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Working In These Times

Friday, Oct 11, 2013, 1:51 pm

Fines for Texas Fertilizer Plant; Interns Keep the Government Running; Who Will Pick the Pears?

BY Mike Elk

Many small farms have more pears than pickers this year. (Ciarán Mooney / Flickr  

Yesterday, OSHA announced fines for the explosion that killed 15 at the West Texas Chemical and Fertilizer plant. From the Dallas Morning News

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is fining the parent company of the West fertilizer plant that exploded $118,300 for 24 workplace violations, including unsafely handling and storing two dangerous chemicals.

West Fertilizer Co.’s stockpile of one of those chemicals, ammonium nitrate, is what fueled the deadly and destructive explosion when a fire broke out after a workday had already ended. State fire authorities have not been able to determine the cause of the fire.

OSHA’s fines and violations were announced Thursday morning by Sen. Barbara Boxer, who chairs the Senate’s environment and public works committee. Boxer, a California Democrat, said OSHA couldn’t publicize the findings itself because of the federal government’s ongoing partial shutdown.

Meanwhile, due to the shutdown, some federal standards on protecting the safety of chemical plants have lapsed. From The Huffington Post:

The Department of Homeland Security issued the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards in 2007. The standards were designed to provide guidance on managing security at any facility that has hazardous or potentially hazardous chemicals while Congress worked on a broader statutory framework for dealing with the issue. The standards were supposed to sunset after three years.

Instead, as Congress has failed to enact a broader law, the chemical facility standards were repeatedly extended through appropriations bills to keep some sort of regulation in place. But this year, they haven't been extended amidst the ongoing budget disputes, and the standards expired on Oct. 4.

During the shutdown, the federal government has looked to a controversial source of labor to keep things flowing—unpaid interns. Keenan Steiner of Salon has the story

One intern within the Executive Office of the President, though not the White House itself, said he and his low-level colleagues are doing a lot of work that the “nonessentials” would be doing. That intern said he and his colleagues were “in great need” if they work in an office containing essential employees. 

In the House of Representatives, many interns are essentially replacing legislative correspondents and staff assistants. According to one veteran aide, he knows of four offices where interns are answering phones and going through mail, no longer working on their intern projects. In offices he has worked in, he said interns are normally restricted as to what kinds of mail they can answer and letters they can write.

Steven Greenhouse has a look at the uphill battle to get a union at a Nissan plant in Mississippi. From the New York Times

At a time when the U.A.W. has fewer than one-third of the 1.5 million workers it had in 1979, its organizing push in the South has taken on urgency and is being watched closely by labor leaders across the country.

“It’s a life-and-death matter for the U.A.W. to succeed in the South,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor and labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “That’s why they’ve put their best organizers into this campaign.”

The unionization battle has badly divided workers at the gleaming white Nissan plant here, which stretches four-fifths of a mile along Interstate 55 and produces 450,000 Altimas, Sentras and other vehicles a year. The pro-union forces say many workers are backing the U.A.W., while anti-union workers insist the union has little chance of gaining majority backing. Some anti-union workers wear T-shirts saying, “If you want a union, move to Detroit.”

Due to the lack of immigration reform, some pear farmers this year are having a hard time finding workers despite a bumper crop. From NPR News

Many farmers are short-staffed this year. For McCarthy, it's the third year in a row he has had a labor shortage. He's tried the employment office, but those workers didn't have any agriculture experience, and they didn't last more than a couple of days. He's looked for workers in Arizona and California, but found those states facing similar shortages.

He even went through the government's H-2A visa program to recruit foreign workers, even though it's pretty costly for a small farm. But by the time his application was processed, the harvest season was already underway. McCarthy estimates the labor shortage will cost the region $10 million to $20 million this season. "The bottom line is there are not enough experienced agricultural workers in the United States to harvest the crops," he says.

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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