Oil workers make health and safety their bargaining priority

An oil refinery is a dangerous place to work.  According to the United Steelworkers, which represents 30,000 oil industry workers, there have been 138 fires at US oil refineries between February 2009 and November 2011 that the union is aware of.

Living near an oil refinery is also a dangerous place to live.The Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a community organization fighting to make neighborhoods located near refineries pollution free, says that in Louisiana alone there were 354 refinery accidents reported to the state during 2010. Some created health risks to workers inside the refinery and to those living nearby.

Recently, members of the United Steelworkers voted overwhelmingly for a national oil bargaining policy that makes improving refinery health and safety a priority for contract negotiations with the oil industry that begin in January.

“I think that it’s well about time that one of the richest industries on the planet invest in occupational health and safety and environmental safety and we intend to have that battle with them,” said Leo Gerard, USW president.

The oil industry has been reluctant to bargain over health and safety standards that can be enforced and in fact wants to abolish health and safety regulations that apply to refineries. As justification, industry representatives say that oil refineries have a low rate of on-the-job accidents.

But union officials say that the low accident rate is misleading because the industry’s lax safety culture has led to well-documented catastrophes that have cost lives, injured workers, and put communities on edge. Refinery workers are eight times more likely to die on the job than workers in other industries.

Refinery fires in the last three years caused 18 deaths, and refinery workers still remember the horrific fire at the BP refinery in Texas City, Texas that killed 15 workers and injured 170 others in 2005. Five years later, the same BP plant illegally emitted 17,000 pounds of cancer causing benzene into the air putting the surrounding community at risk.

“When things go bad in a refinery, they go really bad and people die,” said USW Health and Safety Specialist Kim Nibarger at a special briefing for Congress members and staff . “Focusing on personal safety—the wearing of hard hats and safety glasses, slips, trips and falls—says nothing about how safe a refinery is for workers and the surrounding community. BP had a low personal injury rate at its refineries, but the 2005 explosion and fire at its Texas City plant showed it failed miserably in terms of process safety.”

Process safety includes maintaining equipment reliability, containing discharges into the air, preventative maintenance, inspection, and testing. Union workers complain that oil companies are spending less on process safety even as their profits climb.

“Typically, they run the equipment longer than they should because the potential for catastrophic failure although it exists is not high enough in their estimation to require it to be shut down and fixed or maintained,” said Erica Kent a USW Local 675 member.

Vessels at refineries boil oil at extreme heat, and to do this safely requires a lot of safety checks. It also requires that some of these units be shut down and overhauled regularly, said Gary Beevers, USW vice-president for oil bargaining. “When I was an operator at a refinery many years ago, usually there were scheduled turnarounds (shutdown for full maintenance) every three years. That went to four, then five years, and now in some cases it’s six years,” Beevers said.

Beevers also said that the lack of concern for process safety is a concern for people living near refineries. “For years we never had releases of hydrofluoride at these refineries, but now you have HF alkylation units that are 60 years old, 50 years, or 40 years old and they’re extending the turnaround time of these units.” Hydrofluoride is a deadly gas and a pin hole leak from a pipe containing it “could kill an entre community,” Beevers said.

The safety situation at refineries has become so dire that USW and its members think that they must win enforceable safety standards at the bargaining table. “Health and safety is going to be major strike issue,” Beevers said. “(They’re) going to stop killing people or we’re going to withhold our work.”

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Michigan public workers demonstrate to support those they serve

Michigan state workers who help people in need get public assistance and are members of UAW Local 600 on November 28 picketed a Detroit office of the state Department of Human Services to support their clients who have been denied public assistance because of cuts to the state budget.

UAW Local 6000 members are on the front lines every day to work for Michigan families and help them navigate a welfare system that’s getting meaner by the day,” said UAW Vice-president Cindy Estrada, who directs the union’s Public Sector and Health Care Servicing Department. “Our members who work at DHS offices as social workers and welfare eligibility specialists are outraged by the new law and the insidious ‘Rocket Docket’ system instituted under the guise of saving taxpayer dollars. We don’t want to see 29,000 more of Michigan’s poorest children thrown into deeper poverty.”

The Michigan Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder enacted a new state budget last summer that cut many services that working people depend on. Included in those cuts is a provision that denies public assistance benefits to families after they have received benefits for 48 months. Those who have already received public assistance for 48 months or more were told in October that they would no longer be receiving benfits.

More than 12,000 families, including 29,000 children, were affected. Of those, 929 families filed an appeal. DHS Director Maura Corrigan decided to hear all 929 appeals in two days, and instructed those who appealed to show up at their local DHS office on November 28 and 29 for hearings. The appeals are being held by telephone with an administrative judge presiding. Corrigan calls these sped-up hearings her “Rocket Docket.”

With their picket line, UAW 6000 members are trying to draw attention to the unfairness of the appeal process and the unfairness of the hardship being imposed on the state’s poorest people.

“DHS is trying to rush through hearings for clients who believe their cash assistance case should not have closed,” reads a statement on UAW 6000’s website. “DHS scheduled 929 hearings in two days across the state, and bragged about how they were going to dispose of so many cases so quickly. The problem is that people have rights too, even if DHS wants to ignore this.”

Local 6000 members were joined on the picket line by welfare rights advocates and other community supporters. Maureen Taylor of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization told the Michigan Citizen that holding so many hearings in such a short time period was unfair. “It’s an attack on the rights of welfare recipients,” Taylor said. “They’re not getting a chance to have their case heard.”

Jim Walkowicz, chairperson of the Labor Management Team for UAW Local 6000 agreed. “It’s outrageous,” said  Walkowicz to the Michigan Citizen. “It’s trumping all sorts of due process rights. People have a right to file for a hearing and be heard.”

Michigan has been one of the states hit hardest by the economic downturn. Its unemployment rate is 10.6 percent, the fifth highest in the US. It’s difficult to imagine where those who are being denied public assistance will turn to for help.

The average cash payment for a person receiving public assistance is only $515, but according to the The Detroit News, a spokesperson for Gov. Snyder said that the denying this benefit is necessary because the state can’t afford to offer cash for so long.

People on public assistance aren’t the only ones feeling the sting of Gov. Snyder’s budget cutting. Low-income workers will see their state taxes increase because their earned income tax credit has been lowered. Senior citizens on pensions will see their tax bill go up because their pensions are no longer exempted from state income taxes.

Businesses, however, have fared better under Gov. Snyder’s watch. They will pay an estimated $1.1 billion dollars less in taxes thanks to business tax cuts endorsed by Gov. Snyder.

Indiana union members occupy statehouse to protest proposal to lower wages

Republican lawmakers in Indiana on November 21 announced that when the next session of state legislature convenes in January, they will introduce legislation designed to lower wages. They also said that they would make this legislation their priority for the coming session. The next day, about 2,000 union members and their supporters responded by occupying the Indiana statehouse for a day.

“Union members in Ohio, Wisconsin, and elsewhere are standing up and fighting back,” said Jim Robinson United Steelworkers District 7 director. “We’re ready for this fight in Indiana, and we’ll keep coming back to the statehouse until they get the message that we will not back down or go away.”

Indiana Senate Pro Tem David Long and House Speaker Brian Bosma said that so-called right-to-work legislation would be introduced early in the up coming legislative session, and they as leaders of the Senate and House would do everything the could to see that this legislation passes.

Right-to-work laws, which are on the books in 22 states, don’t guarantee jobs as the name implies, but they do make it harder for workers to form unions and bargain collectively for fair wages and benefits, which in turn drives down wages for all workers.

A recent report by the Economic Policy Institute, demonstrates the impact that right-to-work laws have on wages. According to the report, wages in the 22 states that have right-to-work laws are 3.2 percent lower than wages for comparable work in non-right-to-work state. To calculate this percentage, the report’s authors controlled for other factors that might affect the outcome, such as differences in the cost of living among states.

The report also says that the average full-time, full-year worker in right-to-work states makes about $1,500 less annually than a similar worker in a non-right-to-work state. Furthermore, workers in right to work states are less likely to have employer sponsored health care and pension benefits.

Proponents of right-to-work laws claim that these laws lead to economic growth and create jobs. House Speaker Bosma when speaking in favor of the proposed law said that it will, “remove (Indiana’s) last barrier to job creation.” What Speaker Bosma presumably means by “last barrier to job creation” is the power of unions to bargain collectively for fair wages.

But as it turns out, right-to-work laws are not the job generators that their supporters claim. The US Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that Georgia, a right-to-work state, lost 33,300 jobs between October 2010 and October 2011, by far the most of any state in the US.

The most recent state employment statistics issued by the BLS show that right-to-work states don’t have any lower unemployment rates than other states. Of the ten states with the highest unemployment rates, six–Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, and South Carolina–are right-to-work states. The state with the highest unemployment rate at 13.4 percent is right-to-work state Nevada.

Last year, Republican lawmakers in Indiana tried to pass right-to-work legislation, but after union members and their supporters demonstrated their strength through rallies, demonstrations, and marches, Democratic lawmakers threw their support behind the unions. When a vote on the bill was scheduled to take place, Democratic lawmakers left the state to prevent a quorum. Republicans eventually backed down.

Republicans argue that the proposed right-to-work law is about a worker’s freedom to choose whether to belong to a union. But Nancy Guyott, Indiana AFL-CIO president, said that workers already have this right, and it’s guaranteed by the National Labor Relations Act.

“In reality, this legislation isn’t about giving (Indiana) workers and employers more freedom, it is about taking away existing freedoms and choices,” Guyott said. “If passed, this bill would restrict a private business’ ability to freely enter into an agreement with a union. And, it forces organized labor to represent workers who refuse to pay for services, thus severely depleting their ability to effectively represent dues paying members in fights for better wages, working conditions and needed safety precautions.”

Guyott also said that right-to-work laws are aimed at busting unions and “eliminating the last group of people standing in the way of unfettered corporate control.”

Retail workers protest employers’ encroachment on holiday time

Anthony Hardwick works for Target in Omaha. When Target management told him that he would have to work on Thanksgiving evening because the store was moving its day-after Thanksgiving opening up to midnight Friday morning, he was not happy.

Like most retail workers, Hardwick gets to spend very few holidays away from work and with family and friends. Thanksgiving was one of a very few exceptions.

“I was so disappointed the day I found out about this because I did the math in my head and I was going to have to go to bed in the early afternoon on Thanksgiving to go in and work 10 hours,” Hardwick said to the Washington Post. “Everyone at work was resigned because the economy is bad and so our employer has us over a barrel.”

But Hardwick decided not to suffer in silence. About two weeks ago he drew up a petition urging Target to reconsider opening its day-after-Thanksgiving at midnight. He posted the petition on Change.org hoping that he could get a few people to support him. As of November 23, 198,636 people had signed the petition.

“A holiday with family is not just for the elite of this nation,” reads the petition. “All Americans should be able to break bread with loved ones and get a good night’s rest on Thanksgiving. Join me in calling Target retail stores to push back their original opening time.”

“It’s a national holiday, not a national shopping day,” wrote Bryce Allison, one of the petition signers in the comment section. “Maybe try giving thanks to your employees that bring you so much money.”

Target isn’t the only retailer opening its doors at midnight or earlier. To name just a few, Macy’s will open at midnight, Toys ‘R Us at 9:00 pm Thursday night, and many Walmart stores at 10:00 pm.  Like Hardwick, some Walmart workers are doing something about their boss’ encroachment into their family time.

A group of Walmart workers have banded together to form Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart). Among other things, the group wants Walmart to give them a say in holiday scheduling.

“When Walmart changes holiday schedules at the last-minute, it is not only inconvenient, but it’s just not right,” reads a statement on the OUR Walmart website. “We have earned a say (in scheduling). Now is the time for all associates to stick together and call on Walmart for the respect and voice we deserve.”

The group has posted a statement online and is urging other Walmart workers and their supporters to sign. It reads, “As Walmart Associates, we know this time of year is busy for retail and we want to serve our customers.  However, the holidays are also about family.  It is not fair that Walmart sets holiday schedules without considering us and our families.  We deserve a say.”

An opinion column written by Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite that last week appeared in the Washington Post said that retailers have overstepped their bounds when store openings bleed into Thanksgiving and intrude on one of the few respites from the exhausting work of retail workers.

This mania to one up the competition by taking away workers’ holiday time isn’t necessary, writes Thistlethwaite, because “corporations are already making huge profits.” She goes on to observe that corporate profits have increased largely because corporations are squeezing more productivity out of their workers. In the case of giant retailers like Target and Walmart, part of this productivity squeeze comes in the form of making their workers work on holidays.

“The human toll of this increased ‘productivity’ is heartbreaking and harrowing,” Thistlethwaite writes. “Few escape the productivity treadmill powered by human overwork.

“When . . . work becomes grinding toil for flat or reduced wages and workers are afforded little rest, it violates human dignity. This has serious consequences for people’s sense of self-worth. It can contribute to a sense of helplessness and despair, and can spill over into family and society as people are more and more tired and stressed. Work today is becoming an attack on the fundamental dignity and worth of human beings as expressed through their work.”

“The system is profoundly immoral,” adds Thistlethwaite.

Two rail unions continue contract negotions; others reach tentative agreement

The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the Teamsters (BMWED) and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) remain at odds with the nation’s rail freight carriers, but nine other rail unions last week announced tentative agreements with the carriers based on recommendations made November 4 by a Presidential Emergency Board.

Unions are sending details about the agreements to members, who will have a chance to accept or reject the deals. “It (has) been two years of difficult bargaining, but in the end, we have prevailed,” said Joe R. Duncan, IAM District 19 president. “We achieved more than what the carriers claimed was the pattern settlement. By any measure, this agreement delivers excellent increases in compensation while holding the line on health care costs.”

The PEB’s recommendations closely mirrored the contract between the United Transportation Union and the carriers ratified last summer. The carriers said the UTU contract set an industry pattern for labor contracts. The other unions representing rail workers rejected this notion.

The PEB recommended a five-year pay increase of 15.6 percent retroactive to 2010. The UTU contract called for a 14 percent five-year increase. The 11 unions that rejected the UTU contract said that a 19 percent increase would more fairly represent the contribution that increased worker productivity had played in the record profits reported by the carriers.

The PEB also recommended that workers pay the same higher out-of-pocket health care costs that UTU agreed to last summer; although, the PEB did recommend a phase-in period for the higher costs. There is no such phase-in period in the UTU contract.

Both the UTU contract and the PEB recommendations cap monthly worker health care premiums at $200 per month until 2016; The PEB also recommended that the cap be increased slightly but maintained after 2016.

The carriers and two coalitions of rail unions had been in contract negotiations for 22 months. The PEB addressed the major issues that stalled negotiations but recommended that the carriers and unions resolve union specific issues through further negotiations.

For example, the board recommended that the BMWED and carriers continue to negotiate on away-from-home expenses. BMWED wanted carriers to increase reimbursement that workers receive for expenses while away from home. The company wanted to maintain current reimbursement rates.

In a bargaining update to members, BMWED said that the carriers were “stonewalling” on this issue. “The BMWED remains committed to reaching a voluntary agreement,” said F.N. Simpson, BMWED president. “We see no reason why the railroads would risk a nationwide disruption to the economy over the matter of reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses incurred by employees while working away from home. Our traveling members have not received an increase in meal or lodging per diem since January 1, 2005, and they have not received an increase in travel allowances for over 15 years.”

With the 30-day cooling off period required by the Railway Labor Act after the PEB makes its recommendations set to expire on December 6, BMWED sent staff to Capitol Hill to win congressional support for increased away-from-home expenses. If no agreement is reached by December 6, a work stoppage is possible. If that occurs, Congress could impose a settlement to end the work stoppage.

Simpson said that after the Thanksgiving Holiday, BMWED will return to Congress “en masse” to press its case for increased away-from-home expenses.

BLET President Dennis R. Pierce said that the union is continuing to bargain over the health care cost increases. In a newsletter to members, he said that some members work on properties where wage and work rule issues have been settled, and those members agreed to the settlement not expecting to pay additional out-of-pocket health care expenses.

Pierce cautioned members that if a voluntary agreement could not be reached, Congress could intervene and that he had concerns about “what those leading the war on workers in Congress will do” should Congress intervene. He went on to say that it is difficult for many members to reconcile the gap between how corporate employers treat themselves and how they treat their workers.

The unions that reached tentative agreements are the Boilermakers, Firemen and Oilers, IAM District 19, IBEW, Railroad Signalmen, Sheet Metal Workers, Transport Workers Union, and Transportation Communications Union.

California facutly strikes to protest chancellor’s skewed priorities

Faculty at two California State University (CSU) campuses went on a one-day strike on November 17 to protest the priorities of CSU Chancellor Charles B. Reed, who granted big pay raises to top campus administrators, but refused to implement faculty raises that were negotiated in 2007.

Striking faculty were equally outraged that CSU regents recently increased student fees and tuition by 9 percent, making it even more difficult for many students to complete their college education.

The strike, called by the California Faculty Association (CFA), took place at California State University East Bay in Hayward and California State University Dominguez Hills in Southern California near Los Angeles. The strike effectively closed the campuses at both universities. Striking faculty members were joined on the picket line by students and faculty from other California State universities.

“If they don’t start giving us respect and start taking education seriously, this is just the beginning,” said Nate Thomas, who teaches film at CSU Northridge to the San Francisco Chronicle. “Nobody wants to do this. We would rather be teaching and inspiring our students.”

The CFA, which represents 23,000 instructional faculty, librarians, counselors, and coaches, has been bargaining over a new contract with CSU, which has proposed concessions that would change the nature of higher education at CSU.

CSU’s concession proposals include increasing class sizes, making it more difficult for temporary, instructors, counselors, and librarians to become full-time permanent employees, reducing pay for teaching summer and extension courses, and in general giving campus presidents more power to determine working and learning conditions on their campuses without faculty input.

CFA members have been resisting these concession demands. They believe that if implemented the concessions will lower the quality of public higher education by making working and learning conditions on campus less stable. The concessions, they charge, will also lead to higher costs for students.

But what sparked the strike was CSU Chancellor Reed’s decision to not pay equity raises that would have boosted pay for about 3,000 faculty members to the same level as some newly hired faculty members. Reed had agreed to the equity pay increase as part of a collective bargaining agreement signed in 2007.

When the equity raises were about to be implemented in school-year 2008, Reed said that money wasn’t available. He said the same thing the following year. CFA proposed several compromises that would have resulted in partial payment of the promised raises, but Reed rejected the compromise.

Two independent studies confirmed that the CSU had the money in its budget to pay the raises without increasing tuition or fees, but Reed insisted that he needed the money for other priorities.

CFA charges that Reed’s other priorities include giving $6 million worth raises to upper management and a 12 percent raise to staff who report directly to him. The $6 million that went to increase management salaries was about the same as it would have cost to implement the faculty pay raise for the same year.

CFA was especially critical of the deal that Reed gave newly hired San Diego State president Elliot Hirshman. Hirshman received a university salary of $350,000 a year and another $50,000 from the school’s fund raising foundation, plus a $1,000 monthly car allowance and free housing.

CFA also says that Reed has spent millions hiring consultants to help him implement his vision of public higher education, which includes making CSU more like private, for-profit universities that churn out online degrees at the expense of education.

Faculty members aren’t the only ones who have been hurt by Reed’s priorities. While campus presidents’ salaries have increased by 23 percent in inflation adjusted dollars since 1998, student tuition and fees rose by 106 percent.

The faculty strike was called by the CFA board of directors after 93 percent of voting members voted to authorize the strike. “All of us who voted ‘yes’ did so because we understand that we must now send the Chancellor a plain and simple message about his skewed priorities,” said CFA President Lillian Taiz while announcing the decision to strike. “We hope this carefully targeted strike, which symbolizes both our anger and our commitment to fairness, will lead to changes in his priorities and his positions. If it does not, the CFA leadership—and the CSU faculty we represent—are prepared to escalate the fight.”

Union leaders draw comparison between Jim Crow and anti-immigrant laws

A group of African-American trade unionists and Civil Rights activists visited Alabama the day after 13 people were arrested for acts of civil disobedience against Alabama’s new anti-immigrant law. The trade unionist are on a fact-finding mission for a report that the AFL-CIO is preparing to advise people in the labor movement how they can assist those affected by the law.

“It’s disturbing to us as working people,” said Fred Redmond of the United Steelworkers. “It’s disturbing to us as a movement, and it’s disturbing to us as a country to realize that in 2011, here in the state of Alabama, people are being disenfranchised. They’re being discriminated against. Kids are being denied the right of an education. This is not the America that we know.”

“It looks like the old racism of the civil rights era,” said Al Henley, president of the Alabama AFL-CIO, who met with the labor group and a group of people affected by the new law at a Birmingham restaurant. “But it also presents an opportunity for the labor movement to engage in the struggle against the law and also organize union and political efforts more broadly in the state.”

At the Birmingham meeting and at others in different cities, members of the labor delegation heard first hand how the new law is affecting people. Victor Palafox is a 19 year-old student who recently graduated from high school. He applied for admission to Auburn and the University of Alabama at Birmingham and was accepted. Before he could start school this fall, the Alabama Legislature passed HB 56, which among other things forbids state funded higher education institutions from enrolling students like Palafox.

“I am undocumented and unafraid,” said Palafox, who came to the US with his parents when he was young. “There is no reason I should be ashamed because all I have ever done is give the best for my country.”

A court ruling recently found that the section of HB 56 affecting  Palafox and other immigrant students could not be enforced. As a result, Palafox could have gone to college this fall but instead has become a full-time activists in the movement to overturn HB 56.

The day before Palafox spoke to the labor delegation, 13 people were arrested in Montgomery, the state capital, for participating in a sit-in protesting HB 56. They are members of The Dream Is Coming, a national group that supports passage of the DREAM Act, a federal law that would create a citizenship path for immigrants without immigration documents who enroll in college or join the military.

Students aren’t the only ones affected by HB 56. Tony Quintana told the labor delegation that he worked drywall construction until he saved enough money to open a grocery store in Leeds, Alabama. The store served mainly immigrant workers from Latin America, who work at lowing-paying jobs in the area.

Many of his customers started leaving the area after HB 56 passed, which put him out of business. They left because they feared for their safety. HB 56 was written to make it difficult for immigrants without proper documents to work, travel, rent housing, or go to school, not unlike the  Jim Crow laws that segregated and made second-class citizens of African-Americans in Alabama and other southern states.

HB 56 affects citizens as well as immigrants. Quintana’s children were born in US and are US citizens. But their parents are keeping them home from school because they fear that the school will check their parents’ immigration status, which could lead to their deportation.

Redmond and his fellow unionist think that anti-immigrant laws like those passed in Alabama and Arizona are aimed at disenfranchising a growing segment of US voters, Latinos, both those born in the US and those who have immigrated. “We see laws popping up around the country that are totally designed to disenfranchise people from the political process,” Redmond said. “The good news is: it’s not going to work. Too many people gave their lives (to protect voting rights).”