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Labor: Beach Update

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I’m at the beach, monitoring a bunch of 18-year old girls (including my daughter), with only intermittant internet access, so don’t have time to write a full piece this week. But I do have time to update some previous pieces.

Setback For Mine Agency Nominee

My first piece, three weeks ago, was a plea to the Bush administration to withdraw the nomination of Richard Stickler to head the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Thirty-three coal miners have died already this year in the nation’s coal mines (compared with 22 in all of 2005) and Stickler — who has spent most of his career as a mine industry manager —  is clearly unqualified to head up the agency at this time of crisis for American coal miners.

Well, Bush didn’t listen to me, but enough Senators apparently listened to the families of the miners (in addition to the United Mineworkers, the AFL-CIO and others), and forced Senate leadership to cancel today’s scheduled vote on Stickler’s nomination. Not only was the vote cancelled, but Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, after consulting with the White House, agreed that Stickler would not receive a recess appointment by the White House before a vote is taken on his nomination. (The President is able to put nominees in office by "recess appointment" when Congress is out of session.)

Stickler’s nomination may not be completely dead, but it’s definitely in critical condition on life support. The days when the Bush administration can freely appoint industry hacks to important government positions may be drawing to a welcomed close.

Immigrant Workers Exploted in the Gulf

Last week, I wrote about the workplace safety problems faced by immigrant workers in this country. Now two studies have been issued describing conditions under which immigrants are working in the Gulf clean-up: a Tulane University Study, Rebuilding After Katrina: A Population-Based Study of Labor and Human Rights in New Orleans, and Risk Amid Recovery: Occupational Health and Safety of Latino Workers in the Aftermath of Gulf Coast Hurricanes. Risk Amid Recovery is a joint project between UCLA-Labor Occupational Safety and Health Project and the National Day Laborers Organizing Network and was made possible with funding from National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences.

Risk Amid Recovery was based on interviews with 53 immigrant workers and 28 community, union, church, and relief workers in Biloxi and Gulfport, Mississippi; and in Slidell, New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Kenner, Louisiana from December 2005 through February 2006. The researchers found that

Like other workers and returning residents, Latino workers confronted a variety of hazards. The most frequently mentioned of these was mold; other toxic exposures and safety hazards were also common. Most workers, however, received neither health and safety training nor protective equipment. Respiratory, skin and other health problems incurred on the job were exacerbated by unsanitary living conditions. Most workers lacked access to medical services. Many reported wage violations and harassment, including threats of deportation and denial of access to shelter facilities.

There were many reasons that these hazards were tolerated; fear of losing a job or housing being the main ones.

The Tulane researchers interviewed 148 Latino workers as well as 25 people representing government agencies and organizations that work with immigrants. Not surprisingly, immigrant workers are not treated as well as native-born workers:

Pollsters found that illegal workers were paid, on average, $10 an hour, compared with $16.50 for documented workers. Moreover, interviewers found, the illegal workers had a more difficult time collecting what they were due.

There also was a disparity in the availability of protective supplies. While 84 percent of the documented workers said they had such gear, 72 percent of the illegal laborers said they were given such equipment.

Such a situation is problematic, the data show, because undocumented workers were much less aware than their legal counterparts of such hazards as mold, asbestos and unsafe buildings.

***

Only 9 percent of the illegal workers had health insurance, compared with 55 percent of the documented workers, researchers found, and only 38 percent of the undocumented laborers received medications when they needed them, compared with 83 percent of the legal workers.

Although only slightly more than one-fourth of all the workers sought medical help, the proportion of legal workers treated was more than three times as high as the number of undocumented laborers, the data show.

The hurricane recovery effort has also changed the demographics of the New Orleans area — and the potential for exploitation:

Before last year’s hurricane, Louisiana had one of the smallest Hispanic populations in the country – 2.5 percent of residents compared with 12.5 percent nationally.

Census data indicates nearly 100,000 Hispanics moved to the Gulf Coast region following Hurricane Katrina, lured by promises of high wages and plentiful work. It is unclear precisely how many have come to New Orleans, though the study estimates one-quarter of the construction workers in New Orleans are illegal immigrants.

They are now the backbone of the reconstruction, converging at dawn on the city, waiting to be picked up for 14-hour shifts hauling debris, ripping out drywall and nailing walls. Because so many are here illegally, the study says, they are especially vulnerable to exploitation.

To make his point, Alberto Mendoza holds up his lined, calloused hands, proof of the hard and unprotected work he has been performing. "No gloves, no goggles – no nothing," said the 40-year-old illegal immigrant from Mexico City.

In his pocket, he keeps a jagged piece of paper inscribed with the word "Pam" and a cell phone number, his only lifeline to the woman who hired him.

"She took me to the house and said: ‘Do this. Do that.’ Then she left us there. We worked all day. She never came back to pay us," said Mendoza, sitting in a traffic median Monday, waiting for another job.

***

Some of those waiting for work said they are afraid of complaining. "It’s too dangerous for my body," said 29-year-old Saul Linan, an illegal immigrant from Guanajuato, Mexico. "But I don’t say anything. If I do, the boss says, `Hey, if you don’t work hard, I’ll take you to immigration.’"

Card Check Organizing: Some Companies Like It

I wrote two weeks ago about how a corporate funded program called the Center for Union Facts is using clever advertising to undermine the labor movement’s new "card check" strategy. Card check means that instead of standard elections where management has the opportunity to intimidate employees, "card check" means that unions only have to get a majority of potential members sign a card indicting that they want a union. Combined with neutrality, where the employer agrees not to oppose the union (and the union promises not to trash the employer), card check has resulted in a much higher win rate than the traditional secret ballot elections supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. The Center For Union "Facts" is arguing, on the other hand, that card check is a threat to democracy.

One large company disagrees, according to an CNN/Money.com article. Cingular, the giant cell phone company has worked out a card check and neutrality agreement with the Communications Workers of America. As a result, 39,000 technicians, customer support workers and retail sales people at Cingular now belong to CWA. And everyone’s happy:

The union’s growth at Cingular runs counter to broader trends of declining union membership. What’s more, most Cingular employees are under 40, white collar and located in the South – a region of the country that has historically been hostile to unions.

And how’s Cingular doing since it made peace with the union? Very well, thanks – with about 56 million customers, Cingular is the nation’s largest wireless carrier.

Now, it would be simplistic to suggest that Cingular’s worker-friendly approach has driven its success. More importantly, almost surely, is the fact that Cingular has a customer-friendly policy of allowing people to roll over minutes from month to month. And some independent research shows that the service has fewer dropped calls than its competitors.

But Lew Walker, vice president for human resources, says a cooperative relationship with the union has also proven to be a competitive edge. When a company’s managers are focused on fighting a union, "there is no way you can focus on growing the business," Walker said at a recent forum sponsored by the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank.

And, while business executives routinely complain that unions are obstacles to nimble, flexible management, Walker says of the CWA: "They very much recognize that we are in a competitive environment." Disagreements are common, but they are worked out cooperatively.

This is Jordan Barab, blogging from a coffee shop at the beach, signing out. Talk among yourselves.

 Jordan Barab blogs at Confined Space.

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