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This Day in Labor History: April 28, 1971

[ 22 ] April 28, 2013 |

On April 28, 1971, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration opened its doors. The creation of OSHA proved to be one the greatest victory in American history for workplace health. Unfortunately, OSHA could never live up to its potential to revolutionize the workplace due to the organized resistance of corporations, the conservative movement that would transform American politics beginning in the late 1970s, and regulatory capture that limited the agency’s effectiveness. That said, OSHA has done a tremendous amount to improve workers’ lives.

Unsafe and unhealthy working conditions had long plagued American workers. The Gilded Age theory of workplace risk, encapsulated in the 1842 Massachusetts Supreme Court decision Farwell v. The Boston and Worcester Rail Road Corporation, placed workplace responsibility onto workers rather than employers, saying they assumed the risk when they agreed to work. By the 1890s, this had begun to break down after workers successfully sued corporations for injury and death. Employer supported worker compensation plans began passing at the state level in the 1910s, allowing corporations to avoid lawsuits and rationalize losses for workplace injuries, while also giving quite little to workers. Industrial reformers like Alice Hamilton continued drawing connections between worker health and exposure on the job, leading to very slow reforms. By the Great Society, keeping workers safe became increasingly important to policy makers. Workers were increasingly unsatisfied with the exposures they faced on the job, the rising environmental movement provided an ecological language to workplace environments, and liberals within the Johnson Administration sought to center broader quality of life issues to the Democratic Party. Even when Vietnam blew up LBJ’s career, the momentum for a federal workplace safety program, like much else of the Great Society, carried over into the Nixon Administration.

On December 29, 1970, Richard Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, creating an agency to oversee workplace safety and health that would begin operation on April 28, 1971. The act also created the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) as a part of OSHA to spearhead research programs on these issues.

Organized labor by and large supported OSHA’s creation, but only a few unions really took advantage of the agency to bring workplace safety and health to the front of union politics. The AFL-CIO pushed for full implementation of the act as one of many legislative goals, but did not seek to empower workers on the shop floor by fighting for safer workplaces. A few individual unions however did do this–the International Association of Machinists, the International Woodworkers of America, and most famously the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers. These were also the most reformist oriented unions in the AFL-CIO during the 1970s, seeking to channel the broader disgruntlement of the working-class away from racial politics and toward something useful. They were also the unions who often chafed against the conservative leadership of George Meany and the culture of staid bureaucracy that dominated many unions during these years. The labor leader most associated with OSHA and workplace health is Tony Mazzochi of the OCAW. Sometimes called “The Rachel Carson of the American Workplace,” Mazzochi had pressed through the 1960s for vigorous workplace safety programs in union contracts, empowered union members to become activists on the shop floor for workplace health, and built bridges between the labor and environmental movements to make the workplace environment an important agenda item for both. After OSHA’s founding, Mazzochi became the national leader in pressing the agency to issue stronger asbestos standards to protect both workers and consumers.

The turning point in OSHA history was the election of Ronald Reagan. In 1981, Reagan gutted the OSHA budget in 1982. Reagan’s OSHA director, Thorne Auchter, a Florida real estate developer, signaled a switch in OSHA policies when he reversed a regulation that allowed construction workers to view their own medical records for information on toxic exposure. You can read more about the Auchter years here,.

Given the time that an agency needs to establish itself, create programs, and conduct research, in many ways OSHA was just reaching its stride when Reagan slashed the budgets. For the International Woodworkers of America, the decline in OSHA funding was devastating. The IWA was a bit slower than OCAW in engaging OSHA seriously. The election of a new generation of union leadership in 1976 catapulted the union into one of most aggressive for using OSHA as a tool to empower workers on the shop floor. The IWA trained workers in OSHA policies, then sent them back to the shop floor to demand problems be cleaned up. It even suggested to OSHA that the agency send a staffer to work directly with the IWA, which was denied because it was outside the purview of the agency, but also got the attention of the agency as a union serious about workplace health. Basil Whiting, Deputy Assistant Secretary of OSHA, told the IWA Convention in 1977, “You have been one of the few unions in the United States that has grasped the nettle here, has begun to move forward in terms of developing your own internal capacity to take action in relation to the serious problems of health and safety that are killing off your members.”

The Reagan budgets, combined with the decline in timber employment due to outside factors and thus a smaller membership, put a stop to these workplace safety programs. NIOSH grants to fund the effects of ash from the Mt. St. Helens explosion were ended, as was a federal grant to the University of Washington to study chemical exposure among plywood mill workers. Other plans to develop compensation programs for physical aliments suffered by loggers were shelved entirely.

Despite Reagan’s defunding of OSHA programs, overall workplace safety has improved significantly in the United States since 1971. A good bit of this has to do with industry outsourcing industrial risk to Latin America and Asia, but there have also been real changes in workplace culture. In 1970, there were 18 workplace fatalities for every 100,000 workers. By 2006, that fell to 4.1 deaths per 100,000 workers. Occupational injury and illness rates fell by 40% over the same years.

As we have seen in recent weeks, OSHA’s ability to protect workers has severe limitations due to underfunding. In 1980, OSHA employed 2950 people. In 2006, it employed only 2092 people, despite the near doubling of the size of the workforce. The explosion at the West Fertilizer plant in Texas on April 17 that killed at least 14 people demonstrated the agency’s very real limitations. There are so few OSHA inspectors that it would take 129 years to inspect every workplace in the country at current staffing levels. Punishment for OSHA violations are often weak and employers have minimum fear that of any real punishment.

This is the 57th post in this series. The rest are archived here.

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and Entrenched Inequality Between Nations

[ 20 ] April 27, 2013 |

During the discussion around my piece calling for international safety standards at the workplace with real enforcement teeth that could implicate American corporations subcontracting with unscrupulous employers, a reader suggested I read Augustine Sedgwick’s March 2012 article in International Labor and Working-Class History. Entitled “‘The Spice of the Department Store’: ‘The “Consumers’ Republic,’ Imported Knock-Offs from Latin America, and the Invention of International Development, 1936–1941,” Sedgwick gets at how U.S. labor law has entrenched unequal standards between nations.

The Roosevelt Administration made sure the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 would not cover foreign manufacturers importing goods to the United States. There was a fight over which version of the FLSA would pass. The Roosevelt Administration’s bill, originally sponsored by Senator Hugo Black before his Supreme Court appointment, applied it domestically only, but a House bill introduced by William Connery of Massachusetts eliminated the word “state” from the bill, which would have opened the door to international standards on any product imported into the United States.

Roosevelt pushed hard to squelch Connery’s bill because his administration saw a Latin America developing under U.S. corporate leadership as a good long-term strategy to rebuilding the American economy coming out of the Great Depression. The administration saw inequality as an inherent part of the international economy necessary for profit and thus had no problem writing legislation that encouraged the production of consumer goods for the American market overseas, even if they were produced in conditions that could lead to violent worker revolts. In fact, the exporting of violent worker revolt was a central administration strategy of the FLSA.

Black’s bill won out. The FLSA did a lot of good for workers in the United States, establishing a national minimum wage, overtime pay, and eliminating most child labor. Current minimum wage hikes are essentially revisions to the original FLSA.

The effect of all this on Latin American nations and their workers was highly mixed. It did start the process of industrialization for many nations that wanted to move away from agricultural economies. In order to manage the newly industrialized labor force, governments created social welfare programs that provided benefits to working-class people. On the other hand, it led to increased inequality and significant social dissent that fueled the rise of the Latin American left in the 1950s. Moreover, Sedgwick argues that the American creation of its consumers’ republic was intricately tied with American imperialism in Latin America, at first during the so-called Good Neighbor Policy years and especially in the Cold War.

Sedgwick doesn’t get into working conditions per se or the specifics of how this plays out in individual nations, but we see how the U.S. built significant pieces of the modern globalized economy during the late 1930s. The FLSA intentionally codified differences in labor in order to promote American corporate investment overseas and inexpensive consumer products for Americans. At the time, this was at least predicated on the idea of the American working class growing in consumer power and wealth. So for Americans at least, this program worked pretty well for forty years or so. But by the 1970s, that half of the equation seemed dispensable and instead American corporations simply moved all production to nations with cheap labor under an unequal system long promoted by the American government.

This helps elucidate the present, with downward pressure on wages and working conditions in the United States and dying workers in Bangladesh. I recommend reading Sedgwick’s article if you can, which you should be able to do if you have access to most any university library system. If you don’t, sorry. The academic journal system is somewhat less than ideal for disseminating relevant knowledge to the general population. And we know what happens to those who undermine that system.

Outrage Where Outrage Is Due

[ 38 ] April 26, 2013 |

Rick Perry, relatively indifferent to the West, Texas fertilizer explosion, outraged at Jack Ohman editorial cartoon that would blame Texas’ lax regulatory climate for it.

Go Jets

[ 88 ] April 26, 2013 |

If there’s one thing the Jets needed, it was another high-profile, questionable-talent quarterback like Geno Smith to go along with Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow. Since both of the latter are miraculously still on the team, that’s going to be a great locker room.

George Jones, RIP

[ 109 ] April 26, 2013 |

Oh this is not good.

The great George Jones has passed. Arguably, the best singer in country music history, Jones’ collection of amazing songs is almost unmatched. Its true he did everything he could to waste his prodigious talent with massive drinking. There were long fallow periods by the 1970s. It took over a year to record “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” partly because Jones thought the song too maudlin and so resisted singing it, but mostly because he was too drunk all the time to work. I was living in Nashville in 1999 when a drunk Jones got into a car accident. This was the story of the year in that town, partially because George Jones still held such sway there and partially because of the sadness that he was still engaging in that kind of behavior.

Still, we shouldn’t focus too much on his personal life. Instead, we should remember his amazing voice and wonderful songs. Here are my 5 favorites:

5. “Once You’ve Had the Best.” At Farm Aid!

4. “The Right Left Hand.” Theoretically, this is the relationship he’s not going to screw up.

3. “Golden Ring” with his then wife Tammy Wynette. The life cycle of a relationship.

2. “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Nothing needs to be said to explain this. Except that it’s another song about a destroyed relationship.

1. “The Grand Tour.” Probably my favorite divorce song of all time. And let’s face it, there’s some really stiff competition for that. Including from the Possum himself, as we see here.

Also, the link to “Choices” in my previous post was totally coincidental. I probably would have included that in my top 5 because it’s a great song. So consider it an addendum.

One of the true all time greats, not only in country music, but in all of American popular music.

A very sad day for me.


[ 32 ] April 26, 2013 |

Turns out that Bangladeshi workers do make choices for themselves outside of theoretical “choices” about working dangerous jobs. In fact, they choose to engage in massive protests after over 250 deaths in the collapsed building this week.

Police inspector Kamrul Islam said the workers had attacked several factories whose bosses had refused to give employees the day off.

“They were protesting the deaths of the workers in Savar,” he said, referring to the town outside Dhaka where Wednesday’s collapse of an eight-storey building housing five garment factories took place, injuring more than 1,000 people.

“Many wanted to donate blood to their fellow workers,” he added.

Some 1,500 workers marched to the Dhaka headquarters of the main manufacturers association, demanding the owners of the collapsed factories be punished.

“The owners must be hanged,” one protester cried, as others tried to lay seige to the headquarters.

Some workers smashed windows and vehicles before they were chased away by police, Wahidul Islam, a deputy commissioner of Dhaka police, told AFP.

I believe the academic term for this is “worker agency.” This is one way workers seek to improve their lives. They choose not to die on the job.

Also of course:

Mining and Water in Chile

[ 13 ] April 25, 2013 |

Mining companies have played an outsized role in Chile for a long time. Bitterness at foreign mining corporations helped bring Salvador Allende to power in 1970. Defending mining interests helped spur CIA support for Augusto Pinochet’s coup in 1973. Little has changed. Today, mining corporations are using so much water that supplies are threatened for much of the nation, leading to protests calling to nationalize the water system that Pinochet privatized in 1981.

The latest setback for the organisations was a supreme court verdict this month that ruled it was not illegal for a mining company to not pay for extracting groundwater on land it had been granted under concession because it was merely “exploring” for minerals in the water, rather than “exploiting” the water.

Environmentalists warn that the ruling could set a legal precedent for mining corporations to use water without any controls, even until a water source has been exhausted.

The ruling was in favour of the Sociedad Legal Minera NX Uno de Peine company, which Chile’s water authority had denounced for using groundwater without a permit. But the supreme court ruling said the groundwater pumping operation in question was authorised by the exploration concession and did not require a permit from the water authority, as stated in article 58 of the water code.

“We’re talking about water that was in the basins, which enables Chile’s valleys to survive,” said Villablanca. “In a word, they are leaving all of Chile without water.”

That’s real problematic for the long-term sustainability of large parts of Chile.

More on Workplace Safety

[ 7 ] April 25, 2013 |

I was on the Rick Smith Show last night talking about workplace safety and the need to hold corporate heads criminally and civilly liable for deaths that happen in their factories and the factories where they subcontract production. Check it out if you care.

Workplace Safety and the Gilded Age Theory of Risk

[ 395 ] April 25, 2013 |

Matt Yglesias had an odd response to my post yesterday calling for American corporations to be held to American labor standards no matter where in the world they site their plants or whether they subcontract the work out. Yglesias said that less safe conditions in poorer countries was OK and in fact helped the people of Bangladesh.

I think that’s wrong. Bangladesh may or may not need tougher workplace safety rules, but it’s entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different—and, indeed, lower—workplace safety standards than the United States.

The reason is that while having a safe job is good, money is also good. Jobs that are unusually dangerous—in the contemporary USA that’s primarily fishing, logging, and trucking—pay a premium over other working class occupations precisely because people are reluctant to risk death or maiming at work. And in a free society it’s good that different people are able to make different choices on the risk-reward spectrum. There are also some good reasons to want to avoid a world of unlimited choice and see this as a sphere in which collective action is appropriate (I’ll gesture at arguments offered in Robert Frank’s The Darwin Economy and Tom Slee’s No One Makes You Shop At Walmart if you’re interested) but that still leaves us with the question of “which collective” should make the collective choice.

Bangladesh is a lot poorer than the United States, and there are very good reasons for Bangladeshi people to make different choices in this regard than Americans. That’s true whether you’re talking about an individual calculus or a collective calculus. Safety rules that are appropriate for the United States would be unnecessarily immiserating in much poorer Bangladesh. Rules that are appropriate in Bangladesh would be far too flimsy for the richer and more risk-averse United States. Split the difference and you’ll get rules that are appropriate for nobody. The current system of letting different countries have different rules is working fine. American jobs have gotten much safer over the past twenty years and Bangladesh has gotten a lot richer.

There’s a number of problems here. I want to be brief, so let me focus on just a few.

Yglesias deploys a Gilded Age theory of risk and work. This I found remarkable and it suggests just how far unregulated capitalism has come back in the minds of even people on the left side of the political spectrum. In saying that workers agree to take on risk when they choose a particular job, Yglesias is fundamentally following the decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Court in Farwell v. The Boston and Worcester Rail Road Corporation. In 1842, Massachusetts decided that employers were not liable for workers’ getting hurt or dying on the job because workers personally assumed a risk when they agreed to work. Farwell set the standard for Gilded Age assumptions of risk on the job that led to a legal system granting workers no rights at work throughout the 19th century.

I know that Yglesias doesn’t go this far, but assuming that people agree to take risks by working dangerous jobs places the onus for safety on workers and not the corporations who could easily grant workers safe working conditions. It rationalizes away antisocial corporate behavior. By deploying a fatalistic history of the Industrial Revolution that countries must go through periods where their workers have no safety before they advance, Yglesias provides a structure to justify the death of 200 workers yesterday.

The Progressive Era and New Deal and Great Society, not to mention the work of unions for the last century once chipped away at this antiquated notion of risk, through workers compensation, union health and safety committees, OSHA, and many other things. But today, the structure of Gilded Age capitalism is again in the ascendant, both at home and overseas, as Yglesias’ argument suggests.

There’s also the issue of democracy and choice. What are workers actually choosing when they make these theoretical choices to enter the plant? They choice many tried to make was not to work in unsafe conditions. They were threatened with severe pay loss that placed their families’ already precarious economic system in even more danger. Bangladeshi workers have tried to organize into unions. What happened? Their organizers were murdered. The building is owned by a local political elite. What chance did workers have to create change? Workers try to make choices. Those choices are denied them by an international corporate-political alliance. The choices are made for workers by Wal-Mart, by their corrupt elites, by the bullet from a police officer’s gun.

Frankly, this line of thinking that Yglesias deployed about risk and choice exists only in university Economics departments, corporate offices, and in the minds of the punditocracy. People don’t actually think and act this way because their “choices” are constrained by such things as government, family, violence, and survival.

A more minor point is Yglesias’ idea that more dangerous work is better paid work. This is just not true. I pressed him on this in the Twitter conversation and he sent me data showing that fallers within the timber industry make more money than other logging jobs. Yeah, sure within industries people get paid more for more dangerous work, especially under union contracts, but I don’t see what that has to do with the point at hand. Across the economy, dangerous work is also low-paid work. Ask Joe Griego, a New Mexico farmworker who was stomped by a bull and who doesn’t qualify for workers’ comp laws. Ask the people of West Virginia, where 125 years of working dangerous coal jobs has led to entrenched poverty. Ask my family in the timber industry.

But what really matters here is that workplace safety is incredibly cheap. Once you start talking about, say, putting in technologies to reduce smoke from steel production you can need to implement relatively expensive technologies. But for basic workplace safety, there is no reason that we can’t implement international standards. The building that collapsed in Bangladesh had huge cracks in it and the workers didn’t want to go in. I think a building that meets basic safety codes is pretty reasonable. So are proper fire escapes, fireproof doors, and sprinkler systems. So are hand protections from saws, face masks for welders, and other extremely inexpensive technologies that save a lot of lives. So Yglesias can talk in these broader theoretical terms about workers and risk and different safety standards being OK. But in the end, that argument leads you to rationalizing American corporations setting up a system that allows 200 people to die because simple fire safety wasn’t followed. That’s a workplace safety standard that should exist everywhere.

….I see Scott has also written a response below, which covers some of the same ground.

…..Also, definitely read David Atkins’ response to Yglesias.


[ 94 ] April 25, 2013 |

I have one thought about this study questioning the value of Advanced Placement testing. I graded AP U.S. History exams for 3 years. The pass rate was about 55% (assuming a 3 is a pass). I would argue the number of students who wrote a test that showed even a minimally competent knowledge of the material, one that would get, say, a B- or C+ in a college level freshman class, was about 10%. The idea that students are getting college credit for this stuff is a joke.

The Terence Malick Effect

[ 86 ] April 24, 2013 |

This is an interesting essay on the Malick Effect, which can be summed as up people copying Terence Malick by having hands run through grain for effect:

That Green was initially able to pull off this plagiaristic trick is somewhat amazing, given what a careful balance Malick strikes between poetic inquiry and narrative plotting. But as evidenced by Undertow, his third film, even Green found that mimicking Malick posed the threat of reducing the director’s work to just its rudimentary building blocks, a problem that’s also undercut many subsequent copycats. Sean Penn (who co-starred in both The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life) performed a pale impersonation with his directorial job on 2007′s Into the Wild, wielding pseudo-Malick landscape cinematography and accompanying voice-over blabber in a thoroughly blunt, leaden manner. Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford gussies up its Malick-isms (meditative and mournful narration over naturally lit vistas of the West and its existentially wounded characters) with smeary visual expressionism that makes the film play, in large part, like a beautiful cover song. However, at least Jesse James has a clear sense of itself; last year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, on the other hand, comes off as the nature-is-ugly-yet-magical stepchild of George Washington, a third-hand piece of recycling made by someone who knows the moves but has none of the mysterious soul. By the time John Hillcoat — an accomplished director whose The Proposition also commingles natural beauty, violence, and religious turmoil — helmed this Levis ad, it was clear that, for many, Malick had become merely a collection of tricks and devices, the simple sum of various parts. Just ask Zach Snyder, whose initial Man of Steel teaser trailer, with its portentous narration, soaring music, and shots of sun-dappled butterflies and clotheslines swaying in the breeze, awkwardly evokes what a superhero blockbuster helmed by a second-rate Malick might resemble.

Unfortunately, Malick himself has moved closer to self-parody with each passing movie in his latter phase of actually finishing films. The brilliant The Thin Red Line devolved into the decent The New World which then devolved further into the largely unwatchable The Tree of Life. The reviews on To The Wonder do not sound promising, although I suppose I’ll watch it. Unfortunately, with The Tree of Life, Malick fully gave into his most self-indulgent impulses (more dinosaurs and galaxy shots in a movie ostensibly about growing up in the 1950s please!). It’s too bad because Malick is indeed so brilliant and does have so much to offer other filmmakers in terms of style, even if they misuse his methods for their own self-indulgent ends.

I Heard that Dog Whistle!

[ 41 ] April 24, 2013 |

Photoshopping really is the right-wing dog whistler’s favorite tool.

A conservative group connected to Colorado’s Secretary of State has been sending political mailers — including a picture of a darker-skinned woman whose face was digitally removed and replaced with a white woman’s face — in an attempt to oppose a landmark voting bill that may soon become law.

Colorado is currently considering a major piece of legislation to improve the state’s voting laws by implementing Election Day Registration, automatically sending mail ballots to every voter, and creating a real-time voter database to detect and prevent fraud. It passed the House last week and will now be taken up by the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Secretary of State Scott Gessler, a frequent speaker at True The Vote events who uses his perch to warn about the supposed threat of voter fraud, is leading opposition to the bill, which is supported by a number of Republican County Clerks and the Colorado County Clerks Association.

Now, a dark money group named the “Citizens for Free and Fair Elections”, which lists its address as that of Gessler’s former firm, the Hackstaff Law Group, is sending out photoshopped mailers in an attempt to pressure the election clerks into switching their position.

You can see the photoshopping job in a series of images in the attached link. Classy stuff.

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