Saturday, December 16, 2006

A Tough Week for Workers' Rights in Nebraska

by Kyle Michaelis
It's been a tough week for working people in Nebraska. For starters, the now 10-week old strike of the Steelworkers at Lincoln's Goodyear plant continues as temperatures have plummeted, heating costs have skyrocketed, and fewer presents sit scattered around the family Christmas trees of 500 workers who haven't seen a paycheck in over two months.

Meanwhile, it appears the nine month effort at unionizing the nurses at Bryan LGH in Lincoln has also failed. The Lincoln Journal-Star reports:
The union attempting to organize BryanLGH Medical Center nurses has suspended its efforts and closed its Lincoln office, citing a lack of progress....

The local office was closed Saturday. The Capital City Nurses Association, formed under the banner of the [International Association of Machinists], emerged publicly with billboards in June after months of quiet organization.

After nine months of recruitment efforts, organizers realized in late November, “We’ve hit a brick wall”....

BryanLGH spokeswoman Suzanne McMasters said hospital officials were pleased a distraction from patient care was eliminated....

In addition to issues of pay and benefits, nurses who supported a union raised concerns over patient care, working conditions, policy and procedures, pensions and staff involvement....

In September 2005, BryanLGH cut the equivalent of 41 full-time employees, the culmination of a six-month efficiency review. By then, roughly 400 other employees —about 10 percent of a previous total — had been squeezed from the hospital by attrition and hiring freezes....

[T]he layoffs and job freezes — along with unpopular policy changes — fueled discontent among nurses.

With much of the hospital empty of patients, nurses were sent home, where they were paid $2 per hour to be on call. Management also reduced the higher hourly pay nurses earned by working nights and weekends.

In November 2005, the hospital announced it planned to eliminate a popular pay incentive nurses call “add-a-shift.”

Administrators later backed off some of those changes as financial conditions improved and in an effort to slow union efforts.
The readers' comments at the Journal-Star's site are quite illustrative of what the above article called "the problem of educating 1,000 nurses in a conservative state as to why a union would benefit them."

Apathy would be one thing, but the prevailing animosity towards organized labor in Nebraska is distressing in the extreme. Workers should understand that what reforms were instituted to stave-off unionizing efforts could prove just as temporary and remain practically unenforceable in the absence of collective bargaining. And, the community should recognize Bryan LGH's declaring this episode "a distraction from patient care" for what it truly was - a distraction from profit.

When nurses and the other employees of a hospital have no protection, it's the patients who are left most vulnerable and who will ultimately suffer the consequences. How unfortunate that such isn't better understood - and that management is able to so exploit that fact.

Finally, on the Nebraska end of what was essentially a nationwide sweep earlier in the week, approximately 265 undocumented workers were taken into custody in a raid by immigration agents at the Swift & Co. meat packing plant in Grand Island. Most were detained for simple immigration violations, although charges of identity theft have been filed against 15 of the workers so far.

Interestingly, the laborers in Swift's Grand Island operation are members of the United Food and Commercial Workers (Local 22). The effects of the raid have already been quite far-reaching, hitting Grand Island's public schools and its Hispanic community very hard.

Of course, the issue of immigrant labor - undocumented and otherwise - is quite ancillary to the interests of the larger labor movement. A strong argument can be made that illegal employment has hurt American workers - and the Unions that represent them - but, ultimately, it's the same exploitation they face from the same sources.

So, on a certain level, it seems fair to say that Nebraska's working families have taken it on the chin quite a bit in the last week. Still, it's great to know they're taking nothing lying down. In particular, the Steelworkers from Lincoln's Goodyear plant are staying on the offensive, maintaining their months-long vigil and even organizing off-site protests this weekend with the help of Nebraska's ALF-CIO at Lincoln's Sears and Omaha's Jensen Tire.

And, as bleak as things may sometimes seem, there are things for which Nebraska has a lot to be proud of in defending worker's rights. Probably the most obvious of these is none other than the state's only-of-its-kind Meatpacking Industry Workers Bill of Rights. Last month, Nebraska Appleseed released a comprehenisve report examining the effect of this landmark 6 year-old legislation, including suggestions for areas where much progress yet remains.

The full report can be downloaded here. But, the gist of it follows:
The Nebraska Meatpacking Industry Workers Bill of Rights (MW Bill of Rights) was an innovative declaration of policy undertaken by Governor Mike Johanns in June 2000. The MW Bill of Rights is the only state-level worker protection policy of its kind. It outlines fundamental rights for workers and established guidelines employers must follow.

The rights included in the MW Bill of Rights are as follows:
1. The right to organize
2. The right to a safe workplace
3. The right to adequate facilities and the opportunity to utilize them
4. The right to adequate equipment
5. The right to complete information
6. The right to understand information entitled
7. The right to existing state and federal Benefits and Rights
8. Right to be free from discrimination
9. Right to continuing training including supervisor training
10. Right to compensation for work performed
11. The right to seek state help

In 2001 the Nebraska legislature voted to enact the MIWBR into law as part of the Non-English-Speaking Workers Protection Act, a statute designed to help non-English speaking workers understand the terms and conditions of their employment as well as the risks involved with their work. This statute applies to all employers who actively recruit non-English speaking employees if more than ten percent of its employees speak the same non-English language. Under the statute employers must:
· provide a bilingual employee to answer questions,
· provide a statement in the worker’s native language of wages, weekly hours, responsibilities and hazards, as well as any transportation or housing to be provided, and
· provide free transportation back to the recruitment site if the employee resigns within four weeks of his/her initial employment.

The statute also made permanent the Meatpacking Industry Worker Rights Coordinator within the Nebraska Department of Labor. The coordinator’s role is as follows: “to inspect and review the practices and procedures of meatpacking operations in the state of Nebraska as they relate to the provisions of the Governor’s Meatpacking Industry Workers Bill of Rights.”


Our evaluation concentrated on four principle categories of rights included in the MIWBR. Findings include:

Access to Complete Information·

· Many workers in Nebraska are unaware of the Meatpacking Industry Workers’ Bill of Rights and do not know how to inquire further with appropriate parties about their rights.
· Most meatpacking companies comply fully with the three specific requirements of the Nebraska Non-English Speaking Workers Protection Act (as opposed to each right listed in the MW Bill of Rights).
· The position of the Meatpacking Worker Rights Coordinator has been effective within the limits of the office’s resources.
· Both companies and worker advocates could more proactively use the MW Bill of Rights to educate workers. Most companies post only a single copy of the MIWBR in a human resources area, and few unions or nonprofits continue to promote the MIWBR.
· Company management we interviewed saw no conflict between the MW Bill of Rights and their bottom line, describing the evolution of a business model previously based on high employee turnover to a new model that values worker retention.
Safety and Health in Meatpacking Plants
· While the meatpacking industry has made some good faith efforts to improve safety, including hiring additional bilingual supervisors and liaisons, neither available statistics nor our own qualitative data indicate a fundamental change in the risks associated with meatpacking work during the last six years.
· Fear of losing their job still inhibits many workers from inquiring about, let alone asserting, their basic rights.
· Erosion of state and federal safety oversight has had a negative impact on safety and health in meatpacking plants.
· Line speed or speed of work, which is not addressed by the MW Bill of Rights, was consistently and spontaneously cited by most interviewees as a primary cause of high injury rates.
Access to Workers’ Compensation
· Workers’ compensation remains greatly underutilized by injured meatpacking workers, and the MW Bill of Rights has not improved workers’ access.
· Many workers do not know the workers’ comp system exists. Company trainings do not adequately educate workers about the system, nor do company supervisors or health personnel adequately explain the system in the event of an injury.
Freedom to Organize
· Publicity and proactive use of the MW Bill of Rights by advocates around the time of its introduction empowered workers to consider the benefits of addressing the issues at their workplaces through organizing, but the policy hasn’t had much impact more recently after publicity declined.
· The MIWBR was a factor in plant organizing in the year immediately following the bill of rights’ introduction.
· The MIWBR is a much more useful tool for communication in organized versus non-organized plants.

The impact of the MW Bill of Rights on workers’ safety and working conditions can be improved by instituting practices that promote the bill’s use as a communication tool and by a number of other means:
· Companies should directly distribute individual copies of the MW Bill of Rights to workers, through worker paychecks, for example. Several companies were open to the idea of distributing individual copies of the MW Bill of Rights.

· The MW Bill of Rights should be incorporated into orientations and ongoing trainings by companies and others. Workers emphasized the importance of talking about rights rather than merely posting them.

· Funding should be provided to extend the existing MW Bill of Rights coordinator position to full time, and to add two inspector positions under the coordinator: one to focus on meatpacking plants beyond the Omaha area, another just to process workers’ questions and complaints about their rights, workplace concerns, and accessing state and federal benefits.

· Non-profits, unions, and other community-based organizations should integrate the MW Bill of Rights into their programs and use it to teach workers how to assert their rights on a practical level.

· State funding and public subsidies for the meatpacking industry should go only to those employers who are complying with the basic rights and community standards enumerated in the MW Bill of Rights.

· Other states with significant meatpacking operations should consider adopting and improving upon the Nebraska MW Bill of Rights and other state-level reform promoting respect for workers’ rights.

· Rigorous and scientific study should be conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to determine what steps would be most effective in promoting worker safety and health, including communication tools like the MW Bill of rights, in industrial meat and poultry processing jobs.

· The erosion of federal and state safety oversight should be reversed. Staff and funding for enforcement should be significantly increased, and such oversight should include the regulation and slowing of line speed/speed of work by the USDA, OSHA, and state regulators.

· Nebraska’s governor and state leaders should publicly reaffirm the MW Bill of Rights and the state’s commitment to meatpacking workers.
That's a lot to read, but anyone who's made it this far should be proud of what strides Nebraska has made in protecting meat plant workers, even while recognizing there's so much more we could and should be doing.

And, so much more we will do if good people remain dedicated to the principles of fairness and solidarity that are the bedrock of the labor movement and that speak all too directly to that which is the very best of Nebraska values.


Anonymous Elisia Harvey said...

Kyle, thank you for framing the ICE raid within the larger context of workers' rights. A dear friend of mine who has lived in the U.S. for 17 years (legally) was held in the Swift cafeteria for over 7 hours and wasn't given a chance to eat anything during that time. She is completely legal and has her papers in order. The only thing she was guilty of was showing up to work.

I also get frustrated that people speak about non-citizens and illegal immigrants as if they have no rights at all. Time for a 14th amendment review:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. (Emphasis added)

Notice the distinction? Citizens have privileges and immunities, but every person has the right to life, liberty, and property, and all people are entitled to the equal protection of the laws.

Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...

Sadly, it's long-standing in our Constitutional law that there are severe limitations on due process in immigration-related matters. Immigration proceedings have been distinguished from criminal proceedings wherein such basic protections are practically untouchable. Yet, in the public at large, these oftentimes hard-working and community-oriented people are talked about like common criminals.

One of these days our laws are going to have to catch up with our politics. Hopefully, they'll catch up with our supposed principles as a freedom-loving nation as well.

Anonymous Jon Rehm said...

Goodyear and the Steelworkers are back at the table. According to what I hear from a member of the Local 286 Goodyear is ready to make concessions on the issue of health care for retirees


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