Labor Day, 2007: Time for a new commitment to workers' rights

9 years ago

As the weekend’s Labor Day festivities begin across the United States, the news comes that the search for six entombed Utah miners has been suspended indefinitely. I suppose they’ll be planting another flag in the interactive map of workplace deaths that the House Education and Labor committee has been compiling. In 2006, 5,703 workers died on the job in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The news makes the question Ken Ward asked earlier this month in an article for Nieman Watchdog all the more poignant:

“First and foremost, why is it acceptable for the coal industry to break the law?”

Ward, who has spent years covering the coal industry, noted that much of the coverage of the Utah mine collapse credited the company that owns the Crandall Canyon mine with a better-than-average safety record --- 33 violations this year, compared with the 180-210 violations that most coal-mining companies rack up. Ward said the press and regulators should subject mine safety violations to closer scrutiny.

If that happens, it will be a shift in the decades-long trend away from tough reporting on labor issues. [Then again, Tula of Firedoglake might say the problem has become particularly egregious during the Bush years.] Fifteen years ago, former labor reporter Phil Primack bemoaned this trend in an article for the Columbia Journalism Review, ”We All Work, Don’t We?”:

“’…You get the impression sometimes that these [working class] people just do not count, except when they shoot someone," says Bob Baker, who was the Los Angeles Times's labor reporter until the paper scrapped that venerable beat last year, replacing it with the somewhat amorphous "workplace" label other papers have also adopted.
“A prime example of reporting opportunity lost because of this trend is the September 3, 1991, fire at a Hamlet, North Carolina, chicken plant. There, behind doors that the company had illegally locked shut, twenty-five workers died and another fifty-six were injured. …”

I studied the coverage of the Hamlet fire in 2001 and 2002, including a trip to the site of the old plant and interviews with local residents, including surviving family members of Mary Alice Quick, a mother of three who was 38 years old when she died that Tuesday morning. Not only were the details of the fire horrific, Congressional hearings later revealed that workers had been intimidated from reporting safety problems. Further, the plant’s owner, Emmett Roe, had been cited for violating worker safety rules, environmental contamination and other offenses at plants he had owned in Pennsylvania, Georgia and Alabama over the previous decade. Furthermore, former workers said they had been forced to pack and ship spoiled chicken, and to hide the rotten goods from food safety inspectors.

Roe was eventually convicted of two counts of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 19 years, 11 months in prison – he was paroled after serving about 4 ½ years. The North Carolina Department of Labor was overhauled. It took 10 years to get the hulking remains of the plant torn down. In the intervening years, the plant had become a Superfund site, as well as a magnet for vandalism and drug crimes. National Public Radio’s Adam Hochberg reported on those efforts back in 2001.

When Elizabeth Edwards came to Blogher, I wanted to ask what John Edwards had done during his Senate term, which began in 1999, to help the residents of Hamlet reclaim their lives and livelihoods. My question was prompted by a conversation I’d had in 2002 with Hamlet resident Gloria Mask, who told me that they’d only gotten lip service from Democratic politicians when they tried to get help cleaning up the Imperial Foods plant site. Ultimately, she said, their help came from veteran Republican Sen. Jesse Helms.

Edwards is one of several 2008 presidential candidates promising to uphold workers’ rights. Earlier this week, when the Carpenters’ Union endorsed Edwards, the campaign trumpeted his commitment:

"More than ever, America needs a president who will stand up for working families and the middle class," Edwards said. "I have walked picket lines and helped organize thousands of workers, and I've seen firsthand what unions go through every single day trying to protect the right to organize, trying to bargain collectively, and trying to get a decent wage and health care. If we're going to grow the middle class and ensure fairness, we need to strengthen workers' rights. I have always stood on the side of working Americans and I always will."

Hillary Clinton also describes herself as a friend of the labor movement. This past June, she spoke out on behalf of the Employee Free Choice Act of 2007, which the bill’s sponsors said would ensure workers the right to join unions without fear of retaliation. Fellow Senators and Democratic contenders, Barack Obama and Chris Dodd also signed on as co-sponsors. The bill cleared the House of Representatives in March, but opponents succeeded in blocking a Senate vote. Observers say it is not likely to be re-introduced before the election.

The following links offer more information on the state of workers’ rights in the US:
House Education and Labor Committee
Obama takes union-busting money
Corporate Social Responsibility Brings Limited Progress on Workplace Safety in Global Supply Chains

Photo: Mary Alice Quick. Courtesy of Martin Quick. Used with permission.

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