March 19, 2002
Waited long enough to make workplace safer 


ONE year ago this week, after token debate, Congress voted to repeal a rule protecting American workers from the biggest workplace health and safety hazard today. On March 20, 2001, in his first significant legislative action, President Bush repealed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's ergonomics standard. Since the rule was overturned, 1.8 million workers have suffered ergonomic-related injuries such as back injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome -- many that could have been prevented. They include dedicated nurses who have had to give up their chosen profession of caring for our sick families and friends. They include the low-wage workers who process the food we put on our tables every day, including many poultry workers throughout Texas. In order to ease the consciences of congressional representatives who voted to repeal the ergonomics standard that had been 10 years in the making, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao promised on the eve of the vote to lay out "a comprehensive approach" to ergonomics "that may include rulemaking." She promised the administration would announce their plan by the end of September. When that deadline was understandably delayed due to the tragic events of Sept. 11, she then committed to take action by the end of the fall, and then by the end of the year. Today, a year later, no action has been taken. Millions of American workers continue to wait, continue to work in pain and continue to lose their livelihoods from these injuries. The only response we've seen from the Bush administration is the recess appointment of Eugene Scalia, one of the main architects of industry's decade-long campaign against protecting workers from these disorders, to the powerful job of solicitor of labor. The most disturbing aspect of the Bush administration's failure to act is the fact that these injuries are well recognized and easily preventable. Two congressionally mandated National Academy of Sciences studies sought by opponents of the ergonomics standard found that work-related musculo-skeletal disorders are a serious, widespread problem. These studies also found that ways exist to prevent these disorders by making changes in the workplace that are often easy and inexpensive, yet save many times their cost in workers' compensation and medical savings. In fact, the National Academy of Sciences estimates that doing nothing about ergonomic injuries is costing our economy more than $50 billion each year. Meanwhile, in poultry processing companies like Pilgrim's Pride in Lufkin, "Workers with repetitive stress injuries are given aspirin and ice and sent back to the production line," according to United Food and Commercial Workers International Vice President John Rodriguez. The UFCW has just filed a complaint with the Labor Department over conditions at Pilgrim's Pride where the majority of workers at the Lufkin plant, like most poultry plants, are new immigrants and minority workers who are afraid to report injuries even though they are undergoing surgery at "epidemic" rates. But instead of working constructively with the Department of Labor to fashion a response to this workplace epidemic, anti-regulatory ideologues in the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and other industry associations continue to argue that there is no science behind ergonomics, and continue to oppose not only an OSHA ergonomics regulation, but even voluntary guidelines and standards. On this sad anniversary let us pause to remember the millions of working people whose lives are ruined every year just by going to work every day. And in this time when Enron's corporate crimes have robbed thousands of their jobs and retirement savings, let's also take this opportunity to demand that our government not allow unscrupulous companies to take away workers' health as well.

Sweeney, based in Washington, D.C., is president of the AFL-CIO.

March 19, 2002, 9:51PM
Union vote scheduled at Reliant 


The field service representatives at Reliant Energy will vote Thursday on whether they want to be represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 66 in Houston. The 114 employees are the ones who put the power on or cut it off when customers move or don't pay their bill. The employees approached Local 66, said Mike Mosteit, business representative and organizer for the union. The union already represents about 2,900 linemen, truck drivers, warehouse workers and shop workers at Reliant. The employees haven't had much of a wage increase in the past five years, Mosteit said. Many of the employees have been working at Reliant for 25 and 30 years. They also would like to have more of a voice in their work, such as promotions and discipline, Mosteit said. Raises are based on performance, so some representatives have had more increases than others, said Tom Standish, president of Reliant Energy HL&P/Entex. But overall, raises haven't been great, he said, averaging 3 percent a year for the past three to four years. Promotions and discipline are always reserved for management, Standish said. But he said the company does welcome employee input on work rules and how to improve efficiency. It has "best practice" teams to come up with rules and improvement procedures, he said. Reliant has brought in a consultant to try to convince the employees not to vote for a union, said Mosteit. They've been having "captive audience" meetings daily for the past month with employees. Standish said Reliant isn't trying to bash the union. But, he said, the company believes it's not in the best interest of the employees or the company to join the union. Also, the consulting firm knows the ins and outs of labor-organizing rules, which are quite complicated, he said. 

Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle

March 20, 2002, 12:57AM
Oklahoma workers picket officers in Houston 


Employees from Continental Carbon Co. have been passing out leaflets and carrying picket signs in the neighborhoods of its two top officers here to protest a lockout last May at the company's Ponca City, Okla., plant. The employees from Ponca City paraded with protest signs and photographs of Continental Carbon's President Kim Pan in front of Pan's gated community in west Houston. They then went to the parking lot of a nearby supermarket and passed out leaflets there, said Rick Abraham, director of Texans United, a statewide environmental group that was part of the protest. The group also picketed in front of the home of Juan Rodriguez, Continental Carbon's senior vice president, and passed out leaflets to his neighbors, said Abraham. In addition, they picketed in front of the Taiwanese-owned company's U.S. headquarters in Houston. The company wants to eliminate its retirement plan, increase the employee cost of health insurance between 200 percent and 300 percent and eliminate severance pay for employees who are laid off, said Todd Carlson, bargaining unit chairman and vice president of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union Local 5-857 in Ponca City. Continental Carbon said it has been trying to bargain with union representatives for more than a year, but the union has expressed no willingness to extend the bargaining, according to a company statement. "We wish the union would redirect its efforts from the streets to the bargaining table so that a mutually satisfactory agreement can be reached," the statement said. "Making false and defamatory accusations against this company is not a successful path for reaching a labor agreement," the statement added. The labor group was on the way back to Oklahoma on Tuesday to pass out leaflets at a tire plant that buys carbon black from Continental Carbon, Abraham said.

Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle