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Republican Pledge: A Rotten Egg for the Middle Class

7:14 am in Uncategorized by Leo W. Gerard

When Herbert Hoover ran for president in 1928, the Republican party promised his victory would assure the prosperity of “a chicken in every pot.” This week, Republicans proffered a similar pledge to America.

Hoover won, and in 1929, after a decade of GOP rule in Washington, Republicans did deliver something foul to Americans. It wasn’t the much-anticipated cooking hen. It was the Great Depression.

Now in the Great Recession, also delivered during a GOP presidency, Republicans have presented a new promise. They pledged to withdraw all unspent Recovery Act money to prevent it from employing even one more worker; kill health care reform to stop 30 million Americans from getting affordable insurance; slash $100 billion from federal programs protecting the middle class; preserve tax cuts for the rich and cut government regulation — like oversight of Gulf-oil-gusher-BP and contaminated-egg-producers Jack and Peter DeCoster.

This time, the GOP downsized the “chicken in every pot” promise. Instead they’re pledging a salmonella-poisoned egg.

In 1932, Americans wisely rejected re-electing Republican Hoover, who is regarded as one of the nation’s most inept leaders, and chose instead Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, revered as one of the best. This fall, it’s crucial that Americans choose sagely again, selecting Democrats intent on reforming Washington and protecting the nation’s middle class.

Eight years of Republican rule in Washington climaxed with the worst recession since the Great Depression. Since that downturn officially began in December of 2007, poverty, unemployment and foreclosures have risen while middle class income and health insurance coverage have fallen.

The poverty rate increased to the worst level in 16 years, with 3.7 million people slipping from the middle class to the ranks of the poor in 2009. One in seven Americans now is impoverished. More than 8 million workers have lost their jobs, and 2.3 million families have lost their homes to foreclosure. Nearly one in four mortgage holders is under water, meaning they owe more on their house than it’s worth. Also, last year, the number of uninsured Americans rose by 4.4 million to 50.7 million — 16.7% of the population. It was the largest annual increase since the government began collecting comparable data in 1987.

By contrast, on Wall Street, where unrestrained and unregulated bankster recklessness caused the recession, happy days are here again. The banks that taxpayers bailed out have resumed paying million-dollar salaries and bonuses. The nation’s top 25 hedge-fund managers each took home an average of $1 billion (BILLION) last year. Those hedgers are among the nation’s richest 1 percent, those whose take home pay grew so fast between 1979 and the start of the recession in 2007 that nearly 39 percent of all income growth went to that tiny number of super-wealthy. Only 36 percent went to the bottom 90 percent of the nation’s population.

Democrats, keenly aware of the diverging experiences of the nation’s sucker-punched workers and its well-heeled elite, have worked to aid the beleaguered middle. They passed the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which the Congressional Budget Office estimated created between 1.4 million and 3.3 million jobs by July.

Democrats reformed health insurance so that children with pre-existing conditions can’t be denied insurance; senior citizens won’t have to pay for “donut hole” medications; young adults up to age 26 may remain on their parents’ plans, and insurance companies can no longer choose doctors or place lifetime limits on coverage or drop the sick. On top of all that, the Democrats’ reform will lower federal deficits by $138 billion.

Now, Democrats are fighting to preserve income tax cuts for the middle class while eliminating breaks for the rich. The Democrats would continue to lower by $1,132 a year the taxes of median wage earners, those with incomes of about $50,000 a year. Under the Democrats’ plan, the super rich – those taking home more than $1 million a year — would still get a tax cut of $6,349 – six times that of the middle class. But Democrats would have the super rich pay $97,651 in taxes a year that they now pocket.

Democrats think the rich have an obligation to pay those taxes. To get where they are, in the top one percent income bracket, they’ve used tax-subsidized public services at significantly higher rates than the other 99 percent of Americans. That includes services such as roads and airports, civil courts, the U.S. patent office, the U.S. Department of Commerce and professional licensing, regulation and inspection departments.

Republicans don’t agree. They believe the middle class should pay so the rich can continue getting breaks. The GOP believes it is fine to give tax cuts to the rich that will cost nearly $1 trillion over 10 years, but not pay for them. Conversely, Republicans have refused to extend unemployment insurance for the middle class jobless unless that’s paid for. The GOP believes it’s appropriate to continue tax breaks for multi-national corporations that ship jobs overseas but it’s not to extend aid to the middle class unemployed to pay for health insurance.

In their Pledge to America, Republicans promise to take care of the rich. They said they’d change Washington by decimating the very regulation that protects middle class workers and their families and by cutting off money that is providing jobs to the unemployed. The GOP pledges to undermine middle class America.

It might be called a turkey, but even that would inflate its value. It’s a rotten egg hurled at middle America.

Assert Yourself, America; Don’t be an Illegal Trade Victim

7:56 am in Uncategorized by Leo W. Gerard

Long-suffering victim is hardly the American image. Paul Revere, Mother Jones, John Glenn, Martin Luther King Jr. — those are American icons. Bold, wry, justice-seeking.

So how is it that America finds herself in the position of schoolyard patsy, woe-is-me casualty of China’s illegal trade practices that are destroying U.S. renewable energy manufacturing and foreclosing an energy-independent future?

Come on, America. Show some of that confident pioneer spirit. Stand up for yourself. Tell China that America isn’t going to hand over its lunch money anymore; international trade law will be enforced now.

That’s the demand the United Steelworkers (USW) union made this week when it filed a 5,800-page suit detailing how China violates a wide variety of World Trade Organization (WTO) obligations.

The case, now in the hands of the U.S. Trade Representative, shows how China uses illegal land grants, prohibited low-interest loans and other outlawed measures to pump up its renewable energy industries and facilitate export of those products at artificially low prices to places like the United States and Europe.

The U.S. aids renewable energy industries, like solar cell and wind turbine manufacturers, but no where near the extent that China does. And the American aid lawfully goes to renewable manufacturers that produce for domestic consumption. China, by contrast, illegally subsidizes industries that export, a strategy that kills off competition.  . . . Read the rest of this entry →

Q&A with Veteran Labor Organizer Stewart J. Acuff

12:44 pm in Uncategorized by Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard: Stewart, you talk about power in a book you’ve written with economist Dr. Richard A. Levins. You called the manual, “Getting America Back to Work.” What’s the relationship between power and getting people back to work?

Stewart J. Acuff: A big part of the problem we have with this economy or the biggest problem is that most of the money has gone to the Financial Elite — and the power as well. To get America back to work we have to reinvest in our country and our workers. That necessarily means that the Financial Elite get less of the wealth generated by the economy and workers will get more. If you intend to take wealth from the richest people in the history of the world, you have to have enough power to do so.

Gerard: You say in the introduction that there are two kinds of power: “The first is lots of organized money. That is the kind of power the Financial Elite have used to bring the rest of us to our knees. The other source and form of power is lots of people: organized, mobilized, united, and taking action.” Do you really think that organized people can succeed in a wrangle with the financial elites?

Acuff: Absolutely! The economic history of the twentieth century is crystal clear. When unions were strong, working people had the lion’s share of income and the economy worked well. When unions were weakened, we have seen the Financial Elite take over and run the economy into the ground.

That’s why passing the Employees Free Choice Act is more important than ever. When we strengthen unions, we strengthen the economy.

Gerard: Now, Stewart, you sound like some kind of Socialist talking about the fact that at times in the nation’s history the financial elite received collectively as little as 9 percent of the total income earned by Americans but at other times – like right now and right before the Great Depression – the financial elite grabbed more than 23 percent of all income. I mean, aren’t you afraid the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck will accuse you of opposing just rewards earned by the barons of capitalism?

Acuff: Well, my friend, those aren’t just rewards. As my friend Jim Hightower said, members of the Financial Elite were born on third base and say they hit a triple. It’s beyond comprehension that the trading of phony financial instruments like derivatives produces rewards. What produces just rewards is manufacturing and producing goods and services that people need and want. The person who needs just rewards today is the hotel maid who cleans rooms for a living or the overstressed nurse who can’t get to all her patients or the skilled but out-of-work construction worker waiting for the chance to earn an honest day’s pay.

Gerard: Okay, but then you start talking about income tax rates. Are you really suggesting that the current maximum of 35 percent be raised to the 90 percent that it was during the 1950s? Would that not just enrage the financial elite?

Acuff: Yes, it would enrage the Financial Elite and Dr. Levins and I haven’t made that case in this book. Certainly the income tax rate for the richest among us is far too low. When Warren Buffet himself says he pays a lower percentage of his income in taxes than does his secretary, that’s a problem.

We wouldn’t need to rely on taxes to redistribute income if we had the right mix of union power and corporate power. Instead of a few massive fortunes, we would have millions of working people being productive and using fair wages to stimulate economic growth.

Gerard: Since the days of Reagan, Republicans have told us that taxes on the financial elite should be cut because they need all that money to “re-invest” in the system. That way, the GOP line goes, wealth will trickle down on the “little people.” This hasn’t really worked, has it?

Acuff: No! Not at all! Since the days of Reagan workers wages have stagnated and declined while our productivity has increased. Wealth does not trickle down. Have you seen any of the TARP billions trickling into your pocket lately? I sure haven’t. All I saw was obscene bonus payments to those who caused the mess in the first place.

Gerard: Halfway through the book, you suggest working people can have it all – family-supporting jobs, health insurance, even Social Security. Those on the radical right tell us daily that’s impossible because of the national debt. How can you justify such a vision?

Acuff: More income means more tax revenue, more economic growth and economic activity. We lift the economy from the bottom, not from the top.

Gerard: Then you have the audacity to quote some old economists claiming, “An efficient and humane society requires both halves of the mixed system – market and government.” We know, because the right-wing has told us repeatedly, that government is bad, that it should be shrunk and drowned in a bathtub. Where did you and Professor Levins come up with this new-fangled idea that government could help?

Acuff: It’s not a new idea. It says right in the ECON 101 text that Dr. Levins used in his classes that "markets without government is just one hand clapping." From the destruction of 2 trillion dollars of America’s wealth by Wall Street to the incessant pouring of oil from BP’s hole in the bottom of the Gulf, we know that capitalism must be regulated and constrained for the sake of everyone.

Gerard: Which brings us to organized labor. You quote President Kennedy saying, “Those who would destroy or further limit the rights of organized labor – those who would cripple collective bargaining or prevent organization – do a disservice to the cause of democracy.” Isn’t that exactly what has happened since the days of Kennedy, a slow destruction of the labor movement with corporations, union-busters and sometimes government regulators all working together to rob labor unions of the power they built between the 1930s and 1950s?

Acuff: Yes, you’re absolutely right. The results are the mal-distribution of wealth and power and massive recession, a shrinking middle class, a starved consumer demand, and a weaker America.

Gerard: The book was written and published before the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig that was drilling for BP in the Gulf of Mexico. Is it somewhat prophetic, then, that you discuss the need to move from a fossil fuel-based economy to one that creates jobs with renewable energy sources?

Acuff: I can’t speak to prophecy though I am a huge fan or both Isaiah and Jeremiah. We’ve long known that America needs to generate its own free energy from free resources like the wind that never stops blowing on Great Plains, the sun that never stops shining in the deserts of Arizona, and incessant pull of the ocean’s tide.

Gerard: I was glad to see the chapter discussing the importance of maintaining and supporting manufacturing in America. For those still unconvinced, why is that so important?

Acuff: Well, we don’t need to maintain just current manufacturing capacity. We need to increase manufacturing capacity. That is how to generate wealth. We create wealth by making things that other people want to buy and that is the best way to build a sound economy.

Gerard:
You sound a little bit like a preacher at the end where you state the four values that Americans can believe in. Do you think America can organize around those values and take on the financial elite?

Acuff: Yes, I do! I think what we need is a reinforcement of fundamental human values. We’re all in this together; there is a common good; we are our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers, and workers win and have always won by exercising collective power against the individual power of the Financial Elite.

***

Stewart Acuff is chief of staff for the Utility Workers Union of America. He has organized for 30 years, beginning in 1982 with the SEIU. In 1990, he became president of the Atlanta AFL-CIO. There he led the campaign to organize the 1996 Olympics. A decade later, he went to work for the national AFL-CIO, serving as organizing director from 2001 to 2008. He led the AFL-CIO campaign to pass the Employee Free Choice Act.

***

Dr. Richard Levins is professor emeritus of applied economics at the University of Minnesota. He is an award-winning author of books about policy and market power.

American Wind Turbines Sound Like Freedom

8:05 pm in Uncategorized by Leo W. Gerard

The sound that American wind turbines produce as their giant, breeze-propelled blades whip around is a distinctive: Neh-neh-neh-neh-neh-neh.

The anticipation is that those energy-generating, whirling arms would create a whooshing sound. And maybe they do in some countries. But here, in America, they echo the almost melodic taunt of a schoolyard victor — Neh-neh-neh-neh-neh-neh: You can’t get me.

That’s because American wind turbines are the manifestation of freedom from foreign oil. The more American wind turbines, the fewer barrels of oil America must import to meet its energy needs. And American-built wind turbines help propel the nation out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression by generating good-paying American jobs.

President Obama talked about the ugly results of the nation’s refusal to solve its dependency problem – its guzzling of 20 percent of the world’s oil while controlling less than two percent of the world’s reserves. America’s combination of oil addiction and lack of adequate oil resources enslaves the nation to foreign sources, often foreign sources hostile to America. A generation ago, former President Jimmy Carter warned of the consequences of this abusive relationship as Iran held 52 Americans hostages and long lines formed at gasoline stations during a season of shortages.

Carter installed on the White House roof a symbol of the solution — solar panels. His successor there, Ronald Reagan, pulled them down. And the nation went on its merry way forgetting the once-empty gasoline stations and ignoring its ever-increasing foreign dependency – even as the Exxon Valdez mucked Prince William Sound two months after Reagan left office.

Here’s what Obama said about that wasted opportunity:

“And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires. Time and again, the path forward has been blocked – not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor.

The consequences of our inaction are now in plain sight. Countries like China are investing in clean energy jobs and industries that should be right here in America. Each day, we send nearly $1 billion of our wealth to foreign countries for their oil. And today, as we look to the Gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude.”

The explosion of the Deep Water Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, the deaths of 11 workers, the uncontrolled gushing of more than 50,000 barrels of oil a day into the sea, and the mucking of brown pelicans and four states’ coastlines have given Obama the ability to take up Carter’s righteous clean energy campaign. And Obama accepted the challenge:

“The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now. Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash America’s innovation and seize control of our own destiny.”

The president noted that wind turbines are being built in retrofitted factories that were once abandoned right here in America. That happened in Pennsylvania. The wind turbine manufacturer Gamesa converted defunct mills into centers for wind turbine construction. And it cooperated with the United Steelworkers (USW) to provide good-paying union jobs.

That is the potential President Obama sees – independence from foreign sources and resurgence of America’s economy. It is the potential that the USW and the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) pictured when they agreed earlier this month to work together to accelerate development and deployment of wind energy production in the U.S.

Like the Steelworkers, the national trade association of America’s wind industry believes the U.S. must move toward renewable energy sources and must construct them itself. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio explained it simply when the USW and AWEA announced their partnership:

“We can’t replace our dependence on foreign oil with a dependence on Chinese-made wind turbines. It’s critical that American manufacturers have the resources to develop and deploy wind energy components. Clean energy will help America regain its leadership in manufacturing. We need to ensure American workers and manufacturers are building the clean energy components that will be used around the world.”

Obama called on Americans to “seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels.” But like any rehab program, success won’t come easily. Oil companies will continue to lobby against it. Swayed by their money, some politicians will oppose the legislation essential to encourage it.

But symbolic solar panels must remain on the White House roof this time. Renewable energy, as Obama said, enables America to shape its own destiny

The President urged the nation to free itself from its oil dependency now:

“As we recover from this recession, the transition to clean energy has the potential to grow our economy and create millions of jobs – but only if we accelerate that transition. Only if we seize the moment.”

This is the time for wind turbines. For solar. For hydro. This is the moment to hear increasing numbers of rotor blades whipping up the sound of independence.

Carpe diem.

Greed Explains the Disasters and the Lying Afterwards

12:42 pm in Uncategorized by Leo W. Gerard

(This post is by both Leo W. Gerard, International President of the United Steelworkers, and by Cecil Roberts, International President of the United Mine Workers of America)

As oil mucked the Gulf of Mexico and families mourned 11 dead rig workers, BP officials proclaimed that the corporation’s priority always was safety.

This tracked the tack taken by Massey Energy, whose officials also declared safety was paramount after an explosion in the corporation’s Upper Big Branch mine killed 29 workers.

CEOs commonly make such incongruous assertions to protect profits after corporate-caused disasters. They’re driven by the same factor that is fundamental to the catastrophes – greed.

Nothing wrong with that, right? Not in a society that has converted greed from a vice to a virtue. Not in the place that inspired the book, “Greed is Good: The Capitalist Pig Guide to Investing.” Surely it’s no problem in the land where “Greed” has its own game show on Fox and where Ayn Rand, the “money-is-the-root-of-all-good” philosopher, reigns as Republican queen long after her death.

Americans worship God on the Sabbath and the rich every other day. Billionaire Warren Buffett’s word is investment gospel. Americans gave Wall Street banksters hundreds of billions in bailout money — protecting their multi-million dollar bonuses. But in the midst of the Great Recession caused by Wall Street recklessness, America has repeatedly delayed renewal of unemployment benefits and now is terminating federal health insurance support for the furloughed middle class.

Middle class workers are the ones who die in coal mines and on oil rigs.

Afterwards, CEOs say anything to save the bottom line – the one that will determine their bonuses.

Discussing the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, Massey CEO Don Blankenship told stock analysts in a conference call late in April:

“Some of the implications have been that we don’t focus on safety or we put dollars in front of safety and nothing could be further from the truth.”

Though the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) issued 1,342 safety violation notices to Upper Big Branch over the past five years, Blankenship explained that’s just life in the coal business:

“Violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process.”

In addition, Blankenship said the titles of two Massey programs proved safety was supreme:

“The naming of those two programs speaks for itself: S1 – safety is job one; P2 – production is job 2. That’s been the case for my entire tenure.”

Still, 29 miners are dead. And dozens died at Massey mines in the past decade. Three died at Upper Big Branch between 1998 and 2010. The Massey dead include two workers who suffocated in a mine run by Massey subsidiary Aracoma Coal Co. on Jan. 19, 2006, just three months after Blankenship issued a memo ordering underlings to produce coal to the exclusion of other activities, such as building ventilation systems called overcasts. Aracoma officials pleaded guilty in December, 2008, to removing and failing to replace ventilation devices, the lack of which contributed to the suffocation deaths.

And Massey workers aren’t as sure as Don Blanekship that safety is job one. Several spoke to NPR about it. Teddy Cole, who worked a dozen years at Upper Big Branch, said Blankenship prioritizes production:

“It’s supposed to be safety first, but to me, it was production first.”

Former co-worker Brian Jerral agreed:

“A lot of times, it’s production first and safety third.”

Adam Vance, who worked at two Massey mines, described a culture of greed:

“They cover [themselves] with their safety meetings, but the main thing Massey’s out for is to get that all-mighty dollar. If the coal ain’t running, they ain’t making no money.”

And it’s a lot of money for Massey — $1.02 million a day in 2008.

Massey miner Ricky Lee Campbell 24, of Beckley, W.Va., told reporters about his safety concerns on April 7. Massey suspended him a week later, then fired him. He has filed a federal whistle-blower complaint.

Similar to Massey, BP officials claim safety is job one.

Shortly after BP named Tony Hayward CEO in 2007, he told the Houston Chronicle:

"I think we have the opportunity to set a new benchmark in industrial safety. . .We have to have a work environment where people don’t get injured or killed, period."

That was significant since an explosion two years earlier had killed 15 workers and injured another 170 at BP’s Texas City, Texas oil refinery, and federal regulators blamed the catastrophe in part on cost cuts initiated by Hayward’s predecessor. The following year, BP admitted oil leaks into Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay were caused partly by cost cutting.

Despite Hayward’s safety assertions, another 11 workers are dead. And survivors told CNN that PB routinely cut corners and pushed production despite potential safety problems. They also told CNN co-workers had been fired for raising concerns about dangerous practices that could delay drilling if remedied and that BP had insisted on an unsual process shortcut on the day of the blast.

Immediately after the rig explosion, BP contended its under-Gulf pipe was spewing only 1,000 barrels of oil a day. Fairly quickly, it revised that estimate to 5,000 barrels, but continued to refuse to make public its live video of the oil-churning pipe.

After a freedom of information request and Congressional pressure forced BP to release the video, federal officials estimated as much as 40,000 barrels are being discharged daily.

Still, BP’s Hayward flatly denied the existence of underwater oil plumes, saying:

“The oil is on the surface. There aren’t any plumes.”

And he discounted the effect of the unleashed oil on the environment:

“The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.”

Hayward had a good (greed-based) reason to deny access to the video, discount the amount of oil spewing into the sea and defy the assessment of government and university researchers who confirmed the plumes of dispersed oil stretching for miles beneath the ocean surface. BP will be fined based on the number of barrels of oil its well disgorges into the gulf – somewhere between $1,100 and $4,300 a barrel — depending on whether the government can prove gross negligence.

David Leonhardt, an economics columnist for the New York Times, described BP’s Texas City, Gulf of Mexico and Alaska crises this way:

“Much of this indifference stemmed from an obsession with profits, come what may.”

Greed.

It’s one of the seven deadly sins. When it afflicts corporate CEOs, it’s deadly to workers.

Honest profit is fine. But it’s perverse to celebrate greed, to elevate it over human life.

GOP Wants a Country by Corporations for Corporations

10:54 am in Uncategorized by Leo W. Gerard

Tea Party darling and Republican U.S. Senate nominee Rand Paul spoke last week like the political novice he is – revealing unfiltered GOP “truths.”

First he informed MSNBC talk show host Rachel Maddow that government should not be able to force businesses to serve black people. Corporate desire to discriminate should trump the civil rights of black people, Muslims, Jews, Catholics, and pants-wearing women, according to this Republican candidate, who has since rushed to assure everyone that he personally is not a bigot.

Rand Paul followed up the assertion of corporate-privilege-over-human-rights with two more Republican tenet revelations. First he called the Obama administration “un-American” for holding the corporation BP accountable for the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that killed 11 workers and devastated the ecology of the Gulf of Mexico. Then Rand Paul added that society should refrain from the “blame game” in the case of another corporation, Massey Energy, the owner of the West Virginia mine that blew up killing 29 workers. “We had a mining accident that was very tragic,” he said, “Then we come in, and it’s always someone’s fault. Maybe sometimes accidents happen.”

Read the rest of this entry →

Safety Awards That Endanger Workers’ Lives

2:02 pm in Uncategorized by Leo W. Gerard

BP, Massey Energy and Tesoro all have hauled out plaques celebrating safety achievements to deflect allegations of corporate recklessness in the aftermath of explosions in April that killed 47 of their workers.

Though each of these corporations accepted awards for safety statistics, not one has taken responsibility for workplace deaths.

The disconnect between safety awards and dead workers has enabled these corporations to characterize the explosions as accidents, random events for which no one really is to blame, certainly not corporate officials who control conditions in workplaces. That’s why these pseudo-safety awards are so destructive.

The prizes congratulate corporations for reducing incidents such as slips and falls that injure workers to the point that they must miss work. Decreasing worker injuries is good, no doubt about it. But preserving workers’ lives is imperative. The corporate awards programs fail to recognize employers who successfully institute more complicated, costly and rigorous procedures called “process safety management” to eliminate workplace catastrophes that kill.

Awards for slip and fall reduction promote complacency. The plaques hanging in hallways say the oil rig or coal mine or refinery is super safe – so secure it’s worthy of commemoration. They create the illusion of protection in workplaces where process safety management hasn’t been properly implemented. The safety plaques are paper shields, easily immolated in explosions, along with the workers they beguiled.

Some BP executives actually experienced a little of that burn on April 20. A group of BP bigwigs was aboard Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico when it exploded. They’d traveled out to the oil rig to celebrate a safety milestone. Workers on the rig had gone seven years without a lost-time accident – well, seven years without reporting one, anyway. Corporations routinely subtly and overtly discourage workers from reporting injuries. For example, companies grant cash awards for designated time periods during which no injury reports are filed and force mishap victims to wear distinctive clothing like orange vests so they get the blame – and not the corporation – for injury reports that cost entire crews their cash awards.

The BP executives escaped Deepwater Horizon with their lives. Eleven roustabouts and roughnecks on that day of safety celebration did not.

Just last year, the federal Minerals Management Service (MMS) gave BP and Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig, Safety Awards for Excellence –SAFE awards. MMS bestows these on offshore oil and gas corporations for “outstanding safety and pollution prevention performance.” Again this year, BP was a finalist for a SAFE award. After the Deepwater Horizon explosion, MMS postponed announcement of this year’s winners. Last year, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) presented BP Alaska with a three-year re-certification of its Star award, which recognizes safety performance.

All of that would lead workers to believe BP is a safe employer – not like the BP with a refinery in Texas City, Texas that blew up in 2005 killing 15 workers and injuring 170, the BP that OSHA slapped with its second largest total penalty ever — $21 million – for safety violations at Texas City that led to the massive explosion, the BP that OSHA hit with its largest ever fine — $87.4 million – last fall for failure over four years to comply with the terms of its settlement agreement to correct the potential hazards at Texas City.

No, the safety-award-winning BP must be different, a corporation that recognizes its responsibility to establish and conduct safe workplaces.

A study after the BP-Texas City explosion showed that one of the best ways to prevent such catastrophes is meeting the standards of process safety management. These use engineering and management techniques to continuously ensure that machinery and piping are in good condition, meticulously manage and record changes, and properly train workers. The concepts are not exclusive to refineries. They can be used to improve safety in other industrial processes as well.

The refinery industry accepted the process safety standards but hasn’t rigorously implemented them. The United Steelworkers union, which represents oil workers, met with oil corporations and the American Petroleum Institute (API), a trade group for drillers and refiners, in an attempt to write two new standards addressing leading indicators in the refining industry and worker fatigue. But the union abandoned the effort last fall because the industry was more concerned about image than safety.

Then, on April 2, an explosion at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Wash. killed seven workers. Like BP, Tesoro is a safety award winner – but not for comprehensive process safety management. The National Petrochemical and Refiners Association (NPRA) has granted the Anacortes refinery numerous prizes over the years – “merit” and “achievement” and “gold” — including two last year. Tesoro notes on its web site that this recognition is for reducing “recordable injury rates”– the lost-time injuries that must be reported to OSHA.

NPRA doesn’t sponsor an award for corporations that improve process safety management. It’s trying to collect statistics on process safety from drillers and refiners, but participation is anything but compulsory. NPRA stresses that the information it receives on process safety will be collected on an aggregate level so it’s not specific to individual refineries, will be kept secret and will be used for benchmarking only. Clearly, it is striving to entice reticent refiners to participate.

Three days after the Tesoro tragedy, 29 workers died in an explosion in Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. Massey CEO Don Blankenship immediately began blaming God and the workers themselves for the catastrophe and citing Massey’s safety awards. In 2009, The National Mining Association and the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) gave Massey three “Sentinels of Safety” awards, the most any mining company had ever received in one year. These recognize, as the NPRA and MMS awards do, low levels of lost-time injuries. “At Massey Energy, we embrace our commitment to safety at all levels – from executive to miner. The Sentinels of Safety awards reflect the company’s dedication to safety at all of our facilities,” Blankenship said six months before the worst mining disaster in 40 years killed 29 Massey workers.

After two Massey miners suffocated in 2006, the corporation pleaded guilty and paid $4.2 million in criminal fines and civil penalties – the largest settlement in coal industry history — for willful violation of mandatory safety standards. By a count the United Mine Workers of America conducted, 52 people have been killed on Massey Energy properties in the past decade. UMWA President Cecil Roberts called Massey mines the most dangerous in America.

And yet, Blankenship touts Massey’s safety awards. Like BP and Tesoro.

The standards for these prizes must change to stop deluding workers and deceiving the public. No agency or association should ever again laud workplaces that are lax on meeting process safety management standards.

More Regulation the Solution, Not the Problem

8:10 am in Uncategorized by Leo W. Gerard

The governors of the Gulf Coast states, all Republicans, asked the federal government for help dealing with the BP oil spill — yeah, the government, the very organization that their hero and mentor Ronald Reagan described as “the problem,” not the solution. “The problem” must deal with our oil problem, those Republicans told President Obama.

The President sent the help they requested, but at the same time, Republican mouthpieces like House GOP Conference Chairman Mike Pence accused the administration of responding too slowly to the spill. Republicans believe government should be shrunk so small it can be downed in a bathtub, that government should get out of the way and allow private enterprise to work. But, simultaneously, they want government to clean up a catastrophe created by private industry.

Twenty-nine dead coal miners in West Virginia, seven dead workers at an oil refinery in Washington State, and 11 dead on a Gulf of Mexico oil rig followed by an ecological calamity all in the span of a month illustrate in blood the need for more regulation and stiffer enforcement. That is more government, not less. And it is government performing an essential basic role – protecting its citizens and preserving the environment in which they live.

Improving regulation and enforcement may cost money. But then, what is the value of the lives of those 47 workers killed in three workplace explosions in one month? What is the value of the oil-polluted Gulf waters and coastline? What is the value of untold oil-suffocated marine animals?

As the oil slick sloshed closer to the Florida coast, Sunshine State Republican Marco Rubio, a candidate for the U.S. Senate, said of the clean-up by BP, which owns the oil-gushing underwater well, “I would prefer BP pay all of it, but ultimately I don’t even know if they have the resources to do that. . . they’re going to have to pay a significant chunk of this.”

Who does Tea-Party-darling Rubio suggest pay the remaining chunk? Taxpayers, of course. He is saying taxpayers should bail out BP, just as they did the too-big-to-fail banks when they got themselves in trouble.

Too many taxpayers bought the Republican mantra that regulation is excessively costly for both business and government. Congress repealed banking regulations, then Wall Street gambling imploded the U.S. economy. Now, after that painful fact, Congress is trying to re-regulate banking.

It is so much cheaper to regulate and enforce than to pay for clean ups. Just like banking, that’s true for industry, which has repeatedly shown it can’t or won’t regulate itself. And clearly the free market fails to regulate business behavior, or Republican Rubio wouldn’t need to propose taxpayers bear costs of a corporate-caused catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.

BP is a perfect example. In March of 2005, an explosion at the BP refinery in Texas City, Texas killed 15 workers and injured 170 more. Afterwards, a study showed that one of the best ways to prevent catastrophes such as fires and explosions is a method called “process safety management.” Rather than counting slips and falls, process safety uses engineering and management techniques to constantly ensure that machinery and piping are in good condition, to meticulously record changes on refinery units, to properly train workers and to carefully schedule work to prevent fatigue. It also refers to an Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) standard governing refineries.

OSHA launched a program in June of 2007 to emphasize process safety, and in the first year completed 20 inspections and issued 456 citations to refiners. “We were pretty shocked and dismayed by what we found,” said OSHA enforcement director Richard Fairfax.

These refineries knew about this program. Still they violated the regulations. Then an explosion at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Wash. killed 7 workers on April 2. Eighteen days later, an explosion in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers at a well owned by BP.

There was BP again, five years after the catastrophe at the Texas City refinery. This corporation didn’t regulate itself. The “invisible hand of the market” didn’t do it either.

And let’s get something straight. These were not natural disasters, not earthquakes like in Haiti or hurricanes like Katrina. These are man-made disasters. And just as important, God didn’t have a hand in these catastrophes. Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy which owns the West Virginia mine that exploded, and Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, both suggested the Lord’s wrath was at work. Perry said both the oil rig and coal mine explosions were “an act of God.” That would mean Massey and BP are not responsible. In the corporations-are-good and government-is-bad fantasy world where Blankenship and Perry live, society can’t hold corporations accountable because God is to blame.

Just like these Republicans, the American Petroleum Institute (API), which represents both drillers and refiners, does not believe in regulation. Ron Chittim, API senior policy advisor, told the San Antonio Express-News that no new regulation is necessary because the industry already must obey too many rules.

After the explosion at BP in Texas City, the United Steelworkers union, which represents oil and refinery workers, met with API and the oil industry in an attempt to write new safety guidelines. USW Vice President Gary Beevers abandoned the effort because he felt the industry was more concerned about image than safety.

Now, the USW is pressing Congress for stronger safety regulations and fines high enough to actually affect corporate behavior. As this year of fatal explosions has tragically illustrated, less government is a problem. More regulation is the solution.

Lies, Damned Lies and Employers

7:02 am in Energy by Leo W. Gerard

Don Blankenship, the man ultimately in charge of Massey Energy’s West Virginia mine where 29 workers died in an explosion April 5, assured financial analysts last week that safety is paramount in his operation.

Massey, the country’s fourth largest mining company, issued a statement that same day asserting that a review of conditions in the Upper Big Branch mine uncovered no problems shortly before the blast that killed more workers than any other mine disaster in nearly four decades.

All that could only mean one thing, right? Massey did nothing wrong and bears no responsibility. So clearly the disaster was an act of God or an omission by workers. God killed them. Or they killed themselves. Blankenship suggested that in earlier interviews and repeated it to stock analysts last week:

"Obviously, I don’t want to speculate, but either something went wrong from a natural/unnatural manner that was not foreseeable by us or human beings or somebody made a mistake or something."

That contention – that God’s hand or worker blunder caused a disaster – is a bogus employer excuse that managers frequently dredge up. The supervisor of the Westray Mine in Canada, where 26 workers died in an explosion in 1992, did the same thing. A government-commissioned report on that catastrophe recounts that manager, Gerald Phillips, “blatently blamed the miners for the explosion.” It’s a refrain that might be repeated in the aftermath of the Tesoro refinery blast on April 2 that killed seven workers and the explosion on the Transocean Ltd. oil offshore oil drilling platform on April 20 that killed 11 workers.

It’s a lie. And when workers die, it’s a damned lie. Employers are responsible for maintaining safe working environments. Yet, across this country, 14 workers are killed on the job every day. The American people and their government must hold employers accountable. Or the workplace killing will never stop.

Employers routinely attempt to dodge culpability. Blankenship spouted the “I-am-not-responsible” talking points in his telephone call with financial analysts. He swore to them with reassuring double negatives:

“It’s not due to us not being focused on safety, not having a strong safety culture, not putting safety first. Some of the implications have been that we don’t focus on safety or we put dollars in front of safety, and nothing could be further from the truth.”

Blankenship has also said incidents are “unfortunately an inevitable part of the mining process,” suggesting they just happen like hurricanes or tornados; no one can control them.

The U.S. Minerals Management Service, which regulates offshore oil rigs like the one that exploded and sank into the Gulf of Mexico this month, blames workers as well. MMS is writing rules requiring rig operators to prevent human error. This follows an MMS report on the 41 deaths and 302 injuries on oil rigs between 2001 and 2007 that said:

“It appears that equipment failure is rarely the primary cause of the incident or accident.”

This is the same MMS whose inspector general, Earl E. Devaney, said suffered from a pervasive “culture of ethical failure.” In three reports to Congress in 2008, Devaney portrayed MMS as, the New York Times said, “a dysfunctional organization that has been riddled with conflicts of interest, unprofessional behavior and a free-for-all atmosphere for much of the Bush administration’s watch.”

It is not surprising that MMS blames workers when, the New York Times noted, eight MMS officials accepted expensive gifts from energy companies. These exceeded values set in federal ethical regulations. And several MMS officials, the Times said:

“Frequently consumed alcohol at industry functions, had used cocaine and marijuana, and had sexual relationships with oil and gas company representatives.”

Regulators for mines and refineries take an entirely different view from MMS. Kevin Stricklin, the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s administrator for Coal Mine Safety and Health, said while at Upper Big Branch:

"All explosions are preventable. It’s just making sure you have things in place to keep one from occurring.”

That is management’s responsibility.

Similarly, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration does not blame workers for explosions at refineries. To prevent catastrophes, OSHA requires refineries to implement a system called process safety, which is a mixture of engineering and management focused on prevention. After a 2005 blast at the BP refinery in Texas City, Texas that killed 15 workers and injured 170, OSHA launched a two-year program to emphasize process safety at refineries.

Afterward, OSHA director of enforcement Richard Fairfax reported:

“We are pretty shocked and dismayed by what we found.”

OSHA’s review of 14 refineries in the first year found 1,517 violations, including 1,489 for process safety.

While MMS contends “human error,” caused incidents on oil rigs, inspections by MMS and the Coast Guard over the past three years of oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico found problems such as repair crews working without proper permitting in hazardous areas, inoperable gas detectors and faulty firefighting equipment. These examples of management recklessness are listed in a Houston Chronicle story by Lise Olsen titled, “Blood a part of oil’s price.”

Similarly, former United Mine Workers union President John L. Lewis said coal was washed in the tears of widows. In West Virginia where there are two dozen new coal widows, Blankenship repeatedly has said Upper Big Branch was as safe as other mines and that citations for violations are just a routine part of the mining business.

A review by Ellen Smith, owner of Mine Safety and Health News, showed, however, that Upper Big Branch had a violation rate 30 percent higher than the average underground bituminous coal mine. In addition, a Massey subsidiary, Aracoma, pleaded guilty to criminal charges of willful violation of mandatory safety standards in the 2006 deaths of two miners.

President Obama had this to say about culpability:

“This tragedy was triggered by a failure at the Upper Big Branch Mine, a failure first and foremost of management, but also a failure of oversight and a failure of laws so riddled will loopholes that they allow unsafe conditions to continue. Owners responsible for conditions in the Upper Big Branch Mine should be held accountable for decisions they made and preventive measures they failed to take. And I’ve asked [Labor] Secretary [Hilda] Solis to work with the Justice Department to ensure that every tool in the federal government is available in this investigation.”

Even in the 1800s, managers tried to evade blame by placing it on God and workers. Mine inspector Thomas K. Adams noted that blame shifting in an article published in 1900 by the journal Mine and Minerals:

“During such distressing events [as mine disasters] we have, as usual, a plenteous crop of apologists and general utility men who appear . . . Those men are very resourceful in offering all kinds of excuses for those who are possibly responsible for such calamities. They will tell us about the subtle agencies in operation in nature’s storehouse, the mysteries which wiser men than Solomon cannot unravel and that those mine explosions are the unavoidable and natural accompaniments which gives harmony to the coal-mining industry.”

Adams went on:

“Such rot has no weight with intelligent mining men, of course, but dupes there be everywhere.”

Today is Workers Memorial Day, an occasion to mourn those killed in the workplace, to condemn the lying about culpability and to demand corporate accountability.

Wrongful Fatalities, Failed Worker Protections

6:25 am in Uncategorized by Leo W. Gerard

In both cases – the five fatalities in a Washington oil refinery April 2 and the 29 deaths in a West Virginia coal mine the following Monday – news reports described the explosions that killed workers as industrial “accidents.”

When an explosion occurs at a refinery or mine that has been repeatedly fined for heath and safety violations, one question that ought to be asked is just how unexpected was the event.

Answering this question is essential because: less time plus less money spent on safety measures equals more profit for owners. America must introduce new factors into that computation to protect the lives and limbs of workers who produce the energy on which this country depends. One factor is larger safety violation penalties – fines and shutdowns costly enough to outstrip profitability. And when corporations consider fines just another cost of doing business, another crucial factor is the ability to charge CEOs with criminal negligence when their corporations flagrantly violate safety regulations – an ability that other countries have written into law.

As it stands now, corporations have discovered that they can continue profiting even after unconscionable disasters. Take BP for example. In 2005, a massive blast at the BP Texas City refinery killed 15 and injured 180. Business Week noted that BP continued to turn a profit every year after the Texas catastrophe, even though it paid more than $2 billion for legal costs and fines and for remediation programs at its U.S. refineries.

Regulatory agencies have repeatedly cited and fined both Tesoro, which operates the Anacortes, Wash. refinery where an explosion killed five workers and severely burned two last week, and Massey Energy Co., which owns the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va., where 29 miners are dead.

Since 2005, regulators cited Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine 1,342 times for safety infractions and charged Massey $1.89 million in fines, $1.3 million of which Massey is contesting. Of the violations, 86 were for failing to obey a ventilation plan to control explosive methane gas and coal dust. These are the very factors suspected in Monday’s deadly blast. Regulators issued 12 of those citations in the past month, and miners told the New York Times that dangerous gas accumulation forced evacuations of the mine several times in recent weeks. Regulators found two violations on Monday, before the explosion.

In January, agencies imposed the largest fines in the mine’s history for two violations, including one case in which a mine foreman admitted he’d known of a ventilation problem for three weeks. In 2008, Massey paid what federal prosecutors said was the largest settlement in the history of the coal industry — $4.2 million in criminal fines and civil penalties — after a subsidiary pleaded guilty to criminal mine safety violations for a January, 2006 fire that killed two workers in Massey’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine. In addition those deaths at a Massey mine and the 29 killed Monday at Upper Big Branch, three other miners died at the Upper Big Branch mine since 1998.

The Charleston Gazette reported:

“In seven of the last 10 years, the mine has recorded a non-fatal injury rate worse than the national average for similar operations, according to MSHA statistics.”

Serious safety concerns prompted federal investigators to temporarily halt work in portions of the Upper Big Branch mine more than 60 times since the start of 2009, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported after reviewing U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration records.

Safety was such a crisis at the Upper Big Branch mine that MSHA sent Massey a letter on Dec. 6, 2007 warning that its serious violations over the previous two years were so far above average that the mine could be designated as a pattern violator and subjected to stricter federal oversight, the New York Times reported. The letter noted that in 2006 and 2007 MSHA had found nearly twice the national average of serious violations at the mine. Within three months, the mine reduced the number by a third, escaping the extra scrutiny. Still, the total remained above the national average.

The citations and fines do not seem to faze Massey CEO Don Blankenship. He told a radio station:

“Violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process.”

He also previously told Forbes:

“We don’t pay much attention to the violation count.”

Despite the deaths, all of the violations and the fines, the Massey Energy web site defends the company safety record, contending that 2009 was the 17th year out of 20 that the company scored above the industry average for safety — this assertion although the number of safety violations in 2009 doubled from the previous year, totaled 458 and included 50 citations for breaches Massey, the nation’s fourth largest coal company, knew existed but failed to correct.

Just like Massey, Tesoro claims that its safety record has improved – despite citations and fines and five deaths. In the company fact sheet, Tesoro said its recordable injury rates have declined by 30 percent over three years.

The Washington state Department of Labor and Industry fined Tesoro $85,700 a year ago for 17 serious health and safety violations. These are violations with the potential to cause serious injury or death. In addition, the department found 150 safety deficiencies at the Anacortes, Wash., refinery. Tesoro appealed and got all but three of the most serious violations thrown out and the fine reduced to $12,500. The settlement required Tesoro to hire a safety consultant to examine the refinery. That consultant began work at the plant last month.

Immediately after the five refinery workers died, the American Petroleum Institute and the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association jumped to defend refining safety. Before funerals were held and with two workers still hospitalized with life-threatening burns, the Petroleum Institute complained that the industry wasn’t getting credit for health and safety improvements. And the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association contended that the industry has lower injury rates than manufacturing generally.

The problem with their numbers is that they mingle deaths with OSHA counts of slips and falls – taking the focus off incidents like the fire ball that killed the five Tesoro workers, or the blast that killed 15 at Texas City, or the explosion at another refinery in Anacortes in 1998 that killed six workers.

Also, they don’t want to count injuries to or deaths of subcontractors who refineries often hire to perform dangerous maintenance work. At Tesoro, a contractor was crushed to death in 2002 and three contract workers were hospitalized in 2006 for exposure to naphtha.

In addition, the OSHA numbers used by the refining industry associations exclude explosions and fires at refineries that had the potential to maim and kill both workers and community members but, instead, miraculously resulted only in “close calls.”

OSHA Assistant Secretary David Michaels contradicted the refining industry association safety assertions, saying: “The petroleum industry has a long way to go before we can feel comfortable that workers there are adequately protected.”

Similarly, Daniel Horowitz, a Chemical Safety Board spokesman, told the Seattle Times, a disproportionate number of incidents occurred at the 150 refineries in the U.S., compared with infractions at tens of thousands of chemical plants handling other hazardous materials. Of the 18 cases the Chemical Safety Board is investigating, seven involve oil refineries.

Republicans and Tea Partiers are running around like Chicken Little screaming that government is too big. Thirty workers killed in explosions in four days is what happens when government is too small, when right-wing strategists like Grover Norquist have gotten their way and shrunk regulatory agencies to a size where they can be drowned in a bathtub.

Like the Wall Street CEOs who recklessly speculated with America’s economy for their personal profit, industrial CEOs have carelessly gambled with worker’s lives for personal gain. The “free market” doesn’t control that immoral behavior. Government must do it. And when it does, it must have the power to impose fines or workplace shut downs that will damage the bottom lines of CEOs who care about nothing else. And it must have the power to criminally charge and potentially imprison CEOs, treating them the same as drunk drivers who risk other peoples’ lives.

In 1946, a group of miners from Illinois wrote their governor seeking his help in enforcing regulations against dangerous coal dust accumulation in a Centralia Coal Co. mine. They wrote:

"In fact, Governor Green, this is a plea to you, to please save our lives.”

The Centralia Coal Co., despite being cited for violations, didn’t acknowledge a problem. On March 25, 1947, a coal dust explosion killed 111 Centralia miners, including three of the four who sent the letter.

Woody Guthrie wrote the song, “The Dying Miner” after the Centralia explosion, including these lyrics:

"I can hear the moans and groans,
More than a hundred good men.
Just work and fight and try to see,
That this never happens again."

More than a half century later, the protections and enforcement for miners, steelworkers, refinery workers, paper workers and others remain inadequate. The proof is that the explosions and deaths continue to occur over and over again.

The slaughter must stop now. Workers go to jobs to earn their daily bread. They don’t go to die.