Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘USW’

Workers Want a Green Economy, Not a Dirty Environment

Monday, June 5th, 2017

To justify withdrawing from the Paris climate change accord, President Trump said during his press conference yesterday, “I was elected to represent the city of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” From terrible experience, Pittsburghers know about pollution.

Before Pittsburgh’s renaissance, the streetlights Downtown frequently glowed at noon to illuminate sidewalks through the darkness of smoke and soot belched from mills. White collar office workers changed grimy shirts midday. To the west 130 miles, the polluted Cuyahoga River in Cleveland burned – several times.

Pollution sickened and killed. It triggered asthma and aggravated emphysema. In Donora, just south of Pittsburgh, an air inversion in 1948 trapped smog in the Monongahela River valley.  Poisonous steel mill and zinc plant emissions mixed with fog and formed a yellow earth-bound cloud so dense that driving was impossible. Within days, 20 people were dead. Within a month, another 50 of the town’s 14,000 residents succumbed.

Some viewed pollution as a blessing, a harbinger of jobs. Air that tasted of sulfur signified paychecks. For most, though, pollution was a curse. It meant scrubbing the grime off stoops daily. It meant children wheezing and gasping for air. It meant early death.

The preventable deaths are why my union, the United Steelworkers (USW), has fought against pollution for decades, long before scientists conclusively linked it to global climate change. That connection made combatting pollution even more urgent. It crystalized our obligation to save the planet for posterity. Signing the Paris Climate Accord last year committed the United States to preserving what we all share, the water and the air, for our children and their children. Donald Trump’s withdrawal from that agreement moves the United States, and the world, back in time to rivers so toxic they burn and air so noxious it poisons. Trump’s retreat makes America deadly again.

Don’t get me wrong. The USW supports job creation. But the union believes clean air pays; clear water provides work. Engineers design smokestack scrubbers, skilled mechanics construct them and still other workers install them. Additional workers install insulation and solar panels. Untold thousands labor to make the steel and other parts for wind turbine blades, towers and nacelles, fabricate the structures and erect them. Withdrawing from the Paris Accord diminishes these jobs and dispatches the innovators and manufacturers of clean technologies overseas where countries that continue to participate in the climate change agreement will nurture and grow them.

Eleven years ago, the USW joined with the Sierra Club to form the BlueGreen Alliance because USW members believe Americans deserve both a clean environment and good jobs. The USW believes Americans must have both. Or, in the end, they will have neither.

The Alliance, which now includes more than a dozen unions and environmental groups, has collaborated with industry leaders to find solutions to climate change in ways that create high -quality jobs.

It’s an easy sell to many corporate leaders. Shortly after the election last fall, hundreds of companies and investors, including the likes of Nike and Starbucks, signed a letter asking Trump to abandon his campaign rhetoric about withdrawing from the Paris Accord.

In April, more than a dozen Fortune 500 companies, including giants Google, BP and Shell, also wrote Trump urging against reneging on nation’s climate commitment. They said that because the agreement requires action by all countries, it reduces the risk of competitive imbalances for U.S. companies that comply with environmental regulations.

More recently, Apple CEO Tim Cook told Trump that disavowing the accord would injure U.S. business, the economy and the environment. Tesla CEO Elon Musk told Trump that if he turned his back on the accord, Musk would resign from two White House advisory boards.

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, also urged Trump to keep the United States’ commitments under the 195-nation pact, rather than joining Syria as an outlier. Syria and Nicaragua are the only non-signatory countries, but Nicaragua declined to sign because its leaders felt the accord was not strong enough.

The streetlights never switch on at noon in Pittsburgh anymore. The Cuyahoga River now supports fish that live only in clean water. Donora’s sole reminder of those dark days in October of 1948 is a Smog Museum.

But the United States remains the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas polluter. It has an obligation to lead the world in combating climate change. Great leaders don’t shirk responsibility.

This blog was originally published at OurFuture.org on June 2, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Leo Gerard is president of the United Steelworkers.

The Price for Killing Workers Must be Prison for CEOs

Friday, April 28th, 2017

Every 12 days, a member of my union, the United Steelworkers (USW), or one of their non-union co-workers, is killed on the job. Every 12 days. And it’s been that way for years.

These are horrible deaths. Workers are crushed by massive machinery. They drown in vats of chemicals. They’re poisoned by toxic gas, burned by molten metal. The company pays a meaningless fine. Nothing changes. And another worker is killed 11 days later.

Of course, it’s not just members of the USW. Nationally, at all workplaces, one employee is killed on the job every other hour. Twelve a day.

These are not all accidents. Too many are foreseeable, preventable, avoidable tragedies. With the approach of April 28, Workers Memorial Day 2017, the USW is seeking in America what workers in Canada have to prevent these deaths. That is a law holding supervisors and corporate officials criminally accountable and exacting serious prison sentences when workers die on the job.

Corporations can take precautions to avert workplace deaths. Too often they don’t. That’s because managers know if workers are killed, it’s very likely the only penalty will be a small fine. To them, it’s just another cost of doing business, a cost infinitely lower than that paid by the dead workers and their families.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the incident that led Canada to establish federal corporate criminal accountability. It was the 1992 Westray coal mine disaster that killed 26 workers. The Plymouth, Nova Scotia, miners had sought help from the United Steelworkers to organize, in part because of deplorable conditions the company refused to remedy, including accumulation of explosive coal dust and methane gas.

Nova Scotia empaneled a commission to investigate. Its report, titled The Westray Story: A Predictable Path to Disaster, condemns the mine owner, Curragh Resources Inc., for placing production – that is profits – before safety.

The report says Curragh “displayed a certain disdain for safety and appeared to regard safety-conscious workers as wimps.” In fact, Curragh openly thwarted safety requirements. For example, the investigators found, “Methane detection equipment at Westray was illegally foiled in the interests of production.”

The calamity occurred because Curragh callously disregarded its duty to safeguard workers, the investigators said. “The fundamental and basic responsibility for the safe operation of an underground coal mine, and indeed of any industrial undertaking, rests clearly with management,” the report says. 

The USW pressed for criminal charges, and prosecutors indicted mine managers. But the case failed because weak laws did not hold supervisors accountable for wantonly endangering workers.

The Steelworkers responded by demanding new legislation, a federal law that would prevent managers from escaping liability for killing workers. It took a decade, but the law, called the Westray Act, passed in 2003. Under it, bosses face unlimited fines and life sentences in prison if their recklessness causes a worker death.

Over the past 13 years, since the law took effect in 2004, prosecutors have rarely used it. Though thousands of workers have died, not one manager has gone to jail.

The first supervisor charged under the Westray Act escaped a prison sentence when he agreed to plead guilty under a provincial law and pay a $50,000 fine. This was the penalty for a trench collapse in 2005 that killed a worker. There are many methods to prevent the common problem of trench cave-ins, but bosses routinely send workers into the holes without protection.

In 2008, the company Transpavé in Quebec was charged under the Westray Law after a packing machine crushed one of its workers to death. There was a criminal conviction and $100,000 fine. But no one was jailed.

In another case, a landscape contractor was criminally convicted in 2010 for a worker’s death, but the court permitted the contractor to serve the two-year sentence at home with curfews and community service.

Soon, however, prison may become more than a theoretical possibility. A Toronto project manager was sentenced last year to three and a half years in prison for permitting workers to board a swing stage, which is a scaffold that was suspended from an apartment building roof, without connecting their chest harnesses to safety lines. The scaffold collapsed, and four workers plummeted 13 stories to their deaths. A fifth worker survived the fall with severe injuries. Another worker, who had clicked onto a safety line, was unscathed.

Before the project began, the manager took a safety course in which the life-and-death consequences of unfailingly utilizing safety lines was emphasized.

The manager described asking the site foreman, as the foreman and the workers climbed onto the scaffold at the end of the work day on Dec. 24, 2009, why there were not enough safety lines for all of the workers. When the foreman told him not to worry about it, the project manager, who was in charge of the job, did nothing. Seconds later, the scaffold floor split in half, dumping the foreman and four other men without safety lines to the ground.

The prosecutor said the manager’s failure to stop the scaffolding from descending with unsecured workers demonstrated “wanton and reckless disregard for the lives and safety of the workers.” The judge said the manager’s position conferred on him the responsibility for safeguarding the workers and that his conduct constituted criminal negligence under the terms of the Westray Law.

The manager has appealed the sentence. The worker who connected himself to the lifeline said the manager asked him that day to lie about what happened because, the manager told him, “I have a family.”  Of course, that ignores completely the families of the dead men.

It is what far too many bosses and CEOs do. They believe their lives are precious and workers’ are not. That’s why so many supervisors defy worker safety rules.

In most U.S. workplace deaths, the company suffers nothing more than a fine. Last year, for example, an Everett, Washington State, landscape company paid $100,000 for the death of a 19-year-old worker crushed in an auger on his second day on the job. His father, Alan Hogue, told The Seattle Times, “It’s just a drop in the bucket. It’s like fining me $10 for shooting a neighbor.” The state cited the company for 16 serious and willful safety violations.

Federal criminal penalties for killing a worker in the United States are so low that they are insulting. The maximum sentence under OSHA is six months; under MSHA, one year. Prosecutors almost never bring such cases, since the penalties are so low and the burden of proof so high.

U.S. supervisors have gone to jail under state criminal laws, though it’s rare. A New York construction foreman was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and sentenced in 2016 to at least 1 year behind bars for sending a 22-year-old worker into an unsecured trench and for failing to stop work when an engineer warned it was too dangerous. The trench collapsed minutes later.

In a similar case, the owner of a Fremont, Calif., construction company and his project manager were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to two years in prison after a trench collapsed on a worker. The January 2012 incident occurred three days after a building inspector ordered work to stop because the excavation lacked shoring. The manager ignored the order.

“These men, the workers, were treated like their lives didn’t matter,” Deputy District Attorney Bud Porter told a reporter at the time of conviction.

The only way to make workers’ lives matter is to make prison a real possibility for CEOs and supervisors. Lethal greed must be tempered by frightening ramifications. Fines are no threat.  Only prison is. America needs its own Westray Law and aggressive enforcement.

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on April 27, 2017. Reprinted with Permission.

Leo Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco’s nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.

Lacie Little: You’re Un-Fired

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

Leo Gerard  Lacie Little won back last week everything Indiana University Health Inc. took from her –  except her job. Her beloved nursing job.

She got back wages and a formal public statement by the hospital corporation saying that it  removed the firing from her work record. So she’s un-fired.

But she’s not rehired. The hospital behemoth refused to consider restoring Lacie to her  nursing job for seven years, long enough, it hopes, to prevent her from helping form a union  there. Despite everything that has happened to her, Lacie hasn’t given up that goal. Now, she’s  working for my union, the United Steelworkers (USW), trying to organize nurses.

Indiana University (IU) Health fired Lacie on March 30, three days after she began trying to persuade her fellow nurses to unionize. Lacie wanted her co-workers to join together to collectively bargain with IU Health for the same reason many nurses want to negotiate with their hospitals. They love their profession; they’re devoted to their patients, and they want to help their hospitals be the best that they can be.

IU Health Inc. believed it knew what was best for the bottom line of the hospital system – and that wasn’t a nurses union. So like many employers, it took action to squash the nascent effort by employees to gain a voice at work by organizing. Firing workers for trying to form a union is illegal. But institutions – even ones supposedly dedicated to restoring health or to Catholic theology – do it all the time anyway because the penalties are so very paltry and the fear instilled is so very profound.

Corporations know they can stall an organizing campaign with just the threat of firing. Duquesne University in Pittsburgh recently used this tactic in a startling way. It included in a pleading to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) a threat to refuse to rehire for future semesters two adjunct professors who had testified at an NLRB hearing about efforts to organize at Duquesne, which holds itself out as a religious institution. One of the adjuncts described Duquesne’s written threat as bone chilling.

Lacie felt both unnerved and betrayed when the hospital corporation fired her. Her partner was five months pregnant with their second child. She had responsibilities, and the termination left her unsure how she would fulfill them. She could not believe the hospital system she so loved had done this to her.

The doctors and nurses and staff at Indiana University Health endeared themselves to Lacie when her grandfather, Robert Little, was hospitalized at Methodist, an IU institution, just after she graduated from high school. He was admitted to the cardiovascular critical care unit, where Lacie would later work.

Robert Little was having trouble breathing. To distract him, the nurses joked with him. They held his gargantuan hands. The doctor took the time to find out about Robert Little as a person. The physician learned that Robert Little was a union bricklayer who had worked hard all his life and who continued chopping wood as he fell increasingly ill in his 70s. Robert Little would not be happy bedridden, tube invaded, machine dependent.

At that time, Lacie’s mother was a nurse at IU Health. She had worked in its bone marrow transplant unit in the very early days when many patients did not survive. Lacie says her mother taught her an important lesson about that:

“She told me that taking care of someone in their last days and hours of life is an honor. You usher them out. And you can make it a great experience or an awful experience. You can truly take care of the patient and the family. I feel Methodist really did that for my family, took the time to get to know my grandfather and explain things to us. They were able to let him die with dignity. He was clean and warm and not in pain and had his family around him. Everyone has to die. It might as well be in a good way.”

Lacie started work at IU Health when she was just 19 years old. She earned bachelor’s degrees in psychology and biology. Then, while working as a secretary for the hospital system, she returned to college to get her nursing degree. She says she learned: “Nursing is caring for people. Great nurses care for their patients. They don’t just take care of them.”

In 2009, she launched her nursing career in the cardiovascular critical care unit where her grandfather had died. Every day, she challenged herself to care for her patients like they were her grandfather.

The stories she tells show that she reveled in accomplishing that. She talks about caring for an older farmer who had been injured in a tractor accident. At one point as he began to get better, he kept motioning toward his face. Still connected to a breathing tube, he could not talk. She knew he was trying to ask for a shave. Lacie recounts:

“I got some hot water and put some wash cloths in there. I sat him in a reclining chair and leaned him back and said, ‘Here we are at the barber shop’ and gave him a really good shave. He kept touching his face and giving me thumbs up. The shave wasn’t necessary to get him better, but we had fixed all of the acute things, and this was important for helping him feel better. We have to do some things to help them feel good mentally.”

When Lacie began in nursing, the hospital system enabled nurses to help patients feel better. But that changed.

In the fall of 2013, the hospital corporation laid off 800 workers, including Lacie’s mother, who had worked there 25 years. At about the same time, IU Health instituted a management method described as “going lean.” What that meant to Lacie was that the hospital system had the best doctors and nurses and staff but was setting them up to fail at meeting goals like treating their patients like their grandfathers.

“They wanted us to do more with less. And they would say that. Everything was about cost, cost, cost. But we care about patients over profits,” she said. It meant there was rarely time to give a farmer a shave.

Lacie says nurses began talking about being in moral distress, “People were leaving the hospital and going home and crying because they felt they did not take good care of their patients.” They did all the basics. They gave patients all of the medications but had no time to talk to them like they were human beings. “If you are not spoken to, you feel like a specimen, not a person,” Lacie explains. Feeling like a specimen does not help heal.

That’s when the union talk started. Because her father and grandfather were union men, Lacie said family experience had taught her that unions could put workers in a position to get CEOs to listen. “I knew unions were a way to stack up enough people so they were on a level playing field with the CEO,” she said.

Earlier this year, the IU nurses chose the USW to help them organize and began holding informational meetings, three a day, twice a week. Lots of nurses attended. They discussed problems at work and how organizing could be a solution. “People were encouraged because they wanted to do something, not just talk about it,” Lacie says.

In March, Lacie and several other nurses began asking co-workers if they were willing to sign a card petitioning for an election that would determine whether they could form a union.

Lacie was careful to do this only while she was on lunch and other breaks. She cautioned co-workers not to sign unless they too were on a break. She chatted with on-duty nurses but did not take their signatures. Even so, on her third day of doing this, IU Health Inc. officials accused her of accepting signatures from nurses who were on duty.

The hospital corporation suspended her, then fired her just days later. “I was dumbfounded,” she says, “I felt betrayed because I had given my loyalty to IU Health.” She had worked there a decade.

Not long after the hospital system terminated Lacie, the state Health Department issued a report saying the hospital was short staffed and that it adversely affected patient care.

The USW hired Lacie immediately after the firing, but the termination imperiled renewal of her nursing license. She knew if she fought the hospital corporation through the NLRB process and the courts, she would win. But that could take years. And she’d be unable to work as a nurse in the meantime.

So she took the settlement deal. It requires IU Health Inc. to post notices at its hospitals saying that it had rescinded Lacie’s firing and discipline against her and that federal law forbids the hospital corporation from threatening, interrogating, surveilling, disciplining, suspending or firing anyone for attempting to form a union.

Lacie’s firing steeled the commitment of some, who started a Facebook meme saying, “I’ve got a Little fight in me.” But for many others, the firing had the effect the hospital corporation intended. Nurses were fearful, and turnout at union meetings declined.

Studies show the number of illegal firings of union activists increasing and the number of union members in the United States dwindling. Workers like Lacie need legislation to stop it. This time last year U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) introduced the Employee Empowerment Act, which would do just that. It could be called Lacie’s Law. But that wouldn’t be fair to the thousands of other workers who suffered as a result of the same illegal corporate union-busting practice.

Lacie insisted on a provision in the agreement allowing her to apply to return to IU Health in seven years because, she said, “I still love the IU Health nurses and doctors and staff.”

This blog originally appeared at OurFuture.org on August 11, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Leo W. Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco’s nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.

Honeywell Plant Freezes Summer Vacations

Monday, August 12th, 2013

Mike ElkAt a time of year when many workers are taking family vacations, uranium workers at Honeywell’s plant in Metropolis, Ill. won’t have that option. On July 27, the company announced a vacation freeze. United Steelworkers Local 7-669, which represents workers at the plant, claims that the decision is just another salvo in a three-year-long battle by Honeywell to bust the union.

Honeywell is currently in the process of rehiring several hundred operations workers at the uranium plant who were laid off in July of 2012 when the plant shut down for earthquake-safety improvements requested by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Earlier this year, Honeywell began slowly rehiring the laid-off workers—both hourly union employees and non-union salary employees—to restart the plant. Now all but 21 of the 200 union employees have been rehired as the plant moves toward full operationality. But instead of rehiring the final 21 union workers, Honeywell is proceeding short-staffed and calling in workers on their days off to make up the gap.

In order to put pressure on the company to rehire the 21 laid-off union members, some union employees are refusing to work any overtime (and passing up the time-and-half pay). In response, Honeywell announced that because of the staffing shortage, no workers can take a vacation this summer.

In a July 27, 2013 email to employees, Honeywell Metropolis Operating Manager Jim Pritchett wrote:

Effective immediately, all vacations are cancelled and no further vacations are to be granted in operations including individuals’ days—that includes all hourly and salaried staff. The purpose is to assure we are staffed to support operations and to continue to get the remaining units on line so we can support our customers. … I am disappointed it has gotten to this but we have no choice due to employees not responding to call ins and taking care of their responsibilities…. This vacation freeze will be lifted as soon as the business needs of the plant are being effectively met by people coming when they are called.

The union speculates that Honeywell has an ulterior motive for not hiring the remaining 21 workers: It doesn’t want to rehire Local 7-669 President Stephen Lech. Under the union contract, Honeywell is obligated to rehire all of the laid-off union employees according to a mutually agreed upon list developed according to workers’ qualifications and seniority. The next person on the list is Lech.

“It’s directly targeting me for my work as union president,” says Lech, who thinks that Honeywell is trying to send a message about the length that the company is willing to go to crush the union.

The union says that instead of following the list, Honeywell has told the final 21 workers that they must compete against outside applicants and reapply for their jobs as if they were new hires directly off the street.

“It’s a violation of the contract,” Lech says. “How can Honeywell do it? Well, Honeywell does whatever they want.”

“It will take six months before the case even gets before an arbitrator and another six months before the arbitrator rules,” he says.

Workers are refusing overtime in the hopes that they can resolve the issue sooner. Many were planning family vacations and were outraged by the vacation moratorium.

“It’s a morally bankrupt company that punishes their employees for staffing shortages it created out of spite,” reads a text message to Working In These Times by one Honeywell employee who wished to remain anonymous for fear of being fired. “Two years ago we took their lousy contract and they’re still kicking us.”

Honeywell did not respond to request for comment for this piece.

Lech says that despite being laid off, he is undeterred from his work for the union.

“This absolutely will not stop me from doing my job,” says Lech. “Heck, I got more time than ever to work as union president.”

This article originally appeared on Working In These Times on August 12, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times.

"This is Not Just a Steelworker Issue"

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013
berry craigShowing solidarity with our union brothers and sisters is a great way for us to ring in the New Year, says Jim Key, vice president at large of Steelworkers Local 550 in Paducah, Ky.
Key, also his local’s legislative and political chairman, is asking union members and union supporters nationwide to take a minute to put their John Hancock on a White House cyber-petition against corporations that file for bankruptcy “to circumvent their liabilities for workers’ pensions and post-retirement health care benefits.”
The link to the petition is http://wh.gov/Reqy.
Added Key: “The stark reality is that many unions will likely be facing the same thing in the very near future.”
The future is now, says Chris MacLarion, vice president of USW Local 9477 in Baltimore. One of his members, Eric Schindler, started the petition, using their former employer, RG Steel, as an example of corporate greed run amok.
The petition, addressed to the Obama administration, explains that in March 2011, RG Steel, LLC, entered into a contract with the USW. But in June 2012, the company filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy.
While in bankruptcy proceedings, RG Steel asked to be permitted to pay $20 million in bonuses to 10 “key managers” to help the company “secure a buyer,” the petition also says. “…After the buyer was named these managers were to be paid their salaries and other monies” including funds to purchase health insurance.
“Meanwhile the 2000+ Union workers were laid off and unemployed,” the petition says. “Their medical benefits were stopped September 1 of 2012. Unfortunately the insurance provider was issued an order to stop paying claims two weeks before the end date.” Union members also lost “other monies promised in the contract that was voided.”
The petition urges, “stop companies from rewarding bad behavior. Make them abide by the contract.”
MacLarion says his local represented about 1,850 USW members in RG’s Baltimore mill — the former Sparrow’s Point Bethlehem Steel works — and approximately 150 more in amalgamated units that serviced the factory.
“RG Steel’s demise has left all of them without jobs, while the management group made a grab at $20 million in bonuses,” he said. “While that grab at the money proved futile, as the judge rejected their attempt, they nonetheless were able to secure another set of bonuses and pay under a second motion.”
Added MacLarion: “While this was a much smaller amount it is still appalling that the same people that ran the company into the ground were able to take payments of three-quarters of $1 million. That money would have been better served paying the medical bills that our members were stuck holding the tab for.”
MacLarion says he and the members of his union liken the RG Steel bonus grab to paying the captain of the Titanic a bonus for hitting the iceberg while managing to keep his ship afloat for almost three hours afterwards.
MacLarion says RG’s actions also devastated USW members in the company’s Warren, Ohio, and Wheeling, W.Va., mills.  “They were part of the bankruptcy. All in all, I’d say roughly 5,000- plus USW members lost out in the RG Steel bankruptcy.”
Meanwhile, Key has gained the support of the Paducah-based Western Kentucky Area Council, AFL-CIO, which represents AFL-CIO affiliated unions in the Bluegrass State’s 13 westernmost counties. Key is a recently-elected council trustee.
“We all need to sign this petition,” said Jeff Wiggins, council president and president of Steelworkers Local 9447 in nearby Calvert City, Ky. “This is not just a Steelworker issue. This is an issue that affects all union members, retirees and members still working, and our families.
“It’s happening all over the country. You work hard for a company all of your life, retire with dignity and the company ends up trying to cheat you of what should be rightfully yours. It’s greed, pure and simple.”
This article was originally posted by Union Review on January 10, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: Berry Craig is recording secretary for the Paducah-based Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council and a professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College, is a former daily newspaper and Associated Press columnist and currently a member of AFT Local 1360.

China Drops Some Wind Power Subsidies After USW Complaint

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

Image: James ParksHere’s some good news on the trade front: U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Ron Kirk announced today that China has ended certain wind power equipment subsidies that gave its companies an unfair advantage in the global market.

The action came after the United Steelworkers (USW) filed a Section 301 trade complaint last October charging that China’s government uses hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies, performance requirements, preferential practices and other illegal trade activities to dominate the renewable energy market.

The subsidies take the form of grants to Chinese wind turbine manufacturers that agreed to use key parts and components made in China rather than purchasing imports. The size of the individual grants range between $6.7 million and $22.5 million, according to the USTR.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said:

Today’s news is a significant move in the right direction.  But much more must still be done to enforce our trade laws consistently and create good jobs here at home…  We must work to end unfair trade practices, including currency manipulation, export subsidies and the suppression of workers’ rights both here and abroad.

USW President Leo Gerard said in a statement that the union’s complaint and the Obama administration’s pursuit of the complaint brought China’s government to the table with a commitment to end this program. He adds:

That’s good news for our members, U.S. companies and American workers. It needs to be followed up with continued vigilance to ensure the Chinese keep their commitments.

America’s workers and our nation face many more clear World Trade Organization (WTO) violations of obligations by China’s government, Gerard said.

With this first green technology issue behind us, we encourage the administration to continue to work to level the playing field for clean technology companies and American workers to grow sustained employment and good job opportunities.

Read Kirk’s announcement here , Gerard’s full statement here and Trumka’s statement here.

This article originally appeared on the AFL-CIO blog on June 7, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: James Parks’ first encounter with unions was at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. He is a journalist by trade, and worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. He also has been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections.

Assert Yourself, America; Don't be an Illegal Trade Victim

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

Leo GerardLong-suffering victim is hardly the American image. Paul Revere, Mother Jones, John Glenn, Martin Luther King Jr. — those are American icons. Bold, wry, justice-seeking.

So how is it that America finds herself in the position of schoolyard patsy, woe-is-me casualty of China’s illegal trade practices that are destroying U.S. renewable energy manufacturing and foreclosing an energy-independent future?

Come on, America. Show some of that confident pioneer spirit. Stand up for yourself. Tell China that America isn’t going to hand over its lunch money anymore; international trade law will be enforced now.

That’s the demand the United Steelworkers (USW) union made this week when it filed a 5,800-page suit detailing how China violates a wide variety of World Trade Organization (WTO) obligations.

The case, now in the hands of the U.S. Trade Representative, shows how China uses illegal land grants, prohibited low-interest loans and other outlawed measures to pump up its renewable energy industries and facilitate export of those products at artificially low prices to places like the United States and Europe.

The U.S. aids renewable energy industries, like solar cell and wind turbine manufacturers, but no where near the extent that China does. And the American aid lawfully goes to renewable manufacturers that produce for domestic consumption. China, by contrast, illegally subsidizes industries that export, a strategy that kills off competition.

The USW recognizes and appreciates that trade with China has lifted millions there out of poverty. But truly fair trade would benefit workers in both China and the United States. And that is what the USW is demanding.

The USW is far from alone in accusing China of violations. New York Times reporter Keith Bradsher described them in a story Sept. 8, titled “On Clean Energy, China Skirts Rules.” It ends with this quote from Zhao Feng, general manger of Hunan Sunzone Optoelectronics, a two-year-old solar panel manufacturer that exports nearly 95 percent of its products to Europe and is opening offices in three U.S. cities to push into the American market:

“Who wins this clean energy race really depends on how much support the government gives.”

The U.S. isn’t providing support that violates WTO regulations. China is. And it’s hundreds of billions — $216 billion from China’s stimulus package, another $184 billion to be spent through 2020, $172 million in research and development over the past four years.

Bradsher’s story details illegal aid given Sunzone and says that it’s common, not exceptional. It includes China turning over land to Sunzone for a third of the market price and government-controlled banks granting Sunzone low-interest loans that the provincial government helps Sunzone repay.

In addition, the USW suit notes that China, which accounts for 93 percent of the world’s production of so-called rare earth materials like dysprosium and terbium essential for green energy technology, has severely restricted their export. That practice, illegal under WTO rules, forces some foreign companies to move manufacturing to China to get access.

And when corporations move, China routinely – and illegally — mandates they transfer technology to Chinese partners, which often means U.S.-tax-dollar-supported research and development benefits China.

That is one reason China rose to first in the world in clean energy so quickly. China now leads globally in producing solar panels. It doubled its wind power capacity in one year – 2009. Worldwide, Chinese manufacturers supply at least half of all hydropower projects and fabricate 75 percent of all compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Meanwhile, here in the United States, BP shut down its solar panel manufacturing plant in Maryland this year and Evergreen Solar of Marlboro, Mass., plans to close its American plant, eliminating 300 U.S. jobs. Both are moving manufacturing to China.

Germany’s Solar World still manufactures in Europe and the United States, and its chief executive, Frank A. Asbeck, told Bradsher the German solar industry association is investigating whether to file a suit of its own to try to stop China’s illegal practices:

“China is cordoning off its own solar market to fend off international competition while arming its industry with a bottomless pile of subsidies and boundless lines of credit.”

The Times story also says China’s “aggressive government policies” are designed to ensure “Chinese energy security.”

China’s illegal aggression to secure its energy independence and dominate world production of green technology threatens the energy security of the United States.

America turned to renewables not just to diminish climate change but also to reduce dependence on foreign oil, an addiction that has entangled the U.S. in costly and bloody wars.

If the United States can’t build its own renewable energy products, it will forfeit the next generation high technology industry and good manufacturing jobs, and it will remain dangerously beholden to foreign nations for energy.

China agreed to follow international regulations when it joined the World Trade Organization. This pledge was crucial because China’s economy is government-controlled, very different from the free market economies of the United States and most Western nations.

Faced with blatant rule-flouting that has cost USW members their jobs and threatens to cost their children high-technology manufacturing of the future, the USW is demanding the American government put a stop to it.

That is how a true American acts. Americans have a sense of justice. They follow the rules and expect trading partners to do the same. When they don’t, Americans do something about it.

For the Strength of Rosie the Riveter: Make It in America

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

Leo GerardRosie the Riveter defiantly rolls up her blue work shirt to show off a brawny bicep. She’s a symbol of American strength.

She worked in a manufacturing job, one of millions that constructed the defense machine that won World War II for the Allies. She said, “We can do it.” And America did.

Now, however, shuttered U.S. factories and off-shored manufacturing are sapping American strength. The nation has lost more than 40,000 manufacturing plants and one-third of its manufacturing jobs, nearly six million, over the past dozen years. China is on the verge of overtaking the U.S. in manufacturing output. And Americans know it. Late in April, 58 percent of 1,000 likely voters told pollsters they believed America’s economy no longer led the world.

They also told pollsters they supported enacting a national manufacturing policy to promote resurgence of domestic production — a return to the days of a robust Rosie the Riveter and a country that could secure its independence with dynamic manufacturing capability.

Democrats in Congress heard that message. They’ve created a program called “Make It in America.” They plan to pass a series of bills to create an environment in which both Americans and American manufacturers make it. “We want everybody to make it in America,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said as she described the plan to 2,000 bloggers and progressive activists at Netroots Nation 2010 last week in Las Vegas.

After all the support America has given the financial sector – estimated to total more than $4 trillion – it’s time for Congress to invest in the productive sector, the one that creates jobs, real wealth and American power.

“We must stop the erosion of our manufacturing base, our industrial base, our technological base,” the Speaker told Netroots Nation, “It is a national security issue to do so, if we had no other justification,” she said, adding that there are, of course, plenty of other reasons.

She said the strategy is to pass “one bill after another” supporting American manufacturing. The House started last week with two, one to ease American industries’ access to raw materials and parts and another to improve specialized workforce training.

In addition, Speaker Pelosi said, House leaders want to address currency manipulation – the deliberate undervaluing of currency to make a country’s exports artificially cheap and imports into that country artificially expensive. Currency manipulation by China, for example, is believed by both conservative and liberal economists to be adding as much as 40 cents to every dollar of the cost of U.S. products exported to China and discounting Chinese goods sold in the U.S. by 40 cents on every dollar.

“There is a strong interest in our caucus in holding China accountable for manipulation of currency. That would make a tremendous difference in our trade because currency manipulation is really a subsidy to their exports to America – an unfair advantage,” the Speaker said at Netroots Nation.

Other bills Speaker Pelosi hopes to pass soon include $5 billion in tax credits for domestic manufacturers that produce components for alternative energy and a requirement that foreign manufacturers keep at least one worker stationed in the U.S. so the company can be officially served with court papers. Also, there’s a bill by Illinois Congressman Daniel Lipinski that would require each U.S. president to produce a manufacturing strategy in the second year of office and to review progress annually.

The survey that prompted Democrats to create the “Make It in America” program was commissioned by the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM) and conducted by Democratic pollster Mark Mellman and Republican pollster Whit Ayres. They found that likely voters believed creating manufacturing jobs was more important than reducing the federal deficit and more important than cutting government spending.

The survey also showed strong support for policies requiring the government to buy American-made goods. Similarly, it showed the Democrats, Independents and Republicans surveyed felt the quality of products manufactured in American exceeded those made in China, Japan, India and Germany.

Americans now even prefer U.S.-made cars: An Associated Press-GfK Poll in April showed 38 percent of Americans favor U.S. vehicles. Asian brands got 33 percent.

Chrysler takes advantage of that sentiment in its commercial for the new Grand Cherokee. The words are chilling:

“The things that make us American are the things we make,” it begins.

“This has always been a nation of builders, craftsmen, men and women for whom straight stitches and clean welds were matters of personal pride. They made the skyscrapers and the cotton gins, colt revolvers, Jeep 4-by-4s,” the ad continues.

“These things make us who we are,” the narrator says. Yes. The things Americans make, make the country strong.

To the sound of a sledge hammer pounding a railroad spike, the narrator goes on to describe the reborn Grand Cherokee, “This, our newest son, was imagined, drawn, craved, stamped, hewn and forged here, in America. It is well-made and it is designed to work. This was once a country that made things, beautiful things, and so it is again.”

Well, not quite. Chrysler may make a terrific Grand Cherokee in Michigan. But American manufacturing needs some help. And with unemployment stuck at 9.5 percent, so do the American people. “Make it in America” is that aid. The AAM poll showed 85 percent of those who said the U.S. had lost economic leadership believed America could regain it.

Americans believe we can still do it.

***

Make sure Congress acts. Join the One Nation Working Together march on Washington Oct. 2 to demand good jobs, as well as Wall Street and immigration reform.

About The Author: Leo Gerard is the United Steelworkers International President. Under his leadership, the USW joined with Unite -the biggest union in the UK and Republic of Ireland – to create Workers Uniting, the first global union. He has also helped pass legislation, including the landmark Canadian Westray Bill, making corporations criminally liable when they kill or seriously injure their employees or members of the public.

A Second Disaster Coming to the Gulf? Hazards Abound for Cleanup Workers

Friday, July 30th, 2010

enku ideJason Anderson, one of 11 workers killed during April’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, had warned his family that BP was pushing speed-up and straying from safety protocols.

Without a union to take his concerns to, Jason turned to his wife, Shelly. “Everything seemed to be pressing to Jason, about getting things in order, in case something happened,” Shelly confessed during an NBC interview.

Today, 27,000 workers in the BP-run Gulf cleanup effort may still be in danger. Some are falling sick, and the long-term effects of chemical exposure for workers and residents are yet unknown.

Workers lack power on the job to demand better safety enforcement. They fear company retaliation if they speak out and are wary of government regulators who have kept BP in the driver’s seat.

BP carries a history of putting profit before worker safety. A 2005 refinery explosion in Texas City, Texas, killed 15 and injured another 108 workers. The Chemical Safety Board investigation resulted in a 341-page report stating that BP knew of “significant safety problems at the Texas City refinery and at 34 other BP business units around the world” months before the explosion.

One internal BP memo made a cost-benefit analysis of types of housing construction on site in terms of the children’s story “The Three Little Pigs.” “Brick” houses—blast-resistant ones—might save a few “piggies,” but was it worth the initial investment?

BP decided not, costing several workers’ lives. Federal officials found more than 700 safety violations at Texas City and fined BP more than $87 million in 2009, but the corporation has refused to pay.

BP NO EXCEPTION

According to the Steelworkers union, the oil industry saw 13 fires that caused 19 deaths and 25 injuries during April and May alone, including Deepwater Horizon. Oil refineries across the U.S. averaged a fire each week.

Jim Savage, local president at a south Philadelphia refinery, sits on the USW’s national refinery bargaining council. Savage said BP is no exception. Safety violations are rampant in the industry, especially in the hectic final 12 hours before production starts up—the same period when the Deepwater disaster took place.

The Steelworkers requested in early July that the oil giants reopen bargaining over health and safety, after they turned aside the union’s proposals in negotiations last year. The oil firms have refused.

CLEANUP RISKS

Now workers in the cleanup effort face similar challenges to those Jason Anderson and his 10 slain co-workers woke up to each morning. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) policy analyst Hugh Kaufman says workers are being exposed to a “toxic soup,” and face dangers like those in the Exxon Valdez, Love Canal, and 9/11 cleanups.

The 1989 Exxon Valdez experience should have taught us about the health fallouts of working with oil and chemical cleaners, but tests to determine long-term effects on those workers were never done, by either the company or OSHA. It appears they have faced health problems far beyond any warnings given by company or government officials while the work was going on.

Veterans of that cleanup, such as supervisor Merle Savage, reported coming down with the same flu-like symptoms during their work that Gulf cleanup workers are now experiencing. Savage, along with an estimated 3,000 cleanup workers, has lived 20 years with chronic respiratory illness and neurological damage.

A 2002 study from a Spanish oil spill showed that cleanup workers and community members have increased risk of cancer and that workers with long-term exposure to crude oil can face permanent DNA damage.

So far, Louisiana has records of 128 cleanup workers becoming sick with flu-like symptoms, including dizziness, nausea, and headaches, after exposure to chemicals on the job. BP recorded 21 short hospitalizations. When seven workers from different boats were hospitalized with chemical exposure symptoms, BP executives dismissed the illnesses as food poisoning.

BP bosses have told workers to report to BP clinics only and not to visit public hospitals, where their numbers can be recorded by the state.

Surgeon General Regina Benjamin has said that without the benefit of studies, or even knowing the chemical makeup of the Corexit 9500 dispersant (which its manufacturer calls a “trade secret”), scientific opinion is divided on long-term health impacts to the region.

Workers in the Gulf are not receiving proper training or equipment, says Mark Catlin, an occupational hygienist who was sent to the Exxon Valdez site by the Laborers union.

EQUIPMENT LACKING

BP has said it will provide workers with respirators and proper training if necessary, but the company has yet to deem the situation a health risk for workers. The Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) provided respirators to some workers directly, but BP forbade them to use them.

One rationale behind banning respirators is that they could increase the likelihood of heat-related illnesses, but Kindra Arnsen, an outspoken wife of a sick fisherman turned cleanup worker, points out that many workers are fishermen accustomed to the Gulf heat who can work safely given enough hydration and time for breaks.

Workers who question the safety of their assignments, choose to wear their own safety equipment, or speak out about the risks are threatened with losing their jobs, according to Arnsen and LEAN’s executive director Marylee Orr.

Arnsen has also spoken out in fear for her community of Venice, Louisiana. She describes illnesses and rashes her young children and husband have suffered since the explosion and cleanup and says there are days when officials tell residents to stay indoors.

PR POWER

The Center for Research on Globalization has speculated that banning respirators and other protective gear for workers is part of BP’s public relations campaign to control how bad the disaster looks. This follows a pattern of threatening reporters who get too close to the hardest-hit areas, blocking media access to workers, exaggerating claims of mitigation of the spill’s impact, and using dispersants that make much of the oil invisible.

Both the EPA and OSHA have criticized BP’s safety plan, which allows workers without respirators to stay in an area when air pollutants are high, doesn’t evacuate workers when conditions become unsafe, and contains no upper limits of exposure to carcinogenic gases found in crude oil.

Catlin, the occupational hygienist, says the protocol seems to be written in a way that allows BP to continue operating under conditions that, in other settings, would halt work.

Fishery industry organizations have joined with environmental groups to demand respirators and other safety equipment and training for workers. The coalition has launched bpmakesmesick.com, aimed at pressuring the Obama administration to better enforce health codes during the cleanup.

About The Author: Enku Ide is an intern with Labor Notes from Hattiesburg, Mississippi.  He has been an active member of United Students Against Sweatshops, the Student Farmworker Allinace, Amnesty International and Solidarity.  He has also been active in struggles for LGBTQI liberation.

U.S. Politicians Deny the Obvious Injury; U.S. Manufacturing Bleeds

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

Leo GerardIn the film, “Monte Python and the Holy Grail,” King Arthur severs both of the Black Knight’s arms during a sword fight, but the Black Knight attempts to battle on.

The king admonishes him: “You’ve got no arms left.”

The knight refutes that: “Yes I have.”

“Look,” at the obvious, the king tells him.

“Just a flesh wound,” retorts the knight, who clearly is suffering a state of denial.

Similarly, in the trade clash between China and America, the Asian giant has gravely wounded the United States. China knows it. U.S. voters of all political stripes know it. But too many American politicians, like the Black Knight, are in denial.

Their deliberate blindness, and resulting inaction, has enabled China to continue devaluing its currency, the Renminbi, against the dollar, a practice that makes its exports artificially cheap in U.S. markets and U.S. exports to China wrongfully overpriced. China announced just before the G-20 summit in Toronto that it would allow the value of the Renminbi to float up on world markets – and then permitted the currency that is undervalued by as much as 40 percent against the dollar to rise an underwhelming one half of one percent.

Political inaction also has facilitated China’s flouting of international trade rules forbidding government subsidies to manufacturers. The Chinese subsidies result in falsely low-priced Chinese goods flooding U.S. markets and submerging U.S. manufacturers.

Main Street Americans see the obvious. They said so in a poll conducted late in April by The Mellman Group for the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM). The likely voters – who identified themselves as Republican, Democrat, Tea Party and Independent – said Washington must focus on manufacturing because it is crucial to America’s economic strength. Large majorities said the U.S. should strengthen domestic manufacturing and develop a national manufacturing policy.

Unfortunately, too many politicians who loll in the rarefied world of Washington, D.C. — so far from Main Street, so very far from an actual factory — don’t see it. So they’ve failed to solve the problems.

A report issued this week by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) details the trade difficulties encountered by one American industry – paper manufacturers. Its struggles mirror those that have maimed many other U.S. manufacturers, including pipe mills and tire plants.

The report, “No Paper Tiger: Subsidies to China’s Paper Industry from 2002-09,” notes that in 2008, China overtook the United States to become the world’s largest producer of paper and paper products. This score by China is the solid evidence for the gut feeling Americans expressed in the Mellman poll for AAM. A significant majority told the pollsters they believed the U.S. had lost to China the position of world’s strongest economy.

Americans didn’t need a report to spell out for them what their families and neighborhoods had suffered over the past decade. They’d experienced the closing of more than 10 percent of U.S. manufacturing plants in their communities from 2001 to 2009 – a loss of 42,404 factories. In the paper industry alone, 159,000 of their relatives and neighbors lost their jobs as paper mills closed or cut production during the seven-year period covered by the “No Paper Tiger” study.

A woman from Los Angeles told the Mellman pollsters that this relentless loss of manufacturing capability enfeebles America: “When you consume more than you produce, you become dependent, and we are consuming more from other countries than producing our own. . .truly we have become weak and in order to strengthen the economy, I think we need to produce more.”

The U.S. will, however, continue to produce less, the “No Paper Tiger” report makes clear, if Washington doesn’t act against predators violating international regulations. The report explains that China’s government granted at least $33 billion in subsidies to paper manufacturers to accomplish the country’s rapid rise to global leader in paper production.

In its central government-controlled economy, China gives paper companies money and breaks, much of which is improper under international trade regulations. For example, some paper companies get “loans” that they don’t have to repay. The government provides tax breaks, artificially low-priced electricity and underpriced raw materials. This explains how Chinese paper companies increased capacity by an average of 26 percent every year since 2004 even as prices for paper fell internationally and costs for raw materials for paper production in China rose steeply.

China’s rule-violating subsidies and deliberate currency devaluation explain the low price of Chinese paper. Labor costs don’t account for it. That’s because labor is such a tiny percentage of the price of paper – in both the U.S. and China. In China, it’s 4 percent of production cost; in the U.S. it’s 8 percent.

By contrast, Chinese paper manufacturers confront expensive problems that the American industry does not. In China, obtaining raw materials for paper making is complicated and costly because the country has among the smallest forestry resources in the world per capita. In addition, the “No Paper Tiger” report says, the Chinese industry is relatively inefficient. In the U.S., the paper industry is highly efficient and has easy access to abundant natural resources.

The U.S., a market economy, simply does not routinely prop up manufacturers the way China does.

The “No Paper Tiger” report says that if nothing changes, U.S. paper manufacturers will continue to lose money, close mills and bleed jobs. The U.S. could be reduced to serving as nothing more than the supplier of raw materials for Chinese paper production, as if America were an undeveloped third world country incapable of manufacturing on its own.

China’s subsidization of its paper manufacturers isn’t unique. It supports many of its industries. Chinese government intervention in the market accounts for a significant portion of the manufacturing loss in America. That loss diminishes American security.

America is losing her arms. Denying it doesn’t help.

About The Author: Leo Gerard is the United Steelworkers International President. Under his leadership, the USW joined with Unite -the biggest union in the UK and Republic of Ireland – to create Workers Uniting, the first global union. He has also helped pass legislation, including the landmark Canadian Westray Bill, making corporations criminally liable when they kill or seriously injure their employees or members of the public.

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