Getting OSHA on the Job

Pearl River     If there were ever a time that workers needed to feel safe on the job, it’s got to be now in the middle of a pandemic.  Even with the lifting of restrictions in different states and various businesses reopening, many workers are still voting with their feet, and their feet are firmly planted at home because they are wary of work, church, and public spaces in many cases.  In the US, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA) is charged with protecting our health on the job, so “What me worry?”  Yes, indeed, we all should!

OSHA has been strangely silent and passive during this period when you would expect that they would be leading the calvary charge to assure that businesses opened correctly and safely so that workers were able to return to the job with confidence.  Instead, they seem like a footnote in this crisis.

When Local 100 United Labor Unions was confronting the giant service contractor, ResCare, about the lack of personal protection equipment in their community homes and their failure to isolate coronavirus positive consumers and inform workers fully of the situation, we filed an OSHA complaint.  They promised to move forward and take it seriously.  The company has now stepped up its game.

News broke recently that the warden in the federal prison system responsible for the huge facility in Oakdale, Louisiana, in the center of the state recently found himself reassigned to a desk job in the Atlanta regional office for the Bureau of Prisons and summarily replaced.  Reading carefully, his quick trip came when prison employees – and their union – confronted the warden directly about not providing PPE, not informing the workforce of positive cases, and not isolating the prisoners who had contracted Covid-19.  The union filed a formal OSHA complaint, and they got quick action from the bureaucrats and away the warden went.

I could add a third example:  Amazon’s warehouses in France.  Workers and their union objected to the lack of protection and health standards, filed suit, and the courts shut the companies warehouses down except for bare essentials.  They are now gradually coming back to work on a volunteer basis with a $2 per hour raise according to their union.

I think there’s a very clear lesson here from these examples.

OSHA is a sleeping dog, whether on orders from the Trump administration, weak appointees and vacancies, Congressional defunding, or just incompetence and indifference.  Like any sleeping dog though, if you give it a sharp tug, that dog can still move quickly and bark loudly.

Workers by themselves can’t get any action from OSHA.  It takes collective action, like the prison guards’ confrontation, the Local 100 workers’ petition and demands on local supervisors, or the CGT in France.

Oh, and don’t forget, it’s crystal clear that you have to have a union, if you are going to get action from OSHA or any assurance that your health and safety is as importance to your employer as the cha-ching on the cash register.

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Foretelling Labor’s Future in the Cloudy Crystal Ball

Pearl River     Roughly 39 million Americans have applied for unemployment, not even counting gig and self-employed workers, workers who have abandoned job search, or couldn’t access the benefits, which means real unemployment is over 50 million.  Statistical unemployment will be 17 or 18% but clearly, we’re at Great Depression levels of over 20%, and likely higher.  No one argues that the current situation in the United States is not at levels that have not been reached since then, and many are arguing that we are on course to exceed those levels.

Talking to Joe McCartin, professor of history at Georgetown University and director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor on Wade’s World and likely the preeminent labor scholar currently, I asked him to look into his crystal ball and give us a sense of what this situation might mean for workers and labor organizations.  In so many words, Joe’s response, was in effect, “cloudy with a chance of scattered thunderstorms.”  He underlined the fact that he was a historian not a fortuneteller, so we ended up spending more time fingering our worry beads than conjuring sugarplum visions of the future.

Joe pointed out that the speed of the job loss in this depression was historically unique.  90 years ago, the job loss was a slower moving storm, while this cataclysmic drop was lightening fast over less than ten weeks.  We are charting unknown territory.  The surge of union organizing success then had largely been as employment improved and then solidified under labor codes for workers’ wages and bargaining rights in the war years.

We bemoaned the fact that service workers had been particularly hit in this depression and shared the fear that public employees would see large job losses as well, just as we saw after the Great Recession in 2008.  Unions in the public and service sector from teachers to casino workers to janitors have been the leading organizing unions over recent decades, and we worried that they may not be in shape to help lead a resurgence.

Trying not to be totally Debbie-downers, we speculated that the status of gig workers as workers, rather than independent contractors, was likely to become a more permanent situation.  We were wistful about whether they had the potential for new organization, saying so, without necessarily really believing it.  We took a couple of whacks at the devastation being wrought by private equity in housing and health care with more conviction.

Professor McCartin has more recently been linked to the notion of something called “bargaining for the common good.”  Joe explained this as linking unions and communities together and expanding collective bargaining demands past the workplace into areas like housing, and obviously health in the time of the pandemic.  This isn’t exactly a new concept, far from it, but always worth promoting.  Unfortunately, as Joe and I expressed our fears about the current situation and the likely horror it is bringing to workers and low-and-moderate income families, any notion of significant advances in collective bargaining with diminished union strength, seemed hollow.

Talking about the common good during times of virtual full-employment is one thing, but right now when we haven’t hit bottom yet, given the callous inequity of the governmental response, for many it may take a while to go from everyone for themselves to realizing our only hope is through collective action.

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