Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘worker safety’

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.

“Total Worker Health” vs. “Wellness” vs. “Well-Being”: Framing Worker Health Issues

Tuesday, June 11th, 2013

davidyamadaLast month’s “Work, Stress and Health” conference in Los Angeles featured the theme of “Total Worker Health.” This important biennial event is co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA), National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and Society for Occupational Health Psychology (SOHP). On its webpage, NIOSH defines Total Worker Health this way:

Total Worker Health™ is a strategy integrating occupational safety and health protection with health promotion to prevent worker injury and illness and to advance health and well-being.

As conceptualized by NIOSH and others, Total Worker Health engages both legal mandates and pro-active measures to promote worker health and safety.

Wellness

Another term often invoked at this conference was “wellness,” usually in association with employer-sponsored programs that promote smart health habits, such as good nutrition, exercise, weight control, smoking cessation, and mindfulness practices.

Wellness programs are designed to contribute to healthier and more productive workforces and to save organizations money in the through lower health insurance premiums and less absenteeism and turnover.

Well-being

A third term that recurred at Work, Stress and Health was “well-being.” The federalCenters for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) examine well-being in the context of a concept they label “Health-Related Quality of Life.” They define well-being this way:

Well-being is a positive outcome that is meaningful for people and for many sectors of society, because it tells us that people perceive that their lives are going well. Good living conditions (e.g., housing, employment) are fundamental to well-being. Tracking these conditions is important for public policy. However, many indicators that measure living conditions fail to measure what people think and feel about their lives, such as the quality of their relationships, their positive emotions and resilience, the realization of their potential, or their overall satisfaction with life — i.e., their “well-being.” . . . Well-being generally includes global judgments of life satisfaction and feelings ranging from depression to joy. 

More than word salad

Okay, so you might be thinking, “Total Worker Health” . . . “Wellness” . . . “Well-Being” . . . blah blah blah. Just a toss of word salad among terms that you basically can mix and match.

Maybe so, at least from a distance. But these terms do carry subtle distinctions and connotations within the world of employment relations, especially in the fields of occupational safety & health and organizational psychology.

In a Good Company blog post, Dr. Matt Grawitch (St. Louis U.), an organizational psychologist who plays a key role in the APA’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program, reflected upon how these terms were invoked at the conference and cast his vote for well-being as the best framing concept:

For organizations, this means you have to have a strategy, one emphasizing the development of a workplace that fosters (or at least does not detract from) overall worker well-being. It should not start with the implementation of a wellness program; it should start by taking a long hard look at the culture, structure and business practices of the organization to identify where those important contextual factors are enhancing or detracting from worker well-being. It should include an assessment of a range of well-being factors (including health). And it should result in a multi-faceted approach that leverages a host of psychologically healthy workplace practices to effectively improve worker well-being.

Exercise can be a good way to relieve stress that we experience from an abusive supervisor, work-life conflict or poor working conditions. But wouldn’t the organization and its employees reap greater rewards if abusive supervision, work-life conflict and poor working conditions were eliminated? Then, exercise could be used to enhance health rather than to simply maintain it (or keep it from deteriorating even more).

I’m happy to cast a concurring vote. I confess that I had not given this any attention before. But at the conference, my thought process was first triggered by a sidebar conversation with Dr. Tapas Ray of NIOSH, who shared with me how his research is centering on measures of well-being. By the end of the conference, further informed by other discussions and panels, I had became a convert. Indeed, I realized that well-being, within the context of workplace health and safety, is a very good fit with broader questions about human dignity and employment law that I’ve been raising for several years.

I’m sure that I’ll be exploring these conceptual links in future posts.

This article was originally printed on Minding the Workplace on June 10, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: David Yamada is a tenured Professor of Law and Director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School in Boston.  He is an internationally recognized authority on the legal aspects of workplace bullying, and he is author of model anti-bullying legislation — dubbed the Healthy Workplace Bill — that has become the template for law reform efforts across the country.  In addition to teaching at Suffolk, he holds numerous leadership positions in non-profit and policy advocacy organizations.

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