ONE hundred and fifty workers die each day in the United States as a result of injuries at work or occupational diseases.
The American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO), the largest trade union federation in the US, makes this observation in the latest edition of Death on the Job: The Toll of Negligence, based on the statistics of the US Secretary of Labour.
In 2013 alone, more than 4,500 people were killed on the job, and approximately 50,000 other workers died as a result of diseases contracted during their working life. ”North Dakota continues to stand out as an exceptionally dangerous and deadly place to work,’ indicates the AFL-CIO report, ‘with the highest job fatality rate in the nation’, at 14.9 per 100,000 workers, which is more than four times the national average.
The dizzying rise of shale gas exploitation via hydraulic fracturing is largely to blame for this sorry record. It is, however, Texas, another US state marked by the rise of ‘fracking’, that is clocking up the largest number of fatalities during working hours: 493 in 2013 alone, that is more than California, which recorded 385 deaths for a population of almost 39 million inhabitants, compared with less than 27 million in the Lone Star State.
‘More workers die in Texas than in any other State,’ denounces the Workers Defence Project (WDP) based in the state’s capital, Austin, where its main focus is the construction industry. This sector heads the list of the most deadly, alongside land transport in the United States. In this rapidly growing region, where demographic growth has been more than double the national rate over the last five years, ‘one in thirteen members of the active population works in construction,’ underlines Robert Delp, head of the WDP’s Better Builder programme.
It is through this programme, launched three years ago, that constructors commit to giving safety training to all those working on their building sites and ensuring that they receive compensation in case of injury. ”We have to find new ways of rewarding builders who want to do things right,’ continues Delp. Restricting the allocation of public contracts to companies that allow their employees to take breaks and supply them with water, as the Austin City Council does, is not enough to create a culture of safety, he points out.
Moreover, Delp points out, ‘The workers on building sites are mainly Latinos, foreign-born in most cases. The death rate among Latino workers rose to 3.9 per 100,000 workers in 2013, relative to 3.7 per 100,000 in 2012,’ alerts the AFL-CIO, noting that ‘two thirds of those who died were workers born outside of the United States’.
The trade union reports that, ‘The construction sector was responsible for the greatest number of Latino worker deaths’. A worker whose finger was amputated after the foreman let his drill slip; another dismissed after suffering a back injury; the medical expenses of a painter with no insurance, having been illegally classified by his employer as a service provider rather than an employee… The catalogue of cases recorded by the WPD underlines the scope of the progress still to be made.
Having lost five of his toes on a building site, the worker of Mexican origin Javier Bautista reports that he was not even paid for the job. You have to pay your rent, you need food to eat, and so you go to work. But they didn’t even pay me. It was all for nothing.’
Matt Gonzales, of the Labourers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA), which coordinates training courses on safety at work in Austin, said: ‘As shown by the research conducted by the Workers Defense Project with the universities of Texas and Illinois, one building worker in five will suffer a serious occupational injury during his working life in Texas. Workers are still seen as an abundant commodity in this country. It is a race to the bottom, with everyone trying to find the cheapest employees.’
To break out of this system, which too often regards building workers as a commodity like any other, ‘everyone needs to know their rights, and everyone needs a trade union’ says Gonzales, stressing that only five per cent of the building sites in Texas are unionised. The WDP also emphasises the need for immigration reform, to legalise the huge undocumented workforce, which tends to put downward pressure on pay and working conditions.
Despite the scope of the problem, the labour movement is ready to fight to organise more workers and to instill a culture of occupational safety. Our union has a decades-long history of strikes and production site stoppages. Just like us, people have had enough of being used and mistreated,’ concludes Gonzales.
l Last Saturday, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) announced that its executive council ‘overwhelmingly’ endorsed Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination for president.
It did so, the official announcement said, on the basis of interviews (not released to members) and the results of a poll.
Lois Weiner, AFT member and professor of education at New Jersey City University, condemned the move, writing an article for the Working In These Times blog entitled: ‘The AFT’s Endorsement of Hillary Clinton Is an Insult to Union Democracy’.
She wrote: ‘The decision couldn’t be more wrongheaded, and it’s one that members should demand the union executive council rescind. We should propose instead a decision reached by a very different process: a referendum of members that follows and is informed by debate in union outlets. Every local should be charged by the executive council with providing space and place for members to air their opinions. The national union should encourage use of its magazine and website for this debate.
‘In this discussion the leadership will have the opportunity to persuade members that endorsing Clinton is the wisest choice, but it will be obligated to carry out the will of the membership as expressed in the referendum. What is most destructive in the AFT’s endorsement of Clinton is that it has disempowered members at precisely the moment when we most need revitalised teachers unions to save a system of education that is being destroyed as a public good by powerful elites and the politicians they control.
‘Instead, a rushed decision was made without any semblance of legitimacy. The questions and answers about the process offer few specifics except that the national union conducted polls of members and interviews with (some) candidates. According to the union, the endorsement was made based on this information, though people who know Washington politics have been aware for many years of the public love fest between AFT President Randi Weingarten and Clinton.
‘The process of seeking member opinion was an embarrassingly transparent cover for Weingarten’s longstanding desire that Clinton be the AFT’s candidate. Not all executive council members approved of this endorsement, though how individuals voted has not been revealed to members. We have a right to know how leaders voted and should demand this information.
‘While Weingarten holds much responsibility for handling this endorsement, as if it were hers to make, the executive council members are equally responsible. Those who supported the endorsement supported it on behalf of members without having consulted their own constituencies, let alone the national union membership. Their shameful actions should also be called to account.
‘ “Bernie Sanders” teacher supporters are probably the most outraged by the endorsement. They understand that Clinton supports the bipartisan policies that have deprofessionalised teaching and made public education a profit centre for transnational corporations like Pearson. But even those who think the AFT should support Clinton should be disturbed by this endorsement because it undercuts the union’s power.
‘A fully democratic endorsement process would truly inform and mobilise members, strengthening the union nationally and locally, making us stronger in the election and beyond. Weingarten and too many members think we can rely on cozy relationships with politicians and powerful elites to defend our schools, our jobs, our economy, and democracy. We can’t. Only an engaged membership that understands the grave crisis public education, and democracy, faces is going to be able to turn back our opponents – who include Clinton and her Wall Street supporters.
‘We have a moral and political obligation to insist that AFT executive council members stand up for a different kind of unionism, one in which members are empowered and can exert democratic control over the policies that shape their lives, schools and communities.’