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Tag: "labor"

Republicans See Poor People, Think They Are Too Rich

[ 230 ] April 30, 2014 |

In case you needed a reminder that the Republicans are engaged in open warfare with the poor, Republican senators filibustered the minimum wage bill today.

Wal-Mart Worker Safety

[ 53 ] April 30, 2014 |

Wal-Mart’s labor practices are really great for workers who want to get hurt on the job.

Workers at an Indiana Wal-Mart warehouse allege they were subjected to safety risks including falling freight, forklifts on fire, and frostbite – and then illegally fired for organizing in response.

“They never want you to stop working,” said fired worker David Fields. “They want you to keep working – and no matter how unsafe it is, they want you to just keep going.” Fields, who asserts he was fired this month for organizing co-workers to take on safety issues at Walmart Consolidation Center #7100, joined co-workers in filing National Labor Relations Board charges alleging illegal retaliation. He told Salon that a temp agency manager terminated him April 2, the same day

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workers planned to deliver a petition with 100-some signatures protesting unsafe conditions. “Seeing we were all on the same page,” charged Fields, “they got threatened, and this is why they got rid of me.” He added that management had been intentionally “secretive” about ejecting him: “They took me out the side door, and they basically fired me on lunch.”

Wal-Mart, the only company whose goods move through the Hammond, Indiana, consolidation center, has contracted Linc Logistics (a subsidiary of Universal Truckload Services) to run the facility; Linc has brought in temp agencies Malace HR and Swift Staffing. Wal-Mart, UTS, Malace and Swift did not respond to Salon’s requests for comment on the allegations. Linc “has said the disciplinary actions were unrelated to the protests in January,” according to The Times of Northwest Indiana.

While Wal-Mart doesn’t directly employ any of the facility’s workers, Fields told Salon, “Everything that Linc would tell us in the pre-shift meeting, they basically said, ‘Oh, this is Wal-Mart’s policy.’” He said that included a “policy of loading the freight high and tight,” even though “it’s unstable – it’s basically putting everybody at risk of being crushed by these falling boxes. They are quite aware of what’s happening, but they really just don’t care.”

Fields told Salon he was also repeatedly required to drive forklifts despite conditions made unsafe by accumulated rain or snow on the docks. “I mean, you can’t stop or anything like that…” he said. “It was a terrible feeling.” In addition, he charged, “the hydraulics system didn’t work properly”; “a lot of people were frostbitten”; and “there’s no fire alarms.” Workers at Walmart Consolidation Center #7100 also alleged this month that forklifts have had faulty brakes, and caught on fire.

Note as well that this is technically a contractor of Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart controls everything about it except that it is shielded from responsibility for the conditions of labor. The workers are driven by Wal-Mart directives and the costs are determined by Wal-Mart, but the workers aren’t Wal-Mart employees. This is the same immoral system that helped create the Bangladeshi factory collapse a year ago. This system of contracting to avoid labor responsibility needs to end–the ultimate receiver of goods needs to be legally responsible for all labor issues at their contractors. There is no good reason at all that Wal-Mart or any other company should be able to shield themselves from liability for its labor, whether in Indiana or Bangladesh.

Poultry Plants

[ 41 ] April 29, 2014 |

The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a federal complaint against conditions in an Alabama poultry factory.

Beatriz Navedo began to feel dizzy as she worked a processing line at the Wayne Farms poultry plant.

As the line zipped by, her chest also began to hurt. It was a heart attack.

But Navedo wasn’t sure what was happening. She just knew she needed help. She went to the plant’s nurse, but the nurse wouldn’t call the hospital, instead offering aspirin. Navedo’s daughter, who also works at the plant, left her shift early to take her mother to the hospital. Both women were punished by having points added to their employee files. Workers who accrue too many of these points are automatically fired.

It was another example of the abuse workers endure at the plant. Navedo had previously been threatened with firing for reporting on-the-job injuries. “We were promised a dream, but what we really got was a nightmare,” said Navedo, who no longer works at the plant. “I felt like a slave.”

The SPLC filed a complaint with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) today charging that workers at the Enterprise, Ala., plant have been forced to either endure unsafe and abusive conditions or lose their jobs.

OSHA is so underfunded and the meat industry so politically powerful that the largely immigrant workforce in these once unionized and now union-free jobs are treated like garbage, effectively bringing the dangerous working conditions of the Gilded Age of past America to the present and the outsourced dangerous factories of the developing world back to the United States.

It’s also worth remembering that every meal you eat has a labor history to it and if you are eating pretty much any meat, it’s extremely likely it is produced on the back on dangerous labor. That’s not to say don’t eat meat. It is to say that lending your voice to the fight for safe working conditions in food processing needs to be central to any food movement.

Unpaid Internships

[ 47 ] April 24, 2014 |

Indeed, unpaid internships should be illegal. Stolen labor is never acceptable.

From Ludlow to Upper Big Branch

[ 16 ] April 23, 2014 |

I have a piece up at Bill Moyers’ site connecting the exploitation that led to the Ludlow Massacre of 1914 with coal companies exploitation of labor and degradation of nature today:

In recent years, American mining companies have undermined the effectiveness of many of these reforms. West Virginia mandates that the state legislature must approve all environmental regulations, making meaningful regulation all but impossible. The companies managed to influence the scientific testing of black lung claims. Miners suffering from black lung need to have their cases confirmed by doctors, but a single pro-coal scientist at Johns Hopkins University denied all 1,500 cases he saw between 2000 and 2013. After the Center for Public Integrity exposed this travesty — winning a Pulitzer Prize in the process — Johns Hopkins suspended its black lung testing program.

Today, mountaintop removal mining reshapes West Virginia and Kentucky, dumping millions of tons of contaminated soil into valleys, poisoning waterways and sickening residents. Coal companies claim it is the most cost-effective process, but it forces the long-term costs of mining onto local communities. It poisons waterways with mercury, lead, arsenic and selenium. Improper storage of coal waste also leads to polluted waterways. A Duke Energy coal ash leak in North Carolina earlier this year turned at least 27 million gallons of water in the Dan River into a toxic soup, polluting the water source for Danville, Va.

In 2010, 29 miners died at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, the nation’s deadliest mine explosion since 1970. Don Blakenship, CEO of the mine’s owner, Massey Energy, had long fought against safety and environmental regulations. The mine’s operation was officially and notoriously unsafe, having racked up over 500 safety violations in the year before the explosion. After the disaster, Massey denied time off for miners to go to their friends’ funerals. Blankenship called the explosion an “act of God” and denied all responsibility.

Upper Big Branch was a non-union mine. The coal companies have managed to reduce the UMWA to a shell of its former strength by closing union mines while investing in new non-union mines in the West, and automating jobs that allow them to lay off union members. And when workers lack a voice to fight for their own safety, the results can be disastrous. The UMWA only has 75,000 members today, down from 500,000 in 1946 and 240,000 in 1998. In 2006, an explosion at the non-union Sago Mine in West Virginia killed 13 miners, but the mine was only fined $71,800 for safety violations. Robert Murray, owner of the non-union Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah blew off the safety violations his operation received in 2006 as trivialities. The next year a mine collapse killed six miners and, later, three rescue workers searching for their bodies. When the UMWA criticized Murray’s safety record, he told family members of the dead, “the union is your enemy.” The coal industry is now fighting to reduce the already limited inspections

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of its mines.

The UMWA struggles to keep up its fight against black lung disease. The number of miners afflicted with the illness has risen in recent years, especially among younger miners. Fifty-two percent of the 113,000 mine dust samples turned into government regulators by coal companies since 1987 exceeded federal standards. Seventy-one percent of the miners who died at Upper Big Branch had already developed the lung lesions that are typical of black lung.

Like John D. Rockefeller Jr., a century ago, Blankenship, Murray and other coal mining CEOs destroy lives and ecosystems without consequences.

Chicken Production and Workplace Dangers

[ 14 ] April 18, 2014 |

I strongly recommend Michele Simon’s article on how Tyson Foods and the USDA have pushed forward drastic increases in chicken production line speeds that would increase the profits of meat companies at the cots of workers’ lives:

But let’s back up a bit. As Mother Jones magazine explained last year, “Currently, each factory-scale slaughterhouse has four USDA inspectors overseeing kill lines churning out up to 140 birds every minute. Under the USDA’s new plan, a single federal inspector would oversee lines killing as many as 175 birds per minute.”

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack defends the proposal under the guise of modernization (an industry code word for deregulation) and claims the new standard would actually reduce bacterial contamination. However, Food and Water Watch found numerous food safety problems with the USDA’s pilot project owing to company inspectors missing defects such as “feathers, lungs, oil glands, trachea and bile still on the carcass.”

The rule is especially terrible for workers, who already suffer unsafe conditions, resulting in serious injuries and even lifelong disabilities. Last year the Southern Poverty Law Center released a disturbing account of worker injuries and health problems in Alabama poultry slaughterhouses due to what it called “punishing” line speeds. Workers were made to “endure debilitating pain in their hands, gnarled fingers, chemical burns and respiratory problems.” Also, for many immigrant workers, as the law center put it, “Threats of deportation and firing are frequently used to keep them silent,” making the USDA’s attempt to spin the recent NIOSH data particularly disturbing.

Federal agencies appear to be ganging up on the USDA — and rightly so. The Government Accountability Office published a report last year criticizing the USDA’s plan on the basis of inadequate and faulty safety data. Of course, the chicken industry loves the proposal. In fact, the National Chicken Council would prefer not having any limits on line speeds at all.

The Agricultre Department basically operates as the tool of agribusiness at this point and that’s why the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and DOA are basically at war, with NIOSH’s director directly calling out the Food Safety Inspection Service for lying about its data. The meat we buy from the store not only comes from a system that treats animals awfully, it destroys the lives of workers as well. It’s awful hard for the government to do much when one agency is fighting to make these factories safe for workers and other is fighting to make them unsafe.

Anti-Sweatshop Activism at USC

[ 7 ] April 18, 2014 |

In the late 1990s, United Students Against Sweatshops did some really great work around fighting the exploitative system of the apparel industry by placing pressure on colleges and universities to ethically source their school-licensed apparel. Then, with 9/11 and the Iraq War, economic justice question largely fell far down the priority list for the progressive agenda and USAS and other groups working on these issues went into a tough period. Now, they are again on the rise and again demanding ethically-produced clothing from their schools. Right now, this is happening at USC:

For the second day in a row, students on Wednesday protested in front of Tommy Trojan against the university administration and called for USC to cut ties with companies that employ sweatshop labor.

The protesters are members of the Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation, or SCALE. SCALE members singled out Jansport, the clothing and accessories company, and accused Jansport’s parent company of relying on sweatshop labor in Bangladesh.

The protest comes one day after students descended upon the office of Pres. C.L. Max Nikias — a dramatic move that particpants say prompted university officials to call their parents and threaten to revoke financial aid packages.

Very classy of the university to threaten students for their activism. That’s the kind of inclusive and respectful leadership I know from university administrations in my personal experience. USC claims they do require apparel to not be made in sweatshops. But the students want the university to only work with companies who sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which is the agreement that European manufacturers have agreed to join to try and ensure no more Rana Plaza factory collapses. American companies of course have refused because it is legally binding and we know that American corporations believe they should be able to do whatever they want to workers with no legal repercussions. Glad to see the USC students taking the fight to their campus.

Put the Wage Thieves in Prison

[ 191 ] April 18, 2014 |

Catherine Rampell is speaking smartly in her angry column on the systematic wage theft that goes on in fast food and other low wage industries:

Take Ashley Cathey, 25, a six-year McDonald’s employee who participated in a national one-day strike last December. A couple of months later, she got a 25-cent raise, to $8 an hour from $7.75. But something about her next paycheck looked fishy: Her pay seemed short given her raise and new, longer hours. She usually works overnight, and in recent months her shifts have frequently stretched to 12 or 14 hours because her Memphis restaurant has been short-staffed. (Perhaps because its wages are still too low to retain enough employees.)

She asked a friend who is a manager to print out her time sheet and noticed that someone had clocked her out for breaks she never took. Other co-workers spotted hours shaved from their time sheets, too. When employees brought this to the attention of a more senior boss, they were told the wrongly subtracted hours would appear in their next paychecks. Meanwhile, the helpful manager who had printed out the time sheets was reprimanded for sharing official time records with workers and told that he’d be fired if he did it again, Cathey said. Now Cathey keeps a personal record of the hours she clocks in and out.

“I never paid attention before,” she told me in a phone interview. She suspects that someone has been doctoring her hours for years, but she doesn’t want to endanger her manager friend’s job by asking for help obtaining proof. Even without proof she is convinced: “They’re hiding something, obviously,” she said.

This is not a one-off accusation. In the past few weeks, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman extracted settlements from dozens of McDonald’s and Domino’s locations around the state for off-the-clock work. Last month, workers in California, Michigan and New York filed class-action lawsuits against McDonald’s alleging multiple charges of wage theft. These suits have upped the ante by implicating the McDonald’s corporation, not just individual franchisees, in bad behavior. The plaintiffs allege that McDonald’s corporate office exerts so much control over franchisees — including by monitoring their hourly labor costs through a corporate computer system — that it had to have known what was going on.”

What to do about this? Put the people making this happen within the McDonald’s infrastructure in prison:

Harsher penalties, including prison time, should be on the table more often when willful wrongdoing is proved. Thieves caught stealing thousands of dollars from someone’s home can go to jail; the same should be true for thieves caught stealing thousands of dollars from someone’s paycheck.

There is no reason that wage theft should not be a criminal charge equal to robbery. It is the definition of robbery. It also reminds me of how the white cotton merchants stole from black sharecroppers by simply lying to them about how much cotton they grew. It’s basically the same thing and given the McDonald’s work force at the executive and employee level, the racial dynamics aren’t too different either.

stepped pyramids in comments: “Concealing timesheets from employees should be considered tantamount to an admission of wage-stealing, and there should be automatic penalties for it, along the lines of having to pay wages for the affected period at 40 hours a week, time-and-a-half.”

Yes.

Theoretically Progressive Media Company Typically Anti-Union

[ 121 ] April 17, 2014 |

I am so not surprised that self-proclaimed friend of labor Media Matters wants a union-free shop:

Media Matters for America is apparently resisting an effort by Service Employees International Union Local 500 to unionize its staff.

Last week, the union filed a representation petition with the National Labor Relations Board, indicating that the nonprofit media watchdog organization rejected an effort by the union to organize MMFA’s staff through a Card Check election.

But the filing does indicate that MMFA is not automatically accepting Local 500′s attempt to represent it’s staff. The nonprofit media watchdog group has hired the law firm Perkins Coie, which specializes in representing management in labor disputes, to represent it before the board.

This is like theoretically progressive academics opposing graduate student unions. If you don’t support unions when they affect you as an employer or manager, then you don’t support unions. If Media Matters receives any funding from organized labor, I hope those unions put some serious pressure on MMFA to accept the card check.

Shoe Strike

[ 26 ] April 17, 2014 |

Chinese workers making shoes for American manufacturers are on strike:

More than 30,000 staff at the Yue Yuen Industrial (Holdings) factory in Dongguan city have been striking for several days in protest at unpaid social insurance payments, said US-based China Labour Watch, adding that police had beaten and detained several protesters.

China is facing labour unrest as its economic growth slows and as factories in its southern manufacturing heartland report a shortage of workers, prompting rising demands from staff.

Yue Yuen says on its website that it produces shoes for foreign brands including Nike, Adidas, Puma and New Balance.

Once again, there is no good reason why international corporations should not have liability for injustice committed against workers making their products. Every cent of money not paid to the Chinese workers is profit for the corporations. Given the harsh downward pressure apparel companies place on their contractors to keep prices low, they incentivize ripping off the workers. This system exists to absolve western companies of any responsibility for what happens in the factories, even though they choose where to contract the work, what prices they will pay for the product, and how much they will sell it for. This is an unjust and morally bankrupt system that can be fought by western citizens and governments demanding accountability, including the application of a broad set of international laws that companies must follow regardless of where they site their work or who they contract

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it out to. Without this, the race to the bottom around the globe will continue.

The Ludlow Centenary

[ 14 ] April 16, 2014 |

ludlow-camp-attacked

Next week will mark the 100th anniversary of the Ludlow Massacre. While it seems like a long time ago, in the New Gilded Age, it remains disturbingly relevant because the conditions that created such horrors in 1914 are returning to the United States of 2014. The historian Thai Jones gives an overview of the event and closes with this:

Observing from the vantage point of a half-century later, Howard Zinn saw two ways of understanding Ludlow. “If it is read narrowly, as an incident in the history of the trade union movement and the coal industry,” he wrote, “then it is an angry splotch in the past, fading rapidly amidst new events.” A second, more expansive view, he believed, revealed the true significance of the events of 1914: “If it is read as a commentary on a larger question—the relationship of government to corporate power and of both to movements of social protest—then we are dealing with the present.”

The export of manufacturing jobs abroad has produced an undoing of memory. Today, the nation is divided by the kind of severe income disparities last seen during the Gilded Age, and yet the traditions of labor militancy and resistance to corporate ferocity that flowered in the era of heavy industry have been largely forgotten by both workers and employers. But Ludlow is the terminus of capitalism’s regressive path. If our future is shaped by the further degradation of labor rights, there can only be more massacres and new monuments.

Indeed.

Microbreweries and Teamsters

[ 124 ] April 14, 2014 |

A bit of a kerfuffle in Minnesota between microbrewers and the Teamsters.

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bill that would allow limited Sunday sales of alcohol in Minnesota is in jeopardy.

Backers of a bill that would allow liquor stores to sell alcohol on Sundays have been rebuffed at the State Capitol for years. So this year, they considered it a victory that even a tiny Sunday sales provision was included in the overall liquor bill.

The measure, which would allow craft beer taprooms to sell growlers (refillable containers that hold half a gallon) on Sundays, sailed through legislative committees. But in recent days the bill has stalled in the Senate Tax Committee. The roadblock? The powerful Teamsters Union.

Teamster’s Union political director Ed Reynoso said the union started lobbying against Sunday growler sales after he learned a company that distributes alcohol and employs members of the union suggested the law would allow them to reopen their labor contracts because of it. He said the union wants to avoid that because it could mean wages, benefits and work hours could all be back on the table.

“As soon as we had an employer raise the potential that they were going to ask for a reopener, I reached out to leadership, I reached out to the Senate Committee chair,” Reynoso said. “I notified them of our objections and our concerns.”

The microbrewers are angry:

The issue is frustrating to members of the Minnesota Beer Activists, who have lobbied for ending the state’s ban on Sunday liquor store sales. The group’s director, Andrew Schmitt, said he thought allowing growler sales was a compromise.

“We’re not going to see any progress and who comes out ahead on that? It’s the Teamsters and it’s only the Teamsters,” Schmitt said. “They have protection for their concerns and the brewers aren’t going to get anything addressed and the consumers aren’t going to get their needs addressed and the Teamsters have essentially killed the bill.”

Well, the bill isn’t exactly dead yet and it’s far from clear in the story that the Teamsters have the power to do so. Could be used an excuse by politicians who don’t want to pass the bill anyway. But if companies are using this as a way to reopen contract and bust unions, then that’s an excellent reason for the Teamsters to oppose this bill. In fact, that’s exactly what a union is supposed to do. Now, it would be nice to know who this company is and what they are saying, something the report evidently couldn’t find out. It would also be useful if the brewers and the Teamsters could reach out to each other and talk this through (admittedly, making alliances has never been a priority of the Teamsters). The brewers should also come out in favor of strong union contracts and oppose anyone seeking to reopen contracts. But that’s evidently not something they have thought about.

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