small victory for NGA, as there are many other recruiters still operating in the J-1 guest worker visa program that abuse workers, according to the organization. Advocates say that in order to stop further abuses of guestworkers the J-1 program needs to be reformed to provide greater rights to guest workers and more oversight of recruiters and companies using guest workers.
“I hope this sends a clear message to other recruiters like CETUSA: we will NOT be your captive workers,” said Harika Duygu Ozer, an NGA member and former J-1 student worker at the Hershey’s plant from Turkey. “Now the State Department needs to make laws so that the next group of workers that are made captive by recruiters don’t have to risk being fired and deported or go on strike, just to get their basic rights respected.”
The State Department also announced that it will begin a review of how to restructure the oversight and will announce new regulations of the guest workers programs this summer. It’s unclear what the rules or regulations will be.
Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Rick Ruth, however, told The New York Times that the new rules will expand the list of occupations that cultural exchange guest workers would be barred from working, including “construction and roofing” and other hazardous industries. State Department officials also told the Times “they were also considering a ban on most factory and industrial jobs” for cultural exchange guest workers. The State Department also pledged to increase their staff overseeing the cultural exchange guest worker program by 15 from its current level of 40.
“The real question, though, is whether the State Department going to include real workers’ protections in the regulations—in particular, workers’ right to organize” says NGA Communications Director Stephen Boykewich. “What we found is that the ability of guest workers to organize without fear of intimidation is the most important thing necessary to prevent what we saw at Hershey.”
In an effort to pressure the State Department to crack down on more guestworkers who violate the program, the NGA is releasing a list this week of 10 companies that have abused guestworkers that they would like to see the State Department crack down on.
“Getting CETUSA debarred is an important short-term victory but a larger fight is just beginning,” says Boykewich.
WASHINGTON, D.C.—When the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) cites a company for workplace safety violations, it usually tells it to fix the problems at the specific location where the violation was discovered. But in an unusual—and for safety advocates, promising—move, the Department of Labor (DOL) agency is pushing for “enterprise-wide” changes as part of a violation settlement.
Last week, for the second time in OSHA history, the Labor Department told the agency to force more than 60 locations of a New England-based grocery chain to comply with federal standards protecting workers from falls and lacerations.
On Wednesday, DOL’s regional solicitor in Boston filed a complaint against the Demoulas Super Markets grocery chain, also known as Market Basket. OSHA inspections of a handful of the company’s facilities revealed company-wide “fall hazards from unguarded, open-sided work and storage areas.” Inspections of a number of facilities also found that the company “allegedly failed to protect employees in produce, deli, and bakery department against laceration hazards from knives and cutting instruments,” according to this report. Employees at two Market Basket locations sustained at least 40 hand lacerations between 2008 and 2011.
The only other time DOL and OSHA have attempted to settle safety citations through an “enterprise-wide” solution was last year, when the government told the USPS to fix persistent electrical safety problems found at hundreds of postal locations. The Obama administration is the first administration to seek enterprise-relief for safety violations, according to OSHA Spokesman Ted Fitzgerald.
“Worker safety is not optional, and it cannot be addressed in a piecemeal fashion. It must be addressed across the board,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA David Michaels, in a statement on the Demoulas grocery chain case. “This employer has the responsibility to safeguard all its employees at all its locations, something it has failed to do.”
It’s unclear how often OSHA will seek “enterprise-wide” fixes to problems in the future.
“Determination was made that this would be the appropriate course of action … to address a hazard that is corporate-wide,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t know if we are going to be doing it in more approaches to case. The Department will utilize legal tools in the appropriate circumstances when we feel there is a situation where enterprise-wide relief is required.”
WASHINGTON, D.C.—Today, President Obama made three recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)—Democrats Sharon Block and Richard Griffin, as well as Republican Terry Flynn. Without the apppointments, the federal agency, which mediate labor disputes and oversees union elections, wouldn’t have had a quorum to issue valid rulings. (He also made a much more high-profile appointment of Richard Corday to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) in order to make that regulator functional as well.)
The recess appointments come after the NLRB was rendered inoperable due to the expiration of Craig Becker’s term on January 3. That lowered the number of people sitting on the board to two, below the quorum threshold. As I reported, Obama nominated Block and Griffin for the positions last month. (The Senate didn’t confirm the nominees, which were made only a few days before Congress recessed for the holidays.) With the recess appointments, the board will be able to make key decisions that affect American workers.
President Obama’s rapid fix to the NLRB”s problem stands in stark contrast to the beginning of his term in January 2009, when the board was also inoperable. Obama waited 14 months to make recess appointments to fill those slots.
The speed in making the appointments may be a move by the White House to gain the support of the AFL-CIO, which has yet to endorse Obama, unlike other major unions like AFSCME, NEA, UFCW and SEIU. It’s unclear as well if the AFL-CIO’s delay in endorsing Obama, or AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka’s recent call for greater political independence for organized labor played any role in pressuring the White House to quickly make the recess appointments to both the CFPB and NLRB.
Trumka was quick to praise the appointments:
We commend the President for exercising his constitutional authority to ensure that crucially important agencies protecting workers and consumers are not shut down by Republican obstructionism. Working families and consumers should not pay the price for political ploys that have repeatedly undercut the enforcement of rules against Wall Street abuses and the rights of working people.
The move may give the AFL-CIO necessary cover to endorse President Obama, and offer active support on the ground during the election season.
But the labor federation, and other unions that have yet to endorse Obama, may be looking to see if the president can pass several other tests this year that have to do with workers and their rights.
State legislators in Indiana are planning to bring right-to-work legislation to a vote in the Indiana legislature possibly as early as this week. It’s unclear if President Obama is going to make any public statement about the legislation, which organized labor strongly opposes, in this key battleground state.
Congressional Republicans are also floating the idea of paying for a payroll tax cut holiday by continuing a freeze on the pay of federal employees.
“Federal employees are working with severely limited resources,” National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley wrote in a letter to Congress today. “They have faced government shutdowns four times this year, yet they have worked diligently to deliver services to the public. To ask them to bear such a disproportionate additional burden is unfair and unacceptable.”
Late last month, when House Republicans floated the idea of a federal pay freeze as part of a temporary deal to extend the payroll tax cuts, Democratic Senators strongly objected. However, the White House did not object publicly to the freeze being in the deal.
Republicans may push the federal pay freeze again as part of a long-term payroll tax cut deal when the temporary deal expires at the end of February. Given Obama’s willingness to implement a two-year pay freeze on public employees in 2010 and his lack of objection to including a continuation, it’s unclear if Obama will oppose Republican efforts.
While today’s recess appointments will allow the nation’s top labor law body to operate, there are more big labor fights on the near horizon—and organized labor choose to demand more support from the President before gearing up for the campaign season.
Taxi Workers Alliance joins AFL-CIO, as number of contract workers continues to grow
WASHINGTON, D.C.—Last week, the National Taxi Workers Alliance became the first nontraditional labor group to join the AFL-CIO as an affiliate since the 1960s, when the United Farm Workers were admitted to the labor union federation. The alliance isn’t a union; since cab drivers often work as independent contractors and rarely share common employers, they legally cannot organize and bargain collectively.
The admittance of the NTWA, which formally occurred last Thursday at a panel event hosted by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, shows the AFL-CIO’s commitment to pursuing irregular channels to organize workers and form community alliances. More and more workers find themselves employed as independent contractors and in employment relationships that do not allow for collectively bargaining. Organizing these workers will be crucial to rebuilding worker power.
But how do you build a financially sustainable and membership-driven labor organization when in some cases it’s impossible to organize workers lacking collective bargaining rights?
“We all carry around the mental mood of the workplace, where we have an employer and a worker. And our laws respond to that. But that no longer corresponds to reality,” panelist David Weil of Boston University said Thursday at “The Future of Work and New Ways to Build Power,” held in Washington D.C.
More than 10 million U.S. workers are currently classified as independent contractors and not allowed to organize legally. In addition, several million more work in agriculture or domestic work—sectors that are forbidden to organize under the National Labor Relations Act. And millions of restaurants experience such high turnover that it is nearly impossible for workers to form a union. And of couse, employees union-busting efforts also make it difficult to for workers to organize.
The only way organized labor may be able to fight for these workers is by engaging in nontraditional labor campaigns that do not seek traditional collective bargaining arrangements at their heart. Winning this kind of non-traditional community-labor campaigns will not only help labor advocate for these workers, but could potentially strengthen labor’s power through building community alliances and organizing workers that were previously excluded.
Some in the labor movement sees the New York taxi drivers’ 15-year effort to win pay increases and improve working conditions as an example of how the labor movement can fight for workers in industries traditionally difficult to organize.
“We need to follow lead of the taxi drivers alliance,” says Justin Molito, an organizer with Writers Guild of America East. “The decentralized nature of work is creating a new decentralized nature of resistance they will not be able to stop.”
While organizing workers outside of collective bargaining units can bring about real change for workers, it can be difficult to financially sustain such organizations since collective bargaining agreements do not exist that make it easy for unions to collect dues automatically through paychecks. A large part of the funding for many of these nontraditional labor groups comes from others unions and large foundations.
The National Domestic Workers Alliance won landmark rights for domestic workers last year when New York State passed the landmark Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. However, Ai-Jen Poo, the groups’ executive director, says even the majority of their funding comes from external sources.
The inability to self-fund workers’ rights organization can lead to significant instability when outside groups decide to stop giving money. Outside funding from foundations and unions can be problematic as the funding is often dictated by the ability and desire of those outside groups and not necessarily by people in the group trying to improve their working conditions.
“When people get most of their money from the outside, it can create inertia,” Bhairavi Desai, NTWA’s executive director, said Thursday. The organization gets 80 percent of its funding from internal member dues collected individually one by one from members through an elaborate system of union stewards.
“If you don’t need dues, you don’t work too hard because getting people to give dues voluntarily is a tough thing to do. When your organization is driven internally, you are much more focused on meeting the needs of the members and making sure you work hard for that dues money.”
This blog post originally appeared in In These Times on October 24, 2011. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times contributing editor, has worked for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers union, the Campaign for America’s Future and the Obama-Biden campaign. Based in Washington D.C., he has appeared as a commentator on CNN, Fox News, NPR, Democracy Now! and MSNBC. His work has also appeared at Alternet and in The Nation, The Atlantic and The American Prospect.