China weld led to NY crane deaths, Stronger unions in the land of Wal-Mart

Here's some snips of stories I wish I had time to write about, click the titles to read the entire stories.

An "inadequate weld" by repair workers in China factored in the May 30 tower-crane collapse on East 91st Street that killed two construction workers, say government investigative documents obtained by The Post.

When the turntable weld snapped 13 stories above East 91st Street and First Avenue, the crane's engine, hoisting booms and operator cabin, fell to the street, killing the operator, Donald Leo, 30, and ground-level construction worker Ramadan Kurtaj, 28.

Other culprits may be unearthed in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration probe of the tragedy - the second of two fatal tower-crane topplings in Manhattan last year. Among the other factors are the crane's age and whether it was adequately inspected before it was set up.

OSHA officials won't discuss the probe. But sources outside the agency say it is withholding its report while Manhattan prosecutors weigh possible criminal charges.

The turntable on the 24-year-old Kodiak crane was damaged at a high-rise construction job on West 46th Street in May 2007 by what its owner, New York Crane & Equipment, says was a lightning strike.

New York Crane and its owner, James Lomma, weighed two options to fix the turntable bearing.

An Ohio company, Avon Bearings, offered to do the job for $120,000 in about 196 days. The other offer was from a Chinese firm, RTR Bearing, which said it could fix the bearing for $20,000 in 90 days - despite the time needed to ship the part to China and back.

Corporate greed has gone unchecked recently in part due to the decline of the labor movement. Is it a coincidence that union membership declined dramatically from 20 percent of the private sector workforce in 1980 to just over 7 percent in 2006 while CEO pay has increased from 42 times what the average worker made in 1980 to 364 in 2006? Unions demand an economy that works for all, not just those at the top, such as AIG executives. As William Greider, author of the Soul of Capitalism, told me, "Unions are an honest broker in the economy.”

Through pension and retirement funds, workers can fund companies that invest in communities and in green jobs, promote workers' rights and operate in a transparent manner; and penalize companies that don't. With over $6 trillion of workers' money in retirement plans, pension funds, profit-sharing and stock plans and union reserve funds, the money of workers' plays a large role in fueling the global economy. Through putting workers' representatives on the board of these funds, unions can make sure that "worker investments are managed in workers' best financial interests." By investing in transparent, open and financially healthy companies, unions through stockholder activism can lead the way in ending the culture of reckless corporate short-term profit-seeking, which led to the rise of subprime mortgages and credit-derivative swaps.

Unions have long sought ways to make corporate profits sustainable in the long run in order to both retain and create jobs. It is ironic that the United Auto Workers (UAW) has been unfairly scapegoated as the cause of the demise of the auto industry since, as early as 1949, they have called for the Big Three to make small, more fuel-efficient cars. In 1949, in a pamphlet entitled "A Small Car Named Desire," the UAW cautioned automakers against investing solely in big cars since some consumers would ultimately be interested in cheaper smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. In short, unions have also sought was is best for all— not just for workers, but creating the economic conditions that will allow their companies to thrive.

The irony of Wal-Mart's use of the words "coercion" and "intimidation" to campaign against the EFCA is pretty evident. Wal-Mart is notorious for its own coercive anti-union tactics, and is considered by labor and human rights groups as one of the largest union-busting firms in the country, often intimidating, coercing and harassing employees to prevent unionization at its stores.

Federal labor law charges have been filed on behalf of Wal-Mart workers in more than 20 states. By June 2008, Wal-Mart had at least 80 class-action lawsuits in 41 states pending against it for worker abuse. From 1998 through 2003, the National Labor Relations Board filed more than 45 complaints accusing Wal-Mart managers in more than two dozen stores of illegal practices, including improperly firing union supporters, intimidating workers, and threatening to deny bonuses if workers unionized.

Wal-Mart's anti-union intimidation tactics are the exact sort of worker harassment the EFCA is set to end. Labor rights' groups point out that workers often choose to pursue "card-check" campaigns simply because secret-ballot elections are easily manipulated by employers during the long pre-election period. Employers often use this extra time to engage in coercive anti-union campaigning to influence workers not to vote for the union. During this period, workers can face harassment, intimidation, and even be fired simply for trying to exercise their right to organize.
Strip away the propaganda, though, and what's at stake is clear. The measure finally levels a playing field that has been tilted against organised labour ever since the Founding Fathers – or at least since a Philadelphia judge ruled in 1806 that an attempt by a group of shoemakers to secure a wage increase was an "illegal criminal conspiracy". Abraham Lincoln, who extolled the moral superiority of labour over capital, might have been a supporter of unions – but most often the movement struggled against the overwhelming power of the bosses.

The story of Jay Gould, financier, railroad magnate and archetypal "robber baron", sums up an era. In 1886, Gould was confronted by the so-called Great SouthWest Railroad Strike. Was he worried? someone asked. Not at all, Gould is said to have replied: "I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half." Predictably, the strike failed.

More than a century later, employers still practise intimidation, albeit of a subtler variety. They can keep outside union organisers off the premises, and fire employees who agitate for unions, at the risk of derisory fines. Workers are told of the evils of unionised life. Jobs, they are told, will vanish as costs rise. If "socialism" comes to the shop floor, the entire company may be forced to relocate to friendlier, even foreign, climes. Honing these tactics are so-called union-avoidance consultants, "union-busters" as they are better known. They are masters of stalling, prevarication and generally exploiting every loophole in America's labour laws.

Yes, the employees may get a secret vote – but to what end? According to a recent study, out of 22,000 organising drives at companies between 1999 and 2005, only one in five succeeded in establishing a union that negotiated a collective contract with employers. And this despite polls showing that up to 50 million non-unionised workers would join if they could.

The country would benefit as well. In fact, the health of the unions and that of the national economy move almost as one. In the 1920s, unions were weak and corporate excesses contributed to the crash that followed. But in the Depression, membership soared, as the great social programmes of the New Deal helped build the middle class that took wing after the Second World War.

Just as in the 1920s, this latest "boom" has done little for the middle classes. A declining union movement was mirrored by a concentration of wealth among the rich. If labour reasserts itself, its extra bargaining muscle should help protect jobs and improve healthcare coverage, the two greatest worries of ordinary Americans.

And, you could argue, with stronger unions worldwide, this crisis might never have happened. In China, the other contributor to unsustainable global imbalance, a genuinely independent union movement might have forced that government to divert resources into consumption, rather than pile up a surplus that financed America's ruinous borrowing binge.

But will the bill gain approval? A couple of years ago, a similar bill foundered in the Senate. Back then, George Bush threatened to veto the measure. Now, President Barack Obama strongly supports it – as well he should, given the money and organisation the unions contributed to his victory. Several influential Democrats, doubtless prodded by their own corporate donors, are having second thoughts, however, claiming the priority is to put the economy to rights. But again, that is precisely the point. If organised labour had had a stronger voice, the US might never have got into this mess in the first place.

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