Archive for April, 2012

Posted Today, Workers’ Memorial Day

April 28, 2012

Working Smarter to Save Workers’ Lives

By Diane Lefer

Maria Elena Durazo picketing with hotel workers in October

According to US Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, more people die in the American workplace in a single year than have been lost in nine years of war in Iraq. “Each day in America, twelve people go to work and never go home,” she told the audience at the Action Summit for Worker Safety and Health held at East Los Angeles Community College on April 26, one of many events leading up to Workers Memorial Day, April 28, an annual date of remembrance for those killed, injured, or sickened on the job.

María Elena Durazo, Executive-Secretary-Treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, reported there were 500 work-related deaths in 2011 in California and “Workers are still being fired for speaking out in order to avoid death.”

This loss of life and countless serious injuries, continue to occur although the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), intended to protect workers, was signed by Richard Nixon 41 years ago.

Well, what’s a law if it’s not enforced? DeAnn McEwen, President of the California Nurses Association, quoted pioneering public health nurse and activist Lavinia Dock: “The law sits harmlessly on the shelf, as innocent as a verse from Mother Goose.”

For decades, the OSHA law and regulations have indeed appeared harmless. Workers had little reason to believe OSHA or the state agency, Cal OSHA (which receives much of its funding from federal OSHA), had their backs. But Secretary Solis took office in 2009 announcing “There’s a new sheriff in town,” one who would enforce the law. So, does that make Summit panelists — California Labor Commissioner Julie Su, who enforces wage and hour laws; and California OSHA Chief Ellen Widess in charge of occupational health and safety regulations in the state — her posse?

Less than a year ago, Shirley Alvarado del Aguila, coordinator of the Southern California Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (SoCalCOSH) declared “The system is broken,” but she expressed confidence in Widess who had just been confirmed in her post.

So how (and what) are these three powerful women doing? While the Department of Labor has only 1,000 safety inspectors to cover 8 million workplaces in the US. The California Occupational Health and Safety Program is expected to cover 1.3 million sites with a couple of hundred personnel while the Labor Commission has about one field investigator per county. The lack of adequate resources and staff, said Commissioner Su, cannot be “an excuse not to do our jobs. We have to work smarter,” and one way they are doing that is by amplifying their effectiveness through partnerships.

Hilda Solis, US Secretary of Labor

With Employers

Solis and Widess made it clear that while they will go after bad employers, in Widess’ words, Cal OSHA is dedicated “to helping good employers flourish.” Their agencies provide free consultation, assessments, and training upon request, especially to businesses too small to have health and safety expertise, let alone fulltime safety coordinators. In spite of funding cutbacks throughout government, Solis said President Obama has increased funding for this support to small business.

“Punishing the bad guys is the last resort,” she said. She’d much rather “help employers do right by their workers before tragedies happen.”

With Each Other’s Agencies

Last year SoCalCOSH suggested that CalOSHA coordinate enforcement with other agencies because employers who violate OSHA regulations are often in violation of Wage and Hour rules and Workmens Comp rules as well. That’s exactly what Widess and Su are doing together now as both focus on particularly hazardous industries and the underground economy that employs mostly immigrant and low-wage workers.

Both agencies went after the logistics industry in the Inland Empire. A common practice was for warehouse operators to shield themselves from responsibility for workers by hiring through temporary staffing agencies. Su’s agency was able to pierce the corporate veil and issue million dollar citations against two agencies and then see the workers file a class action lawsuit, with the ultimate result that the workers are now hired directly by the warehouse. The Warehouse Workers Union identified and mapped hazards in the workplace and Cal OSHA investigated and was able to show the warehouse and agency were both exercising supervision and control over employees and therefore both could be charged with violations.

The US Department of Labor and the California Labor Commission have initiated a first of its kind federal/state joint enforcement agreement targeting agriculture, port drivers, warehouses, and the garment industry.

California Labor Commissioner Julie Su

Su has her own agency working smarter. While the Bureau of Field Enforcement has the statutory right to enter a place of employment, this power was wasted in the past. Inspections weren’t meaningful as investigators interviewed employees in the presence of the boss. Now, her staff does off-site interviews and surveillance, for example, observing workers reporting to work at 7:00 AM though in front of the boss they back up the employer’s claim that they started work at 9:00.

We can’t be everywhere,” said Widess, “so it is so important that there be a culture of safety.” Only so many deaths and accidents can be investigated, but untold numbers can be prevented.

Last year, Cal OSHA launched a program to educate workers and employers about the symptoms of heat illness, including the danger of death; to train in emergency procedures; and to let employers know that the workers’ right to water, rest breaks, and shade will be enforced.

The summer heat campaign was so successful in reaching farmworkers, utility workers, road workers, landscapers that Secretary Solis adopted it and took it nationally into fields, airport tarmacs, construction sites and other outdoor workplaces.

Interagency cooperation comes naturally to the women who have crossed paths fighting for California’s most vulnerable for decades. Su was lead attorney in 1995 on behalf of Thai immigrant workers who’d been held in virtual slavery in an El Monte sweatshop while Solis held hearings about the case in the California State Senate and worked to hold manufacturers responsible for the wage and hour violations. Widess long record of social justice commitment includes her work during the first Jerry Brown administration to protect farm workers from pesticides.

With Both Criminal and Civil Courts

SoCalCOSH had criticized the slap-on-the-wrist fines assessed for safety violations, sometimes less than $5,000, even in cases where known hazards led to a worker’s death.

Widess has referred thirteen of the most egregious cases she’s seen to District Attorneys around the state. They accepted eight cases. Charges were eventually filed in seven of them and one owner has already received jail time.

Deann McEwen, President, California Nurses Association

Under Su, the Labor Commission created a criminal investigation unit–believed to be the first in country, staffed with sworn peace officers who’d been through Police Academy training. A 2010 UCLA study reported that $26 million were stolen each week from low-wage workers in CA who were not paid what they had earned. Su intends to make it clear that “it is a crime in the State of California to steal wages from workers.”

Su goes after civil penalties as well. Though the law provides for penalties when wages aren’t paid in a timely manner, the Labor Commission didn’t try to assess these penalties in the past. Now, “if you come before the Labor Commission and you’ve broken the law, it’s gonna cost you something. It’s going to cost you more than if you’d done the right thing in the first place.”

Ruben Rosalez, Acting Administrator, Wage and Hour Division, Western Region, (who said it was an honor to be in the company of such powerful mujeres), is also ready to go to court, to seek restraining orders against shipping goods until the workers are paid; or to see employers held in contempt of court if consent decrees are violated.

The agencies will seek punitive damages in cases of retaliation against whistleblowers. Solis told of the airline that fired a pilot who reported mechanical problems that affected public safety. The Department saw to it that the airline reinstated the employee and paid $1 million in back wages, interest, and damages.

With Community Groups

Last year, SoCalCOSH called for the hiring of more bilingual and culturally competent inspectors. Unlikely given budget constraints, so Widess addresses the problem with more community involvement and training of community members, more billboards, more bilingual outreach in more languages, now including Punjabi and Mixteco. The agency is enlisting the ethnic media to spread the word.

Another powerful mujer, Deborah Berkowitz, Federal OSHA Chief of Staff, said training materials are now available using international communication standards. For workers who have limited English or low-literacy skills, this doesn’t just strengthen the workers right to know. “Now they have the right to understand.”

Ellen Widess, Cal OSHA Chief

With Workers’ Organizations

Solis chose the Summit to kick off the Labor Department’s new campaign aimed at preventing accidental deaths and injuries in the construction industry, providing educational materials about working safely from ladders, scaffolding, and roofs. Over 750 construction workers die on the job every year, about 1/3 from falls, and many more are seriously injured, Solis said, “in workplace accidents that disable our workers, devastate our families and hurt our economy.”

David Frelow, Labor Relations Representative for the construction workers represented by the Laborer’s International Union of North America (LIUNA), explained that his organization had approached the Labor Department urging the initiative and will play a role in disseminating information and training. He estimated that a complete set of safety equipment, including harnesses, tie-offs and more, costs under $100, but won’t save lives if workers aren’t trained in how to use the equipment.

The word “Action” in the day’s event meant that labor groups in attendance were urged to join in this and other initiatives,

Widess offered examples of workers who have gone beyond addressing individual specific grievances and how their strategic thinking about legislation and standards can “make more lasting change.”

Hotel housekeepers suffer a high rate of back and shoulder injuries from repeatedly lifting mattresses that can weigh as much as 100 pounds and knee injuries from cleaning floors on their knees. The housekeepers’ union, UNITE HERE, has proposed statewide safety standards that would require hotels to change practice and provide mops and fitted sheets for workers to use.

“The Safe Patient Handling Act passed,” in the California legislature, said Widess, “but still has to be implemented. The rulemaking process is going on now,” and nurses are using their real-life expertise and taking the lead in proposing those rules.

McEwen of the California Nurses Association noted “we’re not all body-builders,” but the body-builder governor had previously refused to sign the law. Jerry Brown, a strong supporter of labor rights protection, did. Now she thinks progress in California can spread. Senator Al Franken has introduced Safe Lifting legislation aimed at protecting all workers in the US. California also has Safe Staffing legislation that, for example, mandates that an intensive care nurse can have no more than two patients at a time. “In Texas I talked to an ICU nurse who had seven,” putting all seven at increased risk of death. “There’s a link between worker safety and patient safety,” she said. Now Barbara Boxer in the Senate and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois in the House have introduced legislation that would protect patients (and nurses) throughout the country.

With immigration authorities

This is, in Su’s words, “a hard nut to crack.” Undocumented workers are often afraid to report injuries or come forward with complaints because they fear deportation. Widess has communicated with ICE to get assurances that no action will be taken against workers who have brought their situations to Cal OSHA. “But that’s not the kind of full protection any of us would like. The threat itself is chilling.”

“We enforce the law regardless of citizenship status,” said Ruben Rosalez. His office will try to certify undocumented workers as a first step to a U-visa which can give lawful status to a noncitizen crime victim who is willing to assist in the investigation.The U-visa, he acknowledged, can be very hard to get.

“Immigration status is irrelevant,” Su agreed, “but remedies are inadequate.” For example, when workers are fired in retaliation for filing complaints, they have the right to get their jobs back, but “reinstatement doesn’t apply if you’re undocumented and don’t have the right to work in the US to begin with.” Still, they can be protected against other forms of retaliation such as having their hours cut or schedule changed to a less desirable shift or location. In spite of the risks involved, she has seen some of the most vulnerable workers come forward. And the agencies can’t do much to help workers unless workers feel free to report abuse. Su went on to wonder if employers might be charged with a crime if they held immigration consequences over a worker’s head. Impeding an investigation? Tampering with a witness? Obstructing justice?

Last year, SoCalCOSH reported workers (citizens, documented, undocumented) being fired for filing OSHA complaints and then, after filing complaints about retaliation, have waited as long as seven years for a decision. In spite of short-staffing, Su said her agency now investigates immediately if retaliation follows a complaint to either the Labor Commission or to OSHA.

Solis, Widess, and Su have shown it’s possible to do a lot with a little, but their work remains under threat in a climate of austerity and the war on regulation.

“Before OSHA,” said Solis, “there was no federal law requiring safety shields to prevent amputations, no law requiring a safety harness. If you didn’t like it, they told you to quit.”

Berkowitz said OSHA recently came under attack for starting to enforce a regulation that had been on the books (like a Mother Goose rhyme?) since 1994.

The rightwing echo chamber insists that OSHA kills jobs while Solis reminds us “OSHA prevents jobs from killing workers.”

Without regulation, what price do we pay? Let’s echo this: Employment-related death, disability, and illness exact a high toll not only on workers and their families, but on business and the economy as a whole.

Diane Lefer

Posted: Saturday, 28 April 2012

Carnaval de Oruro, Bolivia

April 16, 2012

Doug Glover just published my article in Numero Cinq and I’m just putting the link here because of all the photos. This is probably the most effective way to get the whole thing out to you! Click here. Thanks!

Oops – there was an error when this piece was posted. This is the correct photo of the Tinkus.

Lezioni dalla Bolivia: provare con un po’ di tenerezza….Try a Little Tenderness – Lessons from Bolivia – in Italian Translation

April 15, 2012

ZNet in Italia had my article translated! If you read Italian, here goes:

Lezioni dalla Bolivia: provare con un po’ di tenerezza….

Di Diane Lefer
9 marzo 2012

Immaginate di lavorare in un ufficio dove ogni mattina le persone entrano e baciano tutti i colleghi. Si comincia la giornata con almeno una dozzina di abbracci e di baci, e, naturalmente altri ogni volta che si esce e si entra. Qui li potremmo chiamare molestie sessuali. Io invece amavo questi gesti di affetto e solidarietà quando collaboravo con Educar es fiesta (Educare è una festa) una organizzazione no profit, con sede a Cochabamba, in Bolivia, che è dedicata a giovani che vivono in situazioni difficili e a famiglie in crisi.
Edson Quezada, conosciuto da tutti come “Queso” formaggio (dal suo cognome, non perché sia un pezzo grosso (traduzione dell’inglese Big Cheese, n.d.T.), ha fondato l’organizzazione credendo che la formazione artistica è anche formazione di vita, che i bambini hanno un diritto naturale intrinseco alla gioia e l’apprendimento deve procedere di pari passo con la contentezza.
Educar es fiesta attira i bambini a partecipare al loro programma offrendo le arti del circo: trapezio, danza acrobatica area, giochi di destrezza, andare su un motociclo, ginnastica, perfino camminare sulla corda per sviluppare l’espressione di sé, la fiducia in se stessi e la perseveranza. I bambini imparano come sviluppare nuove abilità, possono non riuscire molte volte prima di arrivare al successo.
L’aula tradizionale è spesso un luogo di frustrazione, fallimento, e disprezzo per gli indigeni che parlano la lingua Quechua * emigrati dalle zone rurali e per i poveri, e quindi Educar es fiesta insegna in ambienti il più possibile diversi dalla solita aula scolastica – per esempio con i bambini sdraiati sul pavimento della tenda del circo. Il gruppo di insegnanti offre anche laboratori sulla salute, l’igiene sessuale, la nutrizione, la non violenza, i diritti e le responsabilità dei cittadini, e anche lezioni private e altro. E appena i bambini arrivano per i laboratori, ogni bambino riceve un abbraccio e un bacio sulla guancia.
Invece quando lavoravo con i bambini a Los Angeles, dovevo firmare un documento con il quale accettavo di non permettere alcun gioco – perfino “acchiaparella” – che richiedesse un minimo contatto fisico. Se un bambino chiedeva di essere abbracciato, dovevo acconsentire, piegarmi e permettere al bambino di restarmi a fianco.
Naturalmente conosco la realtà degli abusi sessuali. In Bolivia i bambini che vengono abbracciati, fanno pratica grazie alla campagna: “Il mio corpo è territorio mio: nessuno lo tocca senza il mio permesso.” Il toccare, però, è di importanza primaria per gli esseri umani. Il neonato apprende a toccare prima che possa interpretare i segnali visivi o comprendere le parole. Se i bambini non si abbracciano o non si tengono in braccio in modo sano da adulti responsabili, sicuramente questo li renderà obiettivo di predatori che profitteranno del loro bisogno di affetto. Gli abbracci possono curare i bambini maltrattati o abbandonati.

Quando torno a Los Angeles, guardo i giornali locali e vedo che la proibizione di toccare non avrebbe evitato l’abuso che di recente è venuto alla luce riguardo a una maestra di scuola elementare che si presume desse da mangiare ai bambini in classe i suoi liquidi organici.
Nelle nazioni andine, educatori come Queso parlano ora di quella che il peruviano Alejandro Cussiánovich ha chiamato La pedagogia de la ternura, cioè La Pedagogia della Tenerezza. In Perù e in Bolivia che hanno una storia recente di dittature e di repressioni violente, e in Colombia che ha un governo eletto di civili e un conflitto armato in corso, l’idea è che la scuola è necessario che sia un luogo di crescita, non di disciplina, per gente che è stata ridotta al silenzio e che è indurita e traumatizzata da anni di violenza. Tenerezza non vuol dire soltanto accogliere i bambini o essere ultra protettivi: lo scopo di questa educazione non è indottrinare, ma far crescere i bambini in modo che possano essere protagonisti delle loro vite.
Tenerezza. E’ quello che desidero per i bambini americani che crescono in alcuni dei nostri quartieri degradati dove, a causa dei crimini e della violenza delle bande, i bambini mostrano un tasso maggiore di disturbi post traumatici da stress (PTDS – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder rispetto ai loro omologhi di Baghdad durante i giorni peggiori della guerra in Iraq.
Il personale di Educar es fiesta offre anche laboratori per gli insegnanti per condividere le tecniche di “buen trato” – tecniche di gestione della classe basate sul rispetto reciproco invece che sul modello più militare di disciplina e castigo. Questo mi ha ricordato una mia amica californiana che era così disgustata dal suo lavoro di insegnante in una scuola elementare in un quartiere degradato,
che pensava di andarsene. Quando, però, ho visitato la sua scuola un paio di anni fa, i bambini sembravano contenti, bravi e ansiosi di imparare.
“Oh sì,” ha detto la mia amica. Abbiamo una nuova preside che ha cambiato tutto.
Che cosa ha fatto la taumaturga? “Ha convocato una riunione e ha detto agli insegnanti che non potevano più strillare contro i bambini o insultarli. Buen trato, non è vero?
I bambini di Educar es fiesta sanno che cosa vuol dire essere trattati senza rispetto. Nel primo anno, cioè un po’ più di dieci anni fa, Queso aiutava i bambini che al cimitero aspettavano i le persone che partecipavano ai funerali e che potevano dargli la mancia quando gli pulivano i vetri della macchina. I bambini erano spesso maltrattati dai custodi del cimitero. Era un grande divertimento per loro prendere un bambino piccolo e buttarlo in una tomba appena scavata da dove non sarebbe riuscito a uscire arrampicandosi. Quando però questi stessi bambini recitavano in una rappresentazione davanti al pubblico, erano salutati da applausi e acclamazioni. Il loro status cambiava, non solo ai loro occhi, ma anche a quelli della comunità più vasta.
In molti quartieri, però, la comunità è spezzata dalla povertà. Le famiglie si disgregano dato che i genitori emigrano in cerca di lavoro in Argentina, Cile, Spagna e – più di recente – in Giappone e non portano con loro i bambini.
Ecco Laura. Vive con sua nonna che può solo darle un tetto ma che ha poco da offrirle per quanto riguarda cibo o affetto. Laura la mattina va a scuola. Poi va la “lavoro”: si mette davanti a un ristorante modesto dove sorveglierà le macchine mentre clienti mangiano, in cambio di una mancia. Poca gente arriva in macchina. Se non prende mance, soffre la fame. Mentre noi negli Stati Uniti ci preoccupiamo dei “confini”, a Cochabamba, se Jimena Ari, insegnante formatrice di Educar es fiesta, va a casa per pranzo, si porta dietro Laura perché mangi con la sua famiglia e prenda lezioni di scacchi da sua nipote Ceci che va già pazza per quel gioco.
Nel pomeriggio Laura è nella tenda del circo, ansiosa di imparare.
Quando gli altri bambini se ne sono andati, Laura si trattiene nell’ufficio. Fino a quando non chiudono le porte, nessuno la manda via. Se c’è un progetto che ha bisogno di una mano volenterosa, Laura aiuta. Altrimenti fa pratica con il computer. Forse le daranno un bicchiere di latte e un po’ di pane. Certamente riceverà un abbraccio. E qualcuno le dirà come è intelligente, come è bella, e le dirà che le vogliono bene.

* l quechua, kichwa o runasimi (runa = “uomo” + simi = “lingua”, letteralmente “bocca”) è una ù vasta. di Lingue native americane del Sud America. Fu la lingua ufficiale dell’impero Inca, ed è attualmente parlata in vari dialetti da circa 9,6 milioni di persone nella zona occidentale del Sud America, inclusa la Colombia meridionale e l’Ecuador, tutto il Perù e la Bolivia, la parte nord-occidentale dell’Argentina e quella settentrionale del Cile. Oggi è la lingua nativa americana più estesa in tutto il mondo e la quarta lingua più estesa nel continente. È seguita dall’aymara e dal guarani. È lingua ufficiale in Perù e Bolivia assieme allo spagnolo e all’aymara.È una lingua agglutinante sintetica nel quale né l’accento né il tono della voce modificano il significato della parola. Da: (n.d.T.)

Diane Lefer è autrice, commediografa, e attivista. Tra i suoi libri più recenti c’è The Blessing Next to the Wound, [Il sollievo e la ferita] una storia vera scritta insieme all’esule colombiano Hector Aristizabal, e il giallo Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, [Nessuno è bello appena sveglio] che il vincitore del premio Edgar descrive come “setacciare le ceneri della infinita guerra di classe americana”, che uscirà il maggio prossimo per la Rainstorm Press.

Da Z Net – Lo spirito della resistenza è vivo
Originale : New.Clear.Vision
Traduzione di Maria Chiara Starace
Traduzione © 2011 ZNET Italy – Licenza Creative Commons CC BY- NC-SA 3.0

Defending Civil Liberties

April 5, 2012

What an honor to be speaking on this panel!

I’m on a Postcard

April 5, 2012

Thrilled that the Postcard Press chose my short short “Good Twin/Evil Twin” for the April postcard. Check it out and other postcards at their site.