Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

Sorry, you’re too stupid for employment

Posted in class divide, unemployment, wealth divide, worker rights by allisonkilkenny on July 2, 2010

Go home, morons

The persecution of the poor continues with employers now accusing the unemployed of being too stupid (or let’s be generous and say “inexperienced”) to be find jobs with decent salaries. (h/t)

Here in this suburb of Cleveland, supervisors at Ben Venue Laboratories, a contract drug maker for pharmaceutical companies, have reviewed 3,600 job applications this year and found only 47 people to hire at $13 to $15 an hour, or about $31,000 a year.

As Atrios points out, it never occurs to the good people at Ben Venue Labs that they’re not paying enough to attract skilled workers, or that maybe they should provide on-site training to attract new talent.

It’s become a commonplace line of attack to hear right-wing loons like Rand Paul and Sharron Angle place the onus of unemployment on the unemployed, and of course this has been the territory of Conservatism for years: it’s your fault you’re unemployed. Intellectual giants like Rush Limbaugh constantly say things like unemployment benefits “do nothing but incentivize people not to find work.”

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The nation’s other non-BP disasters

Surely, the BP disaster deserves the obsessive coverage it has received (thus far). But at the risk of missing some other important stories, I want to briefly address two somewhat overlooked catastrophes – one that has already taken place, and one that possesses the potential to be horrific, but we still have time to stop.

Many Americans would be surprised to hear there’s another domestic oil spill – in Salt Late City. (via)

Chevron says a hole the size of a quarter caused their pipeline to rupture around 33,000 gallons of oil into the creek.

The manager of Chevron’s refinery in the Salt Lake City area said Monday that the company believes the rupture in the 10-inch pipeline was caused by an electrical arc that traveled through a metal fence post. Mark Sullivan says the arc acted like an electrical torch, causing the hole.

Sullivan couldn’t say how long the pipeline was leaking before Chevron was notified of the problem Saturday morning. But Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker says residents could smell the odor of petroleum overnight Friday.

The spill has coated about 300 birds at area creeks and ponds, and the oil is possibly threatening an endangered fish.

Chairman of the Salt Lake City Council,  J.T. Martin, calls the event a horrible tragedy.

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BP tells cleanup workers no photos of dead, oil-covered marine life

Posted in BP, offshore drilling, United States, worker rights by allisonkilkenny on June 2, 2010

BP crews unload oil booms from a boat at a staging area in Venice, La. Watch the live video feed of the leak. | Steven Johnson / Miami Herald / MCT

Oh boy.

“When we found this dolphin it was filled with oil. Oil was just pouring out of it. It was the saddest darn thing to look at,” said a BP contract worker who took the Daily News on a surreptitious tour of the wildlife disaster unfolding in Louisiana.

His motive: simple outrage.

“There is a lot of coverup for BP. They specifically informed us that they don’t want these pictures of the dead animals. They know the ocean will wipe away most of the evidence. It’s important to me that people know the truth about what’s going on here,” the contractor said.

For good reason, there has been a lot of public outrage over BP’s “iron fist” handling of the spill zone. MoJo’s Mac McClelland has been reporting on the media blackout.

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Fisherman to BP: I like you, but only as friends

Posted in BP, offshore drilling, worker rights by allisonkilkenny on June 1, 2010

Louisiana National Guardsmen unravel support straps far a Tiger Dam, to protect the Grand Isle from encroaching oil coming in with the high tide in Grand Isle, Louisiana May 31, 2010. Credit: Reuters/Sean Gardner

John Wutsell Jr., a fisherman who was hospitalized after becoming ill while cleaning up oil in the Gulf, has filed a temporary restraining order in federal court against BP.

Apparently, Wutsell missed the update issued by BP CEO Tony Hayward that he wasn’t made sick by oil fumes, or exposure to Corexit, but by food poisoning.

Wutsell (who experienced severe headaches, nosebleeds, and stomach pains) humbly disagrees, and he wants BP to give the clean-up workers masks, and — get this insane demand — not harass workers who publicly voice their health concerns.

On Friday, Wutstell was airlifted to West Jefferson Medical Center in Marrero, Louisiana, where he remained hospitalized Sunday.

“At West Jefferson, there were tents set up outside the hospital, where I was stripped of my clothing, washed with water and several showers, before I was allowed into the hospital,” Wutstell sais. “When I asked for my clothing, I was told that BP had confiscated all of my clothing and it would not be returned.”

Hm, now why would BP want to confiscate all of Wutsell’s clothing? One possibility is that they want to destroy any evidence that they’ve been exposing workers to unsafe conditions so as to avoid future criminal liability charges.

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Reviving the Dream

Posted in Barack Obama, class divide, Economy, politics, worker rights by allisonkilkenny on March 10, 2009

Bob Herbert

workers4Working families were in deep trouble long before this megarecession hit. But too many of the public officials who should have been looking out for the middle class and the poor were part of the reckless and shockingly shortsighted alliance of conservatives and corporate leaders that rigged the economy in favor of the rich and ultimately brought it down completely.

As Jared Bernstein, now the chief economic adviser to Vice President Joseph Biden, wrote in the preface to his book, “Crunch: Why Do I Feel So Squeezed? (And Other Unsolved Economic Mysteries)”:

“Economics has been hijacked by the rich and powerful, and it has been forged into a tool that is being used against the rest of us.”

Working people were not just abandoned by big business and their ideological henchmen in government, they were exploited and humiliated. They were denied the productivity gains that should have rightfully accrued to them. They were treated ruthlessly whenever they tried to organize. They were never reasonably protected against the savage dislocations caused by revolutions in technology and global trade.

Working people were told that all of this was good for them, and whether out of ignorance or fear or prejudice or, as my grandfather might have said, damned foolishness, many bought into it. They signed onto tax policies that worked like a three-card monte game. And they were sold a snake oil concoction called “trickle down” that so addled their brains that they thought it was a wonderful idea to hand over their share of the nation’s wealth to those who were already fabulously rich.

America used to be better than this.

The seeds of today’s disaster were sown some 30 years ago. Looking at income patterns during that period, my former colleague at The Times, David Cay Johnston, noted that from 1980 (the year Ronald Reagan was elected) to 2005, the national economy, adjusted for inflation, more than doubled. (Because of population growth, the actual increase per capita was about 66 percent.)

But the average income for the vast majority of Americans actually declined during those years. The standard of living for the average family improved not because incomes grew but because women entered the workplace in droves.

As hard as it may be to believe, the peak income year for the bottom 90 percent of Americans was way back in 1973, when the average income per taxpayer, adjusted for inflation, was $33,000. That was nearly $4,000 higher, Mr. Johnston pointed out, than in 2005.

Men have done particularly poorly. Men who are now in their 30s — the prime age for raising families — earn less money than members of their fathers’ generation did at the same age.

It may seem like ancient history, but in the first few decades following World War II, the United States, despite many serious flaws, established the model of a highly productive society that shared its prosperity widely and made investments that were geared toward a more prosperous, more fulfilling future.

The American dream was alive and well and seemingly unassailable. But somehow, following the oil shocks, the hyperinflation and other traumas of the 1970s, Americans allowed the right-wingers to get a toehold — and they began the serious work of smothering the dream.

Ronald Reagan saw Medicare as a giant step on the road to socialism. Newt Gingrich, apparently referring to the original fee-for-service version of Medicare, which was cherished by the elderly, cracked, “We don’t get rid of it in Round One because we don’t think it’s politically smart.”

The right-wingers were crafty: You smother the dream by crippling the programs that support it, by starving the government of money to pay for them, by funneling the government’s revenues to the rich through tax cuts and other benefits, by looting the government the way gangsters loot legitimate businesses and then pleading poverty when it comes time to fund the services required by the people.

The anti-tax fanatic Grover Norquist summed the matter up nicely when he famously said, “Our goal is to shrink the government to the size where you can drown it in a bathtub.” Only they didn’t shrink the government, they enlarged it and turned its bounty over to the rich.

Now, with the economy in free fall and likely to get worse, Americans — despite their suffering — have an opportunity to reshape the society, and then to move it in a fairer, smarter and ultimately more productive direction. That is the only way to revive the dream, but it will take a long time and require great courage and sacrifice.

The right-wingers do not want that to happen, which is why they are rooting so hard for President Obama’s initiatives to fail. They like the direction that the country took over the past 30 years. They’d love to do it all again.

Where Sweatshops Are a Dream

Posted in Economy, labor, politics, poverty, worker rights by allisonkilkenny on January 15, 2009

Nicholas Kristof

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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia

Before Barack Obama and his team act on their talk about “labor standards,” I’d like to offer them a tour of the vast garbage dump here in Phnom Penh.

This is a Dante-like vision of hell. It’s a mountain of festering refuse, a half-hour hike across, emitting clouds of smoke from subterranean fires.

The miasma of toxic stink leaves you gasping, breezes batter you with filth, and even the rats look forlorn. Then the smoke parts and you come across a child ambling barefoot, searching for old plastic cups that recyclers will buy for five cents a pound. Many families actually live in shacks on this smoking garbage.

Mr. Obama and the Democrats who favor labor standards in trade agreements mean well, for they intend to fight back at oppressive sweatshops abroad. But while it shocks Americans to hear it, the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough.

Talk to these families in the dump, and a job in a sweatshop is a cherished dream, an escalator out of poverty, the kind of gauzy if probably unrealistic ambition that parents everywhere often have for their children.

“I’d love to get a job in a factory,” said Pim Srey Rath, a 19-year-old woman scavenging for plastic. “At least that work is in the shade. Here is where it’s hot.”

Another woman, Vath Sam Oeun, hopes her 10-year-old boy, scavenging beside her, grows up to get a factory job, partly because she has seen other children run over by garbage trucks. Her boy has never been to a doctor or a dentist, and last bathed when he was 2, so a sweatshop job by comparison would be far more pleasant and less dangerous.

I’m glad that many Americans are repulsed by the idea of importing products made by barely paid, barely legal workers in dangerous factories. Yet sweatshops are only a symptom of poverty, not a cause, and banning them closes off one route out of poverty. At a time of tremendous economic distress and protectionist pressures, there’s a special danger that tighter labor standards will be used as an excuse to curb trade.

When I defend sweatshops, people always ask me: But would you want to work in a sweatshop? No, of course not. But I would want even less to pull a rickshaw. In the hierarchy of jobs in poor countries, sweltering at a sewing machine isn’t the bottom.

My views on sweatshops are shaped by years living in East Asia, watching as living standards soared — including those in my wife’s ancestral village in southern China — because of sweatshop jobs.

Manufacturing is one sector that can provide millions of jobs. Yet sweatshops usually go not to the poorest nations but to better-off countries with more reliable electricity and ports.

I often hear the argument: Labor standards can improve wages and working conditions, without greatly affecting the eventual retail cost of goods. That’s true. But labor standards and “living wages” have a larger impact on production costs that companies are always trying to pare. The result is to push companies to operate more capital-intensive factories in better-off nations like Malaysia, rather than labor-intensive factories in poorer countries like Ghana or Cambodia.

Cambodia has, in fact, pursued an interesting experiment by working with factories to establish decent labor standards and wages. It’s a worthwhile idea, but one result of paying above-market wages is that those in charge of hiring often demand bribes — sometimes a month’s salary — in exchange for a job. In addition, these standards add to production costs, so some factories have closed because of the global economic crisis and the difficulty of competing internationally.

The best way to help people in the poorest countries isn’t to campaign against sweatshops but to promote manufacturing there. One of the best things America could do for Africa would be to strengthen our program to encourage African imports, called AGOA, and nudge Europe to match it.

Among people who work in development, many strongly believe (but few dare say very loudly) that one of the best hopes for the poorest countries would be to build their manufacturing industries. But global campaigns against sweatshops make that less likely.

Look, I know that Americans have a hard time accepting that sweatshops can help people. But take it from 13-year-old Neuo Chanthou, who earns a bit less than $1 a day scavenging in the dump. She’s wearing a “Playboy” shirt and hat that she found amid the filth, and she worries about her sister, who lost part of her hand when a garbage truck ran over her.

“It’s dirty, hot and smelly here,” she said wistfully. “A factory is better.”

Bill Easing Unionizing Is Under Heavy Attack

Posted in labor, worker rights by allisonkilkenny on January 9, 2009

New York Times

Workers at the Smithfield plant in Tar Heel, N.C., in 2006. They voted to unionize last month. (Raul Rubiera/Fayetteville Observer, via AP)

Workers at the Smithfield plant in Tar Heel, N.C., in 2006. They voted to unionize last month. (Raul Rubiera/Fayetteville Observer, via AP)

WASHINGTON — Intent on blocking organized labor’s top legislative goal, corporations are quietly contributing to lobbying groups with appealing names like the Workforce Fairness Institute and the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace.

These groups are planning a multimillion-dollar campaign in the hope of killing legislation that would give unions the right to win recognition at a workplace once a majority of employees sign cards saying they want a union. Business groups fear the bill will enable unions to quickly add millions of workers and drive up labor costs.

The Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, a federation of 500 business groups, ran a full-page advertisement on Wednesday that sought to discredit the legislation, called the Employee Free Choice Act. The advertisement said that if secret ballots were good enough to elect Barack Obama then they should be good enough for union members, too.

Richard Berman, a Washington lobbyist, has created a business-backed group, the Center for Union Facts, that is planning to run millions of dollars’ worth of television spots over the next few months to pressure moderate Democrats to oppose the bill.

During last fall’s presidential campaign, groups opposing the legislation spent more than $20 million on television commercials in Colorado, Maine, Minnesota and other states in an effort to defeat Democratic Senate candidates who backed the bill.

At a confirmation hearing set for Friday, Republican senators are expected to challenge Representative Hilda L. Solis of California, President-elect Obama’s choice for labor secretary, over her support for the legislation.

Business leaders denounce the bill because it would largely eliminate secret-ballot elections to determine whether workers want a union. (The union win rate has traditionally been far higher through majority signups than elections.)

“If you know anything about politics, it is a game changer,” said Senator John Ensign, Republican of Nevada. “It is a total game changer for the next 40 to 50 years if the Democrats are able to get this legislation that eliminates the right to a secret ballot. We are fighting it hard.”

Senate Democrats have not decided when to bring up the measure. Given its divisiveness, it will not be one of the first bills they bring to the floor. But the legislation has the strong backing of Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, who is expected to bring it up once Democrats are confident they can overcome any filibuster.

In 2007, the House passed a similar bill, but it failed in the Senate on a procedural vote.

Republican leaders and business lobbyists say the Democrats do not have the 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. But union leaders voice optimism, noting that Mr. Obama has endorsed the bill and that Democrats have close to 60 seats in the Senate, though two remain in dispute. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who once was a co-sponsor of the bill, has not decided whether he would support it this time, an aide said.

Whether it is Wal-Mart or the National Restaurant Association, many companies and corporate groups financing the opposition fear that their companies and industries will be among labor’s earliest organizing targets should the bill become law.

Labor leaders say they are setting their sights on several industries, like banks and big-box retailers like Wal-Mart or Target, where unions have had virtually no success.

“We’re going to organize in the basic industries of our unions: construction, hospitality, health care, retail, food production and manufacturing,” said Tom Woodruff, director of strategic organizing for Change to Win, a federation of seven unions that includes the Service Employees International Union, the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers. “Those are jobs that are going to stay in the country. The question is whether those jobs are going to be decent middle-class jobs.”

Mark McKinnon, a media adviser to the presidential campaigns of John McCain and George W. Bush, is a spokesman for the Workforce Fairness Institute. Mr. McKinnon said the institute was focusing on drumming up grass-roots support from business. He would not say which companies are financing the institute, founded by several longtime Republican operatives.

“This issue has really become very high on the radar screen,” he said. “Businesses are hearing about it, and they are ready to riot in the street about it.”

The measure “is the most radical rewrite of labor legislation since the 1930s,” Mr. McKinnon said. “It is a political nightmare and a public policy disaster.”

Opponents fear that the legislation will enable labor to become a wealthier and more powerful political force. Union leaders see the bill as crucial for reversing labor’s long decline — unions represent just 7.5 percent of private-sector workers, down from nearly 40 percent a half-century ago.

John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, said that if Wal-Mart’s United States work force of 1.4 million were unionized, that could mean $500 million in additional union dues collected each year — tens of millions of which might be used to support Democratic causes and candidates.

Acknowledging that Wal-Mart presents a formidable challenge, labor leaders say they hope to unionize up to 100 of Wal-Mart’s more than 4,000 United States stores for starters, which might add 30,000 members.

“We are against any bill that would effectively eliminate freedom of choice and the right to a secret ballot election,” said a Wal-Mart spokesman, David Tovar. “We believe every associate” — Wal-Mart’s term for employees — “should have the right to make a private and informed decision regarding union representation.”

Labor leaders say they do not oppose secret-ballot elections, but rather the bitter two-month management-versus-union campaigns that often precede elections. Union leaders say those campaigns are usually unfair because corporations often fire union supporters and press their anti-union views day and night in one-on-one sessions and large meetings while union organizers are prohibited from company property.

Labor leaders said that last month they won one of the biggest unionization victories in years for the nearly 5,000 workers at the Smithfield pork processing plant in Tar Heel, N.C., by insisting on what they said were fairer rules.

If the bill is enacted, unions say they will try to organize workers by quietly getting a majority to sign pro-union cards before companies can begin an anti-union campaign. In theory, a union organizer or pro-union employee would have an easy time signing up a majority of, say, the 25 workers at a McDonald’s, the 15 baristas at a Starbucks or the 50 aides at a nursing home.

Corporations also oppose a provision of the bill that would allow government arbitrators to determine the terms of a contract when no agreement has been reached within 120 days of a union’s winning recognition. Defending that provision, labor leaders say companies often undermine newly formed unions by dragging out contract talks for months, even years.

“The idea of negotiating a contract and turning it over to an arbitrator who has no interest in the company or the workers’ future and then can dictate the terms of a contract, that’s a pretty reckless way to go,” said Mr. Engler of the manufacturers’ association. “This is the one issue that everybody who’s an employer agrees is a bad idea.”

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