Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Many mines not inspected, Labor Dept., concedes

WASHINGTON (PAI)--The Bush government’s Mine Safety and Health Administration, charged with overseeing job safety conditions at the nation’s coal mines, did not undertake all four of the yearly required inspections at 107 of the 731--or one-seventh--of them, a new audit says.

The audit was released late in the afternoon of Friday Nov. 16 by the Labor Department’s Inspector General, in an attempt to downplay its coverage. The audit said MSHA failed to do all the inspections due to short-staffing and that agency “management did not place adequate emphasis on ensuring the inspections were completed and the reported completion rate was accurate.

“Specifically, the number of inspectors assigned to the 11 Coal Mine Safety & Health districts was not commensurate with the mine activity at the districts, and management’s monitoring of inspection completions was not effective,” the IG added.

“Missed or incomplete inspections place miners at risk because hazardous conditions in the mines may not be identified and corrected,” the IG said flatly.

The critical report received added emphasis after two fatal explosions and collapses at Utah’s Crandall Canyon mine killed six miners and three rescuers, including an MSHA inspector. The IG is continuing a separate probe of MSHA’s role at Crandall Canyon. That includes why MSHA approved the company’s faulty plan to mine the pillars of coal that supported the mine’s roof.

The audit echoes longtime criticisms of the agency by the United Mine Workers. UMW President Cecil Roberts has repeatedly said MSHA administrators under the GOP Bush regime disregard safety issues in deference to mine owners and operators.

But the Inspector General said MSHA’s problems are widespread. “Because inspection deficiencies identified in our audit were caused by weaknesses in policies and procedures, it is likely similar problems existed in all 11 CMS&H districts,” it adds.

“In fact, MSHA found similar inspection and supervisory oversight problems during internal reviews of three fatal underground mining accidents at the Sago, Aracoma, and Darby mines,” last year, the IG noted. The Sago blast, in early January, killed 12 miners, started a year in which coal mine fatalities rose dramatically and led to passage of new, tougher mine safety legislation.

The IG also said MSHA “could not provide adequate assurance” that all the critical inspections of various components of a coal mine, including mine owners’ plans for removing coal, were done each time an MSHA inspector visited a mine.

“Our review of 21 inspections of active mines disclosed that for the 68 selected inspection activities we tested, 15 percent were not documented as having been performed because management did not require inspectors to document all critical inspection activities performed.” Crandall Canyon was inspected the required seven times between Oct. 1, 2005 and the explosion this past August, but “16 percent of the 68 selected critical inspection activities tested for the 7 inspections were not documented as actually having been performed.”

In one case, the Crandall Canyon inspector certified he evaluated the mine’s roof control plan four months before actually inspecting the roof, the IG said. Pillars of coal, which were being mined at the owner’s orders, gave way during the first explosion and buried the six miners.

The IG sent seven recommendations for improvements to MSHA, but the agency’s chief, an appointee of anti-worker GOP President George W. Bush, did not agree with all of them.

One recommendation said the MSHA administrator “should ensure inspection resources are commensurate with the mining activity in the coal districts.” MSHA replied that it is hiring and training 270 more inspectors.

The IG also called for effective monitoring of “inspection completions,” said the agency should develop policies and procedures to “calculate the regular safety and health inspection completion rate, and ensuring the inspection data used is correct.”

Another recommendation is that “all critical inspection activities are documented as performed, or (as) not applicable at the mines being inspected.” And the IG said MSHA field office supervisors should “certify inspections are thorough and complete.

“In response, DOL’s Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health disagreed with the accuracy and presentation of some of the audit results and questioned the audit methodology for assessing the thoroughness of inspections. He stated that limited enforcement time should be placed primarily on identifying and abating hazards rather than documentation and paperwork,” the Inspector General noted.

“The assistant secretary did not agree to document when a critical inspection activity was not applicable at a mine. As an alternative, he suggested adding a disclaimer statement to reports. He did not directly address our recommendation to require field office supervisors to certify inspections are thorough before being counted as complete.” The IG called the “disclaimer statement” inadequate.

AFL-CIO supports ‘cap-and-trade’ energy

WASHINGTON (PAI)--The AFL-CIO is supporting the “cap-and-trade” bipartisan energy conservation bill now pending in Congress (S. 2191) but wants improvements, Industrial Unions Council Executive Director Bob Baugh says.

Baugh told the Senate Environment Committee on Nov. 13 the cap-and-trade system needs some tweaking. The system lets industries, in future years, that pollute less sell pollution “credits” to those firms that need them. The cap-and-trade system’s objective, along with the goal of the bill’s other energy conservation measures, is to cut U.S. carbon emissions by 70 percent by the year 2050, to combat global warming.

Baugh said the cap-and-trade system should not be totally unregulated, but should be regulated so that industries cannot just “bank” credits and not use them. He also supported the bill’s tax incentives--as pushed by the Apollo Alliance, created by the Steel Workers--for producing energy-efficient products, such as hybrid cars. But that should not come at a cost of U.S. jobs, he warned.

“S. 2191 can serve a dual purpose: Environmental protection and economic development…It is in the national interest to assure the investment dollars generated by this legislation are reinvested in our domestic economy. We urge the committee to direct the Climate Change Credit Corporation that "the financial resources of the corporation shall be dedicated to domestic investments,” Baugh said.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Marchers hit NLRB rulings by Bush-named majority

By Mark Gruenberg
Press Associates, Inc.

WASHINGTON -- Chanting and waving signs--and promising they'd be back again before November 2008--more than 1,000 unionists marched Nov. 15 on the National Labor Relations Board headquarters in Washington, protesting a slew of anti-worker rulings by its 3-person majority installed by anti-worker GOPPresident George W. Bush.

The protest, organized by the AFL-CIO, drew unionists, religious allies, a wide range of supporters and sympathetic honks from D.C. drivers, cabbies and truckers all along the parade route. The Washington protest was one of more than 25 nationwide, including in Chicago and Los Angeles.

Workers carried yellow umbrellas with the word "Shame" emblazoned in red, and signs with a closed door for the NLRB. Change to Win signs echoed Bush's praise of his emergency director in Hurricane Katrina, saying "You're doing a good job, Battista!" referring to Bush-named NLRB chair Robert Battista, a management-side labor lawyer.

Chants included "What's disgusting? Union-busting!" and "Hey, hey, ho, ho! Bush's board has got to go!"

"We're here because the Bush NLRB has made broken labor law even worse," declared Voice@Work Director Fred Azcarate before the marchers started off from AFL-CIO headquarters for the half-mile parade.

"This is not the NLRB. This is George Bush's board. This is Dick Cheney's board. This is the Chamber of Commerce's board. This is the National Association of Manufacturers' board. And it sure as hell ain't the Labor Board!” declared Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts.

The marchers protested 61 NLRB decisions, virtually all by party-line 3-2 votes, starting in late September and continuing, that stripped away many workers' rights. They included rulings making it easier to oust unions through what are called "decertification petitions” -- rulings making it harder for workers illegally fired for pro-union work to get back pay, and rulings making it easier for firms to break labor law.

Other NLRB rulings the unionists protested weakened the already weak right to strike, opened the door to retaliatory lawsuits by companies, let employers get away with illegal threats to workers, and let employers evade the law's mandate that they must bargain with the union once it is certified to represent the workers.

The stream of anti-worker rulings is so bad that last month, the AFL-CIO formally filed a complaint about the NLRB with the International Labour Organization. The marchers said the board is so bad it should be shut down.

Speakers at the march, led by Roberts and Metropolitan Washington Central Labor Council President Jocelyn Williams, also made it clear the real solution to Bush's board will come next November--at the ballot box.

Roberts talked about "a midnight train" that took former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and "his big fat Radical Right Wing ass" and shipped him out of office. "That train's about to run again and we're going to put George Bush and Dick Cheney and this whole Right Wing crowd on it and ship them out of Washington, D.C.," he declared.

And harking back to the Old Testament, Roberts, a preacher, called Bush "Pharaoh." He said "Moses didn't wait for a fax" to confront the Egyptian ruler
and workers would continue to confront the Bush board.

"We're going to take back our country," he added.

"We march on the NLRB but the enemy is not the NLRB, but a party right across Lafayette Park," said Williams, gesturing towards the White House, Bush's residence, two blocks away from the AFL-CIO headquarters where the protest began. "It's been taken over by a bunch of squatters, and in November 2008, we can deliver them a piece of paper that says: 'This is an ejection notice.'"

The Rev. Ron Stief, organizing director for Faith in Public Life, said the marchers "know who to give thanks for" in the holiday season, including unions,
organizers, civil rights groups, and religious groups "who stand between us and this (NLRB) behavior.

"And we know who the turkey is," Stief added, to laughter.

Unions in the march included AFL-CIO members, such as the Communications Workers, The Newspaper Guild/CWA, the American Federation of Teachers, the Seafarers, the Machinists, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, AFSCME, and AFGE. Change to Win unions marching included the Laborers, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Service Employees and the Teamsters.

Members of two independent unions, the National Education Association and the United Electrical Workers, also marched. So did representatives from the Coalition of Labor Union Women.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Producers’ intransigence forces writers strike

NEW YORK and LOS ANGELES (PAI)--Intransigence among producers over sharing revenue from DVD and Internet broadcast of films and TV shows forced is to blame to more than 12,000 members of the Los Angeles-based Writers Guild of America and thousands more in New York-based WGA-East to strike, starting last Monday, Nov. 5.

And while the strike initially forced talk shows--such as “Tonight” with Jay Leno, who delivered baked goods to picketers in L.A.--off the air, news programs may soon join them. Writers at CBS News in New York, Washington, Chicago and L.A. plan to vote Nov. 15 on a work stoppage, the WGA-East reported.

The key issue was refusal by the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers--the bosses--to share revenue from DVD sales and Internet rebroadcasts of scripted TV programs and movies that the writers created.

Right now, the writers get little or no revenue from the rebroadcasts, even though those DVD sales and Internet showings are piling up money for the shows’ and movies’ producers and studios.

The writers quickly picked up support from one prominent union leader, as Service Employees President Andy Stern joined their picket line in New York on Nov. 8.

Prominent show business personalities, who are also unionists, offered support. Besides Leno, they included Tina Fey, author of the NBC prime-time sit-com “30 Rock,” and “Saturday Night Live” star Seth Meyers. Before his show went into reruns, David Letterman, on the air, denounced the producers as “cowards, cutthroats and weasels.”

Other celebrities who've publicly supported the strikers included John Stewart, Robin Williams, Ray Romano and Tim Robbins.

In Los Angeles, the head writer of Fox’s weekly “Talk Show With Spike Feresten,” Tom Johnson, was hit by a driver of a Honda Element who threatened to run over any picketer who got in his way, witnesses said.

As might be expected, Fox, the network run by right wing mogul Rupert Murdoch, said it would try to dodge the strike by airing more so-called “reality programming,” such as “American Idol.” The other networks indicated they had taped some sit-coms before the strike began, but supplies were expected to run out by the end of the year.

Over Hare's opposition, House passes Peru free-trade pact bill

By Mark Gruenberg

WASHINGTON (PAI)--Over the objections of freshman Democrats elected on “fair trade, not free trade” platforms, such as U.S. Rep. Phil Hare of Rock Island, the Democratic-run House passed legislation on Nov. 8 to implement the U.S.-Peru Free Trade Agreement. The vote was 285-132.

Democrats opposed the Peru measure by a 116-109 margin, while Republicans supported it, 176-16. Eight lawmakers from each party did not vote. House presidential hopefuls split three ways: Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) opposed it, Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) supported it and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) was absent.

The AFL-CIO took a mixed position on the Peru pact. Policy Director Thea Lee praised its insertion of labor rights--even the weak ones from the International Labour Organization--into its text, but said that wasn’t good enough for federation backing.

But she also said the federation is dead set against two other looming “free trade” pacts, with South Korea and Colombia and would lobby hard against them. Its objections to the Peru pact “set a marker” for the future. The Korean pact would hurt U.S. auto workers. The Colombian pact ignores that nation’s murderous--literally--record of assassination of unionists. Neither pact includes labor rights in its text.

And AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney warned after the House vote that passage of the Peru pact bill “should in no way be read as paving the way for these or any future agreements.” He called the Peru pact “far from perfect,” and criticized many sections--including letting firms that get government contracts export those jobs.

The Peru pact bill is expected to sail through the Senate, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said. Anti-worker GOP President George W. Bush negotiated the Peru pact and sent the legislation implementing it to Congress under the old “fast track” rules, barring any changes. But, earlier this year, Democratic leaders convinced Peruvian President Alan Garcia to rework the pact to insert ILO workers’ rights standards into its text. Otherwise, they told him, the Peru pact would fail.

The leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), voted for the bill.

Lee told Baucus’ panel in September that improvements in the Peru pact did not go far enough. Among its many problems: “Private investors should not be granted the right to sue governments over public health, environmental, or labor regulations that might be construed as direct or indirect expropriation, or an action equivalent to expropriation. This… gives individual corporations undue rights with respect to
overturning legitimate actions of elected national governments,” she said.

And the Peru pact bill does not let federal, state and local governments restrict provision of government services to domestic firms. That would let companies that win
government work--such as processing payments--outsource them overseas.

Several freshmen were more outspoken against the Peru pact legislation.

“The proposed Peru FTA would replicate--and in some instances expand on--many of the most devastating provisions of the flawed NAFTA-CAFTA model,” said Hare, a former UNITE HERE shop steward at a clothing plant in Rock Island. “Despite ‘fixes,’ the Peru FTA is nothing but a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Both Hare and Rep. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio) predicted Bush would not enforce the pact’s worker protection provisions.

“We can choose to give big business another win or we can choose to stand with middle class families,” Hare continued. “Congress can choose to expand the failed NAFTA-CAFTA model to Peru or we can choose to pursue a new trade policy. I for one cannot go back to my district and explain that I voted for another bad trade deal that in all likelihood will result in more job loss.

“I cannot in good conscience face the 1,600 Maytag workers who lost their jobs” in Galesburg, Ill., when Maytag shut a profitable plant to move to Mexico “and tell them that I voted to continue the hemorrhaging.”

Hare and Sutton voted against the Peru pact.

“If something no longer works, you develop a new product that fits your needs and allows to you move forward,” said Sutton, who represents Akron. “That's what we need to do with our trade policies. But unfortunately, that's not what is happening here.”

“Some are pleading that this is an historic breakthrough and oh, how I wish that that were so,” she continued. “But it is not. And saying it is does not make it so.

“Current trade policies are not working, despite the same past promises made. We see this in the reality of a nearly $1 trillion trade deficit, tainted imported food and products, currency manipulation, illegal subsidies, off-shored jobs and devastated families and communities,” she stated.

And the Peru pact would actually “impose lighter sanctions” for labor law-breaking in the South American country “than current trade law requires,” Sutton said, citing a Columbia University trade law specialist who has worked with the AFL-CIO.

“We could develop a new model that address these issues and puts workers and businesses in a position to compete on a level playing field and truly raises the standard of living for those in other nations. But unfortunately the Peru FTA fails to do this,” Sutton said.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Coalition will not pick health care plan: Stern

By Mark Gruenberg
WASHINGTON (PAI)--A coalition of three influential but divergent groups on Nov. 1 added a powerful fourth member on to its push for putting universal health care on the national agenda, but won't pick a single health care plan to promote, says the sole union leader among the four, Service Employees president Andy Stern.

Instead, he told Press Associates union news service that Divided We Fail will keep pushing principles for universal affordable health care so the issue will be the top domestic priority in next year’s election--and so Congress and the next president must tackle the issue, under political pressure to achieve that goal, and with backing to do so.

Stern spoke after a press conference introducing the new fourth member of the coalition, the National Federation of Independent Business. It joins SEIU, the American Association of Retired Persons and the Business Roundtable.

NFIB has been a key member of the Radical Right that has governed the country since the advent of GOP control of Congress, from 1995-2006 and the anti-worker regime of GOP President George W. Bush. The right, including Bush and NFIB, has had a health care philosophy--as unions and their allies put it--of “you’re on your own.”

But NFIB spokeswoman Stephanie Cathcart said afterwards that her group’s members “have been telling its leaders for 25 years that providing health care was their #1 problem” and urging it to do something positive to help them solve the dilemma. The new president, Todd Stottlemyer, listened, and joined Divided We Fail, she said.

But Divided We Fail has decided, unlike the Democratic presidential hopefuls, not to hammer out a specific plan, Stern said. It would become just a forgotten sheaf of paper, he explained. Most GOP hopefuls have yet to be specific on health care.

What Divided We Fail wants to do--and has started discussing--is push health care to the forefront of the electoral discussion and try to set up a debate on the issue between the Democratic and Republican nominees, once the parties settle on them.

“You would hope by the time we elect someone” next November “there would be a mandate to do something on the #1 domestic issue,” Stern told the press conference.

“We’re coming together. Now the politicians need to come together,” said AARP CEO William Novelli, a GOP operative whose ad agency created the infamous lying “Harry and Louise” ad campaign that helped sink health care reorganization in 1994.

“The objective is universal access to quality health care,” Stottlemyer said, changing NFIB’s previous stand. Stern called it “the big news, since NFIB has historically been the most conservative” on health care issues.

How to get to universal coverage will be left to the future, though, Stern said in the interview.

“We pre-agreed on the principles” of affordable universal quality health care without burdening future generations with high costs, emphasis on wellness efforts and prevention and giving people choices in long-term care, he explained. Other parts of the Divided We Fail platform deal with retirement security and savings incentives.

“But we would get ourselves in trouble if we tried to do specifics, as the AFL-CIO has gotten in trouble,” Stern elaborated. The federation, which SEIU is no longer part of, recently launched its own massive campaign to make affordable universal health care the top domestic issue from now through the election. But it, too, has not chosen a specific plan to back. That will occur afterward, says campaign chair Heather Booth.

But the hopes of both Stern’s group and the AFL-CIO hinge on the outcome of the election, since the Democratic hopefuls have offered specific plans while the GOP by and large has stuck with Bush’s scheme to dump health care costs on workers and their families. Several of the Republicans, however, are beginning to think of health care as a national problem requiring a national solution, Stern pointed out.

“This election has got to be about health care and the war. The Democrats’ starting place and the Republicans’ starting place, on both issues, are very different,” he commented. “Our role in SEIU from now until then will be giving people information on where the candidates stand.”`

But it’s up to the hopefuls--not Divided We Fail--to fill in the blanks, he reiterated.

“They have to come as close to a piece of legislation as possible, so that we won’t wait for a year after they take office--and so that we have a constituency really ready to push it,” Stern concluded.

House defies Bush veto threat, expands program to help workers who lose jobs to imports

By Press Associates, Inc.
WASHINGTON --Defying yet another veto threat by anti-worker GOP President George W. Bush, the Democratic-run House mustered a bipartisan 264-157 vote on Oct. 31 to extend and expand Trade Adjustment Assistance, the program that helps workers who lose their jobs to subsidized foreign imports.

But that was not the only piece of trade news that day. In something of a setback for workers, the House Ways and Means Committee, which votes on legislation implementing trade pacts--but which cannot change their texts to include workers’ rights--approved Bush’s so-called “free trade” pact with Peru, 39-0.

The TAA program was first created in 1962 to help push trade pacts through Congress. But it now applies only to industrial workers who directly lose their jobs to subsidized foreign imports--and even then, only after the Labor Department agrees. As a result, TAA helps far fewer workers than it should.

The new version (HR 3920) doubles trade adjustment assistance’s authorized budget. It also extends TAA to service sector and public sector workers who lose their jobs to trade or offshoring. Those provisions cheered AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney--and led Bush’s Office of Management and Budget to hit the ceiling.

“The Trade and Globalization Assistance Act provides a critical safety net for the millions of workers who lose their jobs every year due to off-shoring and increased imports. Our nation has lost 3 million family-supporting manufacturing jobs on Bush’s watch alone. Flawed trade policy continues to send manufacturing and service sector jobs overseas. Working men and women need assistance of TAA more than ever,” Sweeney said.

“A veto would show trade-displaced workers and communities just where Bush’s priorities lie--with the giant corporate multi-nationals,” he added.

Bush’s OMB had a different take. “The administration strongly opposes H.R. 3920 in its current form because it fails to include essential reforms” to make the program “more flexible.” Instead, Bush’s agency charged Congress “converts TAA from a trade-related program to a universal income-support and training program. Accordingly, if this bill were presented to the president in its current form, the president’s senior advisors would recommend he veto the bill (their emphasis).”

OMB also called the extension of TAA to public sector and private service workers “inappropriate and unworkable.” And the Bush regime denounced a provision saying that state-named “merit workers”--not outsourced workers overseas--must run retraining programs for workers who lose their jobs.