Monday, March 31, 2003

Acts of God, Acts of Man, and Faith-based Health and Safety

Here we clarify a little recent history. This story, like much of our most important history, contains lessons that should never be forgotten. Unfortunately, most people will never know about it in the first place, much less remember it or do something about it.

The Nation
ran an excellent article in its March 17 edition about the real story behind last year's "miraculous" Somerset County, Pennsylvania mine rescue.

Written by Charles McCollester, director of the Pennsylvania Center for the Study of Labor Relations at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, the article describes how "The flooding of the nonunion Quecreek mine reveals much about government inadequacy stemming from chronic underfunding; government incompetence and/or complicity with powerful vested interests; corporate irresponsibility and greed; and coordinated anti-union activity."

Prior to the flooding of the mine there had been multiple warnings about the inadequacy of the 1957 map that showed the adjoining Saxman mine that was flooded with water and was the source of the flood in the Quecreek mine. After the disaster, several elderly former Saxman miners claimed on local television that they had gone to the owner of the mine, Black Wolf, in the months just preceding the breach to warn the company that its map was inadequate and that Black Wolf was nearing the Saxman Coal Harrison #2 mine workings.

Despite these warnings, Black Wolf owner-operator David Rebuck called the flooding an "act of God" in one local TV interview. As McCollester wrote, "The flood of testimonials to the mercy of God threatens to obscure the very human factors that led to the near-disaster. God may well have had a hand in the rescue, but human avarice and more than a century of fierce corporate manipulation and struggle for profit and control were behind the wall of water that swept into the Quecreek mine."

(Note from JB: The "Act of God" excuse was often used, in my experience, to explain such "unfathomable" processes as the collapse of a 12 foot deep trench on top of construction workers or the asphyxiation of sewer workers in an unmonitored confined space. "Who could have predicted it?" "Brave men, dangerous job, tsk, tsk." A related scapegoat was Mother Nature, as in "Yup, that trench just gave way. Who could have known? Just one of those terrible unpredictable things when you're dealing with Mother nature.")

These "excuses" often worked -- at least for public consumption -- because they were generally quoted in the typical one-day article in the local newspaper. By the time experts are found (if anyone bothers) or the OSHA report comes out (assuming they weren't public employees who had no OSHA coverage), the local media had lost interest. But I digress...)

The article notes "The ultimate act of political cynicism was reserved for President Bush, who made a choreographed whistle-stop visit to the rescued miners on his way to a million-dollar campaign fundraiser in Pittsburgh."

The UMWA had attempted to organize the mine, but "Repeated attempts to organize Quecreek had broken down because the majority of the miners were intimidated. [According to] UMWA organizer Nick Molnar (now retired): "The company gets wind of our presence and first you get threats to fire individuals who support the union; that's followed by veiled threats about closing the mine. In a depressed area, such actions are extremely effective."

"If Quecreek had been union, workers might have been more candid about company responsibility immediately after the rescue, when some of them supported management's claim of normal mining conditions. If the union had been recognized, the workers could have refused to continue advancing--without fear for their jobs--as they saw conditions worsening."

Union health and safety activists understand that the best guarantor of a safe workplace is not OSHA and not (for God's sake) Workers Compensation, but a strong, knowledgeable and active union. (Some think it's even possible that health and safety problems would make a good organizing issue.)
What's Really Important

Yes, there may be a disasterous and tragic war in Iraq and a grave constitutional crisis at home. The economy is in the pits and fictitous times rule the day. But for today at least there is a scent of joy in Mudville. For today the baseball season begins. And let it be known that the paper of record, none other than the New York Times, predicts that the Los Angeles Dodgers will take first place in the Western Division of the National League. And with the energy generated from that prediction, we can, nay, we will, move forward in our fight to make this world a better place.

Sunday, March 30, 2003

Who Am I?

My name is Jordan Barab. I spent 16 years running AFSCME's health and safety program, defending and expanding the rights of public employees to work in a safe workplace. Many people don't know it, but in 26 states, public employees don't even have the federally guaranteed right to a safe workplace. And it's not just those "backward" southern states. It's also "progressive" northern states like Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. And we're not talking "just" bureaucrats. We're talking highway workers, public works, wastewater treatment, corrections officers, firefighters, health care workers, mental health workers, social workers, bridge workers and on and on. Some of the most dangerous, undervalued, unappealing, but necessary work that this society demands to live their comfortable lives.

In 1998, I was appointed a Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary for OSHA, serving as national Labor Liaison, ergonomics coordinator and other unofficial positions. This was a "political appointment," so I turned into a pumpkin at noon, January 20, 2001. I then "consulted" at the AFL-CIO for a year and a half.

Why Am I Here?

Several Reasons:

Working people need more workplace health and safety resources; not just fact sheets and health and safety manuals and Material Safety Data Sheets. All that is important, but they also need opinion and commentary on the politics of workplace health and safety. Everything in this country is political -- with a capital "P" or a small "p." We all know about workplace politics. It's generally not lack of information or guidelines that's keeping your employer from making the workplace safe. It's money, or control issues, or willful negligence. And in Washington D.C. or your state capitals, it's Politics with a capital "P. The Republicans and a good number of Democrats find more to fear (or more $ to gain) from the business lobbyists than from workers or unions. And then they lie about it. We can't have workplace protections because they cost too much, or there's not enough science, or they're "one size fits all" or the best government is the least government, or, or, or, or....

There are millions of people out there who go to work every day fearing that they won't come home alive or health at the end of the day; or that they won't live long enough to enjoy their retirement. Some are in unions, most aren't. They all need to know that there are technical resources out there. And they all need to know that politics matters, voting matters -- in national and local elections. It matters in big ways and small way, but it also matters in how safe their workplaces are going to be. It matters whether their children are going to grow up with unhealthy injured parents, or no parents at all. People need to understand that everything is connected. Tax cuts, growing deficits, appropriations, executive orders, regulatory "reform," -- it all affects our safety every day.

And much of the most grievous harm is done in the most invisible ways. After 10 years of struggle, OSHA finally issued an ergonomics standard in November 2000. The Republican-controlled Congress, with virtually no debate, repealed those protections in March 2001. They used a little-known, and never-before-used law called the Congressional Review Act, a piece of legislation, tacked onto a larger bill way back in the early Gingrich years, a bomb lying dormant and unnoticed until it was activated when Bush Administration was selected. No one knew until it was too late -- and millions of American workers now pay the price every year in painful disability.

So, to make a long story short, I have a grandiose notion that this Weblog might make a difference. Might make a few more people aware that something evil this way comes. It's here. And we need to recognize it, talk about it and do something about it.

By the way, if you like this "Blog," spread it around. I'd like to have it linked in as many local and national union and COSH webpages as possible. And write me. I'd like your opinions and your contributions.
Fiddling Around While Rome Burns

Just got back from a French Solidarity potluck where everyone brought French food and ate under a banner reading: "Faites l'amour, pas la guerre."

I never fail to be surprised at the silliness that some political figures in this country appear proud to display. We've already been entertained by the House of Representatives voting to change the name of French Fries to Freedom Fries. And Senator Byrd (D-WV) has the nerve to say that Congress isn't debating the war!

Now some of our political leaders seem to have risen to an even higher level of stupidity. But wait, let's set the scene: lousy economy, high unemployment, exploding deficit, illegal war -- just to name a few. All of these problems being tackled by our fearless elected representatives you think? Check this out in today's Washington Post:

Inventing the term "freedom fries" may have failed to impress folks in Paris, so now several dozen members of Congress are proposing a more tangible means of conveying American anger toward France: cutting off U.S. military contracts with Sodexho Inc., a French-owned food service firm.

Fifty-nine House members signed a letter sent yesterday to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld urging the cancellation of Sodexho's dealings with the Pentagon, which include an $881 million contract to feed U.S. Marines at 55 facilities, according to the letter's author, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.). "My colleagues and I abhor the idea of continuing to pour American dollars into a French based firm," the letter says.

Oops. Seems that although Sodexho is owned by the French, the company has 110,000 employees in the United States, including more than 4,000 in Kingston's home state of Georgia.

This is why these guys are elected? These are the guys running the most powerful country in the world? Bah! Let them eat snails.

Saturday, March 29, 2003

You may remember Clinton Administration's draft contractor responsibility regulation that was deep-sixed by the Bushies. And you may also remember the New York Times article and Frontline series on McWane Corporation, whose "disciplined management practices" killed and injured a large number of employees.

Travel with me now to Beaverton, Oregon and the Tualatin Valley Water District. Seems the District discovered that it had done about $155,000 worth of business with a subsidiary of McWane. Alarmed at the Times series that maintained that McWane regularly put profits before worker safety, the District prepared a letter to McWane from Board President Richard Burke stating that "I must convey the disgust and revulsion felt by the Board of Commissioners after reviewing reports from credible news agencies of admitted, willful violations of workers safety laws at the Tyler Pipe facility."

The letter also said the district would pass along information about McWane to other water providers in the Portland area.

It concluded: "We want to be assured that as the Tualatin Valley Water District participates in huge capital projects that will result in pipe purchases in the tens of millions of dollars, we will not be using pipes and fittings manufactured with an abject disregard of human decency. Shame on you."

Unfortunately, the Board backed off when Michael D. McAllister, assistant sales manager for Pacific States Cast Iron Pipe, a McWane subsidiary in Provo, Utah assured the Board that "We're not the same company we were a few years back," The Board will first talk with OSHA and the union representing McWane (The USWA).

"It seemed to me that we had to do something," Tualatin Valley board member Jim Doane said. "There might be ways of putting into bid documents some way to evaluate (bidders) on ways other than cost."

Stay tuned. But in the meantime, think of the potential of cities and counties all over the country taking into account contractors' health and safety records. There are a few "nuclear free zones" around the U.S. where cities refuse to buy products produced by companies that make nuclear weapons. Think of the potential of "Corporate Criminal Free Zones" where anyone wanting to sell goods and services to a public entity would first have to submit its OSHA and EPA records.

The War

This Blog is not about the war. I'm not going to write about the war...much. Maybe just a little. Check out the chilling Washington Monthly article by Joshua Micah Marshall where he describes the vision of the Bush-affiliated neo-conservatives and their hope that things continue to go wrong in the Middle East, giving the U.S. the excuse to eventually bring the entire region under our direct control. Conspiracy theorist you say? Check out the Washington Post where "Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld delivered a stern warning to Syria and Iran yesterday, threatening that the United States would hold them accountable for interfering in the U.S.-led war against neighboring Iraq."

And finally....The other day, our fearless leader in the White House said something about how the small setbacks we've been experiencing in Iraqwon't deter us because Americans have experienced war. Well, not really, at least not most of us, not like the rest of the world, unless you happened to be living in Manhattan or near the Pentagon. A lot of innocent Americans died on 9/11. By my reckoning, the number of Americans that died on 9/11 in relation to our total population would be about the equivalent of 300 innocent Iraqi deaths. I think we've probably exceeded that. So maybe we can stop now. Of course that's assuming that one believes that Iraq had anything to do with 9/11, or that innocent Iraqis should die even if they did.