Subscribe via RSS Feed

Author Page for Erik Loomis

rss feed

Visit Erik Loomis's Website

An Accident a Day Keeps the Doctors Well Paid

[ 19 ] November 14, 2013 |

Were one to want to work a job where your life and safety are consistently in danger and where you can live with the constant threat of pollution, one could do far worse than heading to Louisiana for a job in the state’s many oil refineries. Full report is here. Well worth your time.

Well, OK, Louisiana’s oil refineries don’t have accidents every single day. Just six days a week on average. Actually, to be specific, 6.3 days a week.

Last year, the 17 refineries and two associated chemical plants in the state experienced 327 accidents, releasing 2.4 million pounds of air pollution, including such poisons as benzene and sulfur, and 12.7 million gallons of water pollution. That’s according to a report published Tuesday [PDF] by the nonprofit Louisiana Bucket Brigade, which compiled the data from refineries’ individual accident reports.

One example involves a release of materials at ExxonMobil’s Baton Rouge facility where there was an initial report of at least 10 pounds of benzene as required by law within an hour of the release.

It turned out the release was more than 31,000 pounds.
The Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association responded by questioning the credibility of the report and saying the industry is “making strong environmental progress.”

10 pounds, 31,000 pounds, it’s just a few zeros, amiright?

Let’s be clear. While there will probably always be a certain amount of risk laboring in a refinery, these facilities could be far safer. But, beginning with the Reagan Administration, the United Sates made a decision to deemphasize workplace safety and health in favor of corporate prerogative and profit, using terms like “burdensome regulations” and “small government” as euphemisms for the ultimate goal of rolling back decades of gains by the labor and environmental movements that made Americans healthier and safer, both on and off the job.

And the collective cost of all these accidents and emissions? Well, they don’t call that area of Louisiana “Cancer Alley” for nothing.

Rare Not Horrible News on Labor from the Supreme Court

[ 10 ] November 14, 2013 |

I was not looking forward to the new Supreme Court term. There are two major labor cases on the docket. Given the plutocratic nature of the 5 Republican members, I was not confident. And while I’m still not, there was surprisingly hostility throughout the Court for the plaintiffs in Mulhall v. Unite-HERE Local 355. This case challenges the constitutionality of card check agreements between business and labor for unionization, calling them a violation of the National Labor Relations Act as they are a “thing of value,” something that would make a card check a felony for those involved since it would basically be a bribe.

Like myself, Josh Eidelson was extremely worried that this case would undermine workers’ rights in unprecedented ways. But even Scalia and Alito were quite hostile (here and here) to the case in yesterday’s oral arguments, at least at its logical extreme. Since this would undermine business rights to run its own affairs, I assume that would be the basis of a conservative opposition, although I am certainly no legal scholar. At the very least it seems more unlikely that a sweeping ruling will come down than it did yesterday. We will see.

Suffering For Thee But Not For Me

[ 148 ] November 14, 2013 |

Boeing CEO Jim McNerney is a sociopath:

What we’re hearing from the Boeing Machinists right now isn’t just the usual labor-management posturing. It’s a primal scream of the middle class.

When a union boss the other day called Boeing’s offer to do the 777X jetliner work here a “piece of crap,” he was of course referring to the gory details of that contract: the canceled pension plan, the slashed benefits, the appalling 1 percent pay raise issued only every other year.

….

It’s a race to the bottom. Or rather, a slog to an era when workers will be more reliant on Social Security than ever.

So what’s most galling is that Boeing’s CEO is out pushing to cut back on the nation’s retirement plan as well.

In recent years Boeing CEO Jim McNerney has headed the Business Roundtable, a lobbying group of top U.S. corporations. Earlier this year that group called for raising the eligibility age for Social Security to 70 years old, as well as crimping back on the benefits (by reducing the index of inflation used to calculate payouts.)

“We are going to need our employees to work longer just to fill the needs that we have in the work force,” said a Roundtable suit, helpfully explaining why all Americans should willingly retire later, for less.

….

Speaking of expanding, that’s what keeps happening to the pension of Boeing’s CEO. According to the company’s recent annual reports, McNerney’s pension holdings soared by $6.3 million just in the past year.

If McNerney retires now he will get $265,575 a month. That’s not a misprint: The man presiding over a drive to slash retirement for his own workers, and for stiffs in the rest of America, stands to glide out on a company pension that pays a quarter-million dollars per month.

But no doubt he’s earned his salary because of his sobriety and hard work, unlike his employees who are lower on the food chain because they are lesser people. Or at least this would have been the logic of the first Gilded Age. At least Henry Clay Frick was honest in his ideology. But McNerney is moving in the direction of such honesty. Why bother hiding the fact that you are loaded and want to become even more rich by eviscerating not only the safety net of your employees but of the entire working and middle classes of the United States? You have the power, it’s not 1950 anymore when Republicans had to pretend like they respected the existence of labor unions.

Impalement Arts

[ 23 ] November 13, 2013 |

Tonight’s look at the past is even weirder and more unsettling than usual. This is a 1950 newsreel clip of Austin woman Louella Gallagher, who put on public knife throwing shows that featured her own daughters.

I wish I could find a way to work this into a class.

Priviatizing Lincoln’s Grave

[ 50 ] November 13, 2013 |

Given the ideology of the Republican Party in 1865 and 2013, I guess it is fitting that Springfield, Illinois is looking to sell off the public cemetery where Abraham Lincoln is buried to a private contractor. Of course, it’s outrageous that the resting place of Lincoln could be privatized, but when capital is involved, morals and decency are expendable. Unless one can profit off them.

Richard Cohen’s Conventional People Are Collectively Gagging*

[ 78 ] November 13, 2013 |

The increasingly common multiracial faces of America, via National Geographic. I’m sure all the old white people in Alabama who are hearing Spanish at their favorite buffet restaurants, the old white people in east Texas now seeing openly mixed-race couples with babies in their towns, and the old white people in Sun City retirement communities who can’t tell where on earth these people come from are all freaking out.

Speaking of race in America, we might as well link to Mississippi Senator James Eastland denying any white supremacist involvement in the disappearance of the three civil rights workers over the phone to Lyndon Johnson.

* Adjusted title inspired by MAJeff in comments.

Kitchen Labor

[ 103 ] November 13, 2013 |

Arun Gupta’s memorial of the recently deceased Chicago chef Charlie Trotter gets at some key issues about restaurant labor and worker abuse in kitchens, especially at the higher end.

But rather than pore over flaws that paled next to Trotter’s virtuosity, it’s time to admit that the real culprit is a restaurant culture that dishes out abuse. Michelin-starred chefs are often known for their prowess in screaming as much as for their cuisine. Few underlings will openly admit it, lest crossing a celebrity chef consign them to also-ran kitchens, but get a few seasoned cooks together and they’ll swap accounts of star chefs who hurl insults, torment weaklings, throw pots, or perhaps even a punch. As Donald Trump is to real estate, Gordon Ramsay is to the kitchen, building his public persona on being a flaming asshole.

During my brief forays into professional kitchens, I was challenged to a fistfight, worked with a line cook who broke someone’s jaw, and was told about a famed chef who would throw spice into the eyes of hung-over waiters during brunch service. While the stories are entertaining, they also suggest that many chefs believe that high pressure and hard work excuse bad behavior.

Charlie Trotter’s tragedy is that his life was both a testament to and indictment of the restaurant industry. He has an outsized legacy in the chefs he mentored, the Chicago dining scene that he made world-class, and the cuisine he crafted, which defied convention while delighting the senses. But tributes to his work would be elevated by acknowledging that great food shouldn’t be accompanied by abusive working conditions.

Last summer, I saw Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert do a sort of performance/conversation in Providence. Overall, it was exactly what you’d expect and so was entertaining if not particularly challenging. But one highlight was Ripert and Bourdain talking about how utterly awful Gordon Ramsay is and how behavior like his is terrible for the entire food industry since it makes working in a kitchen seem like the worst job in the world. Ripert admitted that he used to be like Ramsay. He had grown up in the French kitchens run by a tyrannical chef and brought that to America. Then he realized he was a loathsome human being who everyone hated. So he reformed his behavior and became one of the most successful French chefs in the United States.

Tolerating and laughing about bad kitchen behavior is no different than tolerating and laughing about the boys’ club in NFL locker rooms that leads to Richie Incognito bullying Jonathan Martin to the point of mental illness. It’s about creating cultures of work where people have rights to basic decency. That’s far too rare in the restaurant industry, as it is in the NFL.

This Day in Labor History: November 13, 1909

[ 20 ] November 13, 2013 |

On November 13, 1909, at the Cherry Mine in Cherry, Illinois, a coal car filled with hay for the mules who worked underground rolled down a track. Earlier that week, an electrical outage had struck the mine. The miners were then forced to use torches, kerosene lamps, and other flammable forms of lighting while at work. Hay sticking out from the edge of the car brushed up against a torch and caught fire. The car moved down the track, spreading the fire. As the mine caught fire, the company closed the oxygen supply to the mine. This tampered down the fire but also began suffocating the workers. 259 miners died, the worst coal mine fire in U.S. history.

The Cherry Mine opened in 1905 to provide coal for the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad’s trains. Coal powered technology meant a lot of brutal manual labor to run the machines that the nation increasingly relied upon. Conditions in the mine were sadly what you would expect for the first decade of the twentieth century. Child labor was common, with boys often starting work at age 11. It was mostly immigrant labor. Miners were paid by production, not the hour, making work more dangerous and deadly.

Once the company began moving to control the fire, it was up to the workers to find a way out of the mine. About 200 of the around 480 who worked that day did, mostly climbing through escape shafts. Some of the miners who escaped descended back in a hoisting cage to rescue others. This was extremely dangerous because each time they went down, the chances of coming up again were increasingly small given what was going on underground. They made six trips, rescuing more workers each time. The seventh time however, the man operating the levers above ground misinterpreted their tugging signals and did not hoist them up in time. Everyone in the car burned to death.

When the company closed the oxygen supply, it allowed what is known as “black damp” to infect the workers. This was the combination of carbon dioxide and nitrogen that built up in mines without a fresh oxygen supply, slowly asphyxiating the workers. It’s worth noting what this is like. It’s not a sudden death. It’s a slow choking, as all oxygen leaves the air. You have hours to contemplate your death. Maybe leave a letter for your loved ones if you have paper and enough light from your last lamp. You see your comrades start to succumb and you know in minutes, that will be you. Brutal.

Only 21 workers survived after the immediate post-fire escape. This was a group that was able to collect water from a seep and then descended deeper into the mine to escape the black damp. Finally, after 8 days, they dug themselves out and ran across a rescue party. One died soon after but the others survived.

Of the dead who left behind dependents (the majority), 1 was a native-born American. The plurality were Slavs (broadly defined at the time) followed by Italians, Austrians, and many other European groups. While the survivors and families had very little recourse in the courts (most lawsuits against companies were lost at this time and even if they were won, would drag on for years). This event got enough national publicity though that financial support came pouring in. With pressure on the company to pay up, the donations, and the union, each widow received $3261 (about $82,000 in 2012).

The company claimed innocence, saying that it had constructed the mine to the legal standards. But the legal standards meant unsafe mines where 259 workers could die. The company certainly hadn’t broken any major safety laws with this event. United Mine Workers of America president Duncan McDonald lashed out. From the Decatur Daily Review:

“The safest mine in Illinois,” as the St. Paul Coal Company declared the Cherry mine to be, has turned out a veritable death trap for 400 men. Gross negligence in constructing the mine in defiance of all provisions approved by competent mining engineers was the fundamental cause of the greatest mine disaster in the history of the United States.”

This is the conclusion of Duncan McDonald based upon an investigation conducted by him as president of the United Mine Workers of Illinois. He has been at Cherry since early Sunday morning.

The several points where the company failed to provide safeguards for the miners as found by McDonald follow:

The structure around the main entrance in the Cherry mine was entirely of pine timber, which is a highly combustible material. As soon as the flames from the burning bale of hay, which caused the disaster, came in contact with this timber, a fierce fire was the result. The coal dust which had accumulated on top of the structural work ignited like tinder and spread to other inflamable parts of the mine. Had the entries been built of brick or steel girders or concrete there is no doubt that the dreadful catastrophe would never have occurred.

A scarcity of water and a lack of sufficient rubber hose in the mine made a fight against the flames by the miners caught in the trap an impossibility. The company had neglected to provide sufficient means to extinguish a blaze after once it was started. No pipes carrying water under pressure were placed in the mines, nor was there sufficient support on the surface, and even if there had been such it would have been of no practical service because the company failed to provide necessary fire hose.

No fire drill had ever been practiced among the men, and no precaution had been taken by the company to see that in case of an emergency the miners would have the benefits of the right sort of rational discipline and instruction to them to safety.

The open torch flaming near the main entrance in the second vein was a constant menace. This torch had been used as a substitute for an electric light which had been out of repair for two weeks.

The escape shaft was timbered with pine and the stair were built of wood. This was gross negligence on the part of the company. A mine where any effort has been made to safeguard life would certainly have had an escape shaft constructed of steel or reinforced concrete. One of the first things in the corridor of the mine to burn away was the escape shaft. This made egress absolutely impossible after the cage stopped running and practically sealed the doom of the men below.

The escape shaft was placed less than three hundred feet from the main shaft at Cherry. This would be contrary to law, unless the location of the escape shaft were permitted by some state mine inspector.

In the aftermath of the Cherry Mine disaster, the state of Illinois began crafting new safety laws for mines that included safety training, certification for those in charge of safety equipment, and better fire fighting equipment. The company was fined $650 for using child labor in the mines and the state strengthened its child labor laws. It also helped convince Congress to establish the United States Bureau of Mines in 1910, which oversaw mine safety. The settlement for the survivors also led to the passage of Illinois’ first workers’ compensation law in 1911, following closely behind Wisconsin, Washington, and other states in creating the beginnings of a social safety net, however pro-corporate it was at the time.

For those who want to read a journalistic account of the disaster and the survivors’ experience, check out Thomas White’s “Eight Days in a Burning Mine,” published in The World in October 1911 and reprinted on the web by the Mine Safety and Health Administration. You may also be interested in this 1910 report by the State of Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics on the investigation that followed the fire.

This is the 82nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Is There A Film About Interracial Marriage Richard Cohen Can Watch?

[ 214 ] November 12, 2013 |

Richard Cohen evidently is part of a bet to see if there’s anything he can write about race that won’t get him fired:

Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.

Gag reflex, eh? Given that one can assume Cohen thinks he holds conventional views himself, I think this makes him unusually qualified to judge whether other institutions are racist.

The Answer is Yes

[ 113 ] November 11, 2013 |

Today in simple answers to simple questions.

What Unions Face with Democrats

[ 45 ] November 11, 2013 |

Another sign that most Democratic politicians simply don’t care about organized labor outside of writing checks and getting on votes on election day. Illinois governor Pat Quinn has named Paul Vallas as his candidate for Lieutenant Governor. Who is Vallas? The ultimate Rheeist, Vallas attacked teacher unions in Chicago before going on to doing the same in New Orleans and Bridgeport, where voters have just repudiated his “reforms” that had both Democratic and Republican support.

“Paul Vallas is one of the least popular leaders among the rank and file educators in Chicago public schools we’ve ever had,” said laid-off teacher Xian Barrett, a former member of the Chicago Teachers Union executive board currently working for a non-profit. Barrett cited Vallas’ moves that “reduced the power of the local schools councils,” and said before his 2001 departure he “was already laying the groundwork for a lot of the privatization movements” that progressed under his successor Arne Duncan, now President Obama’s Education Secretary. Barrett said Quinn’s choice of Vallas “reflects a disconnect between our state governance and the people, and specifically in this case a lot of the educators who’ve been Quinn’s greatest supporters his last time getting elected.” (The CTU, an AFT affiliate, did not respond to a Friday afternoon inquiry.)

Rob Traber, the vice president of Bridgeport Education Association, disputed Quinn’s praise for his new running mate. “I have seen nothing to show that he has been successful anywhere he’s gone, including Bridgeport,” Traber told Salon Friday. “And he has moved from one place to another and left it in worse shape than when he got there.” Traber contended Vallas and Finch had wrongly taken credit for construction of a new high school that “was already in the pipeline,” and that “the ‘miracle’ of balancing the budget” under Vallas was a response to “a budget crisis created by Finch.” Traber added that “the only reason it was balanced was Finch suddenly came up with money, which he hadn’t done for five years,” as did the state of Connecticut. “And so you know,” charged Traber, “that seems a little phony to me.” Like the IEA, the BEA is an affiliate of the NEA, the largest US union.

This is a case where organized labor should withdraw all support for Pat Quinn and the Illinois governor’s race. If the governor is openly opposed to labor’s interests, why should labor support him at all? This is a classic Samuel Gompers mentality–labor supports candidates who support labor. Labor does not support candidates that do not support labor. Progressives may look askance upon Gompers today for a number of reasons, but he understood the interests of his people and if Pat Quinn wants to put a teacher union busting Lieutenant Governor on the ticket in a relatively pro-union state like Illinois, then how much worse is a Republican going to be for organized labor? And while the answer to that question is potentially a Scott Walker and that would be horrible, we have to ask–would we expect pro-choice women to give money and support to an anti-choice candidate? Pro-gay marriage groups to support a candidate who named a homophobe as his running mate? Civil rights groups to support a ticket that included someone who backed voter ID laws? Ultimately, labor can’t be the only group asked to sacrifice when the Democrats promote people who oppose its interests. There has to be a payoff.

Pope Talk

[ 220 ] November 10, 2013 |

Say this about the new pope: he has the right enemies.