Working In These Times

Monday, Dec 2, 2013, 7:00 am  ·  By Michelle Chen

A New Day, A New Danger: Temporary Workers Face Safety Hazards at Work

Representatives from the advocacy group Chicago Workers' Collaborative are taking OSHA to task for historically failing to protect temporary low-wage workers. (Chicago Workers' Collaborative)  

Rosa Ramirez, a 49-year-old Mexican immigrant and mother in Illinois, knew something was odd about the plastics factory where her temporary-labor agency had sent her. "From the minute one walks into that factory, one is hit by this incredible odor of [chemical] thinner ... It just goes right through you,” she recalled through an interpreter in an interview with Working In These Times.

But soon, the noxious smell was the least of her concerns. While making plastic molds on her first—and last—day in April, Ramirez suffered a searingly painful burn on her hand. When she tried to report the injury to her temp-work agency, Staffing Network, she says dispatchers laughed at her and called the wound minor, pressuring her to drop the issue. 

Looking back now, she remembers seeing several other people at the plastics factory with burns on their arms and hands. But as Ramirez points out, many temporary workers don't report injuries to avoid potential employer retaliation. “[We're] very afraid of saying anything for fear of losing our jobs,” she says, who notes that she hasn't been called back to work by Staffing Network since she, as she puts it, "stood up for [her] rights."

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Sunday, Dec 1, 2013, 9:14 pm  ·  By Amien Essif

Ten Arrested at Chicago Wal-Mart in Black Friday Civil Disobedience

Cameras click as Chicago police arrest Myron Byrd for blocking the street outside of the Lakeview Wal-Mart where he works.   (Amien Essif)

Around 7:30 a.m. on November 29, the day of the annual “Black Friday” shopping frenzy, demonstrators massed in front of the large Wal-Mart Supercenter on Chicago’s North Avenue, where steel crowd-control fences stood as remnants of one of the busiest shopping nights of the year. This year, however, they served a second purpose: Security guards were advised over their radios to “close the gates” and “don’t let them in” as protesters arrived by bus in the parking lot.

Several hours later, at a protest in front of the smaller Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, two Wal-Mart employees and eight other demonstrators were arrested for blocking the street.

As he stood in the middle of Broadway preparing for arrest, Myron Byrd, an employee at the Lakeview Wal-Mart, told Working In These Times, “I want the Walton family [which owns Wal-Mart] to sit down with us and talk. We want respect. I’m willing to get arrested today to fight for respect.” After giving a three-minute warning, Chicago police officers began zip-tying blockaders’ wrists and walking them to waiting police vehicles.

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Tuesday, Nov 26, 2013, 5:04 pm  ·  By Bruce Vail

This Thanksgiving, Spare a Moment to Consider Turkey Plant Workers

A proposed poultry inspection privatization plan isn't good for workers or consumers, advocates say. (USDAgov / Flickr / Creative Commons)  

With Thanksgiving Day nearly upon us, government officials are moving forward with plans to privatize some poultry inspections at chicken and turkey slaughter plants in a manner that could compromise worker and consumer safety.

The poultry privatization plan would eliminate some 800 government food safety inspectors and replace them with employees hired directly by the poultry companies, says Ken Ward, a retired veteran of the Food Safety and Inspection Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). It would also speed up inspections, he says, allowing slaughter line speeds to be increased from 32 turkeys per minute to 55 birds per minute, with similar increases for other poultry. That’s too fast to do proper inspections for signs of disease or other health problems in the birds, he suggests, and could lead to unsafe food being shipped out to local supermarkets and butcher shops. 

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Monday, Nov 25, 2013, 7:00 am  ·  By Roger Bybee

Boeing Holds Jobs Hostage in Two-Pronged Fight With State Government and Machinists

Boeing has threatened to move the production of the 777X airliner, a hotly anticipated variant of the 777, out of Washington state. (Boeing Dreamscape / Wikimedia Commons)  

For much of the last few years, Boeing has been soaring. In 2012, the aircraft-manufacturing corporation raked in $3.9 billion in net income; it’s projected to earn at least $4.2 billion this year. And thanks to the $95 billion in advance orders of its new 777X airliner, stocks have risen to impressive heights.

Yet despite all this prosperity, Boeing decided to veer into a two-pronged dogfight with the state of Washington and the International Association of Machinists (IAM), using the thousands of Boeing jobs in Seattle’s Puget Sound area as leverage to try to obtain lavish tax breaks and enormous contract concessions, respectively. If the state and union didn’t grant the company’s requests, the company said, it would likely have to move a huge chunk of its new 777X production operations elsewhere.

“We chose to engage in Puget Sound first, but without full acceptance by the union and legislature, we will be left with no choice but to open up the process competitively and pursue other options for locating the 777X work,” a spokesperson for Boeing explained in a statement

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Friday, Nov 22, 2013, 7:33 pm  ·  By Rebecca Burns

UC Berkeley Professor Sends Heartfelt Anti-Union E-mail To Students on Eve of Strike

Campus workers picket at the University of California-Davis during a one-day strike on Nov. 20.   (Photo via the UC Student Workers Union - Davis)

The union representing 22,000 service workers across the University of California system went out on a one-day unfair labor practices strike this Wednesday, joined by 15,000 graduate student employees.

The action was particularly notable because of its use of a rare sympathy strike and the sight of academic workers standing in solidarity with service workers, as I reported last week.

Alongside the growing unionization efforts by adjunct professors, the graduate student solidarity strike might debunk those who believe academics will never get it together to fight the depredations of austerity on their once well-paying jobs. (Thomas Frank is one such skeptic—On the issue of higher ed's long decline, he recently wrote in The Baffler, "Despite the academy's noisy radicalism, its endangered meritocracy simply cannot summon thew will to reverse the market tide.")

Frank’s argument seems more convincing, however, when it comes to UC Berkeley professor Alexander Coward, who took it upon himself on Wednesday to cover classes usually taught by striking graduate student instructors.

In an e-mail sent to undergraduate students on the eve of Wednesday's actions, which was posted on Imgur and has since gone viral, the professor explains his reasons for not participating in the strike:

“I want to let you know that I will not be striking,” the professor writes in an e-mail to students, before continuing:

Which means that I will be, so-to-speak, crossing a picket line. Moreover, I know that two of your GSIs have decided to strike, but because I happen to be free in the afternoon when they teach, and because I enjoy teaching smaller classes from time to time and I haven’t had a chance to in awhile, I’ll be covering those sections.

Actually, the term for replacing striking workers, so to speak, is “scabbing,” as some Twitter users noted.

Then, with a pedagogical flourish reminiscent of the Dead Poets’ Society, the professor issues an inspiring reminder that we are, all of us, utterly alone in this world:

Whatever the alleged injustices are that are being protested about tomorrow, it is clear that you are not responsible for those things, whatever they are, and I do not think you should be denied an education because of someone else’s fight that you are not responsible for.

O Captain, My Captain!

Shortly thereafter, the message launches into a long meditation on the nature of politics:

Sometimes political events reach into our lives without our invitation or control, and we have no choice but to engage with each other about politics. Many times in history this has done so with far more violence and disruption than a strike, and it is wise to be psychologically prepared for this fact. (Umm, what?)

If I’ve learned one thing about politics since I was your age, it is this: Politics, like most things in life worth thinking about, including mathematics, is very big, very complicated, and very interconnected.

In other words: It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of 35,000 workers whom you share space with every day don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, kids. Someday you’ll understand that.

Finally, the e-mail circles back to the reasons why students should attend class as usual:

Do not fall into the trap of thinking that you focusing on your education is a selfish thing. It’s not a selfish thing. It’s the most noble thing you could do.

Society is investing in you so that you can help solve the many challenges we are going to face in the coming decades, from profound technological challenges to helping people with the age old search for human happiness and meaning.

That is why I am not cancelling class tomorrow. Your education is really important, not just to you, but in a far broader and wider reaching way than I think any of you have yet to fully appreciate.

See you tomorrow.

In an open letter published today, Michal Olszewski, a UC graduate student instructor in Molecular and Cell Biology, takes the “socially unconscious” professor to task:

I too believe that the education of young people is important, which is exactly why I went on strike yesterday … I am a graduate student in the Sciences, however unlike so many others in our field, I refuse to solely focus on just my own career and education. … Disturbingly, throughout the entirety of your long and disjointed tirade, you do not once mention any of the reasons behind Wednesday’s strike, which makes me believe that you have already made a choice to focus purely on what you refer to as the “technological life”.

Reached by phone yesterday, Coward, who is in his first semester as a lecturer in the Mathematics Department, said he had intended the e-mail to students as a statement on the value of education, not a judgment on the legitimacy of the strike itself. “I can’t in any way disrespect people for acting in accordance with their conscience,” he said, noting that he had “enormous respect” for the graduate instructors who went out on strike and had also talked with strikers on the picket line to learn more about their concerns.

Asked for comment on the letter, Amanda Armstrong, a UC Berkeley graduate student and recording secretary for UAW 2865, the graduate student workers’ union, told In These Times via e-mail:

I think it's interesting to consider why his letter has gone viral, and what about it was appealing or interesting to so many.  Partly, I think it's just that, in the University today, there are very few spaces or times where people who occupy different roles in the University can talk together about what they are doing here and why.  Professor Coward's letter, particularly the second half of the letter, tries to talk to those in his class about what it means to be a student at this historical moment, and what the experience of being a student feels like.  I think people desire these conversations, and his letter is a contribution to conversations about learning and and the University today.

She said she objected, however, to the fact that the letter was being circulated by the university, including on the UC Alumni Facebook page, in conjunction with the strike. “The UC Public Relations wing is trying to turn Professor Coward into a national hero for having crossed a picket line,” she says.  

She also responded to Coward's suggestion that students "optimize" their lives for learning:

Students can only pursue education, or ‘optimize their lives for learning’ by taking out massive loans,and Professor Coward's letter seeks to divert attention from this reality by suggesting that students have been ‘invested in’ by society. In fact, the opposite is true: students have been divested from, and are now shouldering the burden of paying for education.

She notes that AFSCME 3299 and the UAW 2865, the two unions that struck on Wednesday, stood alongside students who organized successfully to beat back a proposed 81 percent tuition hike in 2011. “If Professor Coward had considered this fact or the recent history of the University of California, he may have come to a different conclusion about whether his students' fates were tied up with the fates of campus workers,” she says.

Asked about whether the issues that AFSCME and UAW struck over were indeed unrelated to students’ education or whether they deserved the support of educators, Coward told In These Times:

As I said in the e-mail, I can’t discount the possibility that I might be wrong. Maybe if I had thought it through more, or if I had different life experiences, or if I knew more about what was going on, I might have reached a different decision. But we all have to live in such a way that when we get up in the morning and we look in the mirror, you basically like the person that you see.”

There you have it: Sometimes, instead of a diversion from education, a strike may provide a teachable moment.

Full disclosure: AFSCME and UAW are sponsors of In These Times.

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Friday, Nov 22, 2013, 11:38 am  ·  By Mike Elk

The Union President Who’s Helping Put Filibuster Reform in Motion

Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen, pictured here at an October march for immigrant rights, has been fighting for filibuster reform for four years. (CWA)  

Since 2009, Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen has been pushing to eliminate the filibuster in Congress. Earlier this year, Cohen’s union, CWA, worked with the Sierra Club, NAACP and Greenpeace to convene the “Democracy Initiative,” a progressive coalition that, among other objectives, has called on the government to eliminate the filibuster, protect voting rights and get money out of politics. Yesterday afternoon, their hard work came to some fruition—the U.S. Senate voted 52-48 on a measure that would effectively ban the use of the filibuster to block nominees from being confirmed. Previously, a three-fifths majority vote was required to lift or avoid a filibuster; now, only a simple majority is necessary to do so.

In between fielding phone calls from senators yesterday afternoon, Cohen gave In These Times his first reactions to the victory that he had fought for nearly four years to achieve.

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Thursday, Nov 21, 2013, 5:50 pm  ·  By Mike Elk

Bosch Engineering to Guest Workers: Hand Over Tax Refunds or Go Back to India

'Though the government has plenty of measures in place to oversee corporate finances, Hira points out, there’s almost nothing being done to prevent employers’ questionable treatment of workers.'   (DennisM2/Flickr/Creative Commons)

In 2005, Suraj Kamath began working for Bosch Engineering in India as an automotive engineer. In March of 2009, Bosch moved him to its test facility in Santa Barbara, Calif. under an L-1 visa, which allows American companies to transfer employees based in foreign countries to the United States as “guest workers.” And in December 2012, Kamath says he received a letter from Bosch informing him that he needed to pay the company $45,102 in federal and state tax refunds that he had received over the previous three years.

When Kamath refused to hand over his refunds, to which he was legally entitled, he was met with another unwelcome surprise. According to a complaint he filed in federal court on Wednesday, Bosch threatened to send him back to India if he didn’t pay the thousands of dollars that it claimed he owed.

“I worked diligently for Bosch for years,” Kamath continued in his statement. “When I objected to Bosch’s demand to pay back all tax refunds I had received, Bosch threatened to fire me, send me back to India and make my life miserable. The way Bosch treats its employees is wrong and that’s why I am standing up to Bosch for myself and my fellow colleagues at Bosch."

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Thursday, Nov 21, 2013, 3:31 pm  ·  By Michelle Chen

Qatar’s World Cup Spectacle Brought to You by Slavery

Migrants laboring in Qatar. Most are underpaid and face torture or abuse. (Photo by WBUR/ Flickr)  

The big controversies surrounding Qatar as the site of the 2022 World Cup have been the shady bidding process and fears that the desert heat will ruin the soccer games. But in the past few days, the spotlight has finally begun to move to longstanding concerns over the treatment of the migrant workers who will be building the physical infrastructure for the sporting bonanza.

Throughout the summer, according to an investigation by Amnesty International [PDF] released this week, the future site of the sporting spectacle became a death trap for the Asian workers brought in by Qatar and its booming construction industry to work on the building sites of the planned World Cup facilities, including commercial areas and transportation infrastructure.

Amnesty found that the workers were encamped in sweltering heat, fell from precarious heights and suffered heart failure under the strenuous labor conditions. One Nepalese official described the entire system of indenture as an “open prison,” according to Der Spiegel. In light of dozens of reported deaths, union activists predict that up to 4,000 may die on the sites between now and the 2022 games.

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Wednesday, Nov 20, 2013, 7:06 pm  ·  By Bruce Vail

Maryland’s Keystone Pipeline Lite Reignites Green vs. Blue Fight

A landscape in Odessa, TX transformed by hydraulic fracturing.   (ddimick/Flickr/Creative Commons)

BALTIMORE—The continuing drama of organized labor's conflict with the environmental movement, especially notable in the controversy surrounding the Keystone XL pipeline project, is readying for another round as a coalition of green groups launches a campaign to stop the proposed construction of a Maryland natural gas export terminal linked to increased fracking in the region.

The fight in Maryland was put into motion last year, when Richmond, Va.-based energy giant Dominion Resources Inc. suggested converting its existing liquefied natural gas (LNG) import terminal at Cove Point in Lusby, Md., to a much larger export terminal.  According to Dominion, the rapid expansion of natural gas production inside the United States in recent years has all but eliminated the need to import LNG—by contrast, market demand to export the gas to places like India and Japan is expected to rise dramatically.

Dominion therefore proposed spending some $3.8 billion to modify the Cove Point terminal with construction of a new liquefaction plant, electricity-generating station and related facilities to handle the LNG exports. The U.S. Department of Energy gave its qualified approval for the project last month.

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Monday, Nov 18, 2013, 9:00 pm  ·  By Sarah Jaffe

Why Port Truckers Are Striking: 12-Hour Shifts, Noxious Fumes and $12.90 Paychecks

On Nov. 18,. 2013, striking Los Angeles port truckers try to deliver a letter to management.  

“We are on strike today to have respect and dignity at work,” says Walter Melendez, one of approximately 40 Los Angeles port truck drivers who walked off the job at 5a.m. morning in protest of alleged unfair labor practices. The strikes featured the rolling “ambulatory pickets” that the truckers have excelled at—chasing down trucks as they leave the port and setting up picket lines in front of them.

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