Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
April 28, 2011

Attentive regular readers will notice we’re a bit late with this WIR. The main excuse that I’m sticking to is that important worker holidays require more work, not less. We’ve got one today and another coming up Sunday.


Fighting For the Living
Workers Memorial Day was established around the anniversary of the launch of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1971. There can be no doubt that thousands of lives have been saved, and tens of thousands of injuries and illnesses prevented, by OSHA over the past forty years.

But there’s also no doubt that workers covered by OSHA, and companion laws for some special industries, are still being killed and disabled in unconscionable numbers by preventable workplace hazards. In 2009 (the latest complete figures available), 4,340 workers were killed on the job. An estimated 50,000 died of occupational diseases. More than four million workplace injuries were reported and safety professionals believe at least that number went unreported.

Our Daily Labor News Digest has far too many stories about on the job fatalities that should never have happened. Depressingly common are unshored trenches collapsing; improperly installed or worn-out swing-stages crashing; workers without proper fall protection plunging to their death; construction cranes toppling in windy conditions; explosions and fires resulting from welding in the presence of combustible gas.

Not all workers are covered by OSHA. Miners are covered by MSHA. The explosion killing 29 coal miners at Upper Big Branch, West Virginia last year confirmed that the operators are still getting away with murder.

Despite the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA), we still see tragedies such as occurred April 17 on the BNSF in Iowa when a 130-car coal train rear-ended a maintenance train, killing the coal train’s two crew members.

The total ineffectiveness of the Interior Department’s Minerals and Management Service in protecting offshore oil platform workers was demonstrated in the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon, killing eleven, injuring seventeen, sending others fleeing in to the water.

Both the diligence of policy makers and numbers of inspectors in the field of these various agencies have long been in decline. Today there are 100 fewer OSHA inspectors than at the end of the Carter administration thirty years ago–while there are now twice as many workplaces to inspect. There are bipartisan efforts under way to further relieve employers of such regulatory “burden.”

Like Mother Jones, as we remember our fallen sisters and brothers today we should resolve to fight like hell for the living and healthy reporting to work to return home the same way.

The man universally credited with getting OSHA passed in to law during the Nixon administration was Tony Mazzocchi, then legislative director of the old Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers (OCAW). I came to know Tony during the last years of his life when his main project was working to build the Labor Party. While he was proud of the OSHA achievement he knew much more needed to be done and the program adopted by the Labor Party Founding Convention reflected this,

“Enforce Safety & Health Regulation with Worker Inspectors
The regulation of occupational safety and health hazards is shamefully inadequate, and the enforcement of the standards we have is woefully neglected. There are too few safety inspectors to visit all the workplaces that need to be visited. Thousands of untested new chemicals are introduced into use each year, exposing millions of workers and the public to unknown hazards. Incidents take place without adequate investigations being conducted; and, when incidents are investigated by impartial investigators, their findings are rarely implemented. The Labor Party must address this important area. In addition to increasing the number of OSHA inspectors, we need the right to act and to enforce any and all safety and health regulations. We call for national legislation to train and deputize workers to be on the job inspectors in each and every workplace. Such inspectors should be protected against corporate harassment and discrimination and should be able to do their job without fear of reprisal. Such inspectors should have the power to shut down hazardous operations and to enforce the right of every worker to refuse unsafe work. Such inspectors should have the power to investigate incidents to uncover their root causes and to force the implementation of their findings. Because we know our work sites, worker-inspectors would be better able to protect the workforce from exposure and the community from disaster. Worker-inspectors will save lives. In addition, we need the following national laws: All chemicals must be tested for their impacts on human health and the environment before they are introduced into our workplaces. Working people through their unions should receive advance notice before new chemicals are introduced into the workplace and should have the power to block their introduction for safety reasons.”

The best way to celebrate OSHA and press the fight for a safe and healthy workplace would be to revive Tony Mazzocchi’s final project–build the Labor Party.


May Day–Made In the USA

Six years ago, I posted and sent to the e-mail list
May Day Greetings that described some of the history of how May 1 became an international workers holiday. May Day began as a campaign of strikes and demonstrations for the eight-hour day in the early 1880s. But it became an indelible entry in to the world working class calendar as a result of the battles by striking and locked out workers in Chicago in 1886 that led to the famous Haymarket Square events. The whole world labor movement rallied around the Haymarket martyrs and have commemorated May Day ever since.

I wrote then,

“For hundreds of mlns of workers around the world it is an official holiday and mlns of them will march in parades, cheer at rallies, and gather at feasts. But in the country that gave rise to this most important celebration of the global working class movement there will be only token observances. Along with all the wealth we have produced American bosses have also robbed us of our proud working class heritage.”

Two years later in another Week In Review, I had to modify this view of May Day in the USA,

“A couple of years ago, such appeals to the masses in the USA were only issued by tiny left and anarchist groups–and largely fell on deaf ears. Last year we saw the biggest political demonstrations in U.S. history. But the May Day 2006 boycotts, marches and rallies, numbering in the mlns, were not in response to strident left appeals and even trade union involvement was peripheral.

“The mass base of this inspiring outpouring of humanity was immigrant workers, mostly not in unions. Churches and even radio DJs did more to promote turnout. Their goal was to assert pride and dignity in the face of attacks by bosses, boss politicians, and a growing current of ultra-right racism. They served notice that they are here to stay and will not meekly surrender to mean spirited opponents without a fight.

“While most of these immigrants come from countries where Primero de Mayo is an official labor day holiday few know that this international event traces its origins to the United States. Of course, even fewer native born American workers are aware of May Day’s roots.”

Since the big escalation of attacks on immigrant workers by the Obama administration fewer are prepared to come to demonstrations. Still, there seems to be a modest revival of interest in May Day this year. While we won’t likely see mlns, in some areas unions are again collaborating with immigrant community forces and students to plan marches, rallies, and meetings across the country. You can find a listing of North American events by clicking here.

The KC Labor Forum, a project of this website, is sponsoring a May Day celebration this Sunday, 1:30 PM, at the North Kansas City Library. In the best tradition of working class unity around this special day, we are presenting a program of speakers representing a wide selection of active currents in the local working class movement. There will also be videos, refreshments, literature tables—and plenty of discussion.

Confirmed speakers include:

Judy Ancel
Director, Institute for Labor Studies, on the History of May Day

Brian Elam
Rail labor activist will advocate the need for a Labor Party

Molly Barlow
Molly will update us on the Jobs with Justice Missouri minimum wage campaign

Dr Fred Lee
Economics faculty, UMKC, will speak about the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)

Anne Prtichett
A We Are One event organizer and an embattled KCMO teacher, Anne will address both

Aaron Anderson and Allen Green
will share a presentation about Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)

Bill Onasch
kclabor.org webmaster will explain the Alliance for Class & Climate Justice

And, it’s all free of charge–though donations will be cheerfully accepted. If you are in the KC area I hope you can join us. If you’re elsewhere there may be a worthwhile event near you.

In Brief...
¶ The New Democratic Party, Canada’s labor party, is placing second in the polls in advance of Federal parliamentary elections. They appear to be winning supporters away from both the Tories, who have been in charge of a minority government, and the pro-boss opposition Liberals.
United Students Against Sweatshops have organized a series of protests in favor of worker rights and other issues at campuses across the country this Spring. These include sit-ins at Rutgers, Emory, Wisconsin, William &Mary, and Tulane.
¶ UAW president Bob King announced that there will be no traditional targeted company in this year’s Big Three automaker negotiations. Ford is the only one where the union has not accepted a no strike over economic issues pledge. There are rumors that King is shooting for an early agreement rather than the usual bargaining down to the last minute.

That’s all for this week.

Alliance for Class & Climate Justice

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