Unions Anxious About Obamacare; Coal Company Sues Whistleblower; Boeing Strike Looms

Mike Elk

At a union rally during the 2008 presidential race, a member of USW Local 1999 holds a sign supporting Obama's healthcare policies over McCain's. (AFL-CIO / Flickr / Creative Commons)

With more provisions of Obamacare sent to kick in this year, some unions are growing concerned about a law that they once supported. From the Wall Street Journal:

Union leaders say many of the law’s requirements will drive up the costs for their health-care plans and make unionized workers less competitive. Among other things, the law eliminates the caps on medical benefits and prescription drugs used as cost-containment measures in many health-care plans. It also allows children to stay on their parents’ plans until they turn 26.

To offset that, the nation’s largest labor groups want their lower-paid members to be able to get federal insurance subsidies while remaining on their plans. In the law, these subsidies were designed only for low-income workers without employer coverage as a way to help them buy private insurance….

John Wilhelm, chairman of Unite Here Health, the insurance plan for 260,000 union workers at places including hotels, casinos and airports, recalls standing next to Barack Obama at a rally in Nevada when he was a 2008 presidential candidate.

I heard him say, If you like your health plan, you can keep it,’ ” Mr. Wilhelm recalled. Mr. Wilhelm said he expects the administration will craft a solution so that employer health-care plans won’t be hurt. If I’m wrong, and the president does not intend to keep his word, I would have severe second thoughts about the law.”

In a landmark case, a coal company is suing a worker who charged that he was fired for filing a safety complaint. The case could have a chilling effect on the ability of miners to speak out. From the Huffington Post’s Dave Jamieson:

Armstrong [Coal] filed suit against Shemwell in Kentucky state court, claiming that the miner had filed a false discrimination claim” against them, and that his claim amounted to wrongful use of civil proceedings” – akin to a frivolous lawsuit. …

Spelled out in the federal Mine Safety and Health Act, a miner’s ability to raise concerns without fear of retaliation is the backbone of modern mine safety law. Any miner who claims he or she was fired or disciplined for raising such issues – so long as the claim isn’t frivolous” – is entitled to temporary reinstatement on the job as due process takes its course.

According to Oppegard, who’s handled more than a hundred such cases, miners can’t freely bring discrimination complaints to federal officials if they have to worry about their employer suing them after unsuccessful complaints. Most miners simply don’t have the resources to defend themselves against well-funded corporate lawyers, he said.

In tight contract negotiations with Boeing, engineers represented by SPEAA may be walking off the job. From the Herald Business Journal:

Boeing Co. engineers and technical workers will have until Feb. 19 to vote on whether to give union negotiators the OK to call a strike if the two sides can’t agree on a new labor contract.

Representative members of the council that governs the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace gave the nod Thursday to include strike authorization on a contract ballot. And the 105-member council by a wide margin voted to urge members to reject Boeing’s offer, the union said. …

But the entire membership will have the opportunity to decide, with ballots to be mailed Tuesday. SPEEA members will have until Feb. 19 to mail back or drop off ballots.

The New York Times has a very interesting op-ed on the women-oriented marketing that led to the rise of the non-union temp industry. From the New York Times:

The story begins in the years after World War II, when a handful of temp agencies were started, largely in the Midwest. In 1947, William Russell Kelly founded Russell Kelly Office Service (later known as Kelly Girl Services) in Detroit, with three employees, 12 customers and $848 in sales. A year later, two lawyers, Aaron Scheinfeld and Elmer Winter, founded a similarly small outfit, Manpower Inc., in Milwaukee. At the time, the future of these fledgling agencies was no foregone conclusion. Unions were at the peak of their power, and the protections that they had fought so hard to achieve — workers’ compensation, pensions, health benefits and more — had been adopted by union and nonunion employers alike.

But temp leaders were creating a new category of work (and workers) that would be exempt from such protections.

To avoid union opposition, they developed a clever strategy, casting temp work as women’s work,” and advertising thousands of images of young, white, middle-class women doing a variety of short-term office jobs. The Kelly Girls, Manpower’s White Glove Girls, Western Girl’s Cowgirls, the American Girls of American Girl Services and numerous other such girls” appeared in the pages of Newsweek, Business Week, U.S. News & World Report, Good Housekeeping, Fortune, The New York Times and The Chicago Daily Tribune. In 1961 alone, Manpower spent $1 million to put its White Glove Girls in the Sunday issue of big city newspapers across the country.

The strategy was an extraordinary success. Not only did the Kelly Girls become cultural icons, but the temp agencies grew and grew.

Four coal miners a day are killed in accidents in mines in China. In comparison, only 17 miners were killed in accidents in the United States in all of 2011. Now a new study seems to link the high Chinese death toll with official corruption, showing that politically connected Chinese firms are far more likely to have workers killed on the job than non-politically connected firms. From Bloomberg BusinessWeek:

The robustness of the link they found was striking: Connected Chinese companies averaged five times as many fatalities as similar unconnected companies. What’s more, the arrival or departure of a highly connected executive was marked by, on average, the death rate per 10,000 workers rising by 10 or falling by 6.4, respectively, in the following year. In a research summary published in the January/​February 2013 issue of Harvard Business Review, they dubbed it the unsafe side of Chinese crony capitalism.” A fivefold difference I personally find to be stunning,” says Fisman. I would have expected maybe a 10 percent bump, not 500 percent — this is a case where the fact of a connection is not as surprising as the magnitude of it.” …

Academic literature on corruption has proliferated in recent years as economists devise new ways to measure what happens under the table. The real challenge, of course, is that what you’re trying to study is illegal, so you can’t just go ask someone, Hi, how corrupt are you?’” says MIT economist Ben Olken. A lot of work is focused on developing more sophisticated techniques” to track and quantify illicit behavior. Fisman and Wang’s study, which draws a correlation between management and worker fatalities without attempting to directly document a paper trail of bribes or skipped safety checks, is one example.

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.
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.