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

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 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.
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