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

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 intern​jus​tice​.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 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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