A one-time school project gone terribly, terribly wrong.

26 April 2007

Conservative Governments, Death, and the Labour Market

This post has been on my mind a while now. Hope it sounds as coherent to you as it does to me. To reiterate: I am a conservative. I just feel that unrestricted free-market piracy of the early 18th Century is perhaps ill-suited to the 21st.

Just recently, a report came out that associated suicide with conservative governments. I thought that this was interesting.

I suppose the tories feel that since conservative governments in the modern era emphasize things like "self-reliance," that someone who was enduring difficulties might choose to take the independent, self-reliant way out.

Or, if you take the un-spun view: When your resources have been cut off and you have nowhere else to go, the next life may turn out to be the preferred option.

I'm reasonably sure that by participation in the Glorious Crusade in the Middle East, the "conservative" government of Mr. Bush and the not-unrelated activities of Mssrs Prodi, Harper, and Howard have marginally raised the overall death rate for their own respective countries. Not to mention what they've managed to do for Iraq.

The sole exception, possibly, might be Russia: Vladimir Putin's commu--sorry--conservative (be it by any other name) government has recently claimed that journalists are dying by the fewer-than-during-communist numbers lately. So there's some good news.

But all that crap is political. That is, these are unusual times, and an unusual number of cretins seem to occupy the thrones of an unusually large number of countries. When that happens, people die. Until some of the cretins are pushed off their thrones, impeached and jailed, or assasinated (I don't really wish for it to happen, but it's hard to imagine what might get worse in Zimbabwe if Mugabe got bumped off).

It's the stuff that is now reckoned to be "all part of the (economic) game" that revolts me utterly. Not that the other stuff doesn't fester, but the corruption and meanness extends beyond the war-related crap and extends its tentacles into everyday life at the first level. And people are dying for it.

As my Avid Fans (all three of them) know, I write for a workplace safety publication. Thus I encountered this week the " Death on the Job: The Culture of Neglect" report from the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor/Congress of Industrial Organizations).

The AFL-CIO is really the last vestiges of the union movement in America. To describe the Bush policy as anti-union is to spare it the term "union-busting thugs". I mean, Lee Iaccoca hates Bush as much or more than he disliked the United Auto Workers, and that's gotta count for something.

We're supposed to believe that industry is capable of self-regulation. That the ones who got caught at Enron were in fact the only crooks in business or something, that really, every hard-ass capitalist has the interests of the world at heart. That left to their own devices, the market and industry will self-regulate in a dispassionate and moral way.

Bullshit. And double, triple, and ad infinitum bullshit.

The "Death on the Job" report spells it out. The Bush administration has the worst, most lax policies on worker safety since OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) was created. Workplace deaths are increasing for the first time in a decade.

OSHA has been sapped, strangled, castrated, and made a hollow mockery of what it was created to be. It was to be the muscle that made the unions superfluous. It was the meeting of economic prosperity with the good interests of the workers. It was the way that responsible companies would step forward and shine.

This week, the muscle spasmed. OSHA refused to regulate diacetyl.

Diacetyl is a pernicious, poisonous chemical. It has long been associated with "popcorn lung". Wondering what that is? Well "black lung" was something coal miners got by breathing coal dust. It killed them. And "textile lung" was something textile workers got by breathing fibers and dye chemicals. It killed them. Guess what something called "popcorn lung" might be?

Popcorn lung is also known as "bronchiolis obliterans." And it's been "popping" up in a lot of industries. Mostly, you guessed it, popcorn plants where diacetyl is added to give the microwave-pop that mm-mm delicious buttery flavour. But diacetyl is used in a truly amazing variety of industries.

This week, OSHA made its decision. The decision itself wasn't really a surprise after all the foot-dragging that's happened since the issue was first raised: OSHA swung into action like a sloth swings along a branch.

OSHA is stacked with Bush appointees including Edwin G. Foulke Jr., whose prior work experience seems to have largely been in union-busting (he worked for a law firm that publishes a newsletter dedicated to stamping out the urge to unionize in your slaves--I mean "workers"). OSHA decided that they'd take a little look at about five dozen plants. Out of tens of thousands where diacetyl is used.

They didn't issue an exposure standard. They didn't issue a personal protective equipment standard, which would at least have meant exposed workers should use respirators around this toxic stuff. They didn't do jack $#!7. And their excuse?

"The science is murky."
--Edwin G. Foulke Jr.
Bush Appointee, corrupt @$$#0!3

Sorry--that last clause was unneccesary. It's like saying "Bush Appointee" twice.

No, Mr. Foulke, it's not. There's a scientifically established link between diacetyl and destructive lung disease. And even if there wasn't a definite link, is the sensible thing to do (think hard, Mr. Foulke!):

a) To issue a temporary standard and see what happens?
b) To assume that nothing's wrong and just keep counting the mounting pile of lungs on the dissecting table?
c) To decide that industry should be left alone to "self-regulate"

In view of the fine work industry's been doing so far, OSHA left it at (c) with a side of (b). To, no doubt, the joy of a number of people currently waiting for lung transplants.

Sorry, Mr. Foulke. But you do get a case of Rice-A-Roni and a copy of the home game. Thanks for playing and take care now.

The diacetyl case is just the most prominent pimple on a faceful of festering boils. The "Death on the Job" report notes the lax approach to safety regulation, the subordination of life and the dignity of the worker to profit and expedience, and the rising tide of deaths among black and hispanic workers. All burning while OSHA fiddled.

It's time we stopped pretending greed is good. It's time we started turning back to the things that made the "West" a great place to live and work.

That would be the unions.

It wasn't the idea of business to give a worker one or two days off per week. It wasn't business that came up with sick leave. It was not the corporate sector that fought for a minimum wage or the eight-hour day.

It was business that approved corporate "health plans" over universal health care for everyone. It's business that fought tooth and nail, with every cent they needed to spend, to pretend tobacco was as harmless as mother's milk. It's the modern-day corporation that fights environmental regulation ('cos "the science is murky", y'know) today.

This $#!7 has got to end. Now. And the solution (and let me tell you that as a free-market man I hate to say this) is union.

Self-regulation is a failure. Relying on the moral compass of privateers and profiteers has gotten North America lost, and dragged the rest of the world with it.

Conservative deregulatory culture leads to corpses. Forestry, trucking, mining--all occupations with rising death tolls, and all targets of deregulatory efforts by goverments like that of Bush: so concerned with keeping the goverment out of the public sector that it's spying on its own citizens illegally; presumably to see if it can catch itself in the act of regulating something.

You could mention India--but the world's largest democracy has become a byword for unethical labour practice on the part of the multinationals, and besides, the sheer size of the labour pool means that anyone seeking near-slave labour at below-market rates can find it there.

But why bother when a Vietnamese nine-year old not only is willing to do the work instead of going to school, but saves on machinery because her hands can go where an adult's can't? ‘Cos that’s how ethical self-regulation in the unrestricted free market rolls, yo.

I see a hand in the back. Speak up please ... ah yes. Good question, and I'm glad you asked:

"What about China?" my interlocutor demands, "China's a communist country, and all their workers are collectivized, aren't they?"

No. They're not. Oh the workers are collectivized. But China today is not a communism, but that most conservative of things, an oligarchy with a side of plutocracy. Those worker collectives are instructed--not bargained with. And d'you think they ever get any kind of free choice vote?

Besides—there’s the human rights thing. If even the Bushies, (in an act of pot-calling-kettle-blackness not, we hope, soon to be repeated) have mumbled about the Middle Kingdom’s record on human rights (yes, the same ones you give up when you get sent to American Cuba, “renditioned” to Syria, or “disappeared” into the CIA prison system) why should we hold them up as some kind of example?

There’s the enviro-thing: China is throwing up a Europe's worth of coal power plants in the next decade, and responsibly regulating its own pollution how?

Well, not so much "regulating" as "allowing it to spew freely into the air" is how.

If the government can't be trusted to make a few simple adjustments to make the coal-fired power plants cleaner and thus not poison their own plants, animals, and people, not to mention small countries surrounding the area, then why should we believe that they’ve got some kind of corner on ethical workplace regulation?

Oh--and there were 127,000 Chinese workplace deaths in 2005.

And two yesterday. In Alberta. Which brings me to Canada.

We have been poisoned from within. A country which was seeing an expansion of workers' rights has gutted itself, thanks to the uber-sick greed of the eighties (trivia question: who was running the country for most of the eighties?), but with the especial assistance of the New Green Conservative Government of Canada (New! and Green!).

For example: in the wake of a rash of train derailments in the west, the Liberal government began a probe into why these were happening so frequently. When the consevatives scraped a minority government from a grudging population, they (as the polite term goes) "tabled" it. That is, they tossed it under the table, apparently.

This week an engineer got his one chance to play hero by staying at the wheel as another derailment happened. It looks as though his hand at the controls may have saved some other lives. Though not his own. Doubtless the company will cite "worker error." I can't say for sure right now, but I'd bet on that being slander.

This morning, a former rail worker spoke of watching two of his best friends die, one in his arms. He talked about how the railway company pushed workers to meet unrealistic deadlines by cutting corners.

On the same radio program, a political hack for the Harper government described the railroad workers' deaths of the past few years as "unneccesary".

Uh, sir? Could you look through the dismal record of workplace safety that is Canada's and point out to me which of those deaths was neccesary?

Who had to die to keep the economy growing?

Can you indicate to me which worker on the job won't come home to the spouse and kids because his or her death was god-dammned neccesary today?

You £µ©λing uneccesary asshat.

In the same program, an inspection was cited that found safety defects on fully 53 percent of CP Rail rolling stock. As a trucker myself, I know that that might mean a broken reflector. So why don't we generously assume that half of those were cited for being the wrong colour or something? Which leaves us with just over 25 percent.

Would you ride on an airline whose fleet was "75% Safe!"? So why should 900,000 Tons of Steel be okay to rocket through our towns carrying passengers and hazardous cargo at 100 km/h when it's not even?

Lately, to keep up the fevered oil-sucking frenzy that is the tar sands (and thus support a real-estate market that lends itself to profiteering), the government allowed companies to bring in workers from China. Two of those workers died in the oil patch yesterday, and four other workers were injured, when a five-storey bitumen tank collapsed. One of the new workers was apparently welding tank supports.

The company's first reaction was to rush to the phones and console the grieving relatives ...

Sorry--the company's first reaction was actually to issue a public statement ...


The company's first reaction was to confiscate all cellular phones from employees on the site. Some of the employees were on the phone with their union rep at the time. Then the company urgently announced that everyone on site got the "safety briefing". Forgive me if I think: "What's Canada Natural Resources Ltd. hiding?"

The Chinese workers were, of course, non-union. There were likely language barrier issues, which always complicate safety. But union members had apparently already complained that the workers may have been doing work they shouldn't have been.

Of course I'm sure the imported labour could have contested the issue, if that were the case ...To whom? One wrong word and you're back on the bus to Beijing, chum!

Remember: this is all to keep the (Alberta) economy growing at record rates.

Hey kids! Trivia question: when something just keeps growing unrestrictedly, what do we call it? That's right--cancer! And what does cancer do? it kills!

So when an economy keeps growing unrestrictedly, why is that better than if it just kinda stays the same or grows really slowly? Sorry--I don't have the answer to that one. But guess what an economy growing unrestrictedly does?

But the deaths only tell part of the story. In Ontario they've finally raised the minimum wage to $10 an hour--over the next three years. Which would be better if it weren't itself the first raise in at least eight years, and if the fat-assed morons sitting in the Ontario legislature hadn't also voted themselves a raise that amounted to more than a month's pay for most workers. Still, progress.

A ten-dollar per hour salary will net you about $16,000 a year. If you’re willing to give up an extra day, perhaps $21,000. No tax, because you’re not earning enough to qualify. The poverty line is at least $23,000 in this country, and probably closer to $30,000.

That’s it. No extended health benefits, no job security, no support package, benefits, or layoff payoff. Just 9 to 5, every day. Six days a week. But Wal-Mart thinks you should be grateful. So do the conservatives.

Guess who keeps saying that the solution to poverty, pollution and workplace death is less regulation and maybe even a lower minimum wage?

The Canadian government didn't move on Wal-Mart's union busting tactics--which were clearly illegal. So much did WM hate unionization that the single unionized Wal-Mart was quietly allowed to rot. The shelves were unstocked, goods lay idle in the warehouse, until the company could point to their poisoned store and say "See--that's what unions do. Now we have to shut it down and *sob* take 300 minimum-wage jobs out of the community."

How sad.

The government can’t be counted on to provide a minimum of workplace safety nor worker dignity. Companies? Why don’t you just slit your wrists?

If you doubt the value of unions--that is, if the fear and loathing exhibited by your corner capitalist isn't enough to tell you that they are the single most powerful weapon the worker has in the fight for a living wage, a fair day's work, and time to spend with their families--read this. or the original article.

It is time to begin the new labour movement. To take back our work and our dignity. To respect the people who provide us with the things of daily life by backing them against the billionaires.

It’s time for a whole new union movement on this continent. Maybe the world.

Why not a global union for every trade? To set living wage prices for labour and guarantee fair and equitable employment. We could set such a thing up easily. They would not be entitled to negotiate benefits, nor even overtime maybe. Just a basic living wage for each country, and fair treatment.

I mean, how could these ethically-self-governed companies and the governments that enable them take a stand against that?

On a not-entirely-unrelated topic, I have to go write up a memo "justifying" the raise I want them to give me.


At 8:22 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does this mean you are going to unionize your workplace?


At 7:11 a.m., Blogger Metro said...

Given that my boss apparently knows Anne Coulter (urgh!) and used to hang out (as a small child) with Joe McCarthy, and also given that I have a mortgage:

The conclusions is left as an exercise for the student.

At 1:57 a.m., Anonymous archie said...

Oh Wow! You sure write a great socialist manifesto for a Conservative! This is wonderful stuff and should be widely disseminated.

At 11:16 a.m., Anonymous G Eagle Esq said...

Bonsoir Monsieur le Metro

Again you make powerful points - an unregulated workplace tolerates so much unhealth & danger

.... but things may look different if you look from the other end of the telescope - I do not know how much you understand about how this increasing shambles of multiplying regulations (in Inglaterra) impacts on the small, increasingly harrassed small businessman/employer

I still worry about the ever intensifying "Health & Safety Regulations in Inglaterra :

1. that do not actually add to Health or Safety

eg since 2003 or 2004, our small Office has to pay an electrician once a year to examine our electrical appliances and stick an inspection label on each plug & each kettle

? how many folk were injured or killed in the 25 years before we had to do this

Answer None

? has this made the Office safer

Answer Not at All

2. that impose burdens on individuals that are grievous to be borne for no purpose & are unendurable

eg until recently a Teacher volunteering without pay to take his (or in these enlightened times, her) pupils on a school trip at the weekends would be devasted if an accident killed one of her charges were killed but she would face no legal action

- now in these increasingly unpleasant times, British Judges (responsible for bugger-all) have recently taken to send these unpaid Volunteers to Jail for 12 months (actual Jail - not a suspended jail term) for Manslaughter (is that Murder in the 2nd degree in the USA ?)

!! the delightful Mrs Eagle is now risking Jail & the wReck of her Career if without pay she gives up a weekend to take Children on a School Trip & something goes wrong

!@£$% Mr Eagle similarly faces Jail as Chairman of the Sea Cadets if he is found criminally responsible for the death of a Cadet in an accident

!!! Even a Prosecution resulting in an acquittal would destroy us - we would be destoryed by just a Criminal Investigation

3. that greatly add to the costs of running a business to little or no apparent benefit, apart from the State employing yet more well-paid & comfortable enforcers, to smugly enforce these Regulations

If a Patient dies, what is the point of a State-funded NHS Hospital being prosecuted at great expense & fined (say) £40,000 (to be paid to the State out of state-funds taken away from providing for patient care), apart from paying vast fees to lawyers paid by the State to prosecute and to lawyers paid by the State to defend a State Hospital

I worry that :

a. Civic Life is becoming impossible - increasingly Teachers will not agree to take out School Trips ,,,, folk are increasingly unwilling to become (unpaid) Charity Trustees or School Governors because of the increasing exposure to legal liability

b. many Businesses are being over-regulated into insolvency

I remain your obedient servant and

Alles Gute

G Eagle

At 1:48 p.m., Blogger Metro said...

Meinheer Eagle:

I took a long time to get back to this comment, and so will put it up as a post later.

Thanks, as always, for your insight. It helps to know one has Eagle eyes on one's prose.


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