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.
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.
We don’t hear too many stories anymore like last week’s fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, where the death toll has now risen to 15. This is because we have outsourced our industrial risk to Asia and Latin America.
An 8-story building containing a clothing factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh has collapsed, killing at least 87 people. This is on top of the 112 burned to death 5 months ago in another Bangladesh clothing factory. How many people have to die making our clothes before we pay attention?
If this all sounds like the Triangle Fire in 1911, there’s a reason for that. Clothing corporations, manufacturers, and big box stores actively want the Triangle model to exist. If you are an American or European corporation, you don’t want to employ the people who make your clothes directly. You want to order out for what you need with no responsibility. You want low prices, so you pressure contractors to keep wages and conditions as low as possible. That probably actually goes unsaid but everyone knows what “keep costs low” means. You want to split workers up into a variety of workplaces so that they can be more easily controlled and can’t unionize. Putting them on an upper floor of a building, just like at Triangle, is a perfect way to control that labor with no supervision.
The question we must ask is to what extent the corporations demanding this labor model are responsible for the unsafe working conditions of the employees? We know at least that these workers made clothes for Benetton, Dress Barn, and The Children’s Place. Should these corporations be held accountable when workers die? Wal-Mart denied having any its clothes made in the factory that caught fire, but they were proved liars on the matter. It also seems that Wal-Mart had some contracts in this factory, according to this factory profile sent out by Stephen Greenhouse of the Times on his twitter account.
I argue that we should apply U.S. labor law to all American corporations, no matter where they site their factory. If a worker dies in a factory that makes clothing for your company, the company is responsible. In my mind, this is the only way to fight the outsourcing epidemic that provides a cover for irresponsible corporate policies. The injured workers and the families of the dead deserve financial compensation. The American corporations who buy the clothes produced by this factory should be required to pay American rates of workers compensation. Ultimately, we need international standards for factory safety, guaranteed through an international agency that includes vigorous inspections and real financial punishments. Of course, we are a long ways from any of this. But we have to begin at least talking in these terms, demanding accountability for workplace deaths, whether in the United States or in Bangladesh.
Meanwhile, building on yesterday’s discussion of media coverage of these events, only 2 of 63 cable news segments on the West Fertilizer explosion noted that the plant was in violation of federal standards for holding ammonium nitrate. Bad reporting on workplace conditions helps people see these events as accidents and not as the fault of specific choices corporate leaders make and for which they should be held criminally and civilly responsible.
Moreover, it’s not as if the state plays no role in allowing these violators to operate. Rather, the state actually helps them to do it. For instance, the Dallas Morning News has asked the state of Texas for a list of all factories, facilities, and dealers in the state holding ammonium nitrate (as there was also a massive fertilizer fire in Bryan in 2009 that luckily did not kill anyone because the fire fighters gave up on putting it out and instead put up a perimeter around the blaze). The state chemist’s office, which is at Texas A&M, is resisting this request and the state attorney general will decide if such information should be made public. Given that Rick Perry has said that his state’s lax regulations are fine and that further regulations would have made no difference in West, we can guess what the attorney general’s response will be.
We have a lot of work to do to make our workplaces and communities safe. Simply gathering information and publicizing what we can is the first step, one that faces significant resistance of its own.
The following is a long discussion between myself and Ted McClelland, spurred by his Slate article on baseball player salaries and social cohesion. Mr. McClelland graciously offered to conduct an e-mail debate on the question, and to allow me to post the results of this debate on the blog. My initial questions are in bold; his responses and counter-questions are italicized.
As you may have heard, a fertilizer plant has exploded in the town of West, Texas. This town, the Czech cultural capital of Texas and home of a mighty fine kolache at the Czech Stop, not to mention outfielder and stolen base maven Scott Podsednik, is a town well-known throughout the state. It’s also a place where, as of the most recent reports, 60-70 people have died, a nursing home has caved in, and every house within a 4 block radius was destroyed. Hopefully, it is not this bad. Yes, that’s right, a fertilizer plant was placed in a neighborhood. Or a neighborhood grew up around a fertilizer plant. In any case, there are already lessons we can draw from this developing story. First, non-union states often have terrible working conditions that can lead to horrible accidents. They might rarely be this bad, but they kill. Second, a state with notoriously bad zoning and where capitalists are effectively allowed to do whatever they want is going to be a state where terrible things happen.
I’m sure I’ll have more on what seems to be the worst workplace disaster in the United States in many years.
…I don’t actually recommend watching this, but this is footage of the explosion taken by some guy. Not embedding and I warn you. But this is what happened.
…In February, a school in West evacuated because of a fire at this fertilizer plant. PDF.
…As much as I want to keep following this story, at some point I need to sleep. Like now. As we speak, there are at least 2 confirmed dead and the town’s emergency management system director is saying 60-70 possible dead. By the time I wake up, I hope this was just a nightmare and didn’t occur.
…[SL] Welcome flying monkeys! I know the points here are hard to understand, but here’s a primer.
On April 8, 1952, President Harry Truman nationalized the steel industry in order to forestall a strike scheduled the next day that would have shut down steel production during the Korean War. This action, which outraged steel owners, was part of Truman’s commitment to labor unions he showed throughout his presidency, even during a time of conservative backlash during organized labor’s gains of the 1930s. It also showed the limits of what courts would allow the executive to do to support labor unions in the Cold War.
The steel industry was probably the most hostile large industry to organized labor. Although the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (later the United Steelworkers of America) managed to force U.S. Steel to negotiate a contract in 1937, the smaller steel companies held on until Franklin Roosevelt forced their hand in 1942, engaging in some of the harshest labor violence of the 1930s along the way. This hostility had not abated by the 1950s. Steel companies wanted to crush the USWA and take back control over their plants.
World War II taught a hard lesson to organized labor–tying price control to wage rates as happened during that conflict meant that workers would not share in wartime profits. There was tremendous working-class militancy during the war over wages, which labor leaders worked very hard to suppress in order to continue production. This pent up anger led to the strike wave of 1946 that in turn spawned the Taft-Hartley Act and other anti-union legislation. When the Korean War began in 1950, President Truman wanted to avoid similar conflicts. He thus created the Wage Stabilization Board that would judge wage requests from labor independently of prices, which fell under the Office of Price Stabilization.
In 1951, contracts talked began to break down between the USWA and the steel industry, with US Steel, Bethlehem Steel, and other companies balking at wage hikes. US Steel refused to even talk about wages after September 1951. The USWA made it clear that they were organizing industry-wide and refused to do so company by company, which would have given the corporations much more power in the process. Tensions within the USWA also rose during the talks. The USWA strike committee specifically refused to grant USWA and CIO President Philip Murray the power to sign a wage agreement without a vote from union membership (in fact, the USWA had been a fairly undemocratic union from its beginnings so there was reason to be concerned here), which would have granted Murray a lot of leverage to push back against labor militancy and the potential of a walkout.
On December 31, 1951, the existing contract expired. Truman ordered the WSB to mediate a solution, which labor agreed to rather than going on strike. In March, the WSB recommended a wage increase of 26 cents an hour. The steel industry responded by demanding a similar hike in steel prices from the Office of Price Stabilization. This was starkly different from World War II, when labor’s wage gains were erased by state-mandated inflation. The steel industry rejected the government’s mediation and refused to recognize the wage rates. This impasse led the USWA to announce a strike for April 9.
Truman was desperate to stop a labor walkout in steel during the war. Already an unpopular president, Truman had the 52 elections on his mind, hoping to hold the line for Adlai Stevenson and understanding the need to have a huge labor turnout to defeat Eisenhower that November. Thus, he staked himself to production to win the war over union-busting, despite the popularity of the latter tactic with large swaths of the American public during the time. On April 8, he nationalized the steel industry through Executive Order 10340, ordering Secretary of Commerce Charles Sawyer to take over the nation’s private steel mills and keep them running. The USWA immediately called off its strike and told its members to report to work. Organized labor was ecstatic that the president would come down so decisively on their side during the dispute. Business owners and newspapers were predictably outraged. Republicans howled about Truman caving to labor and assisting international communism, conveniently ignoring the real fault for the strike.
President Truman announcing nationalization of the steel industry.
The steel companies sued to regain control of the plants. On June 8, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that Truman overstepped his authority in seizing the mills. The government argued that as Commander in Chief the president had the obligation to ensure that critical wartime industries remained operational. Moreover, this necessity overrode the principle of private property. The steel companies, represented by the 1924 Democratic candidate for president, John W. Davis, argued that Congress had provided Truman another way to end the strike, through the Taft-Hartley Act, which would force the workers back to job due to the law’s clause giving presidential powers to end strikes when they impacted national safety, creating an 80-day cooling off period. Davis argued that Congress had explicitly rejected seizures in passing Taft-Hartley and that Truman violated the separation of powers by ignoring congressional instructions on dealing with these issues. Unfortunately, the majority of the Supreme Court agreed.
This led 600,000 steelworkers to go on strike the next day, effectively ending steel production in the United States for the next 6 weeks. Factories producing tanks, trucks, bazooka rockets, and mortar shells reduced production by more than half. Truman could have used his power under the Taft-Hartley Act to bust the strike. He refused, blaming management for the strike and again wanting to make labor happy with the Democratic Party, although the president also openly held the possibility of drafting striking steelworkers into the military as a tool to use against the USWA staying on strike for long. The strike lasted until July 24, when the industry caved to USWA demands, including a 21.5 cent pay hike with a $5.65 a ton rise in steel prices to partially offset those wage increases. The union wanted a full closed shop and although it did make progress toward that goal, it was not a complete victory on that front. More important, the USWA stood up to the steel companies, holding the line in industry representation and showing solidarity against industry intransigence. Certainly Murray and USWA leadership thought they had won a huge victory.
USWA strikers and their children, 1952
From perspective of Democratic Party fortunes, Truman ended up looking to his enemies both dictatorial and weak by turns. The steel strike had little impact on the war effort, but although Truman galvanized organized labor, if anything it hurt Democratic fortunes in the 1952 elections, helping usher in Republican rule for the first time in 2 decades, although there were many reasons for this. In the bigger picture, Truman’s support of the USWA probably had relatively little impact that fall.
This is the 56th post in this series. The rest of the series is archived here.
I am really skeptical of guestworker programs doing anything other than providing a structure to exploit vulnerable workers. The history of guestworker programs is basically terrible and the present isn’t much better. The Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO came to a deal last weekend on including guestworker programs in immigration reform. Let’s hope the guarantees, mostly around pay rates, mean anything.
Josh Eidelson has a long piece at Dissent on how guestworkers are exploited today and how there are some important examples of standing up and fighting back. It’s a must read for anyone interested in these issues.
A must-read story on the problems with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, focusing on glue poisoning in a North Carolina furniture factory. The article describes OSHA as “the watchdog agency that many Americans love to hate and industry often faults as overzealous.” I’m not really sure about the former part of that formulation, but the latter is certainly true. And therein lies the problem with OSHA. When it was founded, it had real potential to regulate the workplace environment. Organized labor took advantage of OSHA’s existence to empower workers on the shopfloor, pushing for new regulations, testing of air quality, right-to-know laws on chemicals, and all sorts of things. One chapter of my book is about how the International Woodworkers of America became one of the nation’s most proactive unions when it came to OSHA.
But the election of Reagan in 1981 effectively ended OSHA’s potential to reshape the workplace. Suffering from industry complaints, reduced funding, and regulatory capture, OSHA just does not have the ability to enforce all these regulations. Too few inspectors, too little money, too much industry pressure.
And let’s be clear–industry has been completely fine with their workers getting sick and dying all the way to the 19th century. From the days of Alice Hamilton and the first health reformers around 1900 going until 2013, industries have denied their culpability in workplace illness, blamed workers for their own sickness, influenced politicians to not fix problems, and eventually moved the factories to China in order to continue profiting off of workers’ destroyed bodies. Sometimes, workers suing companies could force some change–corporate support of workers’ compensation legislation in the 1910s happened because successful lawsuits worried industrial leaders. So this is not an issue just of the present–it’s an issue of poorly regulated capitalism. Looking over this history, it’s kind of amazing that OSHA was created in the first place, but the political will simply hasn’t existed over the decades to force industry to make workplace health a priority. We can’t even imagining creating laws that would force American companies to have safety standards in factories abroad that would comply with American laws–but there’s no reason we shouldn’t fight for this.
I’ve been sitting on this post for over 20 months; writing it, editing it, deleting it, writing it again. It was initially inspired by a book review written by Stanley Fish in the New York Times, which generated some online discussion, then the University of Virginia firing and subsequent unfiring of Teresa Sullivan last summer. Finally, we there is the effect that Coursera specifically and MOOCs in general will have on our understanding of the role of higher education. Higher education in the United States is facing a series of challenges, from the erosion of legislative support for state universities and colleges, the emergence of Coursera and its ilk, to a whole scale reassessment of the role of higher ed. In America, the concern is that the sector is being pushed towards a mission dedicated solely to the production of vocationally-equipped graduates with skill sets easily measured, all administered in a commercial framework driven by ever changing business models glossily packaged in the buzzwords fashionable to the day .
We’re already there in Britain.
In immediate response to the firing of Sullivan at Virginia, Siva Vaidhyanathan wrote an excellent piece at Slate. The following two passages are pertinent to this post:
The biggest challenge facing higher education is market-based myopia. Wealthy board members, echoing the politicians who appointed them (after massive campaign donations) too often believe that universities should be run like businesses, despite the poor record of most actual businesses in human history.
Universities do not have “business models.” They have complementary missions of teaching, research, and public service. Yet such leaders think of universities as a collection of market transactions, instead of a dynamic (I said it) tapestry of creativity, experimentation, rigorous thought, preservation, recreation, vision, critical debate, contemplative spaces, powerful information sources, invention, and immeasurable human capital.
In other words, while a few already well-paid superprofessors get their egos stroked conducting experiments that are doomed to fail, “second- and third-tier universities and colleges, and community colleges” risk closing because Coursera and its ilk have sent higher education price expectations through the floor and systematically devalued everybody else’s work. And they get to do all this while dispensing a produuct that they know is inferior! Jay Gould would be proud.
In the meantime, thanks for nothing, superprofessors. I may not work with a bunch of assholes on my campus, but MOOCmania is starting to look like a pretty good test of whether Academia in general has enough assholes in it in order to destroy itself.
Unfortunately, the answer to that question is probably yes. Or put more charitably, that there’s enough professors clueless about how their actions affect others and an overall missing class consciousness among the professor class.
Mike Elk has a very disturbing story about Patriot Coal, a spinoff of industry giant Peabody Coal, going to bankruptcy court to divest itself of the pension and healthcare obligations guaranteed to workers in contracts Peabody signed with the United Mine Workers of America.
There’s exactly one reason for Patriot to do this–to maximize profit on the backs of the poor. Peabody created Patriot in order to manufacture a bankruptcy crisis; by giving the new company more retirees than active workers, it set the stage for bankruptcy relief of contractual obligations.
But in the UMWA’s eyes, Peabody is the real villain. According to union estimates, 90 percent of Patriot’s retirees are former Peabody miners who “never worked a day in their life” for Patriot. The UMWA charges that Peabody created Patriot as a vehicle to shed its retiree obligations. As evidence, the union cites the fact that when Peabody spun off Patriot Coal in 2007, it handed Patriot three times as many retirees as active workers and $557 million in retiree healthcare obligations. Within five years, Patriot had filed for bankruptcy.
We’ve already seen a disturbing decline in pensions around the country in the public sector. Eliminating hard-fought pension gains in the private sector, not even for the future but for already retired workers, will push working-class retirees into poverty. Slashing healthcare is an even bigger deal in the mining industry. The specter of black-lung disease haunts underground miners, including those working today. What are these people supposed to do?
On a related note, read Dave Jamieson’s piece on how the Senate’s kneecapping of the National Labor Relations Board has hurt the lives of workers. Once again focusing on the coal industry (coal companies really are the worst), Jamieson shows how the lack of a functioning NLRB allows companies to do almost anything they want to workers with no realistic legal recourse that will be resolved in less than a decade. Once again, what are these workers supposed to do?
Who are the real friends of coal miners? Like in the timber wars of the 1980s, an exploitative industry and its lackey politicians have claimed that the industry looks out for the miners against those evil environmentalists, while at the same time engaging in land management and labor policies that make workers’ lives worse. Given a declining industry due to overexploitation of the resource and because of a lack of economic alternatives for scared workers, this political move has been very effective both in logging towns of the Northwest and Appalachian coal country.
But in both places, activists have pushed back against the false choices of industry versus environment. Here is an outstanding letter from retired UMWA organizer Carl Shoupe about the lies of the coal industry to the people of Kentucky.
Since I’ve been around coal all my life, I guess I should be pleased when our “leaders” say they are Friends of Coal. But lately, I’ve been wondering, which part of coal they’re friends with.
Peabody Energy and its new company, Patriot Coal, are trying to weasel out of paying health and pension benefits promised to thousands of retired UMWA miners. Have you heard any objection from these Friends of Coal in our marble palaces in Frankfort? Those miners earned their benefits with their sweat and their blood, but now Peabody wants to dump them like they’re just more overburden.
These politicians may be friends of coal, but they’re not friends of coal miners and their families. These miners and their families are being robbed of their retirement and benefits.
My friend Truman recently spent a week hooked up to a hospital ventilator. Like thousands of others, he suffers with black lung, caused by working in underground mines filled with coal dust. Today, the number of severe black lung cases is on the rise again, affecting workers on strip mines and below ground. And yet Congressman Hal Rogers has led efforts in Congress to block rules designed to protect miners from that awful disease.
Another friend of mine had to move with his daughter away from the homeplace where his family has lived for over 200 years. Toxic runoff from mountaintop removal was poisoning him and his family.
But his state representative, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, stood up at an Environmental Protection Agency hearing about water pollution and insisted that anyone who wants to save the mountains should just “go buy one.”
The speaker may be a friend of the coal companies, but he’s no friend of coalfield families threatened by mountaintop mining and poisoned water.
Coal companies and politicians of both parties who are beholden to coal money are not the friends of workers. At the very least, political progressives should be aware that environmentalists are not the enemies of coal miners. The enemy is the employer who has zero concern for the aftermath of coal mining and the long-term effects of coal dependency on Appalachia.