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Working In These Times

Friday, Dec 7, 2012, 3:24 pm

Right-to-Work Law Advances in Michigan; Unpaid Labor at NFL Games; Another Mining Accident

BY Mike Elk

125 were killed in the 1972 Buffalo Creek Flood, pictured here, when a coal slurry dam broke. A North Carolina miner's death last week has renewed concerns over the safety of coal slurry ponds.   (U.S. Government / Wikimedia Commons)

Michigan appears poised to be the 24th state in the Nation to pass so-called “right-to-work" legislation, which would limit the ability of unions to collect fees from members. From the New York Times:

By Thursday evening, the House, controlled by Republicans, had approved part of a package of legislation that would ultimately bar workers from being required to pay union fees as a condition of employment. Two similar but separate bills passed the Senate, also held by Republicans.

If the entire package of legislation goes through, which could happen as early as next week, Michigan, the birthplace of the United Automobile Workers, would become the 24th state in the nation to pass such a ban, a designation that was once largely focused far from the Midwestern rust belt.

“To do this now is very poor timing,” said James Settles Jr., a vice president for the U.A.W. “Labor and management have been cooperating closely in the automobile industry and have really helped the industry recover,” he said, adding at another point: “Michigan is on the rebound, and right-to-work is going to be very divisive. This will add to the divisiveness in the state.”

Coming somewhat abruptly in the waning days of a final legislative session before new lawmakers arrive in January, the push here—strongly opposed by labor leaders and Democrats, who say it is aimed at weakening unions—arrives at a volatile time for labor issues in Michigan.

The Department of Labor is  investigating the San Diego Chargers for possibly violating federal minimum wage laws by using unpaid high school volunteers. From U-T San Diego:

Federal regulators are investigating whether student groups volunteering at San Diego Chargers games to usher fans or perform other tasks may have run afoul of child-labor laws.

The San Diego Unified School District students work for no pay, in exchange for contributions to their organization. In some cases, students were required to volunteer to stay eligible for extracurricular activities.

Under one arrangement, a student group was to receive $40 per shift for volunteers working up to nine hours — as little as $4.50 an hour.

The U.S. Department of Labor requested records and information from the district about the program that for years sent high school students to Qualcomm Stadium to check tickets, show fans to their seats and perform other low-level jobs.

Investigators appear to be zeroing in on a group-labor contract between the San Diego High School Associated Student Body and Elite Show Services, the staffing company that has provided security and ushering at the stadium since the 1990s. They also requested information about similar programs at Clairemont, Mission Bay, Serra and University City high schools.

After a worker’s life was claimed last week in a slurry pond collapse, Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward, Jr raises very serious questions about the safety of storing coal-mining waste in slurry ponds. From the Charleston Gazette:

Crews are still looking for the body of a United Mine Workers dozer operator who was killed when he and his machine were dumped into the operation’s huge Nolan Run slurry impoundment. ...

Was CONSOL rushing this construction because of its pressing need for more space to put the massive amounts of slurry waste generated by the preparation plant that cleans coal produced by the longwall mining at its Robinson Run plant, which feeds FirstEnergy’s nearby Harrison Power Station? Hopefully, state and federal investigators will definitively answer that question. Hopefully, they’ll also be transparent and straight-forward about whether state and federal permit reviewers and inspectors missed anything that played a role in this tragedy. One thing we do know is that CONSOL got the longwall mining up and running by yesterday morning at Robinson Run, and is eager to again begin pumping slurry into the Nolan Run impoundment, perhaps even before the body of the missing dozer operator is located and recovered. As we reported today:

CONSOL was also seeking approval from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration to restart its coal-cleaning plant. Company officials released a diagram showing a large boom being placed across the impoundment, to isolate active slurry disposal areas from the section where the dozer is located and said the move “will not interfere” with recovery of the missing miner.

Of course, every accident at a coal-slurry impoundment in this part of the world brings to mind the February 1972 Buffalo Creek Disaster, when the failure of a series of dams in Logan County, W.Va., claimed the lives of 125 men, women and children. And this incident at Robinson Run comes as citizen groups continue to question the very sort of “upstream construction” practice that was being used at the collapsed saddle dike: Building coal-refuse impoundment embankments by placing coarse coal refuse—the larger pieces of waste—on top of other refuse, often much finer pieces, hoping that the wet fine refuse has dried, hardened and stabilized enough to serve as a proper foundation.

A new study by Good Jobs First finds that Washington, D.C. isn't following city laws requiring local residents to be hired for tax-payer funded construction jobs. From the DCist:

Good Jobs First, a nonprofit labor advocacy group, found that fewer than 20 percent of new hires on the recently opened 11th Street Bridge were D.C. residents, even though the District Department of Employment Services' First Source program requires that city residents account for at least 51 percent of new hires created for projects that receive public financing. The study found similar results on the first phase of construction of the Smithsonian's forthcoming National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Instead, Good Jobs First says that most construction jobs are going to suburban workers, depriving D.C. residents of positions that pay an average of $45,000 a year, and often with decent benefits.

The study, which was ordered by Laborers International Union of North America, or LiUNA, also reports that 10,500 more District residents would have construction jobs if people living here were hired at the same clip as people living in the suburbs. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in its most recent survey of local employment figures that the District had about 14,100 construction jobs in October.

Overall, construction accounts for nearly 7 percent of D.C.'s job market, but the Good Jobs First study says that only 2.9 percent of District residents are employed in the industry. Contrast that with Baltimore, where construction makes up the same percentage of the local economy, but 5.8 percent of Charm City denizens work in construction.

Arthur Delaney of the Huffington Post examines a controversial practice by construction unions: paying homeless people at minimum wage rates to walk picket lines, instead of hiring union members. From the Huffington Post:

Every business day, Horsey, 54, walks in a line with 30 or so other men and women, chanting slogans on behalf of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council of Carpenters in downtown Washington, D.C. But Horsey and the others are not members of the union; they're "hired feet" earning $8.50 an hour to chant about substandard wages and benefits at worksites where contractors are not using union labor.

Some of the picketers are homeless. Horsey, for instance, spends most of his nights in a downtown D.C. park, though he said his wages from the union afford him the occasional room in a house or a motel stay. He said he'd been without regular shelter for the past four years, ever since his landlord raised the rent.

Carpenters locals have used hired feet rather than their own workers for picket lines in cities across the country for several years. They may be the only union that regularly does so. A spokesman for the United Steelworkers told the Washington Post in 2007 that paying picketers is not a good way to engender sympathy for workers. The Post's editorial board has harped on the protests as a "cynical use of homeless people to do this dirty work."

Are the homeless workers being exploited? Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, objects to the practice, saying unions should use their own workers.

Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times. He can be reached at mike@inthesetimes.com.

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