Week In Review
April 16 2013
by Bill Onasch
Slaves Legal and Hidden
Today, bipartisan immigration “reform” is being introduced in Congress. Though it is said to have the best chance of passage of any of the attempts made over the past 25 years it is by no means a slam dunk. It wouldn’t have got this far had it not been for a bargain reached by forces outside Congress.
A couple of weeks ago New York Democrat Senator Charles Schumer, a key player in the reform effort, announced on the Sunday morning talk shows that AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka had concluded an agreement with Chamber of Commerce president Thomas Donohue on the future of unskilled “guest workers.” These “legal” migrants are brought in to the USA for labor in agriculture, food service, hotels, and other low pay jobs. The deal obtained by Trumka, considered vital for the success of legislation, sets some minimal wage rates and limits the number of these workers to about 200,000 a year–unless the bosses need more.
I can’t fault Trumka for negotiating with the Chamber. Bargaining with employers and employer groups is what unions do. Having been through some contract bargaining myself over the years I’m not eager to take any cheap shots at the results. But, unlike union contracts the union will have no means to enforce even the modest protections in this deal. And, if the Chamber has its way, no body else will either.
Four years ago, the Kansas City Star ran an award-winning series of articles on human trafficking. It included an expose of Giant Labor Solutions, a Kansas City outfit that brought more than a thousand unskilled migrant workers to the area on H-2B visas. Giant confiscated their visas, put them up in group housing–and stole their wages. They were virtual slaves. When this outrage came to light a rare prosecution by the Justice Department won human trafficking and racketeering convictions and the masters of this slave conspiracy got twelve-year prison sentences.
As a result of that high profile case the Labor Department issued new regulations to help assure compliance with at least wage and hour laws. But the Chamber didn’t like that and they went to court. At about the same time the deal with Trumka was announced the Appeals Court in Atlanta sided with the Chamber in declaring the Labor Department has no authority to regulate guest workers.
That’s what can happen–and the Chamber thinks is acceptable to happen–to migrants here in this country legally. The estimated eleven million undocumented immigrants are even more vulnerable even as they become an essential part of the economy–including the states who preach most and loudest about law and order.
Take the home state of President Bush, governed by one-time front runner for the GOP presidential nomination, Rick Perry. National Public Radio recently covered a study by the University of Texas of the construction industry there where the issues of super-exploitation of undocumented workers and fraudulent misclassification of work combine with devastating effect.
About half of the million workers in the Texas construction industry are undocumented. Forty-one percent–including both “legal” and undocumented--are classified, in blatant defiance of law, as “independent contractors.” Contractors are not covered by wage and hour laws, are expected to pay both shares of their own Social Security as well as other taxes, and are responsible for their own worker compensation coverage.
It has become a common practice in Texas for construction bosses to pay not only these “contractors” but even most other workers in cash–promoting tax evasion to subsidize their already substandard labor costs. With little worker compensation to worry about it’s no wonder that Texas construction has the highest accident rate in the country. Honest, law-abiding employers, especially those employing union workers, are finding it impossible to compete with the crooks who dominate.
Trumka and the liberals hope that offering a “path to citizenship” will enable immigrant workers to assert their rights. But the path currently on the table is long, punitive and conditional. Current “reform” will do little to relieve the oppression of immigrants that also adversely affects the wages and conditions of the rest of us.
What is needed is a revival of working class solidarity. Wage labor to feed one’s family is not criminal activity. Those of us who can’t be deported for speaking and acting need to champion the rights of all who toil for a living. Their injuries are clearly ours as well.
I can’t say precisely what effect the two million signatures collected in opposition to the President’s budget proposals to slash Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits will have. My guess would be somewhere between null and void. That’s more clear than ever as today’s Washington Post reports,
“President Obama’s offer to trim Social Security benefits has perplexed and angered Democrats, but GOP leaders are embracing the proposal and rushing to jump-start a debate that will delve even more deeply into the touchy topic of federal spending on the elderly.”
But while our two million may be ignored the White House has instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to delay proposed new carbon emission standards for new power plants so that they can properly review two million individual “public comments.” John M Broder wrote in the New York Times,
“The Environmental Protection Agency said Friday that it would delay issuance of a new rule limiting emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from new power plants after the electric power industry objected on legal and technical grounds. The rule, proposed a year ago and scheduled to be finalized on Saturday, would have put in place the first restrictions on climate-altering gases from the power sector in the United States. Agency officials said it would be rewritten to address the concerns raised by the industry, which said that strict new carbon standards could not be met using existing technology. An EPA spokeswoman said the agency had received more than two million comments on the proposed rule. She would not speculate on when a revised standard would be issued.”
Our side made no attempt to hide the unions and retiree groups petitioning to save benefits. The fossil energy giants try to disguise their carefully orchestrated obstruction as a grass-roots protest against Big Government, job-killing regulations.
Only the scale involved is novel. The Clinton administration allowed perpetual talk about the ergonomic standard until the Bush administration came along to kill it. More recently a new silica standard was put on hold because of industry objections before it could even reach the formal comment stage. All this choreographed talk may not be cheap but it pays big dividends for those who take risks with our lives and health in the workplace as well as posing mortal danger to our biosphere.
One promising development around the climate change crisis is a gathering this coming Saturday in New York City. Following examples in Europe, Canada, and Australia, there will be an EcoSocialist Conference, discussing System Change, Not Climate Change. One panel is entitled, Natural Allies: The Labor & Climate Justice Movements. I am sorry that I will be unable to attend but I am in touch with some participants and will pass on reports as I get them.
¶ Rage and sadness were the competing emotions I felt learning that the 1300 workers locked out by American Crystal Sugar in Minnesota/North Dakota for twenty months had, in a fifth vote, felt compelled to offer to go back to work on the company’s terms. The approval of the take-back laden deal was by a 55 percent margin. John Riskey, president of BCTGM Local 167G, said, “BCTGM members thank all who have supported our stand for justice and dignity and who have helped our families survive these hard times.”
¶ When General Electric started building a locomotive facility in Ft Worth, Texas they assured UE Local 506 at the giant locomotive works in Erie, Pennsylvania that it was only for overflow Erie couldn’t handle. But now GE is transferring 950 jobs out of the last remaining major manufacturing plant still covered under the UE national agreement. There’s a plant gate rally in Erie today protesting both the loss of work and company dishonesty. Expect to hear more from them.
¶ In Common Dreams, Jacob Chamberlain alerts us to another odious component of the Obama budget, “In Obama's budget, far less money would be allocated for federal food safety regulators, leaving room for a scheme promoted by Obama earlier this year in which industry employees are assigned to regulate themselves.”
That’s all for this week.