Archive for the ‘Labor’ Category

Interview with Rev. James M. Lawson, Jr.

July 31, 2020

I’ve been hearing from so many people who were moved by Rev. James Lawson speaking at the funeral of John Lewis that I wanted to share this. In 2008 and 2009, I had the honor and opportunity of interviewing Rev. Lawson. Sections of this lengthy interview appeared in The Believer and Fellowship Magazine, but the entire interview has not been available publicly before. You can download it here.

He survived war and torture; she married him — and his trauma.

October 13, 2015

Here’s Miguel’s story of survival from the civil war in El Salvador. I always think it’s important to consider how trauma affects others in a family as well so I am grateful that Sandra was willing to talk with me about their marriage, and here is her story, too. Click here, please, to read.

Chant Down the Walls!

November 20, 2014

On Monday, as the sky darkened over LA, I stood across the street from the Metropolitan Detention Center with my friends Tania and Valeska Cañas, a couple dozen musicians, and a couple dozen more activists and supporters and media and decent human beings there to serenade with solidarity the immigrants detained inside the building and facing deportation.

Image by NDLON

Image by NDLON

It’s a weekly event — CHANT DOWN THE WALLS — through which NDLON, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and Latino musicians in LA County show up on Monday evenings with music and dance and solidarity. An angry or earnest protest can make a point, but the men locked up inside the building at Alameda and Aliso know very little joy. And so, NDLON brings music, like the brass and woodwinds of Banda la Arrazadora and the norteño sound of Dueto las Voces del Rancho.

Voces del Rancho backed by Banda la Arrazadora; photo by Valeska Cañas

Voces del Rancho backed by Banda la Arrazadora; photo by Valeska Cañas

From the narrow slits that serve as windows, the detained men wave and signal down to the street with flashlights.

It felt right to be there with Tania and Valeska. They were born in El Salvador. As children, during their country’s civil war, they along with their parents were granted refugee status and resettled in Australia. Today, Tania, theater artist and Ph.D. candidate, also works for RISE, the first refugee and asylum seeker organization in Australia to be run and governed by refugees, asylum seekers and ex-detainees themselves. That means viewing “those who seek assistance as members and participants, not ‘clients’.” They proclaim: Nothing about us without us. How perfect to see the same slogan on posters outside the LA detention facility along with the words NUESTRA LUCHA/NUESTRA VOZ. (OUR STRUGGLE/OUR VOICE)

Tania and me; photo by Valeska Cañas

Tania and me; photo by Valeska Cañas

and how perfect that we listened and danced to the sound of Los Jornaleros del Norte, musicians who do indeed work as day laborers.

It isn’t Monday tonight, but NDLON will be back at the Metropolitan Detention Center to watch the President’s speech and chant down the walls once more.

For years under Clinton, eight dark years under Bush, and six unforgivable Obama years I’ve watched millions of decent people deported from this country, families torn apart, US-citizen children traumatized and thrown into poverty. President Obama has talked and talked about taking executive action to bring about a more humane immigration policy in the face of Republican refusal to move on legislation. But as he talked, he had more people arrested, detained, abused–I have been inside detention centers and “abuse” is no exaggeration–and then deported than any other president. Did he really believe this tough-guy act would inspire Republicans to cooperate with him? He had to know better. This rampage through our communities accomplished nothing but the cruel destruction of so many lives.

Giving temporary status to at least some of the so-called DREAMers who were brought here as children was one small step. (The requirements were complicated enough to exclude many young people, as was the pricetag on processing the papers.)

Now as we wait to hear if President Obama is finally going to allow more hardworking, contributing members of our society to come out from the shadows, I have to repeat in translation and in paraphrase the words of NDLON Director Pablo Alvarado:

President Obama is about to announce an executive action on immigration. We want him to use his authority under the Constitution and under the law to bring about a fair policy. So far, it’s all rumors and we don’t know who will be included and who will be excluded by what he decides. But even as we celebrate for those who will be included, let us commit ourselves to the others, that we will continue using our voices and our influence until all the hardworking immigrants have rights.


So, the President’s speech:

Some immigrant activists are happy but I’m not impressed. So, enforcement will prioritize deporting “felons, not families”–which is what he’s been saying for years even while ordinary law-abiding parents continued to be detained and deported–except when activists rushed to support people in specific cases. Undocumented immigrants who’ve lived here at least five years and have children who are either US citizens or legal residents can register with the government, pay fines and taxes, and be temporarily protected from deportation. (Of course, undocumented people have been paying taxes all along.) Childless people who’ve contributed to this country get no relief. LGBT immigrants will rarely be able to benefit. Even the parents of DREAMers won’t be eligible under this program, if it ever gets off the ground. And what happens with a new administration? People will have identified themselves to a government that may well turn hostile. In the meantime, though, they can get work permits which, among other things, means less exploitation. This really isn’t much of a gift to the immigrant community, but that isn’t stopping the violent, almost obscene response from some Republican mouthpieces. (check out angry loudmouth Jonathan Wilcox, who used to write speeches for anti-immigrant former CA governor Pete Wilson)

And more money — lots more money– for border patrol and security….Don’t we have more important matters to address with our limited resources?

The struggle continues.

James Lawson: A Sense of Urgency

October 3, 2014

Back in 2008, I interviewed Rev. James Lawson, Jr., veteran (still active) activist for civil rights and social justice, for many hours over the course of several days. The full interview has been too long to publish anywhere, but an abridged version appeared in The Believer in March/April 2013 and I included a link to the piece in this blog. Now I’ve just seen the Fellowship of Reconciliation has published another version, duplicating some of The Believer interview and included material that wasn’t published before. Here’s the new link.

Reverend James Lawson and the Power of Nonviolent Action

March 2, 2013

I am more than thrilled that much of the extensive interview I did with Reverend Lawson back in 2007-08 has finally seen print, in this month’s issue of The Believer. Here’s the excerpt they put on their web page. I’m waiting for the hard copy to give to Jim Lawson who may have forgotten by now that he ever talked to me.




Lawson B&W


Four major factors that have taught America to depend upon violence and animosity:

The decimation of America’s indigenous people and subsequent stealing of their land

The establishment of slavery

Sexism and the “headship” of the male

“Plantation capitalism” and its exploitation of the worker

Martin Luther King Jr. called him “the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world.” To Congressman John Lewis, he is an architect of the nonviolence movement. Author David Halberstam believed he was responsible for sowing the seeds of change in the South as much as any person (except maybe King). Rev. James M. Lawson Jr. was born in Pennsylvania in 1928 and to this day continues his life’s work in the service of direct action for social justice.

In 1955, Lawson was teaching in India while studying Gandhi’s life and work. It was there that he read newspaper accounts of the Montgomery bus boycott and first learned about Martin Luther King. Back in the U.S., after the two men met, Lawson went to Nashville, where he led workshops to prepare for direct action—marches, boycotts, sit-ins, and picketing. He also enrolled in Vanderbilt Divinity School, which had just begun to accept a small number of black students. He soon raised hackles by acting like a normal human being: eating in the cafeteria with white classmates and joining in intramural sports. When trustees realized that their black divinity student was the key figure behind the protests, two members of the board demanded and won his expulsion. Though the white faculty rallied in his support and Lawson’s enrollment was reinstated, he chose to complete his degree in Boston. (His relationship with Vanderbilt was renewed—or perhaps redeemed—in 2006, when the onetime subversive was named Distinguished Visiting Professor.)

Lawson coordinated the Freedom Riders, interracial groups of activists who rode interstate buses into the Deep South to exercise their civil rights under the Supreme Court’s anti-segregation rulings. They endured jailing and violence from mobs that included local police and the Ku Klux Klan. Years later, Lawson relocated to Los Angeles (where he has been arrested more times than during all his time in the South). As pastor of Holman United Methodist Church, he made nonviolence training part of Christian education and soon began to offer workshops, free, to the public.

Today, past the age of eighty, he continues to assert that justice is a tenet of all religions and that religious leaders must stop blessing violence and war. Lawson has moral authority and significant influence with elected officials, but still believes he can accomplish more in the streets than in the halls of power.

—Diane Lefer


THE BELIEVER: You’ve said we have sufficient activism in this country to have a better country than we have. What are we getting wrong?

JAMES LAWSON: Activism is not appropriating and practicing the Gandhian science of social change. What Gandhi called nonviolence, or satyagraha—“soul force”—is both a way of life and a scientific, methodological approach to human disorder. It is as old as the human race and can be found in the oral and written history of the human family from way back. Then Gandhi began to put together the steps you need to take to create change. He is the father of nonviolent social change in the same way that Albert Einstein is the father of twentieth-century physics—not the inventor but the person who pulled it together.

Gene Sharp wrote the classic book in the field, The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Looking at different centuries and different cultures, he discovered 198 different techniques—various forms of protest and agitation and strikes, sit-ins, and civil disobedience, and there are many more, because people have invented other techniques. Activists ought to study this so they can become like military strategists, not just operating out of the adrenaline that develops out of anger.

Today, much of our activism does not discuss, study, and apply what nonviolence theory offers the struggle. Too much activism gears itself to lobbying legislatures and Congress and the president. That activism does not have the clout that the Council on Foreign Relations has, or that Exxon has or the Pentagon has, so it’s lost. Again and again, when a movement begins to raise its head in the United States, the so-called political social progressive forces immediately try to surround it and guide it into the channels they think are important. I experienced this as early as 1961 with what I think to be very wonderful people in the Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations. Robert Kennedy was mobilizing foundations and others to put money into voter registration. In meetings, he pushed very, very hard and eloquently that we should end the Freedom Rides and go toward voter registration. In 2006, when the coalition of immigration groups came together to start the big marches, they were immediately approached by foundations and political groups that said the way to do this was to lobby for a good bill.

BLVR: But voting rights and voter registration paved the way for the election of Barack Obama. Doesn’t that show we can bring about change through the ballot?

JL: Pulling down the WHITE and COLORED signs across the country—the NO JEWS, NO MEXICANS, NO IRISH, NO WOP, NO INDIAN signs—has done far more to prepare the mind of the nation for a black president than voter registration. Desegregation of the sports world and the university and the professional world has done more to prepare the American mind than the Voting Rights Act of ’65. The country has grown since the ’50s and ’60s precisely because we put into play those forces that began the desegregation process while real access to the right to vote still hasn’t been settled in the United States.

Obama is one man, and we are still trying to establish a democracy. In the meantime, there’s the chaos and the greed. JPMorgan publicly said that this time of recession is a great time for it to buy up assets. The bailout was used to give dividends to its investors. There’s no indication that these engines for self-destructing our country have stopped or slowed down. And while the visible signs of segregation have come down, the systemic stuff is still there. Blacks are still largely the last to be hired and the first to be fired.

The peace movement has failed to slow down militarization and the empire elements in our country, and it has failed to stop war, because it does not understand that the road to peace is justice. The peace movement does not have the focus that dismantling racism and poverty in the United States is the critical issue for the security of the nation. Stabilizing families by good work, by health care, is the critical issue for the security of the land and the well-being of the land. Only by engaging in domestic issues and molding a domestic coalition for justice can we confront the militarization of our land. We must confront that here—not over there. Iraq and the Middle East are not the central, pivotal places for the well-being of the American people. The central pivotal place for three hundred million people here is the United States and our domestic policies.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

What Happens in Bogotá Doesn’t Stay in Bogotá

January 7, 2013

My article published on January 6, 2013 in LA Progressive

Jorge Parra is speaking out–even though his lips are sewn shut.

Jorge Parra

Parra was a skilled trades welder when he went to work for General Motors Colombian subsidiary Colmotores. There, he developed herniated discs, severe carpal tunnel in both hands, and upper spinal tendinosis.

In a translated written statement, he explained, “I underwent three surgeries and now walk with a cane due to the injuries I sustained at GM. When I first started feeling pain in my lower back and legs…I went to GM’s medical center. They gave me injections of Oxycotin and Diclofenac and sent me back to work.”
Parra, who now has several screws implanted in his spine, responded by organizing ASOTRECOL [Association of Injured Workers and Ex-Workers of General Motors Colmotores] in May 2011 and was promptly fired for “instigating resentment.”

Today, he is in Detroit, his travel paid by a US-based NGO, coming up on the second month of a hunger strike as he seeks an appointment with GM’s CEO Daniel Akerson to make a personal plea for GM to return to mediation with former workers who, like him, were fired after being injured on the job and left without livelihood.

Hunger strikers

My friend Patrick Bonner, coordinator of the Colombia Peace Project, knows about hunger strikes from back in the day when he accompanied Cesar Chavez. More recently, he’s been on ten fact-finding missions to Colombia with organizations including Witness for Peace and Fellowship of Reconciliation. In Bogotá in July 2012, he met with fired GM workers who were then camped out across the street from the US Embassy, seeking justice. At the time, the US Treasury Department still owned a 32% stake in General Motors which probably gave the Embassy, along with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, enough leverage to help induce now profitable GM to negotiate with the workers.

The talks collapsed, however, in August when the workers rejected a compensation offer so low it would not have covered medical and surgery costs or supported their families for long. Besides which, as Parra explained, the men don’t want hand-outs. Except for those totally disabled, what they want is the chance to keep working. They seek reassignment to different positions, with retraining if necessary, so that men who can no longer do heavy lifting or suffer from repetitive stress injuries can be transferred elsewhere in the plant or on the Chevy assembly line.

Sympathizers across the US began to fast in solidarity–without sewing their lips shut.

Fasting in Solidarity

And this past Saturday, at the urging of the Witness for Peace organization, I accompanied Bonner and Maggie Peña, financial corporate consultant who was born in Colombia, on visits to LA-area GM dealerships to find out if local managers knew what was happening in Bogotá and Detroit.

Maggie Peña

Of course, local dealerships don’t determine corporate policy but they also don’t answer to GM shareholders or benefit from CEO compensation packages. It seemed they would instead be concerned with any bad publicity that could tarnish the Chevrolet brand.

Peña, who has worked for major corporations including Disney, Toshiba, and IBM, said “Companies are very sensitive to how they look. You embarrass them and they are going to react.” And so we hoped that managers would join us in asking GM to agree to renewed mediation or arbitration. Still, as we traveled through the LA basin and the San Fernando Valley, we didn’t know what to expect.
At dealership after dealership, general managers and sales managers gave us thoughtful attention. (I won’t name any, in case there might be repercussions for them.)

When Peña said US corporations do things in other countries they couldn’t get away with here, and began to explain how unlikely it was for workers to reach a just solution in Colombia, where union leaders are assassinated and labor laws are rarely enforced, one manager nodded and replied, “I wasn’t born here in this country. I know what you’re saying.”

Everyone we spoke to said they would bring the subject up with the Detroit reps they deal with. GM might respond in the same way the corporation did in an email to the Wall Street Journal: “GM Colmotores is respectful of the law and has never put the health or the well-being of its employees at risk.”

GM has also released statements that almost all claims by former employees have been dismissed in court. ASOTRECOL members say their medical records were falsified. Indeed, the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy reports that Jorge Parra’s insurance carrier did indeed alter records so that his injuries would not be considered work-related. The company was found guilty for this and fined the equivalent of $16,000. However, in spite of this determination, the falsified documents remain legally binding and Parra’s claim remains dismissed–exactly the kind of shenanigans referred to by Peña.

As Peña also pointed out in visit after visit, “With global communications and social media, it’s instant. What happens in Bogotá is known right away in Los Angeles and Detroit.” Even if the managers didn’t express support for the workers, just having them raise the issue and ask questions would achieve our goal. We wanted GM headquarters to see that the struggle of the Colmotores workers cannot be kept under the radar.

Why should this matter to the average American? Due to the bailout, GM was owned by us, and the more US companies can get away with exploitative practices in other countries, the more attractive it becomes to export jobs.

After arriving in Motor City, Jorge Parra had another compelling reason. “I have talked mostly with autoworkers from the Midwest, who have shared with me their horror stories: how the two-tier wage system gives companies an incentive to continually hire low-wage workers and creates tension between workers; how supervisors forced their workers to continue working in nearly 100-degree heat; and how unions are becoming weaker and unable to guarantee workers’ rights.”

He heard about tier-two workers in the US who didn’t receive all the safety training they needed to handle dangerous equipment.

“I was surprised to hear that these practices were happening here…it seems to me that multinationals are testing out new systems of worker repression in developing countries and now they are transferring those systems to the ‘developed world.’ GM implemented a two-tier system in Colombia before it did in Detroit. Now workers are only considered for wage increases after three years on the job, but few make it that far. It is easier for GM to dispose of its workers after they have forfeited their health and before they start to cost the company more money. ..This practice must not be allowed to continue in Colombia or the United States.”

In the meantime, Patrick Bonner is planning more visits to dealerships, hoping to meet more managers like the man who said, “It’s disturbing on so many levels–for humanity.” While Maggie Peña explained her involvement this way: “It doesn’t have anything to do with me being Colombian. It has to do with what’s right.”

If you wish to express your concern to General Motors CEO Daniel Akerson, please write to him at 300 Renaissance Center, Detroit, MI 48243

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