Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘worker safety’

The Lessons of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Are Still Relevant 107 Years Later

Monday, March 26th, 2018

On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. Firefighters arrived at the scene, but their ladders weren’t tall enough to reach the impacted area. Trapped inside because the owners had locked the fire escape exit doors, workers jumped to their deaths. Thirty minutes later, the fire was over, and 146 of the 500 workers—mostly young women—were dead.

Many of us have read about the tragic Triangle fire in school textbooks. But the fire alone wasn’t what made the shirtwaist makers such a focal point for worker safety. In fact, workplace deaths weren’t uncommon at the time. It is estimated that more than 100 workers died every day on the job around 1911.

A week after the fire, Anne Morgan and Alva Belmont hosted a meeting at the Metropolitan Opera House to demand action on fire safety, and people of all backgrounds packed the hall. A few days later, more than 350,000 people participated in a funeral march for those lost at Triangle.

Three months later, responding to pressure from activists, New York’s governor signed a law creating the Factory Investigating Commission, which had unprecedented powers. The commission investigated nearly 2,000 factories in dozens of industries and, with the help of such workers’ rights advocates as Frances Perkins, enacted eight laws covering fire safety, factory inspections, and sanitation and employment rules for women and children. The following year, they pushed for 25 more laws—entirely revamping New York State’s labor protections and creating a state Department of Labor to enforce them. During the Roosevelt administration, Perkins and Robert Wagner (who chaired the commission) helped create the nation’s most sweeping worker protections through the New Deal, including the National Labor Relations Act.

The shirtwaist makers’ story inspired hundreds of activists across the state and the nation to push for fundamental reforms. And while there have been successes along the way, the problems that led to the Triangle fire are still present today. It was just five years ago, for instance, that the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh killed more than 1,100 garment workers.

As worker health and safety continues to be a significant issue both in the United States and abroad, the AFL-CIO took a strong stand at our 2017 Convention, passing a resolution on worker safety:

The right to a safe job is a fundamental worker right and a core union value. Every worker should be able to go to work and return home safely at the end of the day.

Throughout our entire history, through organizing, bargaining, education, legislation and mobilization, working people and their unions have fought for safe and healthful working conditions to protect workers from injury, illnesses and death. We have made real progress, winning strong laws and protections that have made jobs safer and saved workers’ lives.

Over the years, our fight has gotten harder as employers’ opposition to workers’ rights and protections has grown, and attacks on unions have intensified. We haven’t backed down. Most recently, after decades-long struggles, joining with allies we won groundbreaking standards to protect workers from silica, beryllium and coal dust, and stronger protections for workers to report injuries and exercise other safety and health rights.

Now all these hard-won gains are threatened. President Trump and many Republicans in Congress have launched an aggressive assault on worker protections.

The worker protections under assault include:

  • Trump’s proposed fiscal year 2019 budget cuts funding for the Department of Labor by 21%, including a 40% cut in job training for low-income adults, youth, and dislocated workers and the elimination of the Labor Department’s employment program for older workers.
  • The budget also proposes to cut the Occupational Safety and Health Administration budget, eliminate OSHA’s worker training program and cut funding for coal mine enforcement, while proposing a 22% increase for the Office of Labor-Management Standards’ oversight of unions.
  • The budget also proposes to slash the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s job safety research budget by 40%, to move NIOSH to the National Institutes of Health from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and to remove the World Trade Center Health Program from NIOSH’s direction.
  • OSHA delayed the effective date of the final beryllium standard originally issued in January 2017. Then it delayed enforcement of the standard until May 11, 2018. In June 2017, OSHA proposed to weaken the beryllium rule as it applies to the construction and maritime industries.
  • OSHA delayed enforcement of the silica standard in construction, which in December was fully upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
  • OSHA delayed the requirement for employers to electronically report summary injury and illness information to the agency set to go into effect on July 1, 2017, until December 31, 2017. OSHA has announced it intends to issue a proposal to revise or revoke some provisions of the rule.
  • OSHA withdrew its policy that gave nonunion workers the right to have a representative participate in OSHA enforcement inspections on their behalf.
  • The Mine Safety and Health Administration delayed the mine examination rule for metal and nonmetal mines from May 23, 2017, until Oct. 2, 2017, and then again until March 2, 2018. MSHA also proposed weakening changes to the rule, including delaying mine inspections until after work has begun, instead of before work commences.
  • In November 2017, MSHA announced it would revisit the 2014 Coal Dust standard to examine its effectiveness and whether it should be modified to be less burdensome on industry. This comes at the same time NIOSH reported 400 cases of advanced black lung found by three clinics in Kentucky.
  • OSHA withdrew over a dozen rules from the regulatory agenda, including standards on combustible dust, styrene, 1-bromopropane, noise in construction and an update of permissible exposure limits.
  • The agency also suspended work on critical OSHA standards on workplace violence, infectious diseases, process safety management and emergency preparedness.
  • MSHA withdrew rules on civil penalties and refuge alternatives in coal mines from the regulatory agenda and suspended work on new standards on silica and proximity detection systems for mobile mining equipment.

The Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy took place 107 years ago today. We have a long way to go to make sure that we prevent the next such tragedy and keep working people safe and healthy.

Wendy’s refuses to join program protecting farm workers from sexual abuse

Monday, March 19th, 2018

When Silvia Perez came to Immokalee, Florida from Guatemala in 1993, there was one profession that made sense: working in the fields.

“Tomato-picking is the biggest industry in Florida, and you find out about it right when you arrive,” she said. “It’s bigger than textiles or the restaurant business.”

Perez got a job on a farm in Immokalee, where she was one of five women on a farm saturated with men; she made friends with two other women at work and they stuck together. Before long, their male supervisor began following them around while they worked. One day, he compared the tightness of their clothing and encouraged Perez to wear tighter shirts and more fashionable clothes.

Perez dealt with it. With two kids to feed and minimal fluency in English, she felt that tomato picking was the best option for her in her new home.

Then, in 2008, her supervisor touched her breasts.

“He asked me if they are real or fake,” she recalled. “I was so angry.”

She remembered the incident as she protested on the streets of New York City for the past five days in support of worker protections.

Worker protections, for Perez, are more than a lofty ideal; they are actively enforced by the Fair Food Program (FFP), launched by the Coalition of Immolakee Workers(CIW) in 2011. The FFP creates a partnership between farm workers, Florida tomato growers, and participating retail buyers to enforce fair wages, worker safety, and other basic protections for farm workers through a three-pronged model: it includes worker-to-worker education sessions about worker rights that are held on the farm and on the clock, it adds a premium to the price of tomatoes that becomes a direct bonus for the tomato pickers, and it enlists the help of the third-party Fair Food Standards Council, which conducts regular audits and carries out ongoing complaint investigation and resolution.

Fast food restaurants like McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Taco Bell, KFC, and Chipotle have all signed on to the FFP, which means they only purchase their vegetables from farms with these protections. But Wendy’s refuses to participate. That’s what brought Perez to New York, to join the CIW in their fast and protest against the fast food chain’s refusal to join.

On Thursday, outside the Manhattan hedge fund offices of Nelson Peltz, Wendy’s largest shareholder and chair of its Board of Directors, Perez made her voice heard.

“I am here as a mother to break the silence and to end the abuse that exists where Wendy’s buys their tomatoes,” Perez said. “We’re demonstrating and we’re being joined by students, by thousands of people. And they’re on our side. They’re listening to us. They come, they show up. We hope that Wendy’s will listen. If not, we will keep showing up.”

Denying dignity to farm workers

When Perez first faced sexual assault at work, she didn’t have many options. There was no union to report to, and, throughout the 2000s, workers’ rights in Florida were quickly disappearing as then-Gov. Jeb Bush (R) dismantled the state’s Department of Labor.

Her experience was nothing new. Farm workers in the United States have long faced sexual abuse, rape, and harassment in the fields — a problem exacerbated by the fact that many of the workers are undocumented immigrants who are more easily taken advantage of by individuals in power.

So, Perez continued to put up with it. Until 2008, when she heard about a solution in the form of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a grassroots organization launched in 1993 that advocates for worker justice through community organizing. In 2011, CIW started the Fair Food Program.

From the fields, Perez noticed improvements as corporations started signing onto the FFP. Water, bathrooms, and shade became available to her and her colleagues. Her pay increased. There was a system to report problems, including a 24-hour hotline that she and other pickers could call from anywhere. For the first time, she felt like she had a voice at work.

“If someone on the field had a headache, they could actually ask for a break,” Perez told ThinkProgress.

To those who have never worked in the fields, these changes may seem minor. However, they’re important enough that Perez worries about farm workers who aren’t protected by the FFP. She’s heard stories from pickers who have witnessed sexual abuse and wage theft on non-FFP-protected farms. She was horrified to read a 2014 Los Angeles Times exposé of human trafficking circles run on the Bioparques de Occidente farm in Mexico.

Perez and the rest of the CIW said their dignity should be at the center of Wendy’s transactions.

Laura Espinoza, director of the Fair Food Standards Council, the third-party organization that oversees the FFP, agreed. She called the FFP an all-around beneficial situation: buyers get transparency from their supply chain, growers oversee safe, secure workplaces, turnover among workers on farms decreases, and tomato pickers like Perez are safe at their jobs.

Wendy’s isn’t alone. Although the FFP has seen growth — since 2011, it’s expanded to include seven states, three crops, and continues to get support from the fast food industry — there’s been a steady increase in U.S. buyers sourcing tomatoes from Mexico, said Jennifer Bond, an agricultural economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

It’s problematic, as the success of the FFP hinges on buyers joining. With a surplus of farms that provide cheaper — and perhaps, as Wendy’s claims, riper — tomatoes, there is a strong financial incentive for companies like Wendy’s not to sign on to an agreement that promotes human rights.

“We at the Council are able to stop abuses because we go out to the farms and say, ‘If this doesn’t stop, you will not be able to sell your produce to our participating buyers.’ That’s what Wendy’s is denying to farm workers,” Espinoza said.

She cited a 2017 lawsuit in which a female farm worker at Favorite Farms in Tampa, Florida was sexually harassed and raped by her supervisor. When she reported the incidents, she was suspended, then fired. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued the farm and won the lawsuit, but Espinoza said that didn’t provide enough long-term protection for the workers on that farm.

“With the FFP, if a farm worker or grower is found guilty of sexual assault or retaliation, they are banned from all FFP-participating farms,” she said. “But that individual can work at Wendy’s. Because they’re not enforcing these basic human rights.”

“We are here to be heard”

By sunset on Thursday evening, the dozens of Immokalee workers in New York were joined by thousands of marchers. Native New Yorkers, faith leaders, workers from outside of Florida, and students on spring break from as far as Indiana proceeded in front of Peltz’s building chanting, drumming, and carrying signs urging onlookers to boycott Wendy’s, to support human rights, and to buy fair food. It was day five of the protest, and the marchers were energized as they made their way from Park Avenue to a park opposite the United Nations where the air boomed with the voices of five women on a makeshift stage who were rapping about rights and being American.

For Perez, it was gratifying to be surrounded with such a show of support. Now, she hopes that Wendy’s will finally agree to prioritize the rights of pickers like her.

“Wendy’s is supporting the problem. They buy tomatoes where respect doesn’t exist, where there are no rights for workers,” Perez said amid the noise. “Wendy’s says that tomatoes are more fresh, more delicious. But they don’t know about the life of the workers. We are here to be heard.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on March 16, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Gina Ciliberto is a writer based in New York City. She covers social justice issues for the Dominican Sisters of Hope, among others.

Trump’s Worker Safety & Health Budget Again Undermines Worker Safety & Health

Friday, February 16th, 2018

Earlier this week, President Trump submitted his Fiscal Year 2019 budget proposal. This is his second budget proposal, and like the first, although it left OSHA’s budget fairly flat, it once again proposes to slash or eliminate important safety and health programs and agencies.  And this is Trump’s second OSHA budget that has been proposed with no Assistant Secretary yet in residence.  Scott Mugno’s nomination continues to languish in the Senate.

First, the good news. With one major exception (see below), OSHA’s budget would remain mostly level– with a small $5.1 million (2.4% and 42 full time employees) increase over FY 2017 in the enforcement budget, as well as a small $3 million (4.2%) increase in compliance assistance — mostly to add Compliance Assistance Specialists who had been cut in previous years due to budget limitations, and an addition of eight staff to work exclusively on the Voluntary Protection Programs.

Meanwhile, in addition to trying once again to eliminate the Susan Harwood Training Grant Program and the Chemical Safety Board, the administration’s proposal also eliminates two OSHA Advisory Committees dealing with whistleblower protections and federal employee safety and health.

Harwood and the Chemical Safety Board: Deja Vu All Over Again

In what can only be characterized as the triumph of hope over experience, the Trump administration has yet again proposed the elimination of OSHA’s Susan Harwood Worker Training Program and the independent Chemical Safety Board — two proposals that had about as much lift as a Butterball Turkey when the administration floated these ideas in its FY 2018 budget.

Now this budget is not necessarily bad news for us bloggers. I mean, I don’t have to write any new stories about how terrible the elimination of the Susan Harwood Worker Training Program would be for the safety of workers — especially vulnerable workers like the mostly immigrant day-laborers who have been rebuilding Houston after Hurricane Harvey.

And I don’t have to write much new about how pointless the elimination of the Chemical Safety Board would be for chemical plant safety — and the safety of workers at the plants and communities surrounding the plants.

Because you, good readers, already know all of that. But perhaps more important, Congress already knows that. Certainly both the House and the Senate understand the importance of the Chemical Safety Board as they displayed when the relevant Appropriations bills in both houses voted to keep the CSB fully funded in the 2018 budget after the Trump administration recommended its elimination.

Similarly, after being sentenced to death in the Trump administration’s 2018 budget proposal (and in the House of Representatives’ Labor appropriations bill), the Senate Appropriations committee voted on a bipartisan basis to ignore the Administration’s proposal (and the House bill) and maintain the program.

CSB and Harwood: There’s no education from the second kick of a mule.

But these guys aren’t only irresponsible and just plain wrong; they’re also lazy. You’d think that after failing last year to eliminate these programs, they’d at least come up with some new and improved justifications. But no. As in 2018, the 2019 budget erroneously justifies the elimination of the Harwood program on an alleged lack of “evidence that the program is effective.” And they again incorrectly justify the CSB’s elimination on the the ‘relative duplicative nature of its work,” presumably assuming that the CSB duplicates the efforts of OSHA and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The CSB, however, is not discouraged. Being an independent agency, they submitted their own $12.1 million budget request to keep the agency open. The board is currently conducting nine open investigations: Red Mountain Operating, Arkema Inc., Didion Milling Inc., Midland Resource Recovery, Loy Lange Box Co., Packaging Corporation of America, Sunoco Logistics Partners LP, Enterprise Products Partners LP and DuPont.

I’m not going to waste scarce electrons or your valuable time explaining again why these justifications are — to put it mildly — bogus. If you want to re-read what I wrote last here about these proposals, you can start here.  (Here is much more on the importance of the Chemical Safety Board and the Harwood Grants.) And I’m sure we’ll be writing more about the importance of these programs in the near future.

There’s a saying that there’s no education from the second kick of a mule.  With a little lobbying and common sense, we can only hope that the Trump administration will get to witness that phenomenon with its 2019 workplace safety and health budget.

Compliance Assistance and OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program

OSHA’s federal compliance assistance budget is slated for a 4.2% increase which will include 8 employees fully dedicated to the Voluntary Protection Program and 24 Compliance Assistance Specialists (CAS).  OSHA once had a CAS in every one of its 70 Area Offices, but budget cuts and the hiring freeze had cut those numbers significantly.

VPP, established in 1982 to recognize workplaces with exemplary safety and health management systems, has always been a favorite program of Republican administrations. As we’ve discussed, however, the program has faced significant integrity and funding issues over the past several years. Trump’s OSHA has held two stakeholder meetings to discuss problems with the program and although the outcome of those meetings have never been released by OSHA, the agency is doubling down on VPP growth. According to OSHA’s Congressional Budget Justification,  “with the addition of 24 CAS and 8 VPP staff, OSHA anticipates approving 155 new VPP sites and re-approving 395 sites in FY 2019.”

One notable change in the Trump budget from previous budgets is the total omission of a focus in its compliance assistance program on vulnerable workers, such as day laborers,  temporary workers and workers with limited English proficiency who often work in high hazard industries and are difficult for OSHA to reach. It is a common myth that the Obama administration focused totally on enforcement to the neglect of compliance assistance. The truth is that the Obama administration conducted a major compliance assistance program, but instead of focusing exclusively on assistance for employers, the Obama administration focused compliance assistance resources on helping vulnerable workers. OSHA’s CBJ doesn’t even mention vulnerable workers or working with labor unions in its Compliance Assistance section, focusing exclusively on broadening “its reach, assistance, and support to small businesses and other employers working to comply with OSHA requirements and protect their workers,” as well as working with more “trade associations, organizations, and employers it engages with directly through its cooperative programs.”

OSHA Standards

OSHA’s Budget Justification states that it plans to issue three final rules, including one on beryllium, and four proposed rules. As you may recall, OSHA proposed last June to weaken beryllium protections for maritime and construction workers.  (The schedule for this is a bit unclear as the CBJ also states that “OSHA anticipates that this rulemaking will proceed fairly quickly with a proposal either late 2018 or very early 2019.” Given that OSHA already issued a proposal in June 2017, it’s unclear whether this statement means they’ll issue a new proposal or it’s just a result of  lousy proofreading.)

Other final standards include a minor revision addressing respirator fit-test methods, and a revision of the recordkeeping standard.  OSHA has stated for some time that it doesn’t like parts of the Obama administration’s electronic recordkeeping regulation which requires employers to send injury and illness data to OSHA, and to prohibit retaliation against workers for reporting injuries or illnesses.  Given that no proposal has yet appeared, it’s possible, but unlikely that a final revised rule will be issued before October 1, 2019, the end of FY 2019.

The only small business (SBREFA) review mentioned is one for a cell tower standard. No mention of a SBREFA panel for workplace violence. SBREFA is the first formal step of the regulatory process.

In addition to numerous guidance products, OSHA plans to use its standards funding to throw a bone to its industry friends by conducting “retrospective reviews to revise and update existing standards in ways that will better protect workers and, where possible, reduce burden on employers.” Don’t expect much there. A thorough review of a standard or regulation takes years and generally confirms that the original standard protected workers more effectively, and at a lower cost than OSHA had originally predicted.

NIOSH

As it did last year, the Trump administration proposes to whack NIOSH, continuing to show its disdain for evidence-based practice that is supported by real research.  Trump is again proposing to cut NIOSH job safety research by $135.2 million (40%), and proposes to eliminate educational research centers, agriculture, forestry and fishing research centers and external research programs.

Then it gets weird. Trump is proposing to take NIOSH out of CDC and then possibly combine it at a later date with other parts of the National Institutes of Health.  Section 22 of the Occupational Safety and Health Act established the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the Department of Health and Human Services to “conduct research,experiments, and demonstrations relating to occupational safety and health.”  NIOSH is currently part of the Centers for Disease Control, which is also part of HHS.  How this envisioned reorganization will work with the OSHAct that establishes a separate institute specifically for Occupational Safety and Health remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the World Trade Center Health Program (administered by NIOSH director by law) would remain at CDC.

MSHA

Fifteen coal miners died on the job in 2017, compared with only 8 in 2016, but Trump apparently sees those troubling numbers as a reason to cut coal enforcement by $3 million. the overall budget for the agency will increase by $2 million, with funding for metal/non-metal enforcement increasing by $2.5 million

Advice? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Advice

OSHA has several advisory committees comprised of outside experts intended to advise, consult with and make recommendations to OSHA and DOL leadership about how to improve worker safety and health.  The agency currently has five advisory committees:  The National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH), the Maritime Advisory Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (MACOSH), and the Advisory Committee for Construction Safety and Health (ACCSH), the Federal Advisory Council on Occupational Safety and Health (FACOSH) and the Whistleblower Protections Advisory Committee (WPAC.)   NACOSH and ACCSH were established by law and the others by the Secretary of Labor and the White House.

Trump wants to eliminate two OSHA Advisory Committees and none have met in over a year

The committees are populated with national experts representing labor, management and public agencies who rotate every few years. Advisory committees traditionally meet two or three times a year, but none have met in the first 13 months of this administration.

Trump’s OSHA budget proposes to eliminate two of the agency’s five advisory committees: FACOSH and WPAC.  WPAC is the newest advisory committee and was established in 2012 to help OSHA “improve the fairness, efficiency, effectiveness, and transparency of OSHA’s administration of whistleblower protections.” WPAC was one of the many initiatives undertaken in the Obama administration to improve the operation of OSHA’s troubled Whistleblower Program, including creating a separate directorate and a separate budget item.  Achievements of the committee include the publication of the first-ever Recommended Practices for Employers for Addressing and Preventing Retaliation which assists employers in creating workplaces in which employees can voice their concerns without fear of retaliation.

Federal employees are not covered under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, but were provided protections by Executive Order 12196 which requires each federal agency to “Furnish to employees places and conditions of employment that are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”  Executive Order 11612, issued by Richard Nixon, established FACOSH in order to “advice on how to reduce and keep to a minimum the number of injuries and illnesses in the federal workforce and how to encourage each federal Executive Branch department and agency to establish and maintain effective occupational safety and health programs.” Federal OSHA can cite, but not fine federal agencies and has uncovered and corrected a number of serious safety and health problems in the nation’s military bases, hospitals, prisons, hospitals and other federal facilities.

Elsewhere:

In related news, Trump’s budget

  • Cuts EPA’s budget by 34% so that the agency can eliminate “lower priority programs” and refocus on “core activities.”  Among the “lower priority programs” that the EPA is proposing to eliminate are those that address the only environmental threat that can literally destroy the earth as we know it — climate change.  After all, climate change may be good for us. “Core Activities” that need more funding apparently refer to a swollen security detail for EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, his high security communications chamber and, of course, his first-class travel to points domestic and foreign.
  • Cuts the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: In the midst of a flu pandemic and the ever-present threat of Ebola and the emergence of other “new” diseases, Trump is proposing to cut back CDC’s budget by $1 billion.

  • Cuts National Labor Relations Board by $25.2 million (9%)

  • Cuts Employment and Training Services by $1.3 billion (39%)

  • Cuts Unemployment Insurance and Employment Services by $45.4 million (13%)

  • Cuts Job Corp by $40.7 million (24%)

  • Eliminates the Older Worker Program

  • Cuts Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) by $13.4 million (13%). OFCCP  ensures that contractors and subcontractors who do business with the federal government comply with the legal requirement to take affirmative action and not discriminate on the basis of race, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, national origin, disability, or status as a protected veteran.

  • Cuts Labor Department’s International by $67.6 million (79%)

  • Cuts Women’s Bureau by $7.6 million (68%)

  • Proposes $8.5 million (22%) increase for Office of Labor-Management Standards (OLMS) enforcement. OLMS ensures that union elections and finances are conducted legally. Republican administrations traditionally use OLMS to harass unions; hence the increased funding.

What’s Next?

This is the beginning of the FY 2019 budget process. FY 2019 begins on October 1, 2018, but the budget will not be passed by then. No Congress in recent memory has finished a budget by the end of the budget year and that prospect is even less likely in an election year.

The next step in the process will be Secretary Acosta’s testimony before the House and Senate appropriations committees.  There will then be long deliberations in the House and the Senate, and eventually both Houses of Congress and the President will have to come up with a budget that they agree on.  The process is more difficult in the Senate because 60 votes are needed to pass a budget. And as we saw last year, the House budget was much worse than the President’s proposal (although they did vote to maintain the CSB), while the Senate’s OSHA budget was better then the President’s proposal.

And, of course, depending on the outcome of the Congressional elections on November 6, Trump could be facing a Democratic House of Representatives and/or a Democratic Senate, and a Democratic majority in either house of Congress would drastically change the final budget that emerges from this process.

But nothing good in this country happens by itself. It happens because knowledgeable and caring citizens ensure that their Senators and Congressional Representatives understand the importance of these programs in protecting worker safety and health. That’s where you come in. Especially in an election year, it’s important that those running for office understand the daily hazards facing American workers and the role of the OSHA and other government agencies in making sure workers come home safely at the end of the day.  And already, just days after release of the President’s budget, opposition to his proposal to eliminate the CSB has begun.

And there will be more.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on February 15, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

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

Here Are the 10 Worst Attacks on Workers From Trump’s First Year

Wednesday, January 24th, 2018

January 20th marks the one-year anniversary of President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Since taking office, President Trump has overseen a string of policies that will harm working people and benefit corporations and the rich. Here we present a list of the 10 worst things Congress and Trump have done to undermine pay growth and erode working conditions for the nation’s workers.

1) Enacting tax cuts that overwhelmingly favor the wealthy over the average worker

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) signed into law at the end of 2017 provides a permanent cut in the corporate income tax rate that will overwhelmingly benefit capital owners and the top 1%. President Trump’s boast to wealthy diners at his $200,000-initiation-fee Mar-a-Lago Club on Dec. 22, 2017, says it best: “You all just got a lot richer.”

2) Taking billions out of workers’ pockets by weakening or abandoning regulations that protect their pay

In 2017, the Trump administration hurt workers’ pay in a number of ways, including acts to dismantle two key regulations that protect the pay of low- to middle-income workers. The Trump administration failed to defend a 2016 rule strengthening overtime protections for these workers, and took steps to gut regulations that protect servers from having their tips taken by their employers.

3) Blocking workers from access to the courts by allowing mandatory arbitration clauses in employment contracts

The Trump administration is fighting on the side of corporate interests who want to continue to require employees to sign arbitration agreements with class action waivers. This forces workers to give up their right to file class action lawsuits, and takes them out of the courtrooms and into individual private arbitration when their rights on the job are violated.

4) Pushing immigration policies that hurt all workers

The Trump administration has taken a number of extreme actions that will hurt all workers, including detaining unauthorized immigrants who were victims of employer abuse and human trafficking, and ending Temporary Protected Status for hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers, many of whom have resided in the United States for decades. But perhaps the most striking example has been the administration’s termination of the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals program.

5) Rolling back regulations that protect worker pay and safety

President Trump and congressional Republicans have blocked regulations that protect workers’ pay and safety. By blocking these rules, the president and Congress are raising the risks for workers while rewarding companies that put their employees at risk.

6) Stacking the Federal Reserve Board with candidates friendlier to Wall Street than to working families

President Trump’s actions so far—including his choice not to reappoint Janet Yellen as chair of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, and his nomination of Randal Quarles to fill one of the vacancies—suggest that he plans to tilt the board toward the interests of Wall Street rather than those of working families.

7) Ensuring Wall Street can pocket more of workers’ retirement savings

Since Trump took office, the Department of Labor has actively worked to weaken or rescind the “fiduciary” rule, which requires financial advisers to act in the best interests of their clients when giving retirement investment advice. The Trump administration’s repeated delays in enforcing this rule will cost retirement savers an estimated $18.5 billion over the next 30 years in hidden fees and lost earning potential.

8) Stacking the Supreme Court against workers by appointing Neil Gorsuch

Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, has a record of ruling against workers and siding with corporate interests. Cases involving collective bargaining, forced arbitration and class action waivers in employment disputes are already on the court’s docket this term or are likely to be considered by the court in coming years. Gorsuch may cast the deciding vote in significant cases challenging workers’ rights.

9) Trying to take affordable health care away from millions of working people

The Trump administration and congressional Republicans spent much of 2017 attempting to repeal the Affordable Care Act. They finally succeeded in repealing a well-known provision of the ACA—the penalty for not buying health insurance—in the tax bill signed into law at the end of 2017. According to the Congressional Budget Office, by 2027, the repeal of this provision will raise the number of uninsured Americans by 13 million.

10) Undercutting key worker protection agencies by nominating anti-worker leaders

Trump has appointed—or tried to appoint—individuals with records of exploiting workers to key posts in the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Nominees to critical roles at DOL and the NLRB have—in word and deed—expressed hostility to the worker rights laws they are in charge of upholding.

This list is based on a new report out from the Economic Policy Institute.

This article was originally published at In These Times on January 19, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank created in 1986 to include the needs of low- and middle-income workers in economic policy discussions.

Trump took credit for airline safety in 2017. What about the surge in coal miner deaths?

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2018

President Donald Trump is taking credit for what a new study is calling the safest year on record for commercial aviation. The president, however, is refusing to take responsibility for what his mine safety agency is saying was a year where almost twice as many coal mine workers died on the job than the final year of the Obama administration.

On Tuesday morning, Trump tweeted: “Since taking office, I have been very strict on Commercial Aviation. Good news — it was just reported that there were zero deaths in 2017, the best and safest year on record!”

Over the past 20 years, the average number of airliner accidents has shown a steady and persistent decline, thanks to “safety-driven efforts” by international aviation organizations and the aviation industry, according to the Aviation Safety Network, an independent research group. Nowhere in the analysis did the researchers mention efforts by the Trump administration as a reason for the airline safety improvement.

In the coal mining sector, data from the Trump administration’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), the federal government’s mine safety agency, show coal mining deaths nearly doubled in 2017. But unlike the aviation statistics, Trump isn’t taking any personal responsibility for the coal mining deaths. What’s more, he tapped a former coal executive with a record of safety violations to head MSHA.

The death of a coal miner in Fayette County, West Virginia, on December 29 brought the total number of U.S. coal mining fatalities in 2017 to 15, according to MSHA’s website. Eight of the 15 coal mining deaths last year occurred in West Virginia. The remaining deaths occurred in Kentucky, Montana, Wyoming, Alabama, Pennsylvania, and Colorado. In the previous year, under President Barack Obama, the coal industry saw its lowest number of coal mining fatalities to date, with eight deaths recorded across the country.

A number of factors could have led to the rise in coal mining deaths. The nation saw an uptick in coal production last year. Estimated coal production for the first 11 months of 2017 totaled 719 million short tons, 54 million short tons, or 8 percent, more than production for the same period in 2016. For 2018, though, the U.S. Energy Information Administration is forecasting a drop in production due to a decrease in exports and slower domestic demand.

Employment in the coal mining sector reached about 51,700 in September, about 3,000 more than the year before. But since then, the sector’s job numbers have declined slightly each month.

Under the Trump administration and a Republican-controlled Congress, mining companies could be taking more risks under the assumption that enforcement will be more lax. The House of Representatives wants to cut MSHA’s coal enforcement budget by $11 million, or almost 7 percent, after cutting the division’s budget by $7.9 million in FY 2017.

During his presidential campaign, Trump reached out to coal miners, telling them that he would bring jobs back to their communities, despite widespread consensus that coal will continue to decline in the long run. In return, the miners have put a lot of faith in Trump to fulfill his promise.

As part of his focus on coal, Trump selected David Zatezalo, a former coal mining executive who has faced criticism over his company’s safety record, to serve as the head of MSHA. Zatezalo, who was confirmed by the Senate in November, retired in late 2014 as chairman of coal producer Rhino Resources after serving in various top posts at the company.

Zatezalo was head of Rhino Resources when the company was issued two “pattern of violations” letters from MSHA over safety and health issues at its mines in West Virginia and Kentucky. At the time, the Obama administration was seeking to improve enforcement of mine safety following the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster.

Last month, the Trump administration also announced plans to examine whether it should weaken rules aimed at fighting black lung among coal miners, a move the administration says could create a “less burdensome” regulatory environment for coal companies.

Most coal miners understand the increased dangers they face when the government steps back from safety enforcement. But the miners also see limited employment alternatives, unless they choose to uproot their families and relocate.

“We have all witnessed friends and family fight in vain for compensation after suffering from permanent injuries and black lung,” Nick Mullins, an author and former coal miner, wrote in an op-ed for HuffPost last month. “Few people seem to realize the lack of choices miners face. They do not realize that many miners would jump at the chance to earn a decent living without risking their life and sacrificing their health.”

This article was originally published on January 2, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Mark Hand is a climate and environment reporter at ThinkProgress. Send him tips at mhand@americanprogress.org

2017 was a year of eroding workers’ rights

Thursday, December 28th, 2017

There have been a series of victories for labor rights in recent years. Graduate student workers at private colleges and universities now have the right to unionize. In New York, employers are no longer allowed to ask for an employee’s salary history — a question that often hurts women and people of color. And the Fight for 15 has scored wins in cities across the country.

But the Trump administration stands in the way of much of the progress labor activists are demanding. It may not be as noisy or ripe for attention-grabbing headlines as Betsy DeVos’ education department or Scott Pruitt’s Environmental Protection Agency, but Alexander Acosta’s labor department has rolled back a number of key Obama-era labor advances.

“Acosta is not a bomb-thrower,” said Jeffrey Hirsch, law professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Unlike some of Trump’s other less traditional choices for agency heads, Acosta had already been confirmed by the Senate for three previous positions and was considered a safe choice for labor department secretary.

Still, it’s clear the department is now under a Republican administration.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which enforces fair labor practices, has an employer-friendly majority. The General Counsel of the NLRB is Peter Robb, a lawyer who management-focused firm Jackson Lewis wrote would “set the stage for the board to reverse many of the pro-labor rulings issued by the Obama board”. The Senate also confirmed to the NLRB William Emanuel, whose nomination was supported by corporate donors and industry groups like the National Retail Federation, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and National Restaurant Association. Emanuel’s work previous focused on union avoidance tactics and among his former clients were Amazon, Target, Uber, and FedEx.

With these new additions, the Department of Labor has been busy dismantling protections for workers. Here are some of the biggest ways the Trump administration rolled back workers’ rights in 2017:

Less accountability for corporations like McDonald’s

One of the labor rollbacks that gained the most attention this year was the board’s decision to overturn the new joint employer standard that was supposed to make it easier for corporations to be held accountable for unfair labor practices at their franchises. Labor advocates expected the decision for some time after the department rescinded guidance that defines who a joint-employer is.

The Obama administration’s standard on joint employers went beyond simply looking at who sets wages and hires people, and considered a worker’s “economic dependency” on the business. McDonald’s has tried to avoid responsibility for violations like wage-theft for years. In 2016, McDonald’s settled a wage-theft class action and released a statement that said it “reconfirms that it is not the employer of or responsible for employees of its independent franchisees.”

“Under the previous rule, you only needed to show [McDonald’s] had a theoretical amount of control. They reserve the right to control terms and conditions of work and controlled those conditions in an indirect manner like setting policies that other companies have to follow,” Hirsch explained. “The new case has said that no, you need actual direct control. When push comes to shove, it’s a matter of evidence and how much proof you have, so you may well still have a case against McDonald’s but you’re going to have to show that there is more actual control.”

Reduced protections for quality investment advice

In August, the Labor Department said it would like to delay a rule that would require financial advisors to act in the best interest of their customers and their retirement accounts. According to a federal court filing, the department wanted to delay implementation of the rule to July 2019. The full implementation of the rule is currently set for January 2018.

There are two standards investors have to be aware of right now: the fiduciary standard and suitability standard. A financial adviser operating under what is called the “suitability standard” is only required to make sure a client’s investment is suitable for the client’s finances, age, and risk tolerance at that point in time, but they don’t have a huge legal obligation to monitor the investment for the client. Under the fiduciary standard, an adviser must keep monitoring the investment and keep the customer’s overall financial picture in mind. In addition, advisers must disclose all of their conflicts of interest, fees, and commissions under the fiduciary standard. Right now, it’s easier for advisers to push investments that will make them money but are not necessarily in clients’ best interest, said Paul Secunda, professor of law and director of the labor and employment law program at Marquette University Law School.

“That rule has been substantially cut back, though how far back we’re still waiting to see. The current admin is in a holding pattern right now and my sense is that it could be cut back fairly dramatically even further,” Secunda said.

None of these labor department actions have been good enough for the financial industry, however. Plaintiffs in a lawsuit that included the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, the Financial Services Institute, the Financial Services Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, sent a Dec. 8 letter to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The plaintiffs said the delay of regulation shouldn’t hold up their appeal, where they argue the department does not have the authority to promulgate the rule, according to InvestmentNews.

Reduced worker safety

Experts on labor violations and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration told ThinkProgress they were concerned about how OSHA would respond to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, especially since the Trump administration has slashed worker safety rules from the Obama administration. 

Trump’s OSHA has left behind regulations on worker exposure to construction noise, combustible dust, and vehicles backing up in factories and construction sites, according to Bloomberg BNA. It also abandoned a rule that would change the way the agency decides on permissible exposure limits for chemicals. The July regulatory agenda did not list any new rule-making. The president’s 2018 budget would have killed OSHA’s Chemical Safety Board, which looks into chemical plant accidents, as well as the Susan Harwood grant program, which benefits nonprofits and unions that provide worker safety training.

“OSHA is taking a turn we usually see during Republican administrations, which means a lot less inspections and enforcement and a lot more trying to get employers to self-regulate or voluntarily comply which has not really worked that well historically,” Secunda said. “People who participate in these voluntary participation programs are usually employers who are already in compliance and those who continue to be bad actors are not really impacted by these voluntary programs. OSHA is about to be run by corporate America, which is obviously not good for employees.”

Deciding to let go of Obama-era overtime rule

In July, the labor department moved to roll back an Obama administration rule that would have expanded the number of workers eligible for overtime pay by 4.2 million. The department has not appealed a U.S. District Court in Texas that gave business groups the temporary injunction they wanted.

The current threshold for overtime pay is at just $23,660 a year, and the Obama-era rule would have nearly doubled that. In 1974, 62 percent of full-time salaried workers had a salary that allowed them to be eligible for overtime, but today, only 7 percent of full-time salaried workers earn a salary below this level, according toDavid Weill, dean of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University who headed the Wage and Hour Division of the department during the Obama administration.

Referring to Acosta, Weill wrote in U.S. News, “Failure to appeal this flawed decision will leave millions working long hours with low pay and abrogate his responsibility to protect the hardworking people he and the Trump administration profess to care so much about.”

Labor department focus on ‘harmonious workplaces’

In one of the NLRB’s less discussed decisions this month, it overruled the Bush-era standard Lutheran Heritage Village-Livonia. This standard went into further detail on whether facially neutral workplace rules, policies, and handbook provisions could unlawfully interfere with Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act. (Under Section 7, it’s unlawful for employers to interfere with employees’ organizing rights.) The NLRB provides the example of employers threatening, interrogating, or spying on pro-union employees or promising employees benefits if they stay away from organizing as unlawful activity under Section 7.

Under the 2004 standard, employers could have the violated the National Labor Relations Act by instituting workplace rules that could be “reasonably construed” to prohibit workers from accessing these rights even if the employers don’t explicitly prohibit the activities.

Hirsch said he was surprised by the decision to reverse a Bush-era decision. “To me, it seems like they’re doing more than they needed to, which makes me wonder if they’re trying to make a point.”

Hirsch added that the decision appeared to carve out certain types of rules, such as a civility code in the workplace, and say they were permissible. The decision referred to employers who wanted “harmonious workplaces” and cast any opposition to such a requirement to be impractical, but Hirsch said there needs to be a balance in NLRB decisions between clarity and flexibility.

“That can be problematic bevause they’re rules that depending on the history of what has happened in that particular workplace and it could actually be viewed as fairly chilling for those employees,” Hirsch said. “… Labor and management relations aren’t always harmonious. In fact, they are designed not to be in a  lot of ways. Sometimes harsh language is used by both sides and sometimes that is OK, or we’re willing to tolerate that as part of the collective bargaining process rather than having violent strikes, like we did before the NRLA.”

‘Micro-unions’ are out of luck

The NLRB made another business-friendly decision this month when it decided that a unionized group of 100 welders and “rework specialists” at a manufacturing company with thousands of workers was improper. This means it will be easier for employers to oppose what are referred to as “micro unions” even though it can be advantageous for workers to organize this way. The decision went against eight federal appeals court rulings, according to Reuters.

LGBTQ workers’ not protected by Title VII

There is ongoing debate over whether LGBTQ workers have rights to ensure that they are treated fairly in the workplace under Title VII, part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion. In July, the Department of Justice undermined rights for LGBTQ people when it filed a brief arguing that prohibition of sex discrimination under federal law does not include the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Demanding Respect for Worker Safety

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

Leo GerardIn Anacortes, Wash., last week, approximately 200 Tesoro workers began picketing the oil refinery where an explosion incinerated seven of their co-workers five years earlier.

Butch Cleve walks that picket line, serving now as strike captain for the USW local union at Tesoro. On the day of the catastrophe in 2010, Cleve walked the coroner to the shrouded bodies of three of his friends.

Steve Garey, who helped make the decision to strike as a member of the USW’s oil bargaining policy committee, wept repeatedly that April day five years ago as he told the relatives of his dead friends that their loved ones would never come home.

Kim Nibarger, a USW health and safety specialist, suffered flashbacks of an earlier blast as he investigated the one at Tesoro. He was an operator in 1998 at the refinery adjacent to Tesoro in Anacortes when a massive detonation instantly cremated six of his co-workers.

The Tesoro strikers are among more than 5,000 USW members nationwide on unfair labor practice strikes demanding corporations respect their bargaining rights and the rights of workers and communities to safety.

Over the past two negotiation cycles, the USW’s 30,000 refinery and chemical workers struggled to persuade their highly profitable employers to include strong safety language in the collective bargaining agreements. The deaths at Tesoro, as well as fatalities, injuries, explosions, fires and toxic releases at other plants nationwide since then, demonstrate that the measures didn’t go far enough. Now refinery and chemical workers are trying to increase the odds that they aren’t killed at work and that their communities aren’t engulfed in flames or fumes.

Last year, when the Chemical Safety Board (CSB), an independent federal agency that investigates industrial disasters, issued its report on the Tesoro explosion, it found “a substandard safety culture at Tesoro which led to a complacent attitude toward flammable leaks and occasional fires over the years.”

The CSB said a nearly 40-year-old heat exchanger, one that Tesoro knew leaked, violently ruptured, triggering the fatal blast and fire. That caused the largest loss of life at a refinery since 2005 when 15 workers died and 180 were injured in an explosion at the BP refinery in Texas City. CSB chair Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso said last fall, “The CSB is seriously concerned by the number of deadly refinery accidents in recent years.”

Moure-Eraso said regulators and refiners must work continuously to lower risks because the loss of seven lives at Tesoro “should not have happened.”

The blast occurred a little after midnight on April 2. Steve Garey was at home, asleep. His sister in Seattle, up late, heard a news bulletin and called him. Garey got to the refinery at about 5:30 a.m.

Emergency responders, deputy sheriffs and the refinery’s fire brigade were all still there. “Everyone appeared to be shell shocked,” Garey recounted, “They looked haggard. They looked drawn. Some people were in grief, crying. Others had blank stares on their faces, not wanting to talk. Others were very, very angry, wanting to talk a lot.”

Garey, a machinist at the refinery who served on the local union’s negotiating team then, said some Tesoro officials asked him to help them break the terrible news to families after the company’s first visit went poorly.  “I spent the bulk of that first day travelling to people’s homes with stone-faced supervisors,” Garey recalled. His face, by contrast, was crumpled in grief.

“All you can do is go in and cry with them, hug them, tell them how you feel and let them know they are not alone,” said Garey, who now serves as the local union’s president.

Butch Cleve got to the plant at about the same time Garey did that morning in April, 2010. Unlike Garey, Cleve didn’t know what had happened until a supervisor told him. Cleve recounted the guy saying, “We had an explosion and fire. Four were taken to the hospital and three are missing. Well, they are not really missing, but we are not sure who is who.”

The four taken to the hospital were horribly burned. Two died that day, one later that week, and the fourth within a month.

After escorting the coroner to the places where the bodies lay, Cleve stayed at the plant another 15 hours, trying to console his co-workers. “The people from the area of the blast in particular were my concern at that point,” he said. “It was kind of taking care, talking to people, gauging them and trying to offer whatever moral support I could.” Other union leaders did the same.

“Some people were in shock. Some were inconsolable. Some were just in a haze,” recounted Cleve, who was a process equipment operator then but now works full-time on safety.

Cleve said he was angry that the company knew this equipment had a history leaks and fires and hadn’t made the repairs necessary to prevent the catastrophic failure.

“A big part of this strike is that none of us wants to be the next person to lose his life for no good reason,” he said.

At about 12:30 a.m. on April 2, 2010, Kim Nibarger, who lives in Pittsburgh now, had just arrived at his parents’ home in Washington State for a visit. He heard a sound in the distance he describes as “whoop, whoop.”

He knew it was an explosion at one of the two refineries in Anacortes. He drove to an overlook and saw flames at the Tesoro refinery and helicopter landing lights flash on at the community hospital.

As he walked onto the site the next day with federal investigators, he was angry. “I was madder than anything else because this had happened again.”

He was the local union president at the neighboring refinery in 1998 when an explosion instantly killed six workers.

That time, he was driving with his parents to a restaurant across the highway from the plant for lunch when he saw smoke and flames. His pager went off, summoning emergency responders.

He was among those who volunteered to go into the unit and retrieve the bodies. He described the condition as charcoaled.  Like Garey, Nibarger spent a lot of time crying with victims’ families.

Since 2004, Nibarger has worked full-time on the staff of the USW International trying to prevent these catastrophes. But he’s frustrated. Off the top of his head, he can cite fatal case after fatal case.

In 2012, highly toxic hydrofluoric acid was released from the CITGO East Refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas. This followed an explosion in 2009 when the deadly acid escaped the perimeter of the same refinery and a fire that critically injured a worker burned for several days.

Also in 2012, a fire at a Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif., sent 15,000 members of the community to hospitals with breathing problems. Richmond has sued the company accusing it of placing profits over public safety.

In 2013, a heat exchanger explosion at the Williams Olefins Plant in Geismar, La., killed two workers and injured 114, in what the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said was a serious violation of safety practices.

Also in 2013, a heat exchanger fire at ExxonMobil’s Beaumont, Texas, refinery killed two workers and injured 10, some critically. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited ExxonMobil and two other companies involved for safety violations.

In 2014, two workers at the Chevron Phillips Chemical plant in Port Arthur, Texas, were severely burned in a flash fire.

Just three weeks ago, a worker fell to his death at the CITGO refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas.

“We keep asking, ‘how many guys have to die?’” Nibarger said. “We think there have been plenty already.”

This article originally appeared in ourfuture.org on February 10, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Leo W. Gerard, International President of the United Steelworkers (USW), took office in 2001 after the retirement of former president George Becker.

One Year After Rana Plaza, Safety Issues in Walmart Supply Chain Persist

Monday, April 28th, 2014

Yana KunichoffOn the one-year anniversary of the deadly collapse of Rana Plaza, an eight-story factory in Bangladesh—one small component of the multi-billion dollar global garment industry—labor groups around the world are taking to the streets, chanting “never again.” In Bangladesh, family members of the over 1,100 garment workers killed joined former workers and protesters outside the site of the collapse, while activists in London formed a human chain on the city’s busiest shopping street to urge local retailers to be more transparent about working conditions in their supply chains.

In the year since the collapse, advocates say they have successfully shifted the conversation about responsibility for factory production conditions to the multinational corporations themselves—such as Benetton and Nordstrom, both of which had tags found in the Rana Plaza wreckage. The groups have also begun to facilitate a dialogue around the ways in which corporations profit from low wages and corner-cutting on safety for the production of the cheap, fashionable clothes they peddle.

But while the media may recognize that the responsibility for garment workers belongs to the multinational companies that outsource to them, few corporations have taken part in the concrete steps championed by advocacy groups to help victims. For example, a compensation fund for victims was set up to enable retailers to donate to the impacted workers, but only $15 million—one-third of the $40 million goal—has been raised by the International Labor Organization (ILO), which chairs the fund.

The corporate community’s inaction has left survivors scrambling to make a living without adequate healthcare or wages, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. Another round of interviews conducted by ActionAid, a global NGO, interviewed 1,436 survivors and 786 family members of workers who died in the Rana collapse. The study found that two-thirds of them had trouble buying food, and half found it difficult to make rent. Almost three in four hadn’t been able to work, and 76 percent were still receiving medical treatment.

Rabeya Begum was one of the 2,500 workers rescued from the rubble. In December, Begum lost both of her legs due to injuries she sustained in the collapse. But because her legs were removed months after the incident, Begum missed out on the government compensation program meant to provide a guaranteed income to workers who had lost limbs in Rana Plaza. Without a guaranteed income, she has been relying on donations to survive, but says that money will soon be gone as well. “ I have four children and my husband can no longer work because he needs to look after me,” she told Human Rights Watch.

The ILO’s Convention 121 dictates the compensation due to an injured worker based on their loss of future earnings, as well as pain and suffering. After the Bangladeshi disaster, ILO proposed $40 million in compensation for survivors.

But according to Liana Foxvog, director of organizing and communications for the forum, there are no legal mechanisms compelling retailers to pay into the compensation fund. That loophole made attempts to compel multinationals to pay damages for an earlier disaster—a 2012 factory fire in Bangladesh which left over 100 dead—all but futile.

For Rana Plaza workers, the first installment of fund payouts as it stands will be $645 per worker.

(In 2012, the year before the walls of Rana Plaza crumbled, Walmart, one of the largest multinationals that allegedly outsourced to Rana Plaza—a claim the company denied—made $17 billion in profits.)

Aside from material relief, one of the concrete gains that came out of the post-collapse outcry was the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a legally binding agreement overseen by the ILO and several workers rights groups. The accord sets safety standards and mandates public reporting of independent safety inspections. Along with union signatories, over 150 apparel corporations have signed on to the accord, though major U.S. companies like Gap and Walmart are conspicuous absences.

Though Walmart denies being an “authorized” supplier to Rana, news reports found that one of the factories listed Walmart as a client. The corporation has long been a target of labor groups in the U.S., that call on the company to improve working hours and benefits for associates in its stores, as well as for improved safety conditions in its warehouses.

Wal-mart hit abroad, and at home, with labor unrest

Thirty-some protesters picketed outside of a Walmart Express on Chicago’s North Side yesterday, the one-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse, stressing that the differences in Walmart’s treatment of its workers in the supply chain are only of severity.

David Fields, 44, was among the group of Chicago-area protestors. Fields says he was fired from his job this month—as a forklift driver at a warehouse that supplies Walmart, half an hour south of the city in Hammond, Ind.— because he spoke out about the need for an adequate fire alarm system in the building. And that safety concern was only the tip of the iceberg, said Fields, who had been working at the warehouse since September. “At some point we all started feeling like modern day slaves,” he said, describing his days working in sub-zero temperatures during the icy polar vortex that hit Chicagoland this past winter. “They didn’t care that people were getting frost-bitten.”

Fields’ complaints carry echoes of those commonly made by workers in supply-chain factories overseas, especially the pressure to always speed up production and continue working in severe climate conditions. Najneen Akter Nazma, a factory worker who survived the Rana disaster—though her husband was killed—said she and her husband had been told about a crack running across the floor near his workstation, but knew they couldn’t take a day off work because it would cost them their monthly salary. And for Fields, a slippery floor in the warehouse, wet after a day of rain—which for his supervisors is no excuse to slow down work—carries with it the constant fear of being injured by the heavy loads he used to work with.

For his part, Fields was able to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board after he was fired. Garment workers in Bangladesh—who have long labored in unregulated industries—are offered few labor protections.

Feeling the heat, but is it enough?

Foxvog has said it’s clear the garment industry has felt the public pressure to take responsibility for its contract workers overseas, will it be enough to compel corporations to change production practices? A handful of North American industry leaders—including Walmart—created the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety in response to the disaster, which they say will release regular reports and maintain standards in Bangladesh factories, much in the same way the third-party Bangladesh Accord is intended to. Despite the promises of adequate oversight, only one of the 26 companies in the alliance—Fruit of the Loom—has signed onto the Bangladesh Accord, which has the backing of U.N. groups, unions and advocates.

In a statement on the Rana Plaza tragedy, Walmart stressed that “the safety of workers in our supply chain is very important” to the company. It went on to note that Walmart had made a $3 million contribution to a Bangladeshi humanitarian fund, while also touting its role in the alliance. Advocates want Walmart to instead pay into the ILO-led compensation fund, and sign on to the safety accord, which they argue has more impartial oversight.

Walmart has repeatedly denied its connection safety and workplace issues in its warehouses, and has used plausible deniability in the past to distance itself from its Bangladeshi suppliers. Still, thanks to international pressure—and despite its initial denials of responsibility—Walmart has been forced to publicly address the conditions in Bangladesh, and make minor concessions.

But that strategy hasn’t carried over to the company’s stateside operations. Walmart has claimed it is not responsible for the conditions in the Chicago-area distribution warehouse as workers were employed through a “third party service provider,” essentially proxies the company uses to contract with the warehouses. Only time will tell if the burgeoning movements against Walmart’s labor practices in the U.S. will eventually win comparable victories.

To keep a tragedy like the Rana Plaza collapse from occurring again, workers groups are calling for a fair-trade, unionized workforce as the only way to keep companies accountable, both at home and overseas.

For Foxvog, that means that “victims need compensation,” but also that workers must be afforded the “the right to refuse dangerous work” when they fear the foundations of their building won’t stand, a right denied the workers of Rana Plaza, and with deadly consequences.

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on April 26, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Yana Kunichoff is a Chicago-based journalist covering immigration, labor, housing and social movements. Her work has appeared in the Chicago ReporterTruthout and the American Independent, among others.

Uncle Sam’s Hiring Practices

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

Bruce VailA pair of reports released this week show that the federal government routinely ignores worker safety and labor law violations when awarding contracts to private companies—and that American taxpayers are cheated in the process.

The first  comes from the staff of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pension (HELP) Committee, which conducted a yearlong investigation of federal contracting records. Unveiled Wednesday by HELP Chairman Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the report provides a long list of specific companies that break safety and labor laws yet continue to receive big government contracts. In particular, it names 49 law-breaking contractors that got more than $81 billion from Uncle Sam in 2012 alone—including AT&T, Home Depot and GM.

The HELP report was paired with one from the Center For American Progress (CAP) Action Fund, a Democratic Party advocacy group, which examined whether government contractors are actually fulfilling their contracts. The CAP report found that a number of companies shortchange taxpayers through poor performance, and names specific companies that stand out in this respect, including Lockheed Martin and KBR. Some of these scofflaw companies, such as international oil giant BP, overlapped with the HELP report lists.

The CAP report was presented Wednesday by Chairman John Podesta in a joint appearance with Harkin at CAP’s Washington D.C. headquarters.

Both Harkin and Podesta trace the origin of their respective reports to a 2010 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) that analyzed official data on safety and labor law violations by government contractors. That GAO report found that known violators routinely received new government contracts. It failed to name the specific contractor companies guilty of violations, however, and the HELP report was designed to provide the public with those names, as well as to bring the information up to date through 2012, according to Harkin. CAP report co-author David Madland says his effort “provides a nice complement” to the HELP analysis by highlighting that the contracting problem is not solely a labor issue, but also one of good government administration and the concern of taxpayers over wasteful spending.

The names of federal contractors guilty of fatal worker safety violations will be familiar to most Working In These Times readers. Harkin began his presentation by pointing to the workplace deaths of 10 employees in three separate incidents at the facilities of laundry operator Cintas Corp., shipbuilder ST Engineering Ltd. and oil refiner Tesoro Corp.  Despite these deaths, all three companies received federal contracts in 2012, with Tesoro alone getting $463 million last year, the report states. A lengthier list of safety violators (some fatal, some non-fatal) includes international oil giant BP, commodities conglomerate Louis Dreyfus Group, beef and chicken processor Tyson Foods, auto manufacturers General Motors and Chrysler, and defense contractor General Dynamics. Eighteen such companies received almost $23 billion in federal contracts between 2006 and 2013, the report details.

Harkin pointed out that of 18 companies with terrible safety records, only one, BP, had ever been barred from federal contracts—and that suspension from new contracts was spurred by the environmental damage from the 2010 Deep Water Horizon oil rig explosion, not from the safety violations (although 10 workers were killed). Federal contracting officers routinely ignore the bad worker safety records of companies competing for government business, he added, and reforms are needed to correct the problem.

Similar issues are raised when analyzing the records on wage-and-hour law violations, according to both HELP and CAP. Again the HELP report unearths many household names from the Department of Labor records of companies obliged to make back wage payments to workers for legal violations. Among them are Hewlett-Packard Co., AT&T, General Dynamics, Nestle S.A., Lockheed Martin Corp., Cerberus Capital Management, and Home Depot Inc. A group of the 32 worst offenders received  $73.1 billion from the federal government between 2007 and 2012, the HELP report says.

Harkin conceded that not all violations are so serious that contractors should be punished by exclusion from government business. Some violations apparently arise from simple errors, unavoidable accidents or other benign sources, he said. However, when the Labor Department finds willful and repeated violations, it can assess civil penalties. Harkin suggested that the contractors penalized in this way should receive special scrutiny before any new contracts are awarded. HELP researchers came up with the names of Sprint Nextel Corp, UnitedHealth Group, Marriott International, C&S Wholesalers Inc., Acosta Inc. and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center as examples of contractors already assessed for “severe and repeated” violations of labor law. Together, those six companies received about $470 million in federal contracts in 2012 alone, the report said.

Like the safety violators, none of the wage-and-hour labor-law violators have been barred from the further government contracts, Harkin emphasized. “There is an existing legal requirement (that contractors obey labor law) but it’s clear to me that compliance is not being considered” when new contracts are awarded, he said.

CAP came up with some of the same names when it separately analyzed the government data and “found that the companies with the worst records of harming workers were also guilty of shortchanging taxpayers through poor performance on government contracts and similar business agreements in ways that defraud the government and otherwise provide a bad value for taxpayers.”

Cited in this regard were:

  • KBR, a construction and defense contractor notable for its work in Iraq and Afghanistan, which received $11.4 billion in contracts between 2009 and 2013
  • BP, the international oil giant, which received $4.6 billion in contracts (plus $433 million in offshore oil and gas leases) 2009-20013
  • Corrections Corporation of America or CCA, the nation’s largest operator of private prisons, which got $2.3 billion in government contracts 2009-2013
  • Akai Security, notable for its agreements to provide private security at Department of Justice facilities nationwide, which got $3.6 billion on government contracts 2009-2013
  • Wackenhut Services, whose subsidiary ArmorGroup of North America provides private security guards at U.S. embassies overseas, which got $1.7 billion 2009-2012
  • Lockheed Martin, a diversified military contractor, which got $170 billion 2009-2013
  • Group Health Cooperative, a health maintenance organization (HMO), which got $20.2 million 2009-2012

Both Harkin and Podesta were full of righteous indignation about this state of affairs at their joint appearance Wednesday, but neither offered any sweeping new proposals to fix the problem. The HELP report states that existing law allows federal contract administrators to exclude offending companies and suggests that improved reporting and database management by the Labor Department could make it easier to bar scofflaw companies. It also proposes that President Barack Obama issue several small-scale executive orders that would streamline the process of legally excluding some companies. The CAP conclusion was even less ambitious, merely blaming “weak guidance and lax enforcement of the regulations” for the chronic contracting problems.

It’s possible that in ignoring the possibility of stronger federal laws, both reports implicitly recognized the impracticality of any new legislative initiative in Washington’s current political environment.

CAP’s Madland tells Working In These Times that the new reports represent a continuing effort by Democrats to wrestle with the contracting issue. Reform proposals early in the Obama administration known as “high road” contracting were abandoned in the face of political opposition, he says, but the need to make reforms to the contract process remains. “Workers are being killed because companies cut corners. …The system is broken and needs to be reformed.”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on December 12, 2013.  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.

A Victory for Silica Dust Exposed Workers?

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

Mike ElkToday, after a much-criticized delay on issuing a rule to limit workers’ exposure to cancer-causing silica dust, the Obama administration put forward a proposed rule for public consideration. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that once the rule is in effect, it could save 700 lives a year and prevent nearly 1,600 cases of silicosis annually.

In an OSHA press release, Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, commented, “Exposure to silica can be deadly, and limiting that exposure is essential. Every year, exposed workers not only lose their ability to work, but also to breathe. This proposal is expected to prevent thousands of deaths from silicosis—an incurable and progressive disease—as well as lung cancer, other respiratory diseases and kidney disease. We’re looking forward to public comment on the proposal.”

Workplace safety advocates applauded the decision. In a press release issued by the non-profit National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, executive director Tom O’Conner noted that workers who are most exposed to silica tend to be those least able to advocate for themselves.

“Low-wage immigrant workers and temporary workers are disproportionally represented in the industries with silica exposure—and are the most vulnerable to retaliation should they report potential hazards, injuries or illnesses,” O’Conner said. “This new rule will help to pull them out of the shadows and make them safer at work. Everyone, regardless of immigration status, deserves a safe workplace.”

However, some in organized labor say the fight to enact the rule has just begun, as it will have to undergo a public comment period before it is issued. In his response to the news of the rule, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka cautioned:

But this rule is only a proposal–workers exposed to silica dust will only be protected when a final rule is issued.  Some industry groups are certain to attack the rule and try to stop it in its tracks. The AFL-CIO will do everything we can to see that does not happen. We urge the Obama administration to continue moving forward with the public rule-making process without delay. The final silica rule should be issued as fast as humanly possible, to protect the health and lives of American workers.

This article originally appeared in Working in These Times on August 23, 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.

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