Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Union rights’

When Unions Save Lives

Thursday, October 31st, 2019

Image result for Austyn Gaffney"It was a typical workday for Michael “Flip” Wilson when a splintered steel bit punctured his forehead an inch above his eye. He was operating the claw-like continuous miner, a machine that cuts coal from an underground seam. Back above ground, Wilson’s superintendent tweezed out the metal, slapped on a BandAid and sent him back under, Wilson says. It happened again two days later.

That was about five years ago, when Wilson was 60. Wilson left his final coal job at Parkway Mine in 2015. He insists he loved his 44-year career throughout Western Kentucky, though it was checkered with similar injuries: a broken finger, electrocution from a bad cable, and multiple incidents of being buried under rockfall.

“I’ve seen a guy with a broken back,” Wilson says. “I’ve carried out a guy with a leg or an arm cut off. I’ve seen guys burn up. I’ve seen 10 get killed down there at one time in an explosion.”

Kentucky has seen five coal mine fatalities this year, and while injuries from mine accidents are on the decline nationally—from more than 5,000 reported in 2005 to about 1,500 in 2018—the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) credits the decline in part to the overall decline in coal jobs, as well as tougher enforcement.

MSHA, created in 1977, inspects underground mines quarterly. When it finds a safety hazard, MSHA can fine the mine operators. However, $100 million of $1 billion levied in penalties between 2000 and 2017 remains unpaid. MSHA has no power to compel payment unless it files a lawsuit, and operators with unpaid fines can open new mine operations without consequences.

The Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General reported in August that MSHA’s collections program hasn’t led to safer mining operations, and no correlation exists between the amount or frequency of penalties and the safety of a mine. “Many companies see fines as the cost of doing business,” says Tony Oppegard, an attorney who specializes in mine safety cases.

There is, however, one way to prevent accidents: unions. According to a new Stanford University study of underground safety from 1993 to 2010, “Unionization is associated with a 13-30% drop in traumatic injuries and a 28- 83% drop in fatalities.”

“At a unionized mine, you have safety committeemen who are appointed by the union to look out for the safety of their fellow workers,” Oppegard says.

Almost 20% of mines were unionized in 1993, but by 2010, the proportion was below 10%. No unionized coal mines are left in Kentucky.

Wilson did not have the benefit of union protection, so he was at the mercy of the companies. “They can make it safer, but … they just want the coal,” Wilson says.

Oppegard thinks MSHA should be using more powerful enforcement tools at its disposal. For example, the agency can recommend the Secretary of Labor file an injunction to shut down dangerous mines. MSHA used this power for the first time in 2010 against a Massey Energy Company mine that had almost 2,000 citations in two years. (Massey is the same corporation responsible for the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster that left 29 dead in West Virginia.)

In response, Massey simply closed the mine. Oppegard hopes legal action can reduce future safety and health violations. He has represented Wilson in safety complaints against Armstrong Coal Company, operator of Parkway Mine, where Wilson worked. Wilson claims the company violated MSHA regulations by running tests of coal dust levels for 4 to 5 hours instead of the required 8 to 10, cheating the results. Now, the federal government has filed a criminal complaint against former managers of Armstrong Coal (which went under in 2017) over the alleged test tampering. Lawyers for the defendants did not respond to a request for comment.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports that 1 in 5 longtime coal miners in central Appalachia has black lung, a potentially fatal cluster of lung diseases, from inhaling unsafe amounts of coal dust. Since 1969, black lung has caused the death of at least 76,000 former coal miners.

Wilson has had black lung for at least 5 years. He is testifying in the federal case. But a successful suit won’t cure his condition.

“Hell, I can’t do anything,” Wilson says of his condition. “I’ve got three great-grandkids and I can’t play with them the way I want to. I run out of oxygen. And there ain’t no cure for it.”

This article was originally published by Politico on October 30, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Austyn Gaffney is a freelance writer from Kentucky who has written for HuffPost, onEarth, Sierra and Vice.

The airlines can support the people that support them: Why my family is fighting for $15 and union rights at O’Hare

Tuesday, November 8th, 2016

I work in the United Airlines terminal as a baggage handler at O’Hare Airport in Chicago. Not too long ago, the people doing my job made $22 an hour. Then United outsourced the jobs to Prospect.

Now I’m paid just $11 an hour. Let’s do the math. That’s half of what they used to pay.

Same job. Less money.

Sickening.

I live with my family. I help pay the bills and put food on the table. At 21 years old, I already handle more responsibility than a lot of people do in a lifetime.

My aunt and grandma also work at O’Hare. All three of us are underpaid. We’re tired of struggling just to get by.

The worst part is that we don’t get health benefits. When I was injured on the job, I had to pay for most of my treatment out of my own pocket.

That’s why I’m standing with my coworkers. Like airport workers across the country, we’re fighting for $15 and union rights.

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day I was arrested for blocking the street outside United Airlines’ headquarters in Chicago—an act of nonviolent civil disobedience. This spring, I joined my coworkers on an unfair labor practice strike to protest the retaliation we faced for coming together for $15 and union rights.

Chicago is an expensive place to live. Fifteen dollars—at least—is what we need to live our lives.

We know the money is there. Our jobs used to be good jobs. We’re pumping huge profits into United—but we’re barely making enough to make ends meet.

We are not going to stop until airlines step up and make our airports good for our communities again.

This article was originally printed on SEIU.org in October 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Raquel Brito is a baggage handler for Prospect Airport Services in the United Airlines terminal at O’Hare Airport in Chicago.

Is Perelman Jewish Day School the Hobby Lobby of Union-Busting?

Monday, March 31st, 2014

Bruce VailA small group of teachers in Philadelphia are finding their union rights under attack on questionable religious grounds, much the same way that women across America found their right to healthcare assaulted this week in the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby case.

Some 55 teachers at the Perelman Jewish Day School, which has two K-5 campuses in the Philadelphia suburbs with some 300 total students, were stunned March 24 to be notified that the school’s board had decided to cease recognizing their union. The teachers were told that the current union contract will be allowed to expire and they will be required to negotiate individual one-year contracts with school administrators. Normally, revoking union recognition would be considered a blatant violation of collective bargaining law. But board vice president Aaron Freiwald says the action is justified by a Supreme Court decision. The case he’s likely referring to is the obscure 1979 NLRB v. Catholic Bishops of Chicago, in which the Supreme Court found that religious schools are exempt from certain provisions of the National Labor Relations Act.

The teachers, some of whom are observant Jews themselves, are not going to meekly allow their union to be dissolved, says Barbara Goodman, the communications director for the AFT Pennsylvania, the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and the union with which the Perelman Jewish Day School Faculty Association Local 3578 is affiliated.

Members held an emergency meeting March 27, Goodman says, and unanimously passed a resolution to fight for their union. It read:

We categorically reject the terms and conditions in the materials that were handed to us, and we authorize all of our local, state and national officers to pursue all legal means to have this action reversed and to return to the bargaining table, where we can negotiate in good faith a contract that is good for the students and the teachers.

Equally offended by the board action is Jesse Bacon, whose daughter is a student at the exclusive private school, where tuitioncan be as high as $20,000 a year. Bacon tells In These Times that he’s firmly on the side of the teachers and regards any claim to religious legitimacy for the board’s high-handed action as bogus and offensive. “This is just rank hypocrisy. … It makes my blood boil,” he says.

Hypocritical or not, the teachers just may have a real legal fight on their hands, says Dan Kovalik, who is on the legal staff at the Pittsburgh headquarters of the United Steelworkers (USW). The little-known Catholic Bishops decision does allow religious schools to claim exemption from the NLRA, he says, although it is not clear that it would apply to the Perelman school. The USW is fighting a Catholic Bishops case right now, he adds, as the union attempts to organize the part-time faculty at the Duquesne University, a Catholic school in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. And there are a number of other cases where religious schools have successfully used the Catholic Bishops defense to fend of unionization of the faculty, he says. Indeed, labor lawyers are closely watching a National Labor Relations Board decision right now in a case involving Pacific Lutheran University, which may clarify the law.

The claim of religious exemption doesn’t mean much to the AFT’S Goodman. “Perelman School has been unionized for 38 years. I’m Jewish myself and I can tell you for sure that nothing about Judaism has changed in the last week to justify” attacking the teachers union, she says.

Nor does it hold much water with Bacon. He tells In These Times that his great-grandmother became a member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union while a seamstress in New York City a century ago. There is a proud tradition in his family of progressive Jewish unionism —some were lifetime members of the socialist-leaning organization Workman’s Circle—and any attempt to justify union-busting with Judaism is offensive, he says. He also notes that the board at the Perelman school chose to move against the union on the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the tragedy that helped catalyze the unionization of Jewish workers in New York’s garment district.

Pennsylvania AFT President Ted Kirsch said the full resources of the union are being marshaled to defend the teachers. “You wouldn’t believe the calls I’ve gotten from around the country. This is just so against the Jewish tradition that people can’t believe Perelman is trying to get away this this,” he says.

Freiwald, a Philadelphia lawyer, turned down requests from In These Times for a phone interview but invited queries by email. He declined to answer most of the e-mailed questions, but did however identify himself as the chairman of a special board task force that recommended the vote against the union and stated that the vote was unanimous. He provided a press release and aprepared FAQ sheet [PDF] as the school’s only public comment.

This matter exploded the same week that the Supreme Court heard arguments in the Hobby Lobby case, in which an employer argued that his religious convictions against birth control trumped the healthcare rights of his workers. Bacon sees a clear parallel between the two: “That seems like phony religion to me. So does this.”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on March 28, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

Labor Board Delays Labor Rights Poster Rule as a Result of Lawsuit

Tuesday, December 27th, 2011

Laura ClawsonThe National Labor Relations Board has announced that it will delay its new rule, issued in August, calling for employers to put up posters informing workers of their right to join or refuse to join a union. Naturally, in September, the Chamber of Commerce sued to block the rule from going into effect. Friday, the NLRB:

[A]greed to postpone the effective date of its employee rights notice-posting rule at the request of the federal court in Washington, DC hearing a legal challenge regarding the rule. The Board’s ruling states that it has determined that postponing the effective date of the rule would facilitate the resolution of the legal challenges that have been filed with respect to the rule. The new implementation date is April 30, 2012.

The posters, which are to be 11×17 size but can be printed on two pieces of 8.5×11 paper for businesses without the capacity to print 11×17, are to be hung alongside other legally required notices. It’s this kind of huge burden on employers that leads the Chamber to really freak out:

“At a time when the private sector is striving to create desperately needed new jobs, it is disappointing to see that the NLRB is imposing new and unnecessary regulations on employers,” Randy Johnson, the Chamber’s senior vice president for Labor, Immigration, and Employee Benefits, said in September. “The latest rule is part of the NLRB’s pattern of tipping the scale in favor of unions, at the expense of employers and employees alike.”

The poster “tips the scale” by listing rights that workers already have under the National Labor Relations Act. It creates no new rights except that of reading your rights on the wall of your workplace.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on December 23, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos. She has a PhD in sociology from Princeton University and has taught at Dartmouth College. From 2008 to 2011, she was senior writer at Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

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