Email this article to a friend

Working In These Times

Monday, Nov 5, 2012, 1:10 pm

False New Jersey Utility Union Story; Lonmin Witnesses Tortured; Trumka: Romney Against Coal

BY Mike Elk

Contrary to right-wing reports, a devastated New Jersey did not stop non-union utility workers from helping in its cleanup.   (Courtesy of DVIDSHUB, Flickr)

Every week, Working In These Times rounds up some of the most improtant labor stories from the week that we didn't cover. Email story ideas to mike@inthesetimes.com

* Fox News and other right-wing outlets blasted the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) for refusing to allow non-union utility workers from Decatur Utilities in Alabama from assisting with Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts in New Jersey. It turns out the entire story is false.  

According to a press conference with Decatur Utilities General Manager Ray Hardin, Decatur Utilities received a set of documents from the Electric Cities of Alabama Association about potential union contracts they might possibly face in the Northeast. Hardin stated that the company never had contact with the union or the utility companies in New Jersey. The company was merely concerned about whether the union contracts might apply to them since they were a non-unionized company.

* A new expose by Pulitzer Prize-winner Greg Marinovich in the Daily Maverick reveals that many of the witnesses to the Lonmin mine massacre, in which 38 striking South African miners were killed, were later tortued by police. From the Daily Maverick:

As “Bhele” Tholakele Dlunga pulled the plastic shopping bag over his head in a demonstration of the torture he had endured, he remained impassive. His hands did not tremble as he mimicked how police officers clamped their hands over his nose and mouth when they thought he was somehow still managing to get enough air to breathe despite the bag.

It was at 5:30 on the morning of 25 October when five plainclothes policemen broke down his door and stormed into his one-roomed shack in Wonderkop village, Marikana.

It was here that the first assault happened. The policemen used a black plastic bag they found in his shack to cover his head and suffocate him while they beat him. It was here that they found the unlicensed pistol that he kept next to his television set. This is the crime that he has eventually been charged with and released six days later on bail for – possession of an unlicensed weapon.

From his home, they took him to Phokeng police station, where the assault continued throughout Thursday. He was then transferred to another police station, where he was again tortured. The information the police wanted was chiefly the whereabouts of others involved in the Lonmin strike, especially the leadership. Dlunga said they had photographs of “everyone”.

Dlunga is a rock drill operator at Lonmin’s Karee 4 Belt. He is also one of the ad hoc strike committee elected by miners who had rejected the unions as ineffective and corrupt in their dealings with management. He had been at the forefront of all negotiations and discussions. He is a key witness to the events on 16 August and the events that preceded the Marikana massacre.

* SEIU is gearing up for a rematch election among 45,000 Kaiser Permanente workers in California with rival dissident National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). NUHW has often accused SEIU of colluding with Kaiser management, and a recent lawsuit by a fired Kaiser worker claims that the union worked with Kaiser to fire her after she caught a manager snorting what appeared to be methamphetamines on the job. From Court House News:

Grotz says she was fired on July 7, 2011, after she refused. She sued Kaiser Foundation Hospitals, the Permanente Medical Group and SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West almost exactly one year later under the Labor Management Relations Act.

Kaiser and the union had tried to argue that the claims for wrongful termination and breach of duty of fair representation were time-barred, or that Grotz had failed to state a claim.

U.S. District Judge Edward Chen in San Francisco disagreed, finding that Grotz had filed her claim within the statute of limitations.

 "As Ms. Grotz, the plaintiff in the case at bar, filed her suit within six months of the date she was notified that the union was abandoning her grievance, her claim was timely as to all alleged breaches that relate to her grievance," the 17-page order states. "The grievance appealed her termination, which she alleges was retaliatory and based on false accusations of timecard fraud. ... Accordingly, any alleged breach related to the UHW's [United Healthcare Workers] representation of plaintiff with regards to the allegations of timecard fraud is related to her grievance and thus timely."

Grotz's fair representation claim alleges that the union failed to examine the time card records for tampering, never raised the possibility that retaliation could be in play, and pushed the inaccurate "last chance" agreement.

"Plaintiff has alleged for purposes of this motion to dismiss sufficient facts to make a claim that the UHW's investigation of her grievance was merely perfunctory, indeed virtually nonexistent, and that its action evinced a 'reckless disregard' of plaintiff's rights," Chen wrote.

* Earlier this week, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka tried to frame Mitt Romney as being against coal and President Obama in favor of coal. From the State Journal in West Virginia:

"The EPA curtailed greenhouse emissions as result of a 2007 Supreme Court suit, Massachusetts versus the EPA, brought by the state's attorney general during Romney's tenure," Trumka said in a conference call.

 "These are the very same regulations that coal operators and Romney point to to say that President Obama hasn't been good for coal," Trumka said. "That's total hypocrisy."

The conference call for the media was organized to "expose Romney's deceitful campaign on coal and auto support," according to the Oct. 28 e-mail invitation to the press.

The AFL-CIO, a federation of 57 unions, endorsed Obama in March and announced at that time a major mobilization of 400,000 volunteers to get out the vote.

Although the United Mine Workers of America has not endorsed either candidate, Trumka said Obama has been a friend to coal miners.

"During the worst recession in decades, coal production increased 7 percent under Obama," he said. "He's spent $5 billion on clean coal technology so coal has a future. And he's appointed people who are enforcing the safety laws."

* A recent expose by the Center for Public integrity on the increase in black lung disease as a result of weak enforcement by the Mine Safety and Health Administration has led the regulatory agency to crack down on coal operators that violate the law. From the Center for Public Integrity:

A federal enforcement blitz targeting coal mines with potentially dangerous levels of dust found a host of violations at more than a dozen sites where conditions left miners at risk for developing black lung disease.

Following the April 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in southern West Virginia, regulators have focused on problem mines under a new special enforcement program. The most recent round of inspections, however, used new criteria to target mines likely to have problems controlling the dust that can lead to black lung.

The inspections followed a Center for Public Integrity-NPR investigation that highlighted the resurgence of black lung disease and exposed widespread misconduct by coal companies and often-lax enforcement by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

In September, inspectors found more than 120 violations at 13 coal mines. Many companies failed to ventilate working areas properly and relied on broken-down equipment to suppress dust, citations allege. Two of the mines cited are owned by Robert Murray, who has lent strong support to presidential candidate Mitt Romney. A representative for Murray Energy Corp. could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

* Six hundred and fifty Bombardier Learjet workers, members of the International Association of Machinists (IAM), are entering the third week of a strike. It’s the longest strike in the history of the company and not expected to end soon. From KSN3 in Wichita:

Three weeks ago, union workers walked out of Bombardier and onto to the picket line for only the second strike in the company's history.

The last one in 2006 was settled by now; this one's not even close. Both sides have said they want to talk, but neither side reaching out to the other.

Workers rejected a new healthcare plan that was presented earlier this month from the company.

“We feel like those plans are good plans for our employees," said Bombardier Learjet spokeswoman Peggy Gross.

“We rejected the companies’ proposal so we went out to strike," said union worker Tony Spicer.

Workers are now in the third week of picketing tying the longest strike on record for the company.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

View Comments