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Working In These Times

Sunday, May 19, 2013, 6:00 pm

Texas Explosion Could Have Been Worse; Unpaid Interns Denied in Court; Regulator Had Honeywell Stock

BY Mike Elk

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and 27 other government agencies held a press conference on Thursday about their investigation into what sparked the West, Texas explosion. They have ruled out all but three possible causes: a short circuit in the complex's 120-volt electrical system, a golf cart on site or an intentionally set fire. The investigation will continued.

Daniel Horowitz of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board said, “This is the worst amount of damage to a community the Chemical Safety Board has ever seen. We simply can’t have explosions like this happen again."

Yet the effects of the explosion could have been dramatically worse. The investigation determined that only 28-34 tons of the approximately 150 tons of ammonium nitrate on site actually exploded. While federal agencies continue their investigation into the cause, the Chemical Safety Board will work on recommendations on fixing the safety problems that enabled the explosion.

During the Honeywell lockout of 2010-2011, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allowed scabs to replace union workers despite protests by the union that the scabs were unqualified. Now an expose in the Huffington Post, reveals that one of the commissioners, William Ostendroff, had a direct financial conflict of interest. From Ryan Grim of the Huffington Post:

In 2009, [Ostendroff] signed his personal financial disclosure form in November and listed his ownership of Honeywell International, putting it at a range of $1,000 to $15,000. In March and April 2011, two forms, the most recent available, list his Honeywell investment increasing in value to a range of $15,000 to $50,000.

Ostendorff, like all senior officials at the NRC, promised not to participate in decisions that could have "a direct and predictable effect on my financial interests," according to a letter he sent to the agency's ethics office when he was tapped for the post in 2009.

In a statement to the Huffington Post Monday, an Ostendorff spokesperson noted that top NRC officials are not specifically barred from owning shares of Honeywell. "The stock was sold last summer before the Commission considered an adjudicatory matter last fall involving the Honeywell operation that holds an NRC license. Commissioner Ostendorff followed applicable NRC requirements," the statement added.

When notified of Ostendorff's investment, Stephen Lech, president of the United Steelworkers Local 7-669, which represents workers at Honeywell's plant in Illinois, responded: "I'm speechless."

This week, unpaid interns suing Hearst Publications suffered a major setback when they were denied the right to file a class action lawsuit. From Bloomberg Businessweek:

The proposed class would have included more than 3,000 interns who have worked at Hearst since February 2006. The interns alleged that they performed tasks similar to employees and were entitled to minimum wage and overtime protections under federal and state labor laws, reported Bloomberg BNA. Hearst said interns do not need to be paid if they’re in college and eligible for academic credit, adding that the company did provide some training and benefits.

Without class certification, the costs of filing separate lawsuits for relatively small amounts of individual damages could inhibit most of the former interns from pursuing their claims, observers say. “It’s very hard for a plaintiff’s attorney to take these cases when the value is a few thousand dollars each. Just filing the case eats up all that money,” says New York attorney Maurice Pianko, who founded the site internjustice.com.

Juno Turner, an attorney at Outten & Golden, which represents the interns, says they’re considering appealing the decision and adds that the claims will still go forward to trial. “Interns have the same rights as all employees,” she says.

AT&T ballpark workers voted by an overwhelming margin of 500 to 16 to authorize a strike. From a press release put out by Unite Here Local 2:

“We sent a clear message today to Centerplate and the Giants. 97% gives us the power and authority we need to win a fair contract,” said Billie Feliciano, a concessions worker at Giants games since 1978.

Negotiations are at a standstill between Centerplate – the Giants’ subcontracted concessionaire – and the concession workers’ union, UNITE HERE Local 2.  Workers are seeking job security through a successorship clause, along with fair wage increases and improved health care.  Centerplate, on the other hand is proposing to severely limit access to basic healthcare, and to issue a wage freeze for the last three years with a 25 cent raise for 2013 as well as another 25 cent raise for 2014.  Centerplate is suggesting no further wage increases.

“Job security is really important to me and my family.  I travel two hours to come and serve Giants fans.  I really do love my job, but this vote was a landslide.  With this vote, I feel confident that we are going to win this contract,” said Anthony Wendlberger.

Last year was yet again another record year for wage and hour lawsuits. From the Wall Street Journal:

Workers filed a record number of federal lawsuits over the past year alleging that companies failed to pay overtime and other wages owed.

The number of such lawsuits has been rising sharply over the past decade and hit 7,764 in the year ended March 31, up nearly 10% from the prior year, according to an analysis of government data by law firm Seyfarth Shaw LLP.

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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