By the Way, Workers Are Still Dying on the Job Daily!

Little Rock       On Wade’s World, I visited recently with Jonathan Karmel about safety on the job for workers.  Karmel is 35-year, Chicago-based, labor side lawyer who after years in the legal trenches for unions, had an epiphany when he realized the continuing dangers faced by workers trying to make a living and sometimes dying while trying.  Karmel has written a book, Dying to Work:  Death and Injury in the American Workplace, that he was hoping would be a wakeup call once again to bring this issue to the forefront.

Karmel is right to take up this cause.  He notes in the introduction, “One hundred and fifty workers die each day because of their work.”  He comes to this figure by adding the daily death numbers from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics of 4836 workers killed annually based on the most recent statistics before he published the book in 2015, adding up to 13 per day, with the federal Center for Disease Control report that estimates that “annually 50,000 deaths attributed to work-related illnesses – an average of 137 each day.”  Add the two figures together, and the tragic math totals 150 per day.  It’s safer to be a soldier.

It’s not getting better either.  It’s getting worse.  President Richard Nixon signed the legislation on the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA) almost fifty years ago, but the agency is still underfunded, understaffed, and decidedly unloved by business and their backers in both parties.   For example, Karmel points out there is one inspection officer for every 59,000 workers.  What?  Should we worry?

Of course, Karmel advocates updating the regulations, but that’s not happening under the current administration, so let’s look at some of his other suggestions.  Two areas would seem to offer some hope.  One is more accurate reporting to reduce the under-counting that allows policy makers and business executives to pretend that the “safety first” signs on numerous trucks and industrial gates actually means something.  The other is focusing on the state level.

There might be some opportunities in some places.  Of course, not Texas which allows companies to not bother with workers’ compensation since 1913 and more recently Oklahoma since 2013, so we’re talking about the other forty-eight states.

Karmel argues for reform in several areas.  First, he questions why after accidents workers are given unreliable marijuana tests, even when not driving and in cases where they were clearly not at fault.  Secondly, referral doctors should not be under the employ or contract to the company, giving them a conflict of interest.  Thirdly, workman’s compensation benefits need to be integrated into the rest of the health system, especially if we had single-payer.  Fourthly, the dispute resolution system should be streamlined.  Finally, to make sure there is some other enforcement of fairness, attorney’s fees should be allowed fairly.

These moves wouldn’t necessarily be lifesavers, but they would incentivize companies to act more aggressively to protect their workers if the costs they paid, even for deaths on the job, were not so miserly.  The rationale of employers, including their argument that there is a “risk premium” in pay that allows workers to accept the risk of injury and death for another buck or two an hour, have to be exposed for the falsehoods they are. Employers, insurers, and governments need to finally value protecting workers’ lives, as if their own lives were at stake without seeing their injuries and deaths as just another cost of doing business.

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Does a “Right to Organize” Notice Matter

New Orleans  The very conservative US District Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. overturned the proposed requirement issued by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in December 2010, requiring all employers to post a notice advising workers that they had the right to organize.  The decision is an exercise in tomfoolery since the DC Appeals Court ruled that such an order abridged an employer’s freedom of speech in opposing a union.  The NLRB had argued the order was neutral, simply stating the legal rights of workers to organize. 

A notice articulating the simple facts of the law protecting the rights involving organizing is no different than other mandatory postings on minimum wages, workplace safety, or employment discrimination.  It is patently not a violation of the right of freedom of speech to give employers the right to break the law in those situations, nor would it be so in this one.  The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals is also reviewing this question, and if there are differences of opinion, eventually the US Supreme Court will weigh in on the matter and resolve the question. 

None of these decisions change any labor laws since all the notice involves is a public disclosure in the workplace that workers in fact have these rights, so we all have to ask, “Does it matter?”  More importantly, would the notice encourage or impact the amount of organizing in the private sector anyway?

A former Local 100 and SEIU organizer met with me more than a year ago and wanted to talk about an aggressive organizing campaign to take advantage of what he hoped would be a surge of worker interest in organizing unions in their workplaces, once these notices were allowed to be posted.  It was hard for me to muster enthusiasm then, and even harder now. 

The dispute about this poster is a placeholder for the larger animosity that employers have for unions which the court appointed Republican judges share.   Understanding this innocuous piece of paper in that context explains the decision, even if it doesn’t clarify the law.  Believe me, workers have gotten the memo every way that it can be delivered by their bosses, that employers don’t want a union for their workers.  Workers don’t need a poster to tell them differently or to stir up a series of captive audience meetings and one-on-one harangues from their supervisors.   There is little more deflating to new union stewards or organizers when they win their first NLRB charge of labor lawbreaking and find that often their victory only means a poster in the workplace for a couple of months saying the employer is promising to not break the law again.  The poster is virtually impotence on display.  Nor have posters done very much to stop wage theft on minimum wage violations or create worker safety where employers are trying to curtail it. 

There’s nothing wrong with disclosures and posters, but nothing substitutes for the real work of organizing, and that’s the only thing that is going to change the climate for unionization.  For employers this is just a head fake.  As the old schoolyard saying goes, “sticks and stones” are one thing, but “words” will never hurt them.

Right to Organize Audio Blog

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