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Culinary and Bartenders Unions Call for June 1 Strike in Las Vegas

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Kenneth-Quinnell_smallAt 5 a.m. on June 1, workers associated with the Culinary and Bartenders unions, affiliated with UNITE HERE, will launch a strike against nine casinos in Las Vegas, with plans for the strike to continue until a fair contract settlement is reached. The strike will include housekeepers, restaurant workers, servers, bartenders and other union members who work at the casinos, which are Binion’s, The D, El Cortez, Four Queens, Fremont, Golden Gate, Las Vegas Club, Main Street Station and the Plaza. Union members from all nine unsettled properties have been picketing in downtown Las Vegas after contracts were terminated.

The strike was authorized in a March 27 vote.

Geoconda Arguello-Kline, a leader of the Culinary Union, said:

For nearly 80 years, our unions have made casino jobs good jobs in Las Vegas. Our members downtown deserve to earn a decent living by working hard under a fair contract. They should not be left behind as hundreds of millions of new investments pour in for downtown revitalization.

Ron Gladstone, a cook at The D, added:

I will strike for the opportunity to provide for my family. My co-workers and I will strike to make sure that these jobs continue to be good jobs with affordable benefits, fair wages and job security.

Patricia Montes, a housekeeper at the Four Queens, echoed those sentiments:

We are the people who clean the rooms, cook the food, serve the drinks and provide the quality service that has made the tourism industry flourish in Las Vegas. We are the backbone of downtown Las Vegas and we ask that the community support us by not crossing strike lines.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on May 23, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

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Frack Till You Drop

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AUTHORS: Mike Elk, Cole Stangler, and Rebecca Burns

This month, the AFL-CIO unveiled its annual “Death on the Job” report, which highlights the often-overlooked toll of workplace accidents and fatalities. This year’s biggest takeaway: the dangerous—and deadly—consequences of America’s fracking-fueled oil and gas boom.

In recent years, deaths in the oil and natural gas industry have seen an especially sharp rise. The toll jumped by a stunning 23 percent in 2012 alone. This trend dates back to 2008, when horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” ushered in a new wave of oil and gas drilling across the nation. Fracking “boom towns” in states like North Dakota and Wyoming, rich in the kinds of shale formations that frackers lust after for their oil and gas deposits, have in turn seen a wave of industry-related accidents and health problems.

“The escalating fatalities and injuries in the oil and gas extraction industry demand intensive and comprehensive intervention,” the AFL-CIO’s report reads. “Without action, the workplace fatality crisis in this industry only will get worse as production intensifies and expands.”

Oil and natural gas industry workers regularly face hazards such as burns and exposure to toxic substances, which can lead to serious injuries or even death. But there’s reason to believe that fracking workers face further dangers, the long-term consequences of which may not yet have even begun to manifest fully.

Use of frac sand, which typically has high silica content, is an integral part of the fracking process. In industry-speak, it’s known as a “proppant”: Injected deep into rock formations, frac sand creates fissures in the ground, releasing oil and gas. Recent studies suggest that fracking workers are at particularly high risk of exposure to silica dust from that frac sand. Over time, silica dust exposure can cause cancer, silicosis and other fatal diseases.

But while labor has decried the dangers associated with fracking, some unions have been taking increasingly aggressive stances in favor of the practice. In a bid to reverse devastating job losses, energy and construction unions have entered into labor-management partnerships with the American Petroleum Institute (API) and other industry groups, lining up alongside the same interests that oppose union organizing efforts and tougher safety regulations.

“We hear a lot of commotion from those who want to unnecessarily limit job growth, force higher energy bills on us all and stifle opportunity tied to this abundant domestic energy source that is improving our environment and our standard of living,” declared Dennis Martire, vice president and Mid-Atlantic regional manager of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) (an affiliate of the AFL-CIO’s Building Construction Trades Department), in an pro-fracking op-ed that he co-authored with a local Pennsylvania-based Chamber of Commerce president. In a recent statement to the Associated Press, Martire called shale drilling a “lifesaver and a lifeline for a lot of working families.”

This raises the questions of whether some unions are taking a contradictory approach to workplace safety in the oil and gas industry: urging intervention to stop accidents while encouraging expansion of a practice that has increased them. Critics say this approach is a self-defeating one. Now, this tension is playing out in a fight over a long-awaited federal rule that would limit workers’ exposure to silica dust.

Unions say ‘frack it’

Silica exposure is one of the oldest known workplace dangers, but the federal standards regulating it are more than four decades out of date, leaving them out of sync with both changes in the nature of workers’ exposure and the science surrounding silica-related diseases. Now, after years of entreaties by workplace safety advocates, there could be a light at the end of the tunnel for silica-exposed workers.

In April, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) concluded public hearings for a new rule that would effectively halve the permissible exposure limits for “respirable crystalline silica”—that is, the particles that, inhaled over time, can lead to silicosis and other diseases. OSHA estimates that the rule would save 700 lives per year.

While the AFL-CIO and a host of other labor groups struggle to ensure the new rule’s quick approval, they’re facing familiar foes: business lobbyists such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Construction Industry Safety Coalition and the American Petroleum Institute (API), which are lobbying OSHA to withdraw the rule. The API, which represents a slew of companies heavily invested in the fracking industry, charges that the proposed regulation would impose new compliance costs that are too painful for businesses to swallow. This is a familiar complaint from an industry famously averse to regulation.

But even as construction and building trades unions battle with the API over the new rule, they’ve aligned with the industry group when it comes to the expansion of fracking.

In 2009, 15 unions, including the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Building Construction Trade Department (BCTD) of the AFL-CIO, joined the pro-fracking, pro-Keystone XL “Oil and Natural Gas Industry Labor-Management Committee,” billed as “the first time that the oil and natural gas industry and its labor unions have agreed to work together formally.” According to a forthcoming briefing paper from the climate-conscious coalitionTrade Unions for Energy Democracy, the alliance “has been the source of numerous pro-fracking resolutions adopted by state-level federations of the AFL-CIO.  … In [multiple] states, unions have stood alongside the Chambers of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute in supporting and promoting fracking.”

Critics say that the partnership has also locked building trades-affiliated unions into a “transactional relationship” with the oil and natural gas industry (as In These Times has reported previously). The API, for instance, was a key sponsor of the BCTD legislative conference this March. Meanwhile, unions have spent millions lobbying for the expansion of oil and natural gas projects that depend heavily on fracking. In New York State, for example, pro-fracking unions such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) spent $1.4 million between 2007 and 2013 on lobbying in favor of expanded fracking in the state, according to watchdog group Common Cause. In Kentucky, LIUNA quickly emerged as one of the most prominent champions of the now-stalled Bluegrass Pipeline, a project that would transport natural gas liquids from the shale fields of Ohio to Louisiana’s Gulf Coast.

This relationship doesn’t end with drill-to-pipeline projects, either. More recently, building trades and their affiliates have backed industry efforts to start exporting a potentially lucrative and fracking-derived product from the United States—liquefied natural gas (LNG). Most notably, the BCTD has lobbied heavily for the construction of the hotly contested Cove Point export facility in Lusby, Maryland, siding with terminal operator Dominion Energy against a large protest movement. The United Association of Plumbers, Fitters and HVAC Techs, meanwhile, supports reforms that would speed up the federal LNG export-permitting process. Thanks in large part to this swell of pressure from the building trades, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka offered his broad support for gas exports for the first time in January.

In all of these cases, construction and building trades unions say they’re motivated by the prospect of well-paid jobs. And indeed, partnerships with the energy industry have helped some unions win contracts to build energy pipelines and infrastructure serving export facilities. LIUNA Vice President Dennis Martire has said that the number of hours worked by LIUNA members on pipeline projects in Pennsylvania and West Virginia as a result of shale drilling increased from 400,000 hours in 2008 to 5.7 million hours in 2012.

But job figures have often fallen far short of industry projections. While industry-financed studies have claimed that fracking creates as many as 31 new jobs per well, a November 2013 analysis by the Multi-State Shale Research Collaborative, a coalition of policy groups who oppose fracking, found that on average, each new well drilled in the Marcellus Shale region between 2005 and 2012 created fewer than four jobs. And when it comes work at drilling sites, one of the most dangerous aspects of fracking operations, the workforce is still almost exclusively non-unionized.

“For the most part, [fracking jobs] are not good jobs, and they’re highly destructive,” says Joe Uehlein, a former Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Department and current director of the Labor Network for Sustainability. “The idea of being for jobs simply because it’s a job, that’s something we have to re-examine.”

Dust in the wind

Silica-related diseases are typically associated with industries such as mining, construction and masonry. But as the shale boom continues—according to an October 2013 report from Environment America, fracking operations are now under way in 17 states—so, too, do the risks for workers in an industry that’s highly dangerous and still heavily non-union.

Silica-related diseases take far longer to manifest than the burns, broken bones, and the type of fatalities outlined in the AFL-CIO report, but recent evidence suggests that fracking workers are being exposed to alarming concentrations of silica. OSHA and NIOSH issued a hazard alert in 2012 after nearly 50 percent of air samples taken from a field survey of 11 fracking sites in five states were discovered to have silica rates exceeding the current rule’s permissible levels. That’s particularly notable because many safety experts consider the current exposure limit to be inadequate.

“These exposures were, in some cases, 10 times the amount of the allowable limits,” says Peter Dooley, a health and safety consultant for the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH) who testified before OSHA last month.

OSHA has said that approximately 25,000 workers at 444 fracking worksites would benefit from the proposed new rule, and estimates that additional protections—including better ventilation, a misting system and enclosed “operator booths” for the most exposed workers—would be required for 88 percent of fracking workers in order to comply with the change.

Concerned with the costs of compliance, business and industry groups are lobbying OSHA to withdraw the proposed new rule. “In drafting the Occupational Safety and Health Act, Congress never intended to protect employees by putting their employers out of business,” the American Petroleum Institute said in its written comments to OSHA, also arguing that while silica exposure does pose a hazard to workers, existing methods of reducing this exposure have been effective.

Meanwhile, a host of labor groups have testified in favor of the new rule, including the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America (LHSFNA), the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department and the International Union of Operating Engineers.

During API’s April 4 testimony, Walter Jones, associate director of occupational safety and health for LHSFNA, rebutted arguments made by the industry group on a number of points.

Though API has criticized OSHA for relying on insufficient evidence in its rulemaking, Jones notes that the industry group has kept its own data on fracking-related silica exposure—gathered through a survey of the fracking industry, as part of a voluntary safety effort focused on respirable silica—close to the vest. Currently, the API survey results are not available to federal regulators. A spokesperson for the STEPS Network, the API-coordinated safety effort, told In These Times in mid-May that the study was still ongoing, and that the data hadn’t been released simply because there wasn’t yet enough data to make analysis worthwhile.

But LHSFNA’s Jones calls API’s unwillingness to share this existing data “unfair and unfortunate.”  Following the OSHA hearings, he told In These Times, “The issue for me was that API member organizations are out there right now characterizing exposures and looking at controls, and I’d like for them to submit that to the record so that we can have a fuller picture of what’s going on.”

API also contends that silica-related deaths are decreasing, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control. In response, Jones contends, “Fracking is a relatively new phenomenon, and silicosis has a latency period of up to 20 years. This is a case where there are long-term consequences that we [typically] don’t deal with until after the bodies start piling up.”

An unsavory alliance

The fate of the proposed rule still remains uncertain. After extending its initial public comment period this year by nearly two months following pressure from industry groups, OSHA will now continue taking post-hearing arguments and briefs until July, leaving any potential regulation still a long way off.  While LIUNA and a number of other unions can attempt to counter API efforts to slow or weaken the new regulations during the hearing process, they remain key members of the Oil and Natural Gas Industry Labor-Management Committee. To some critics, this strategy—opposing API’s stance on a particular regulation, while allying with it and other industry groups on wide-ranging policy issues—looks a lot like labor shooting itself in the foot.

The new silica rule is the latest in a long line of workplace safety regulations opposed by API. The institute has fought union-led efforts to implement new regulations reducing workers’ exposure to the carcinogenic element benzene, as well as the lead in gasoline. API opposition to such regulatory efforts may have delayed these rules from coming into effect sooner, thereby putting affected workers’ lives at risk. In the same fashion, API’s demand that OSHA withdraw its current proposal on silica exposure could delay the rule’s future implementation.

Some in organized labor say the oil and gas industry can be made safer—it’s just going to take better regulation and eventual union representation of workers at drill sites.

On a press call discussing the new AFL-CIO report, In These Times asked AFL-CIO Director of Safety and Health Peg Seminario if she believed that labor-management partnerships in the oil and gas industry were productive in light of the sector’s alarming workplace fatality rate.

“I think it is a sector that needs organization, as do many,” Seminario said. “One of the things I would compare is what the experience has been in coal mining, for example. Which is a very dangerous industry where you’ve had a strong union and you have strong government oversight and has made a huge difference. I think we need to … bring that into oil and gas because clearly it’s just as hazardous.”

But others point out that the path of labor-management partnerships is unlikely to produce strong regulations. “I don’t recall a single time that API did anything other than obstruct, delay or file lawsuits over the introduction of any worker safety and health program,” says Bob Wages, former president of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW). “I can’t understand why [the building trades] would have anything to do with people who absolutely don’t give a shit if people die on the job.”

Moreover, this sort of approach still neglects the industry’s environmental impact, says Bob Wages, whose union mobilized a highly successful labor-environmental partnership during the 1973 Shell Oil Strike.

“The idea that a union will sit back and say, ‘Well, we’re going to cooperate with them because if we’re there, we’re gonna enforce health and safety, and that’s gonna have a positive effect on the environment’—I’ve never seen it [play out] in terms of how the industry responds to any of these concerns,” he says. “That’s just happy talk. There’s no relationship between building [a facility], and enforcing health and safety regulations in that phase of it, and what the industry does generally once it comes to pollution, [flouting] environmental regulations and damaging the environment.”

Some trade unionists have another path in mind: They argue that it’s time to seriously consider moving beyond fossil fuels. Not only is renewable energy generation better for the planet in the long-term, they note, it’s far safer for workers and their communities in the here and now.

The Canadian union UNIFOR, for example, has been at the forefront of such a forward-thinking approach within labor’s ranks, arguing that energy workers must also consider the health of the communities they work and live in. Even though the union represents workers in the oil and gas industry, last November it passed a resolution calling for a nationwide fracking moratorium.

“We’re going to find a way to build a sustainable future, we’re going to find a way to solve the climate crisis,” says Joe Uehlein of the Labor Network for Sustainability. “Labor will be far better off if it figures out how to get on that train and be a part of that movement, as opposed to sitting back and fighting it the way they often do.”

(In These Times reached out to the offices of the Building Trades Unions and the Laborers’ Mid-Atlantic region for comment, but did not receive a response).

 This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on May 23, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.
About the Authors: Cole Stangler, Rebecca Burns and Mike Elk are Schumann Fellows at In These Times magazine.

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U.S. Rated Alarmingly High in Global Survey of Worst Places for Workers’ Rights

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U.S. Rated Alarmingly High in Global Survey of Worst Places for Workers’ Rights

The United States lags far behind other nations in protecting workers’ rights, according to a new survey from the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). The rankings are based on 97 internationally recognized indicators and standards to assess where workers’ rights are best protected, in law and in practice.

ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow said:

Countries such as Denmark and Uruguay led the way through their strong labor laws, but perhaps surprisingly, the likes of Greece, the United States and Hong Kong, lagged behind. A country’s level of development proved to be a poor indicator of whether it respected basic rights to bargain collectively, strike for decent conditions or simply join a union at all.

The nations are ranked on a scale from 1 (the best with just irregular violations of workers’ rights) to 5 (with no guarantee of workers’ rights at all).  The United States received a mark of 4, which, according to the ITUC system, means:

Workers in countries with the rating of 4 have reported systematic violations. The government and/or companies are engaged in serious efforts to crush the collective voice of workers putting fundamental rights under continuous threat.

Along with the United States, 29 other nations received a 4 rating, including Argentina, Botswana, Iran, Mexico, Pakistan and Thailand. Belgium, Finland and South Africa were among the 18 nations that received a 1 rating, while 24 countries were rated 5, including Belarus, Bangladesh, Egypt, Guatemala and Qatar. Eight countries where the rule of law has broken down received a special 5+ grade.

The report also found that in the past year, governments of at least 35 countries have arrested or imprisoned workers as a tactic to resist demands for democratic rights, decent wages and safer working conditions and secure jobs. In at least nine countries, murder and disappearance of workers were commonly used to intimidate workers.

Burrow also noted that the ITUC Global Poll 2014 found nearly two-thirds of people want governments to do more to tame corporate power.

The World Bank’s recent Doing Business report naively subscribed to the view that reducing labor standards is something governments should aspire to. This new Rights Index puts governments and employers on notice that unions around the world will stand together in solidarity to ensure basic rights at work.

In the map above, nations in red have the worst workers’ rights ratings while lighter-shaded nations are rated progressively better.

Read the full report, ITUC Global Rights Index: The World’s Worst Countries for Workers.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on May 22, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journaland managing editor of the Seafarers Log.  He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.

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Pregnant Workers Need More Protection than Walmart’s Giving Them

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Laura ClawsonWalmart’s habit of making pregnant women choose between their paychecks and their health by denying them light duty got the retail giant enough bad publicity to spur a change in policy. The new policy leaves Walmart a whole lot of wiggle room to continue putting pregnant women in difficult positions, but it’s an improvement. However, Elizabeth Stoker wonders why Walmartisn’t giving pregnant women the same moral standing it gives veterans, who the company is making a big push to hire:

There’s no material reason veterans make better candidates for employment at Wal-Mart than any other candidate, especially for the low-skilled labor being performed on the floor of retail shops. And yet Wal-Mart’s commitment to veterans doesn’t seem entirely out of line, as veterans are seen as people with a different moral standing than others: They have contributed something of value, and therefore are valued.Wal-Mart notably doesn’t categorize pregnant women in that same class of morally valuable person. Benefits and accommodations in work are not offered to pregnant women insofar as they are pregnant, but only insofar as they are disabled in a medical sense by the effects of pregnancy. In other words, pregnancy has simply been subsumed under the preexisting criteria of disability rather than granted its own category of consideration. […]

After all, pregnant women are at the final analysis socially valuable and morally distinct as a category of person. They ensure the ongoing life of society, and do so at personal cost: sometimes great, sometimes minor. If Wal-Mart is willing to recognize the moral significance of veterans in those terms, why not pregnant women?

The answer to the question is “because there isn’t as much public pressure and Walmart doesn’t do anything for workers without public pressure.” Besides, all it’s actually doing for veterans is hiring some of them to crappy Walmart jobs and giving some money to veterans’ programs to make itself look good. There’s no reason to believe veterans won’t be treated as badly as any other Walmart worker.Whatever your reasoning, though, pregnant women deserve stronger workplace protections than they currently have. It shouldn’t take bad publicity to get businesses to offer women light duty when they have a doctor’s note saying they need it, and policies offering accommodation shouldn’t have as much wiggle room as Walmart’s does. For that matter, women shouldn’t have to depend on having a decent boss to be able to keep working safely through pregnancy. That should be a matter of the law. Instead, pregnant women now face discrimination and Republicans are predictably standing in the way of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would strengthen protections for all pregnant women, not just the ones whose employers have gotten bad press.

This article was originally printed on the Daily Kos on May 23, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is the labor editor at the Daily Kos.


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Fast food workers and SEIU President arrested outside McDonald’s HQ

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seiu-org-logoAdriana Alvarez has worked at McDonald’s for 4 years and makes just $8.75 an hour. She’s fighting for $15 an hour to win a better life for herself and her two year-old son Manny.

Just now, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, Adriana and more than 120 fast food workers from across the country were arrested outside of McDonald’s corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, where hundreds of workers are refusing to be silenced before their shareholder meeting.

These fast food workers need your help. Call McDonald’s and tell them you stand with Adriana and the other workers right now: 888-979-7395. Tell them that it’s time for $15 an hour and the right to form a union without intimidation.

Adriana and her fellow McDonald’s employees were arrested for their brave act of peaceful civil disobedience. Each of them was standing up for themselves, the families their wages support, and pretty much every fast food worker everywhere. Mary Kay Henry was arrested alongside them to send a clear message to fast food workers everywhere that the 2.1 million members of SEIU — home care workers, child care workers, adjunct professors, security officers, hospital workers and many others — proudly stand with them.

Please show your support now for these unbelievably courageous workers by calling McDonald’s this minute: 888-979-7395.

Tell McDonald’s that you support these workers. Tell them that it’s shameful that workers have to be arrested in order to be heard.

Just to be extra clear: Workers have already risked a lot by going on strike last Thursday in the biggest fast food action in world history. And it’s even scarier to go straight to the source and speak up for what they believe in. But Adrianna is doing it, and so are dozens of others. It’s pretty amazing.

Now it’s your turn to speak up for what’s right. Pick up the phone and call McDonald’s now: 888-979-7395.

The McDonald’s shareholder meeting starts in less than 24 hours and we have to make sure they hear us. No one who works for a living should be forced to live in poverty. No one who works for a corporation that makes more than $5 billion in profit should have hungry kids at home.

We’ve been live tweeting today’s action from Oak Brook at @SEIU, so check out our Twitter feed for of-the-moment updates. You can also visit FastFoodGlobal.org to stay updated as news breaks.

This article was originally printed on SEIU on May 21, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

Author: Flora Johnson, Home Care Worker, SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana

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Turkey Erupts Over Mining Tragedy; Many Blame Privatization

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A horrific mining disaster in Turkey on Tuesday claimed the lives of at least 298 workers, a toll that continues to climb. Callous responses from both the Turkish government and the company that operates the mine have triggered widespread anger, leading trade unions to launch a one-day strike on May 15 in protest of the country’s poor mining safety record.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdo?an rushed to the site of the accident in the southwestern Aegean town of Soma. “These types of accidents are regular occurrences…there are no such things as having no accidents,” he said, reading from a list of global mine disasters since the 19th century that have had higher death tolls, highlighting cases in China and India. In response, an infuriated crowd repeatedly kicked his vehicle and attempted to encircle him, calling for his resignation. The callousness of his statement triggered a wave of backlash on social media and in the streets, as the official death toll swept above 200 on Wednesday evening and hundreds of the mine’s 5,800 workers reportedly remained trapped. Unofficial reports estimate anywhere from 400 to 600 deaths. (The exact numbers are difficult to pin down because the accident occurred during a shift change.)

Protesters, numbering in the thousands in some major cities, continued to spill into the streets throughout the week holding placards that read, “This is not an accident, it’s a massacre.” In Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, police intervened with tear gas and water cannons.

Soma Coal Mining Co., the private company contracted to operate the government-owned mine, is denying that the accident was due to negligence, but admitting that there were no functioning refuge chambers in the mine at the time. At a press conference on Friday in Soma, company owner Alp Gürkan expressed his condolences and explained that the sole safety chamber was in an area that was no longer being actively mined, but that the company was planning to build a second one when the accident occurred. He noted that Turkish mining laws do not require refuge chambers.

The company says the accident was due to a fire whose causes are still under investigation. Operating manager Akin Çelik said at the press conference that such a fire could have happened in a mine anywhere in the world. Turkey’s Labor and Social Security Minister Faruk Çelik added that there had been no missteps in safety checks and inspections prior to the accident.

Details remain murky, however, and allegations of negligence abound. The Izmir branch of the Chamber of Electrical Engineers, which sent a committee of engineers to the scene to investigate the incident, said the mine’s ventilation systems and poisonous and explosive gas detectors were inadequate and outdated. Others have noted the lack of heat-resistant power transformers and electric equipment

Nedret Durukan, director of the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects, says that mine workers describe long hours underground, lack of rest, lack of safety equipment and inadequate safety training. “Training and education of workers … is viewed as taking away from working hours,” she says.

Turkey’s largest unions staged a one-day strike on Thursday over the mine tragedy, demanding that the government enforce mine regulations. “This is not the first disaster we’ve experienced. In the past few years, we’ve seen hundreds of incidents, and we’ve lost thousands of workers, ” the Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions (TÜRK-??) general secretary Pevrul Kavlak said in a statement to the press this week, listing off previous mining accidents in Af?in-Elbistan and Zonguldak

In 2005, Soma Holding took over the reins of the mine from the government amid a push for privatization that began in the 1980s and has become a pillar of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) neoliberal restructuring. Recent laws allow the government to sell “royalty tenders,” in which the operation of the mine is awarded to whichever company offers the cheapest coal extraction bid. The coal is then sold back to the government for the market. Some say the profit-driven cost cuts, heightened production targets and slackened government oversight came at the expense of worker safety.

“The private mining sector has enforced an intense working tempo in order to extract more coal, which can result in cracks in worker safety,” Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions of Turkey (Dev Maden-Sen) representative Tufan Günay told a local publication. Soma Coal Mining Co.’s Gürkan said at the Friday press conference that the company has a narrow profit margin of only 10 to 15 percent at the Soma mine, and that any increases in profits have stemmed from more advanced production techniques.

Video footage of Turkey’s Energy Minister Taner Y?ld?z praising the company last year for “prioritizing workers’ safety” has made the rounds on social media this week, receiving biting comments from viewers.

While China and India may be typically associated with poor worker safety standards, the disaster at Soma sheds light on Turkey’s shortfalls. According to figures from the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, more miners die every year per million metric tons of excavated coal in Turkey than in China, where fatality rates have fallen since 2000 as the central government closed small, under-inspected rural mines, instituted new safety standards and cranked up fines for company negligence.

The latest disaster also underscores Turkey’s lack of domestic natural gas and oil production, which leaves it heavily reliant on coal and on other countries for energy imports. Despite an ongoing push for natural gas, coal still accounts for about 26 percent of Turkey’s energy consumption. As Turkey continues tapping into its domestic coal reserves in spite of ongoing mine accidents, Soma has jolted the country into self-reflection not only over occupational safety standards, but also over energy consumption.

Another glaring detail that has drawn fire in the wake of the accident is that two weeks ages, the ruling AKP party quashed a motion in parliament by the opposition Republican People’s Party to investigate work-related accidents at Soma coal mines. Also troubling are widespread, though unproven, assertions that Soma Holding handpicked the union leaders who were representing Soma’s mine workers.

On Friday, the AKP submitted a proposal for a parliamentary inquiry into the accident, though no top managers or company executives have been implicated as of yet. The prosecutors investigating the case have said the managers they planned to arrest had died in the mines.

Finally, labor unions have long criticized big factories and mining companies for outsourcing to subcontractors, which are notorious for lacking regulation and pushing boundaries on employee rights. Soma Holding has officially denied using subcontractors, but journalists in Turkey have raised speculation that it was indeed employing uninsured workers through subcontractors. “This disaster should be a lesson for those who have turned this country into a heaven for subcontractors and for those who have created an order based on exploitation,” said Kavlak.

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on May 17, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sisi Tang is a former student in history, now a writer and traveler in Istanbul.

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Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts Says Turkey Mine Disaster is a ‘Punch in the Gut’ for All Coal Miners

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Jackie TortoraUnited Mine Workers of America (UMWA) International President Cecil E. Roberts issued the following statement Thursday:

“The horrific news coming from the coal mine near Soma, Turkey where nearly 300 miners have been killed and scores more are missing is a punch in the gut for every coal miner everywhere in the world. The hearts and prayers of every UMWA member and our families are with the families of the miners who lost their lives, and we sincerely hope that rescue efforts are possible and successful for those who remain trapped.

“The magnitude of this tragedy is appalling. I see where the media is calling this an industrial ‘accident,’ but a disaster on this scale is no accident. This mine was clearly a bomb waiting to go off. There could not have been any regulatory enforcement or company oversight of what went on in that mine.

“It has been nearly a century since we have seen disasters on this scale in the United States or Canada. Through strong laws and regulations, we have been able to develop workplace protections that keep our miners safe from the kinds of conditions that must have existed in that Turkish mine.

“What we have done here isn’t magical. It can be and has been applied elsewhere in the world. We stand ready to work with the Turkish miners and their government to help develop safety and health procedures that can help put an end to the possibility of these sorts of massive disasters in the future.”

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on May 16, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jackie Tortora is the blog editor and social media manager at the AFL-CIO.

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Retired Players Sue NFL over Illegal Drugs

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Laura ClawsonEight retired football players are suing the National Football League for pushing painkillers on them without legal prescriptions or informing the players of risks; another 500 retirees are seeking to join in a class action lawsuit. That the NFL willfully risked players’ health and that vast quantities of painkillers were involved is not surprising, but the seriousness of the injuries the painkillers were used to disguise as players were sent out on the field is shocking:

[Quarterback Jim] McMahon says in the lawsuit that he suffered a broken neck and ankle during his career but rather than sitting out, he received medications and was pushed back on to the field. Team doctors and trainers never told him about the injuries, according to the lawsuit. […][Offensive lineman Keith] Van Horne played an entire season on a broken leg and wasn’t told about the injury for five years, “during which time he was fed a constant diet of pills to deal with the pain,” the lawsuit says.

Another player says he went an entire season so seriously injured that he never practiced—but played in every game.

The NFL, of course, remains mired in a concussion-related lawsuit with a judge having refused to approve a $765 million settlement, saying it was not sufficient, among other problem. Six of the players named in the current drug lawsuit were also plaintiffs in the concussion lawsuit.

This article was originally printed on the Daily Kos on May 20, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is the labor editor at the Daily Kos.

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Los Angeles Teachers Demand a Change, Starting with Union Leadership

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Yana KunichoffFor seven years, the 31,000 members of United Teachers Los Angeles, the largest local on the West Coast, have gone without a salary increase. Their contract has beenexpired for nearly three of those. And the teachers, counselors and school nurses that make up the UTLA can still be sent to so-called “teacher jail”—housed in district offices until they’re either fired or restored to their position, a process that can take months—when they’re accused of misconduct .

All of this, activists say, has left United Teachers Los Angeles disengaged and disillusioned. This was evidenced by the low turnout for the union election in late April, in which only 7,235 members—fewer than 25 percent of the UTLA—participated.

The results of that election, however, are perhaps an even greater indication that the UTLA is ready for a change. On April 29, social studies teacher and longtime union activist Alex Caputo-Pearl was elected as president of UTLA following a run-off with incumbent Warren Fletcher.

Caputo-Pearl is a member of Union Power, a reform coalition that, a month before Caputo-Pearl’s victory, took over leadership of UTLA. Union activists see the election of the Union Power coalition as a step forward in the fight against business-led, top-down education reform and resource cuts that have beset Los Angeles in recent years.

Los Angeles schools Superintendent John Deasy, for instance, has aggressively pushed for teacher evaluations to include test scores and supported an ongoing lawsuit aimed at cutting seniority and tenure rules. Meanwhile, pay in L.A. has stagnated compared to other large districts, class sizes have grown and school support services are thin on the ground. In 2010, the Los Angeles school district was scarred by the suicide of an elementary school teacher, ostensibly after his scores were publicized on a teacher-rating database by the Los Angeles Times. Most recently, a court ruled in favor of teachers on the issue, finding that the district did not need to publicize the names of teachers with their performance ratings.

Caputo-Pearl, a longtime activist, has said he opposes pegging teacher evaluation to student test scores, expanding charter schools and other school-reform measures popular among city officials. A 20-year veteran of some of the highest-poverty schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, Caputo-Pearl started his teaching career with the first round of Teach for America recruits. He is the union chapter chair for Frida Kahlo High School and serves on the Board of Directors for the union’s House of Representatives. He survived several targeted attempts to remove him from both posts after he fought the district’s plan to break his high school into three smaller schools as part of the nationwide “reconstitution” strategy pioneered by Arne Duncan.

Throughout their campaign, Union Power also placed an emphasis on Caputo-Pearl’s community-organizing chops, which they argued would be useful for the broader coalition the reform coalition hoped to build. In a press release promoted before the election, Union Power officials wrote:

“Alex has experience building organizations from the ground up.  He is co-founder of Coalition for Educational Justice, a citywide organization that has been involved in local, state, and national campaigns.  He has been key in building the Crenshaw Cougar Coalition and the Bus Riders Union, which has also led local, state, and national campaigns around civil rights and public services.  He has been a key leader in Progressive Educators for Action, which has helped build a national network of educator organizers, which has allowed Alex to develop deep relationships with the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, which is in the leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union and led their successful strike.  Alex has also played a role in building the national ‘Resisting Teach for America’ network.”

In addition to Caputo-Pearl’s presidency, the Union Power slate won 24 out of the 25 seats it ran for, including races against three incumbents from Fletcher’s slate. “In every area, in every position it was a big margin between the Union Power candidates and our opponents,” teacher Rebecca Solomon, who won an executive board spot, tells Labor Notes. “It’s not against one person: it’s everywhere.”

Caputo-Pearl will replace Warren Fletcher, who early on in the race said he would stop campaigning in favor of Caputo-Pearl. The race went into a run-off after the first round of voting narrowed the candidates down from the ten initially campaigning for the post.

Fletcher himself was a reform candidate when he swept into office in 2011 on bread-and-butter issues, winning a runoff against the then-vice president of the union widely seen as a shoe-in for the post. His tenure included an April 2013 referendum against Superintendent Deasy, with a resulting 91 percent of members who voted saying they disapproved of Deasy’s education measures. During his time as president, however, he came under criticism for using piecemeal negotiations on single issues, and not sufficiently mobilizing a dissatisfied union of teachers or a district of angry parents.

Fletcher also leaves behind an agreement made with the district about a new teacher evaluation system, which draws on data from a mix of state standardized tests, classroom observation, and school-level scores. The arrangement is already being contested, though: A state labor board said the district has pushed the evaluation beyond the agreed-upon frameworks signed by the teachers union.

If elected, Union Power said it would invest in broad-ranging plans to reform the union, including a commitment to “initiating a comprehensive public relations campaign to support our demands, a plan to take back our expert role in our profession, a strategic research arm that exposes LAUSD conflicts of interest, and an organizing strategy that supports chapter organizing, parent/community/labor outreach, capacity-building actions, and strike preparation.” It may also broaden from a coalition that came together for the election to a full caucus, cementing a larger group of educators within the UTLA.

At the same time, Union Power’s leaders hope to help shift the conversation around education reform on the national stage, too. “We are at a key moment where [progressive leadership] now has several key cities around the country,” Caputo-Pearl tells In These Times. “The more that we can lead in those cities and encourage others to run for leadership in their teachers union, the more that we can support fighting back against the privatization agenda and fight for real educational justice.”

As that movement grows, says Caputo-Pearl, the Los Angeles teachers union aims to build where the real power is—locally. “Local leadership is where the most important base of organizing happens. When push comes to shove the organizing of education in connection with parents and communities building to the credible threat of a strike can only happen at the local level.”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on May 15, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Yana Kunichoff is a Chicago-based journalist covering immigration, labor, housing and social movements. Her work has appeared in theChicago Reporter, Truthout and the American Independent, among others

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Brown v. Board: 60 Years Later

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seiu-org-logoIn 1954, 13 Topeka, Kansas parents and 20 school children had the courage to challenge an educational system dominated by racial segregation and inequality. The landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education struck down segregation in public schools.

But nearly six decades later, access to education for many of our nation’s children is still separate, and still very unequal.

Join the fight for educational justice and equity. Sign our pledge now.

The future success of our children rests on creating a pipeline of quality resources and opportunities from a child’s earliest years through higher education. It shouldn’t be determined by zip code, citizenship status, school-closings, over-testing or harsh discipline that have torn apart our neighborhoods.

On May 13, thousands will be rallying on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. to call on our nation’s leaders and policymakers to recommit to the vision of equity and opportunity embodied in that U.S. Supreme Court decision 60 years ago. Even from afar, you can join us by signing our pledge for educational justice.

Access to quality early learning and public schools creates strong communities. It’s up to all of us – parents, educators and students to take a stand together and reclaim the promise of public education to create the schools all of our children deserve.

This article was originally printed on SEIU on May 12, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

Author: Valarie Long, Executive Vice President, SEIU

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