FDL Book Salon Welcomes David Michaels: Doubt Is Their Product

doubtistheirproduct-david-michaels.jpgI first realized the power — and evil — of the dreaded practitioners of “manufactured doubt” when I was working at OSHA in the late 1990’s on the ergonomics standard. That was the regulation that was going to address the plague of disabling back injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis and other musculoskeletal disorders that at that time – and still today – make up the most common source of injury among American workers.

In case the vision of a worker making 20,000 knife cuts a day in a chicken processing plant, or lifting 250 pound slippery patients all day long didn’t convince you that back, shoulder and wrist injuries were work-related, there were enough scientific studies to choke a horse. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health put out an analysis of the data in a book big enough to put the New York City telephone book to shame.

After 10 years of fighting industry opposition and a hostile Congress, the standard was issued in late 2000. Nevertheless, in one of the first actions of the Bush administration, the Republican Congress and George Bush repealed the standard. The main argument used by the Republicans and industry? Ergonomics is junk science, and not enough sound science. "We don’t know the exact amount of physical stress needed to cause carpal tunnel syndrome," industry-paid researchers argued. "We don’t know exactly how much weight a worker can lift to cripple her back."

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Sky Trip: Air Traffic Controllers Burned Out by FAA Rules

AFL-CIO blogger Tula Connell is substituting this week for Jordan Barab.

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If you traveled over the holidays and made it back safely, thank an air traffic controller. The nation’s air controllers are doing a monumental job in the face of constant attacks by the Bush administration’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

In the past few years, the FAA repeatedly has cut staffing at air traffic control towers. The FAA employed 15,606 controllers in 2002, according the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), but now that number has shrunk to 14,305 while air traffic continues to grow.

Further, the FAA has decreased the amount of time between work shifts, forcing controllers to work even when they have not had sufficient rest. Never mind that controller fatigue may have contributed to the Comair crash that killed 49 people in Lexington, Ky., last year. The lone air traffic controller on duty had only nine hours between two work shifts—and only two hours of sleep before going back on duty, according to the Associated Press. For years before the crash, Lexington controllers and their supervisors repeatedly had voiced concern about staffing issues at the airport.

Over the Labor Day weekend, the FAA unilaterally imposed new work rules on air traffic controllers—rules that NATCA says pose real and potentially dangerous consequences for the safety of airline passengers and crews.

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Labor At The Dawn Of 2007: What’s Going On?

matewan.jpgI may be physically back from Winter Solstice Break, but I'm not quite mentally back, so today I'm going to ramble — kind of a stream of consciousness spew about what's happening in labor at the dawn of 2007.

Here goes:

First, let's look back at last year. Not a bad year, labor-wise. Unions were instrumental in an amazing election win that will soon give birth to minimum wage bills passing the House, and likely the Senate (even if George Will thinks the minimum wage should be zero). The House is also planning to give Transportation Security Administration (TSA) workers rights that were taken away by a Bush administration that sees unions as akin to terrorists. Meanwhile, SEIU scored two major organizing wins for janitors at the University of Miami and in Houston. It was also an interesting year in workplace safety, as I explain on my home blog.

And shortly before Christmas, By a 2-1 vote, Goodyear employees ratified a new contract after an 86 day strike against the tire company. Not a total victory, but a victory non-the-less:

The U.S. contract establishes a company-financed trust fund of more than $1 billion that will secure medical and prescription drug benefits for current and future retirees, the union said. Future contributions will include cost-of-living payments and profit-sharing funds.

The new contract also requires Goodyear to drop its demand for immediate closure of its tire-manufacturing plant in Tyler, Texas. The contract provides one-year period of transition during which workers at Tyler will have the opportunity “to take advantage of sizeable retirement buyouts,” the union said.

“It took a strike, but we achieved a fair and equitable contract that protects quality health care for active and retired members,” USW Executive Vice President Ron Hoover said

Looking forward to the first 100 hours in Congress, the Christian Science Monitor describes what a raise in the minimum wage means to low income families:

Oklahoma doesn't have high living costs, compared with some other states. But to cover the basic needs of a family of four here typically requires an income of more than $33,000, according to an online budget calculator created by the liberal Economic Policy Institute in Washington.

At $5.15 an hour, it would take three full-time jobs for a family to earn that much.

Many minimum-wage workers, it's true, don't have children. Often they are young people on their first job.

But the Hosier family is not unusual. Of the workers who stand to reap higher pay if Congress raises the wage floor, the vast majority are adults, most work full-time, and about 1 in 4 have dependent children, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Moreover, they are often the sole breadwinner in the household. Of families with children, nearly half of those who would be affected by a minimum-wage hike get all their earned income from one low-wage worker.

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Baaaad Bosses. And What We Can Do About them.

By AFL-CIO  Guest Blogger Tula Connell

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We all know about Bad Bosses. But this summer, when Working America held its first-ever My Bad Boss Contest, the roaches really crawled out of the woodwork.

Like the boss who told his part-time staff person she had to work longer hours—even though she wanted to spend more time with her dying mother.

Or the one who made his employee pay for his own chair at work.

And the boss who “Googles™” employees to dig up dirt on their personal lives and spends time walking around the office barking like a dog, whinnying like a horse and making cicada noises.

More than 2,500 employees submitted their bad boss stories to Working America, an AFL-CIO community affiliate. Visitors to the My Bad Boss Contest site voted for the worst boss of the week, and the embattled grand prize winner got a much-deserved week’s vacation getaway and $1,000 toward airfare, compliments of the AFL-CIO membership benefit organization, Union Privilege.

The winning entry described her boss as a millionaire dentist who, because so many patients canceled appointments on Sept. 11, 2001, took the money he would have made that day out of his employees’ paychecks.

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Rights Of All Workers

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By Tula Connell at the AFL-CIO

Why should unions care about low-wage immigrant workers?

Don’t they just undercut the wages and benefits of other hard-working people? Aren’t we slicing our own throats by giving them a hand?

Many people—union and nonunion—make such arguments in good faith, believing that by holding on to their own diminishing piece of the economic pie they will be better off than if they share it with others. It’s much harder to recognize that economic hardships are rooted in laws that enable corporations to get away with nickel-and-diming—and outright abusing—their employees than it is to point the blame at the low-wage worker with an accent.

And, unfortunately, the U.S. union movement historically made similar arguments, especially in its early years at the turn of the 20th century, when a large influx of immigrants challenged union leaders already trying to hang on to tenuous workplace gains in the face of fierce battles against corporate giants like U.S. Steel.

Today, the union movement recognizes that by raising wages and improving the working conditions of the lowest-paid employee, all workers ultimately will benefit. In doing so, we deprive corporations of a key weapon in their race to the bottom as they try to out-Wal-Mart Wal-Mart. We deprive them of the ability to divide and conquer. We take away their ability to replace family-supporting jobs with low-wage ones, and we put an end to the racial and ethnic division U.S. employers have used for more than a century to divide workers who, if they joined together, could successfully challenge corporate greed. The ability to exploit any worker hurts all workers. If any group of workers' rights are not protected, those workers can be exploited and standards are pulled down for all workers.

This year, the AFL-CIO union movement has taken significant steps toward reaching out to the nation’s immigrant workers. Along with traditional worksite organizing—the Mine Workers’ efforts at Peabody Energy and the Communications Workers of America’s hugely successful campaign among Cingular Wireless workers, to name just two examples—we have launched innovative partnerships with several key immigrant worker groups. (more…)

The Next Congress: Good News, Bad News and Hard Work For Labor

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As we move into the holiday season, we're all looking forward to the birth of the new Democratic Congress — and those of us who work for a living, who are union members, who want to be union members, or who are convinced that the success of the labor movement is vital to the progressive movement, are focused on the labor issues that the new Congress will take up — and hopefully pass.

Nancy Pelosi has her "First 100 Hours " agenda, and John Sweeney has labor's agenda. Happily, most of their issues overlap nicely. Raising the minimum wage, dealing with prescription drug costs, making it harder for companies to go bankrupt and shed their pensions, health care benefits and labor agreements, improvements in workplace health and safety protections, improved access to health care and, of course passing the Employee Free Choice Act which will make it easier to organize unions are all issues that are part of the first 100 days — or at least the first several months of the new Congress.

But now the real work begins. As a veteran of a Democratic administration, I can say from experience that the bad news is that working with Democrats is more work than working with Republicans.

The good news is that you can actually make some progress with Democrats. I mean, with Republicans in charge, you know you can't get anything good done. All you have to do is stop bad things from happening, which is generally futile.

The good news here is that, as Nathan Newman notes, this is a much more solidly pro-labor caucus than we've ever seen before. The bad news is that the news is already full of stories about corporate lobbyists writing huge checks to Democrats . This can't be a good thing. I mean, it may be good for individual legislators' bank accounts, but bad for the rest of us. Now we must be wary of all kinds of compromisers, turncoats and those who are always looking over their shoulders while planning for the next election. 

Speaking of which, all is not peaceful even with the Democratic "family." Competing with the labor agenda is pro-free trade "Rubinomics," named after Clinton's long-time Secretary of the Treasury, Robert Rubin, and personified by the Hamilton Project .

AFL-CIO leaders, contending Democrats won the midterm elections because of voter concern about job security and stagnant wages, say it's time to set aside the free-trade policies touted by Rubin.

"We need to review the Rubin agenda that's led to millions of lost jobs and declining standard of living for the middle class,'' said United Steelworkers President Leo Girard. “It's an agenda that has been very good for Citigroup and the financial community because they've been able to finance the relocation of jobs and refinance the trade deficits.''

Organized labor has long been at odds with "Rubinomics,'' the phrase coined to describe President Bill Clinton's economic policy, masterminded by Rubin, to promote free trade and reduce the budget deficit. Now, with Democrats regaining control of Congress, such issues may take on new urgency as labor sees a chance to wield greater influence over policy.

***

Rubin, 68, has called for a new economic direction by balancing the federal government's budget through spending cuts and tax increases, more free-trade agreements, wage insurance for workers dislocated by globalization and restraining personal- injury lawsuits.

AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Rich Trumka has accused them of forgetting about the reasons Democrats were elected: the need to address economic growth,  stagnating wages and living standards of American working families. Machinists spokesman Rick Sloan was more blunt: 

"When the wizards of Wall Street start dictating Democratic policy, the first to be forgotten are the Democratic voters who made these election successes possible,'' said Rick Sloan, a spokesman for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. "We get screwed every time these guys grab the handles of power. They forget the need to create jobs. They are much more interested in Chinese growth than Cleveland's growth.''

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These Elections Aren’t Democratic

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AFL-CIO blogger Tula Connell  is substituting this week for Jordan Barab.

Voting by secret ballot sounds like the American way.

At least it did before paperless electronic voting machines. But there’s another secret ballot election process that definitely is not democratic: The one that takes place when you’re trying to form a union.

Right now, if you and your co-workers want to join a union, you must go through the federal National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which includes an “election” complete with secret ballots—unless your employer is one of the rare companies that won’t force you to do so.

Because NLRB “elections” are anything but democratic.

The NLRB process takes so long, is so tilted in favor of employers and has such weak remedies, it actually encourages managers to harass, intimidate and even fire employees.
It’s illegal, but 25 percent of private-sector employers fire workers who try to form a union. And many more threaten workers with closings, layoffs and outsourcing.

And even though some of these employer actions are against the law, workers who try to get their jobs back or stop the harassment face months or years of litigation to battle their (more…)

Goodyear Strikers: Old Dogs, New Tricks

Last week I wrote about the contract victory of Houston after a three-week strike.  It was a perfect example of the new unionism: organizing low-paid, immigrant service sector workers using a combination of traditional union strategies combined with a coroporate campaign and civil disobedience tactics molded during the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960’s.  

 

But there’s another strike going on now, at Goodyear Tire. I wrote about the strike almost two months ago it when it started. At first glance, it looks like the opposite of the janitors’ strike – an old time industrial union in a seemingly futile struggle to survive in an industry that’s been heading overseas in search of cheap labor.

 

15,000 Goodyear Tire and Rubber workers, represented by the United Steelworkers, walked off the job last October at 16 plants in the United States and Canada after the company refused to budge on its demands to close a manufacturing plant in Tyler, Texas, and to cut back on retiree benefits. They’re fighting over life and death issues that have stricken masses of middle class Americans over the past decades – loss of well-paying jobs, salary and benefit cuts, and undermining of promised retirement benefits. Instead of shutting down, Goodyear is running its factories with management employees and scabs. Talks broke off Nov. 17 just days after the two sides got back to the bargaining table for the first time since Steelworkers walked off the job Oct. 5.

 

The Steelworkers may be one of the oldest dogs in the labor movement, but that doesn't mean they aren't learning some new tricks. One of the new tricks is the use of YouTube. The clip above features former VP candidate (and future Presidential candidate???) John Edwards speaking at a union rally in Akron, OH. A couple of other YouTube videos (here and here)  link the use of strikebreakers to defective tires, recalling the 270 fatalities caused by Firestone/Ford Explorer roll-over tragedy that was blamed on replacement workers during a strike. (more…)

Worker Victory In Houston! Texas?

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"Nobody thought that poor Latinos of Houston would be successful, but today we can stand up and carry our heads very high," Flora Aguilar, a Houston janitor and member of the Service Employees International Union bargaining committee, told janitors gathered at the George R. Brown Convention Center on Monday night to celebrate their victory. "We all won today."

Houston, we  have a solution.

You've heard it all before. Unions can't organize in the South — maybe Florida, but never in Texas. Immigrant workers are too intimidated to organize. Blah, blah, blah.

5,300 janitors in Houston just proved everyone wrong yesterday with an amazing contract victory in Houston, Texas. After months of negotiations and failure to reach a contract, the janitors went on strike last month for higher pay, more guaranteed work hours and health insurance. The janitors, who currently earn $5.30 per hour, were organized by the Service Employees International Union last year in what was the largest union organizing campaign in the South in years.

The victory came only two days after mounted police on horseback violently broke up a peaceful demonstration by strikers and their supporters, throwing dozens into jail. Harris County District Attorney initially set a bond of $888,888 cash for each of the 44 peaceful protesters arrested, for a combined total of $39.1 Million. (Compare this with a $30,000 bond recently set for a Harris County man recently charged with murder.)

At least one person was hospitalized — an 83 year-old janitor from New York City — as the police attacked the demonstrators:

Houston janitor Mateo Portillo, 33, a Houston janitor who works for the cleaning firm GCA at the CenterPoint Energy building, said, “The horses came all of a sudden. They started jumping on top of people. I heard the women screaming. A horse stomped on top of me. I fell to the ground and hurt my arm. The horses just kept coming at us. I was terrified. I never thought the police would do something so aggressive, so violent.”

Another demonstrator, Anna Denise Solís, told of the oppressive conditions at the jail after their arrest.

They really tried to break us down. The first night they put the temperature so high that a woman—one of the other inmates—had a seizure. The second night they made it freezing and took away many of our blankets. We didn’t have access to the cots so we had to sleep on a concrete floor. When we would finally fall asleep the guards would come and yell ‘Are you Anna Denise Solís? Are you so and so?’ One of the protesters had a fractured wrist from the horses. She had a cast on and when she would fall asleep the guard would kick the cast to wake her up. She was in a lot of pain.

The guards would tell us: ‘This is what you get for protesting.’ One of them said, ‘Who gives a shit about janitors making 5 dollars an hour? Lots of people make that much.’ The other inmates—there were a lot of prostitutes in there—said that they had never seen the jail this bad. The guards told them: ‘We’re trying to teach the protesters a lesson.’

The three year agreements starts the janitors on the road to the American middle class.

  • Janitors pay will increase to $6.25 an hour on January 1, 2007, $7.25 an hour on January 1, 2008, and $7.75 by January 1, 2009. That's a total 126 percent over the course of the contract.
  • The new contract will increase work hours for janitors currently provided with only 4 hours of work a night to six hours a shift in two years. The additional hours and the wage increase mean that janitors who make $5.15 an hour will see their income more than double by the end of 2008.
  • Starting January 1, 2009 janitors will be eligible for individual health care insurance for $20/month. Family insurance will also be available for a cost of $175 a month.  
  • Workers will receive six paid holidays per year and be able to accrue paid vacation time beginning the first year of the contract. For many janitors, this is the first time in their lives that they'll receive paid time off from work.

Pay will still fall below other SEIU organized cities. Janitors in Denver, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington DC have won the right for full family health care and full time work, and they're paid between $9.45 an hour (in Denver) to $13.80/hour in Chicago.

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Labor Pulls Dems Over The Finish Line

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As we're all well aware, the election is over, the returns are in and all is well in the world (well, except for the president and the other guy ahead of Nancy Pelosi in the presidential line of succession.) Another thing that's once again well in the world is the return to supremacy of labor's get out the vote effort, as well as labor's influence over the outcome of the election. For the first time in the last couple of elections, labor's get-out-the-vote effort apparently bested Karl Roves GOTV. According to post –election polling,

While nonunion voters provided a two-point margin of victory for Democratic candidates, union households made it a five-point difference—turning a modest victory into a wave. Union households voted 74 percent to 26 percent for Democratic candidates…. In key battleground Senate races, union members voted 73 percent to 27 percent for Democrats.

Not only that, but although union members make up only 12% of the working population, they comprised one in four voters. In fact, in some areas, the entire winning Democratic margin came from the labor vote, as reflected in at least three of the senate races in which the winning Democrat lost the Republican non-union vote. Labor focused particularly on so-called "drop-off" voters, those who voted in the 2004 Presidential election, but not in the 2002 congressional vote. The AFL-CIO reached out to 496,000 drop-off voters in Ohio alone. Union leaders boasted that union members accounted for 5.6 million of 6.8 million-vote margin in favor of Democrats over Republicans in the House races.

And what were all of these union voters so concerned about? Well, like the rest of America, the deteriorating war in Iraq and the culture of corruption led the list. But according to pollster Geoff Garin, it's also still the economy —  raising the minimum wage, protecting workers’ wages and benefits following corporate bankruptcies, requiring Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices, reforming trade agreements to protect workers' rights,and expanding health coverage:

Among the total electorate, 39 percent of voters said the economy was an extremely important issue for them in this election. These voters broke solidly for the Democrats—voting for a Democratic candidate in House races by a margin of 59 percent to 39 percent.

And despite President Bush's complaint following the election that the American people just didn't understand how well the economy was doing, it turns out that the American people knew what they knew: the rich were getting richer while the middle class was being left behind, they weren't participating in the good fortunes of the stock market, and although the administration bragged about low jobless number immediately preceding the election, people were fully aware that most new jobs have been Wal-martized:

President Bush and many Republicans expected the economy to be a strong issue for the GOP this year. Many of the so-called pundits agreed with them—reasoning that the improvement in the stock market and the relatively low unemployment rate would drive voters to the Republican column. Of course, working Americans who experience the reality of economic life today had a different point of view—and acted upon it in the election.

 

Polling conducted before the election shows the employment rate is not a good measure of Americans’ real confidence in the economy. A significant majority believe (rightly so) that the new jobs we are added to the economy are not as good as the jobs we have lost, both in terms of pay and benefit. In polling conducted for the AFL-CIO, most Americans say that even if you get a good education and are willing to work hard, it is hard to find a job in today’s economy that is both secure and good paying.

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