Labor Advocate Online

Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
March 25, 2007

Check It Out Before You STRIVE
Last August I had the opportunity to attend a big immigrant rights conference in Chicago. The only mainstream politician who sought to address the gathering was Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) The congressman did not receive unanimous enthusiasm. Many shouted “make him sign before he speaks,” referring to a blown-up copy of a “ten points of unity” statement that had served as the call for the conference. Gutiérrez strode over and signed the declaration with great flourish.

This past week, Gutiérrez, along with Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), introduced a new immigration “reform” bill that runs counter to virtually every component of the ten point statement he had signed before hundreds of immigrant and labor activists. Known as the Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy bill–STRIVE–it takes up where the failed McCain-Kennedy bill left off.

Among its provisions:

●Continuation of the militarization of the border with Mexico
●The same type of criminalization featured in the hated Sensenbrenner Bill that also failed in the last congress.
●Requiring undocumented immigrants to “go home and touch base” before becoming eligible for a shot at “earned” citizenship.
●A massive new temporary guest-worker program (“new worker visa”) that threatens to be a modified indentured servant arrangement while undermining prevailing wage rates and working conditions for all workers.

There’s more–but that should be enough for any one in the labor movement to kick this one to the curb.

Unfortunately, John Sweeney, head of the AFL-CIO--which has had relatively good positions on immigrant rights--popped off right away in a statement that sewed new confusion. In what sure sounded like an endorsement,

“Today, Congressmen Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) introduced the first piece of legislation in the 110th Congress that deals with reform of the immigration law. We welcome that step as a signal that our legislators are ready to begin a serious dialogue on one of the most important issues facing working families. The approach reflected in the STRIVE Act of 2007 (Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy) stands in stark contrast to the mean-spirited path that the House of Representatives took under Republican control in the last Congress. ”

Our friend Andy Pollack promptly posted a comment on the AFL blog site,

“This is awful! The AFL-CIO has stood firm for so long against such punitive bills and their guest worker provisions — including in the face of the craven stance of SEIU, which will endorse anything that moves. The Flake-Gutierrez bill is no better than any of the past ‘compromises’ that the Federation has refused to endorse.

“What changed? Why give up now? If you look at the full Sweeney statement at
you’ll see he says he hasn’t seen the details of the bill yet. But the details are on the web, and we can see how dangerous it is:

Andy soon received a private reply to this public post “clarifying” that what Sweeney really meant was that it was good that this bill was going through committee process, unlike Sensenbrenner, not that the bill in its present form should be supported.

Right on, Andy. We’ll be waiting with you for further clarifications after Brother Sweeney actually reads the bill.

A Constitutional Crisis
That term was bandied about a lot in the news media this past week. They weren’t talking about the President’s abuse of preemptive war. Nor were they discussing recent revelations of thousands of more incidents of government illegal spying on its citizens even above and beyond what was allowed in the unconstitutional provisions of the PATRIOT Act. No, this “crisis” concerned the firing of political appointees in the Justice Department.

By definition, employees such as federal prosecutors “serve at the pleasure of the President.” No one is challenging the constitutional right of the White House to fire such patronage job holders at any time, for any reason, or even no explained reason.

But Democrat staffers, who claimed to have been hoodwinked about WMDs, alertly noted inconsistencies in administration explanations of these firings. Not exactly Watergate but good enough for what fans of West Wing know as a “process story,” an embarrassment for their GOP rivals that can last through many news cycles–and requires no legislation on their part. And, of course, as long as the press and air waves are dominated by this fake crisis the Dems can try to ignore the war, civil liberties, global warming, immigration, health care, the housing bubble, or any of the other very real crises for which they have no viable answers.

Good Guys Win A Round
Victories for the American labor movement are few and far between these days so we were thankful when our friend John Woodruff, a UE leader in Connecticut, forwarded a story about one in Iowa.

UE Local 1145 represents janitors at Western Iowa Tech Community College in Sioux City. In 2006 the WIT bosses demanded UE reopen the contract for the purpose of obtaining big take-backs. Like any effective, self-respecting union should, Local 1145 told the bosses to get lost. Like any ruthless private employer, the public sector management at WIT responded by firing all the custodians and contracting their work out.

Last week the Iowa Public Employment Relations Board ruled in favor of a UE complaint and ordered all of the fired custodians returned to work with full back pay and benefits.

Still, even this impressive win for the good guys remains tentative. Aping their private sector role models, WIT management is planning to appeal the decision.

...And Another
Thanks largely to the efforts of the Vermont Workers Center the lower house of the state legislature passed a version of the Employee Free Choice Act that covers employees of the state’s colleges and university. The proposal passed by a wide margin despite fifteen Democrats voting against it. But, as in Iowa, it’s not a done deal yet. It remains to be seen whether it can get through the state senate, and there’s also the threat of a possible veto from the governor if it does.

The Dangers Of Overtime
In its final report on the March 23, 2005, explosion at BP's refinery in Texas City, that killed fifteen and injured 170,the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board said the operators had been working 12-hour shifts for 29 or more consecutive days when the explosion occurred.

At BP’s pipeline operations in Alaska, where there was an oil spill of 267,000 gallons last March, and another major leakage that led to a complete North Slope shutdown in August, technicians at oil collection centers and well pads are working back-to-back 18-hour days, with 12 hours off between sets.

The National Transportation Safety Board recently found crew fatigue to be the major factor in a 2005 head on collision of two CN freight trains near Yazoo City, Miss. That crash killed the crews of both trains and a resulting 24,000 gallons fuel spill touched off a massive fire that forced the evacuation of 50 homes. It could have been worse. Several cars on both trains carried hazardous materials, including hydrogen cyanide.

In most cases, employer greed is what leads to excessive overtime. It’s cheaper to pay overtime premiums than to hire needed additional workers with benefits. Under union and public pressure, BP has started recruiting additional help in Alaska. NTSB board members agreed Tuesday to back a Federal Railroad Administration proposal before Congress that would give the agency authority to limit railroad employees' work schedules. But clearly much more needs to be done to protect both worker lives and the environment from disasters.

That’s all for this week.

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