Labor Radio June 16, 2010
Workers Independent News Labor Radio
Internet Radio Program 06/16/10
Producers: Doug Cunningham & Jesse Russell
Labor Radio Rundown:
1) WIN Newscast
2) After decades of service to his embattled union, United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger retires. Gettelfinger said his farewells at the United Auto Workers convention, Jesse Russell reports.
Lawyers Get Less Under New Settlement Proposal For 9/11 Responders- 06/16/10
Late last week Federal District Court Judge Alvin Hellerstein called a new settlement that will award up to $712.5 million to workers who helped search for remains after the attacks on the World Trade Center, “a very good deal.” In order for the agreement to kick-in 95 percent of the plantiffs in the case must approve it by the end of September. Hellerstein said the agreement was better than one previously presented which gave 33 percent to lawyers. This version gives lawyers 25 percent.
AFL-CIO President Trumka Says The Fight For Employee Free Choice Act Continues- 06/16/10
With the President and Congress focused on health care, financial reform, and other priorities very little attention has been reserved for the Employee Free Choice Act. The Act would make it easier for workers to organize at a workplace. If a majority of workers sign cards saying they want to be represented by a labor union the union would be certified. It would also increase penalties to employers if they discriminate against workers for union activity. On Monday AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka spoke at the United Auto Workers convention.
Union Voice Can Help Prevent Future Gulf Oil Disasters
SIU Gulf Coast Vice President Dean Corgey.
Dean Corgey has spent nearly 40 years in the maritime industry, from 1973 when he shipped out of Houston after graduating from the Seafarers (SIU) training program, until today, when he serves as SIU vice president for the Gulf Coast region.
He has gained a deep and intimate knowledge of the Gulf Coast maritime industry, especially the offshore oil industry. In a recent column in the Houston Chronicle, Corgey looks at the BP/Deepwater Horizon disaster that killed 11 workers and almost two months later continues to spew oil, poison wildlife and wetlands, ruin beaches and wreak economic havoc all along the Gulf Coast.
He says if the offshore oil industry–a major economic force in the Gulf and energy asset for the nation–is to thrive, it’s time to
change how business is conducted in the Gulf to ensure that this tragedy is never repeated. This raises the question: What’s wrong in the Gulf of Mexico?
We think the answer is simple. The offshore exploration, production and service industry in the Gulf of Mexico, to the best of our knowledge, is 100 percent nonunion and increasingly foreign. Past attempts to organize these workers have been met with bitter opposition–not from employees but from employers.
Corgey says such a situation has created volatile, hyper-competitive environment that has resulted in unsafe working conditions and unstable employment.
Lack of union representation has denied oilfield workers a voice in the workplace, which in turn has created an out-of-control industry with little oversight or accountability.
Pointing to his service on special federal commissions to investigate the Exxon Valdez disaster and to design port safety plans following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Corgey says:
In my experience, the most effective health, safety and environmental programs are a three-legged stool consisting of a committed employer, effective government regulation and meaningful safety provisions contained in a binding union contract subject to a grievance and arbitration procedure with teeth. We practice this model in the deep-sea, U.S.-flag fleet with measurable success….This model must be replicated to save our domestic offshore industry.
Click here to read his entire column. Also click here for to read a post by United Steelworkers (USW) President Leo W. Gerard and Mine Workers (UMWA) President Cecil Roberts looking at how corporate greed took precedence over the safety of workers in the BP and Massey Energy Upper Big branch coal mine disasters.
Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) this week condemned actions by local and federal officials targeting immigrant workers hired to clean up BP’s oil spill on Gulf Coast beaches and in marshlands.
Danny Postel, communications coordinator for IWJ, says:
As we scramble to contain the biggest environmental catastrophe in U.S. history, and send workers into harm’s way to do the dirty work (10 were recently hospitalized after reporting dizziness, nausea and difficulty breathing), why do the very people whose labors are so urgently needed and whose safety hangs in the balance find themselves under investigation over their immigration status?
According to reports, agents from local offices of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) visited two cleanup staging areas at the request at the request of St. Bernard (La.) Parrish officials. The workers were found to be properly documented.
During a visit to the Gulf Coast, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said the Labor Department has been in touch with ICE and “they’re working on that issue now.”
My purpose is to assist the workers with respect to safety and protection. We’re protecting all workers regardless of migration status because that’s the federal law. If there are complaints of people not being paid adequate wages or loss of overtime or wage theft or if they feel that they’re in a harmful situation where they may be exposed to contaminants or something that might cause them fear or a health risk, they should call our OSHA office.
Alliance, IUPAT Members Ask Obama About Health Care Reform
Barbara Franklin was worried that under the new health care reform law, seniors who receive their Medicare coverage from the privately-run Medicare Advantage program would see their coverage and benefits reduced because the law eliminates some government subsidies the private insurers receive.
So she called President Obama.
Franklin, the president of Illinois chapter of the Alliance for Retired Americans, was one of several callers and in-person questioners who took part in last week’s tele-town hall meeting exploring the new law’s impact on seniors and Medicare. The Alliance hosted more than two dozen watch parties for the tele-town hall.
President Obama reassured Franklin that the law’s new rules for Medicare Advantage will protect seniors and ensure that Medicare Advantage is “not just a big giveaway to the insurance companies.”
Alliance members attended tele-town hall watch parties.
Medicare Advantage was designed as a pilot program to privatize Medicare during the Bush administration. It allows seniors to receive their benefits through private insurers who, in turn, are reimbursed by the federal government. But currently, the government pays private insurance companies 14 percent more (about $1,000 a year per person) for providing coverage to Medicare Advantage clients than it would pay for the same care under traditional Medicare. That extra money, said Obama,
was supposed to be providing additional benefits and better services for this $1,000. But a lot of it ended up going to their profits and CEO bonuses and their bottom lines.
Also, much of the extra cost of Medicare Advantage was passed along in the form of higher premiums for the 77 percent of seniors on regular Medicare. Some insurance companies are threatening cut benefits because of the reduced subsides.
So here’s what we did under the law. What we said was, you can maintain Medicare Advantage, but we are going to say to the insurance companies that you can’t use this just to pad your profits or to pay higher CEO bonuses. Eighty-five percent of what you spend has to actually be for health services. We’re going to review the rates that are applied. We’re going to set a rate that is fair and appropriate so that Medicare Advantage isn’t costing people who aren’t in Medicare Advantage.
Also getting a chance to question Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was Dennis Yurkis, a Painter and Allied Trades (IUPAT) retiree. He viewed the tele-town hall at watch party hosted by IUPAT District 15 in Las Vegas
Yurkis is too young to qualify for Medicare and receives health coverage through COBRA after his last employer laid him off. The economic recovery act provides subsidies to help jobless workers maintain their health care coverage through COBRA. But Congress let those subsidies expire. The AFL-CIO has urged that a COBRA extension be included in a jobs bill now in the Senate. Said Obama:
Dennis, the answer is what we need is to make sure that Congress follows through on its commitment to go ahead and maintain COBRA until people are working at a higher rate again.
Obama also explained that starting in 2013, the new health care reform law will provide several options including signing up “to be part of a pool where they get the best, lowest rates possible. ”
If you still couldn’t afford it–and there’s some people who, they’re making minimum wage, they’re not making a lot of money–they still couldn’t afford the premium even though it’s a much better deal than what they could get on their own, then we’re going to provide tax credits, provide subsidies, to help people pay for their insurance.
After the meeting, Yurkis said it “changed my mind about health care reform.”
You hear so many conflicting stories about what the new law means for the country that it was good to get an explanation directly from the president.
IUPAT President James Williams said the town hall meeting settled a lot of fears some union members had about the new law.
The details of the new law are complex and when you couple that with emotion that comes with such a landmark change in the way we do things, fear can sometimes overrule rational discussion. President Obama settled many of those fears by directly answering some very heartfelt questions.
Click here for a full transcript of the meeting and here for a full video.
Greed Behind BP, Mine Disasters
United Steelworkers (USW) President Leo W. Gerard and Mine Workers (UMWA) Cecil Roberts take on the root of all evil behind the nation’s disasters in this crosspost from the Campaign for America.
As oil mucked the Gulf of Mexico and families mourned 11 dead rig workers, BP officials proclaimed that the corporation’s priority always was safety. This tracked the tack taken by Massey Energy, whose officials also declared safety was paramount after an explosion in the corporation’s Upper Big Branch mine killed 29 workers.
CEOs commonly make such incongruous assertions to protect profits after corporate-caused disasters. They’re driven by the same factor that is fundamental to the catastrophes—greed.
Nothing wrong with that, right? Not in a society that has converted greed from a vice to a virtue. Not in the place that inspired the book, “Greed is Good: The Capitalist Pig Guide to Investing.” Surely it’s no problem in the land where “Greed” has its own game show on Fox and where Ayn Rand, the “money-is-the-root-of-all-good” philosopher, reigns as Republican queen long after her death…
[I]in the midst of the Great Recession caused by Wall Street recklessness, [Congress] has repeatedly delayed renewal of unemployment benefits and now is terminating federal health insurance support for the furloughed middle class.
Middle-class workers are the ones who die in coal mines and on oil rigs.
Afterwards, CEOs say anything to save the bottom line—the one that will determine their bonuses.
Discussing the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, Massey CEO Don Blankenship told stock analysts in a conference call late in April:
Some of the implications have been that we don’t focus on safety or we put dollars in front of safety and nothing could be further from the truth.
Though the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) issued 1,342 safety violation notices to Upper Big Branch over the past five years, Blankenship explained that’s just life in the coal business:
Violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process.
In addition, Blankenship said the titles of two Massey programs proved safety was supreme:
The naming of those two programs speaks for itself: S1—safety is job one; P2—production is job 2. That’s been the case for my entire tenure.
Still, 29 miners are dead. And dozens died at Massey mines in the past decade. Three died at Upper Big Branch between 1998 and 2010. The Massey dead include two workers who suffocated in a mine run by Massey subsidiary Aracoma Coal Co. on Jan. 19, 2006, just three months after Blankenship issued a memo ordering underlings to produce coal to the exclusion of other activities, such as building ventilation systems called overcasts. Aracoma officials pleaded guilty in December, 2008, to removing and failing to replace ventilation devices, the lack of which contributed to the suffocation deaths.
And Massey workers aren’t as sure as Don Blankenship that safety is job one. Several spoke to NPR about it. Teddy Cole, who worked a dozen years at Upper Big Branch, said Blankenship prioritizes production:
It’s supposed to be safety first, but to me, it was production first.
Former co-worker Brian Jerral agreed:
A lot of times, it’s production first and safety third.
Adam Vance, who worked at two Massey mines, described a culture of greed:
They cover [themselves] with their safety meetings, but the main thing Massey’s out for is to get that all-mighty dollar. If the coal ain’t running, they ain’t making no money.
And it’s a lot of money for Massey—$1.02 million a day in 2008.
Massey miner Ricky Lee Campbell 24, of Beckley, W.Va., told reporters about his safety concerns on April 7. Massey suspended him a week later, then fired him. He has filed a federal whistle-blower complaint.
Similar to Massey, BP officials claim safety is job one.
Shortly after BP named Tony Hayward CEO in 2007, he told the Houston Chronicle:
I think we have the opportunity to set a new benchmark in industrial safety…We have to have a work environment where people don’t get injured or killed, period.
That was significant since an explosion two years earlier had killed 15 workers and injured another 170 at BP’s Texas City oil refinery, and federal regulators blamed the catastrophe in part on cost cuts initiated by Hayward’s predecessor. The following year, BP admitted oil leaks into Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay were caused partly by cost cutting.
Despite Hayward’s safety assertions, another 11 workers are dead. And survivors told CNN that BP routinely cut corners and pushed production despite potential safety problems. They also told CNN co-workers had been fired for raising concerns about dangerous practices that could delay drilling if remedied and that BP had insisted on an unusual process shortcut on the day of the blast.
Immediately after the rig explosion, BP contended its under-Gulf pipe was spewing only 1,000 barrels of oil a day. Fairly quickly, it revised that estimate to 5,000 barrels, but continued to refuse to make public its live video of the oil-churning pipe.
After a freedom of information request and Congressional pressure forced BP to release the video, federal officials estimated as much as 40,000 barrels are being discharged daily.
Still, BP’s Hayward flatly denied the existence of underwater oil plumes, saying:
The oil is on the surface. There aren’t any plumes.
And he discounted the effect of the unleashed oil on the environment:
The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.
Hayward had a good (greed-based) reason to deny access to the video, discount the amount of oil spewing into the sea and defy the assessment of government and university researchers who confirmed the plumes of dispersed oil stretching for miles beneath the ocean surface. BP will be fined based on the number of barrels of oil its well disgorges into the gulf—somewhere between $1,100 and $4,300 a barrel—depending on whether the government can prove gross negligence.
David Leonhardt, an economics columnist for the New York Times, described BP’s Texas City, Gulf of Mexico and Alaska crises this way:
Much of this indifference stemmed from an obsession with profits, come what may.
It’s one of the seven deadly sins. When it afflicts corporate CEOs, it’s deadly to workers.
Honest profit is fine. But it’s perverse to celebrate greed, to elevate it over human life.