New Workplace Injury Transparency; Miller Calls for Black Lung Probe; Airport Job Quality Plummets

Mike Elk

Businesses with over 250 employees will be required to publicly report workplace injuries.

On Thurs­day, the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion announced a rule change aimed at mak­ing infor­ma­tion about work­place injuries more trans­par­ent. From the Asso­ci­at­ed Press:

OSHA head David Michaels said the changes would pro­vide bet­ter access to data for gov­ern­ment safe­ty inspec­tors as well as work­ers, employ­ers, researchers and the public.

Pub­lic post­ing of work­place ill­ness and injury infor­ma­tion will nudge employ­ers to bet­ter iden­ti­fy and elim­i­nate haz­ards,” Michaels told reporters in a tele­phone news con­fer­ence. We believe that respon­si­ble employ­ers will want to be rec­og­nized as lead­ers in safety.”

OSHA said the change is in line with Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma’s ini­tia­tive to increase pub­lic access to gov­ern­ment data. The plan would require com­pa­nies with more than 250 employ­ees to sub­mit the data elec­tron­i­cal­ly on a quar­ter­ly basis. That would cov­er about 38,000 Amer­i­can com­pa­nies, Michaels said.

In response to Chris Ham­by of the Cen­ter for Pub­lic Integri­ty’s block­buster exposé on how law firms, doc­tors and coal com­pa­nies col­lud­ed to improp­er­ly deny com­pen­sa­tion to black lung vic­tims, Con­gress­man George Miller (D‑Calif.) is call­ing on the Depart­ment of Labor’s Inspec­tor Gen­er­al to launch an inves­ti­ga­tion into the mat­ter. From the Cen­ter for Pub­lic Integri­ty:

The Nov. 7 let­ter says the con­gress­men will seek to ensure that those who have been improp­er­ly denied ben­e­fits will have anoth­er oppor­tu­ni­ty at secur­ing fair treatment.”

Miller is the rank­ing Demo­c­rat on the House com­mit­tee over­see­ing labor issues.

The press for an inquiry cites a series of reports by the Cen­ter for Pub­lic Integri­ty and on ABC News describ­ing how lawyers and doc­tors hired by the coal indus­try have played a cru­cial role in beat­ing back claims for ben­e­fits from min­ers sick and dying of black lung. Few­er than 10 per­cent of coal min­ers who apply for the ben­e­fits, which range from just over $600 a month to about $1,250 a month, ulti­mate­ly have received them, Labor Depart­ment num­bers show.

And, the request comes as Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sens. Robert Casey (Penn.) and Jay Rock­e­feller (W.Va.) have begun look­ing into pos­si­ble leg­isla­tive action to address the issues raised in those reports, which revealed how pow­er­ful — and some­times sur­pris­ing — forces have helped the indus­try defeat claims.

With mail-in votes still being count­ed, the lat­est tal­lies show a bal­lot mea­sure to raise the min­i­mum wage for air­port work­ers at Seat­tle-Taco­ma Air­port nar­row­ly ahead. From the Huff­in­g­ton Post:

Sup­port­ers of Propo­si­tion No. 1, which calls for a $15 min­i­mum wage, led 51.58 to 48.42 per­cent after the lat­est vote tal­ly was fin­ished on Thurs­day night, accord­ing to King Coun­ty Elec­tions. That sig­nals a declin­ing lead for the wage mea­sure’s back­ers, who enjoyed a rough­ly 8 per­cent­age point lead after the ini­tial count on Tuesday.

Due to the high num­ber of mail-in bal­lots, vote count­ing is expect­ed to con­tin­ue for days and the results won’t be rat­i­fied until Nov. 26, accord­ing to the city clerk’s office. So far, 4,469 bal­lots have been count­ed in a vote that was open to 12,108 reg­is­tered voters.

If sup­port­ers man­age to cling to their nar­row lead, the mea­sure’s pas­sage would hand a major vic­to­ry to labor activists. Propo­si­tion 1 would estab­lish a wage floor that’s more than dou­ble the fed­er­al min­i­mum wage of $7.25. The $15 bench­mark, which would be adjust­ed each year accord­ing to infla­tion, would apply to an esti­mat­ed 6,000 air­port and hotel work­ers employed by large busi­ness­es in and around Seat­tle-Taco­ma Inter­na­tion­al Airport.

A recent report from the UC Berke­ley Labor Cen­ter high­lights how bad the labor prac­tices at most air­ports are. From Think Progress:

Once con­sid­ered a secure path to mid­dle-class life, air­port jobs are quick­ly becom­ing some of the worst paid, least sta­ble posi­tions in the low-wage econ­o­my. A new report from UC Berkeley’s Labor Cen­ter found that air­lines and air­ports are increas­ing­ly out­sourc­ing jobs to low-pay­ing con­trac­tors, dri­ving wages down to near-pover­ty lev­els. Salaries have fall­en as much as 45 per­cent for some workers.

As is the case with most low-wage jobs, tax­pay­ers are pick­ing up the slack for air­lines’ labor prac­tices. More than a third of all clean­ing staff and bag­gage han­dlers at Amer­i­can air­ports must sup­ple­ment their wages with pub­lic ben­e­fits like food stamps and Med­ic­aid. Wages for air­port jobs have failed to keep up with infla­tion, falling by 14 per­cent over 20 years, while they grew more slow­ly even than those in food ser­vices and retail. Mean­while, some air­line CEOs make 300 times what their bag­gage porters, trans­porta­tion atten­dants, and vehi­cle clean­ers make, accord­ing to the SEIU.

The decline began with air­port dereg­u­la­tion in the 1970s, which led to two-tiered con­tracts that low­ered wages for new work­ers hired by air­lines. As more air­lines merged, a lack of com­pe­ti­tion allowed com­pa­nies to fur­ther reduce wages and cut jobs. Indus­try buildup through the 90s shed more than 100,000 jobs between 2000 and 2008. Even­tu­al­ly, air­lines real­ized that using con­trac­tors for ser­vices like main­te­nance, clean­ing, and bag­gage han­dling was even cheap­er, accel­er­at­ing the replace­ment of direct employ­ees with out­sourced work­ers who make sig­nif­i­cant­ly less.

The IBEW announced that over the last year it has orga­nized 7,000 new union mem­bers in 92 dif­fer­ent suc­cess­ful orga­niz­ing cam­paigns. From the Elec­tri­cal Work­er:

This year, 92 suc­cess­ful cam­paigns have won rep­re­sen­ta­tion rights for more than 7,000 new mem­bers. The cam­paign win rate is a whop­ping 72 per­cent — sig­nif­i­cant­ly high­er than the aver­age orga­niz­ing ratio for any union in any indus­try across the U.S. and Canada.

It’s an excit­ing time to be build­ing the IBEW,” said lead orga­niz­er Steve Smith, who has helped win voic­es on the job for work­ers at Com­cast in the North­east. Smith is one of 49 full-time orga­niz­ers in the pro­fes­sion­al and indus­tri­al branch, a corps that has more than dou­bled in size since before the 2011 con­ven­tion, large­ly due to added fund­ing from the membership.

Oth­er improve­ments include the addi­tion of IBEW lead­ers assigned full-time to busi­ness devel­op­ment at var­i­ous locals through­out the U.S. and Cana­da, as well as new mem­ber­ship-boost­ing train­ings that have been launched by the Edu­ca­tion Depart­ment at the Inter­na­tion­al Office in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

But behind the num­bers are sto­ries — lives that have been changed, fam­i­lies that have been strength­ened, and hard-won dig­ni­ty that rever­ber­ates long after the votes are counted.

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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