United Airlines' Outsourcing Jobs to Company That Pays Near-Poverty Wages Is Shameful
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Political Organizer, Strategist, Author; Partner Democracy Partners
United Airlines' Outsourcing Jobs to Company That Pays Near-Poverty Wages Is Shameful
Posted: 07/22/2014 8:33 am EDT Updated: 07/22/2014 12:59 pm EDTPrint Article
On October 1, United Airlines is planning to outsource 630 gate agent jobs at 12 airports to companies that pay near-poverty level wages. The airports affected include Salt Lake City; Charlotte, North Carolina; Pensacola, Florida; Detroit and Des Moines, Iowa.
As a result hundreds of employees who formerly made middle-class, living wages will be forced to transfer to other cities, take early retirement or seek employment elsewhere. Union employees who have been with the company for years -- many making a respectable $50,000-per-year salaries -- will be replaced by non-union employees who will be paid less than half -- between $9.50 and $12 per hour.
Nine-fifty an hour is a poverty-level wage if you are trying to support a family -- and $12 barely exceeds the poverty level. In fact at $12 a family of three makes so little that they are eligible for food stamps.
That, in effect, means that United and its subcontractor will be subsidized by American taxpayers for the food stamp payments made to their new low-wage workers.
United's move to convert middle-class jobs into near-poverty level jobs is shameful -- it's that simple.
And United's move to cut employee pay is emblematic of corporate America's systematic campaign to lower wages and destroy the American middle class in order to increase returns to Wall Street shareholders. It is exactly the kind of action that must come to a screeching halt if the middle class is to survive -- and our children are once again be able to look forward to prosperous secure lives.
Remember that United is not slashing wages in order to compete with firms that pay cheap foreign wages. You have to use American workers to run your gate operations in the United States.
United claims it is outsourcing these jobs to improve its financial performance. The company lost $609 million in the first quarter -- though last year United netted over $1 billion for shareholders overall. And over the last four quarters, earnings and revenue figures for the airline have been increasing quarter over quarter, which overall have left investors pleased.
On the other hand, United management is unhappy that its stock is not performing well relative to other airlines, so they have begun a systematic campaign to cut costs.
But whatever their financial needs, big companies cannot be allowed to solve them by exploiting the people who work for them by paying near-poverty wages.
In America we believe that you should have the opportunity to strike it rich. But you should not be allowed to do that by exploiting other people. You can make all the money you want so long as you pay your employees a living wage first.
Over the last 30 years per capita productivity and per capita gross domestic product have both increased by almost 80 percent. If the benefits of that increase were widely distributed, most average Americans would be 80 percent better off today than they were 30 years ago.
But instead average wages have stagnated -- and most normal people are struggling just to keep up. That's because almost all of that increase has been siphoned into the hands of the top 1 percent and out of the pockets of middle-class families.
United's outsourcing plan is one of the methods that has been used systematically by corporations and Wall Street banks to achieve this result.
And it is exactly the kind of action that we must stop if we are to prevent America from becoming a society composed of a tiny number of wealthy semi-aristocrats and a massive number of workers who barely make enough to make ends meet.
The victims of United's outsourcing will not just be the employees and their families. The move will contribute to the increased proportion of gross domestic product going to wealthiest Americans and the big Wall Street banks -- and lower the proportion going to everyday Americans.
That means that ordinary Americans will have less money to spend on the increasing number of goods and services that our increasingly productive economy produces. If this trend continues the inevitable results will be to lower demand for products and services, lower economic growth and fewer jobs.
It is ironic that one of the stations United is outsourcing is Detroit -- the very location where Henry Ford raised the wages of his employees because he understood that in the long run, it was better for business if his employees made enough to buy the cars the produce.
Today, short-term bottom lines seem to be the only benchmark that guides economic decision makers at America's largest corporations and Wall Street Banks.
United is not the only airline to resort to massive outsourcing of middle class jobs.According to the Wall Street Journal:
American said the vast majority of its domestic airports already are staffed by Envoy or other contractors. Delta said only 42 of its 230 domestic airports employ Delta employees exclusively. Thirty-three airports have Delta workers as customer-service agents and Delta Global Services workers employed as ramp workers. In 80 airports, Delta Global Services workers perform both functions. Another 75 airports use other outside vendors.
Delta Global Services is Delta's own non-union subsidiary.
The new round of outsourcing just builds upon United's past actions:
According to the Journal:
United said it employs its own workers at 47 of 227 domestic airports and 27 airports use a mix of United and vendor employees. Fully 153 airports use outside handlers. United has said that as many as 30 more airports may be targeted for outsourcing...
United's move to cut employee wages also reflects a broader view of big corporations and Wall Street banks, that the work of ordinary people should not be remunerated with middle-class salaries at all.
"It does make economic sense," Michael Boyd, a consultant at Boyd Group International, told the Wall Street Journal. "It's not a $40,000 job to load bags. Cleaning planes is not a $20-an-hour job."
Really? I suppose clipping coupons and hanging out at the country club is a multimillion-dollar job. Or making successful bets on Wall Street is a billion-dollar job.
In fact, much of corporate America simply does not respect the value of the work performed by ordinary employees. That is not a view shared by most Americans.
A recent poll by Public Policy Polling sponsored by Americans United for Change found that three-fourths of American voters agree that someone who works full time should not be paid so little that he or she lives in poverty.
United's moves are part of its own systematic attempt to cut costs by outsourcing its services, since the airline also appears to be using more and more lower-wage "United Express" sub-contractors to supplant United's flights managed directly by the airline.
But the airline may be outsmarting itself with its cost-cutting moves. Its increasingly frequent delays and smaller more uncomfortable airplanes -- have resulted in increased discontent among the airlines bread and butter business travelers -- including "1-K" travelers like me.
Management Consultant Michael Boyd went on to tell the Wall Street Journal that: "....When outsourced, the work offers 'no career path, no loyalty. By its nature, it's temporary, until the next bid comes up. When you replace employees with Air Fred, you'll see the bottom line improve, but you'll get more lost bags.'"
What will prevent this increasing use of outsourcing by American corporations in general and airlines in particular in the future?
First let's be clear, the "market" will not some how slow this kind of attack on middle-class wages of its own accord. The "market" did not create middle-class incomes in the first place it will not restore them. Left to its own devices the increasingly globalized labor market drives a race to the bottom -- to child labor, sweat shops and 60-hour workweeks with no overtime pay.
Listen carefully and you'll hear corporations agreeing that this is true. When corporations say "competitive pressure made me do it" they are admitting that by itself, the market will not solve the problem.
The "market" may be a fine way to price corn or beans, but by itself it is not an appropriate way to price wages. That's because people are not commodities. Their well-being is the point of the economy. Everyone who works for a living deserves a living wage.
There are, however, ways to stop this race to the bottom. We need new rules of the competitive game that apply to everyone.
1). Change labor laws to make it easier for workers to exercise their basic right to form a union and collectively bargain over their wages and working conditions.
In this case the union representing United's gate agents fought to save as many jobs as possible -- and succeeded in reducing the number of locations where this outsourcing was originally planned.
But the problem is that there are non-union companies that pay near poverty wages to which these jobs can be outsourced in the first place.
The most critical element necessary to defend middle-class wages from this kind of attack is the need for a much higher percentage of American workers to belong to unions and receive descent wages.
But right now the rules are rigged against employees when they try to form unions. That would be fixed by proposals like the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) that was blocked by threatened Republican filibusters during the first two years of the Obama Administration when Democrats had control of both the House and Senate -- but lacked a filibuster-proof Senate majority.
2). Government action should be taken to limit the right of government contractors to outsource jobs to low wage sub-contractors. Why should American taxpayer dollars be used to support this kind of attack on middle-class incomes?
United Airlines does a substantial amount of business with the federal government and state and local governments throughout the country. Government can simply refuse to do business with airlines that systematically outsource good paying jobs to low wage sub-contractors.
There are a variety of ways that these regulations should be structured, but the key point is that the leverage of government purchasing power could be used effectively to reduce the incentive for companies like United to hire contractors that pay near poverty level wages.
3). United Airlines -- and all commercial airlines -- use a massive array of public goods. These include the public's airspace and airports that are often heavily subsidized by the federal, state and local government.
Companies that outsource middle income jobs to subcontractors that pay near poverty wages should be denied access to gates at airports and Congress should strictly regulate these kinds of actions as conditions for granting operating licenses to airlines.
4). Raise the federal minimum wage. An increase to $10.10 would be a start, but what is really needed is a minimum wage of $15 or more -- like the one recently passed for the city of Seattle.
A major increase in the federal minimum wage would massively decrease the incentive of corporations like United to outsource jobs to super low-wage sub-contractors.
Remember, these subcontractors don't pass all of the savings in wage rates along to United. The whole idea is that a portion of that savings is pocketed by the sub-contractor's management and shareholders. But by paying super low wages, these subcontractors can still charge companies like United prices that are cheaper than United's own employees -- even after giving sub-contractor shareholders a slice of the money that used to go to pay middle class workers.
If these non-union subcontractors were forced to pay $15 per hour instead of $9.5 to $12 their margins and ability to compete with United's own workers would greatly diminish.
5). Of course, to stop this attack on the middle class, it may be necessary to more fundamentally restructure the system of shareholder-only power that predominates in the American economy.
God did not send the idea that shareholders are the only constituency to which corporate management should be accountable as part of the Ten Commandments. It is a rule for our economy that our government has established, and it can be changed.
The Germans -- who have been very successful economically since World War II -- control their corporations differently. In Germany corporate governance does not fall exclusively to "shareholders" as it does in the United States.
It's system, is sometimes known as "Rhenish capitalism" or the "stakeholder model." There, firms are managed not only by representatives of the shareholders, but by the representatives of other stakeholders as well -- including the firm's workers, regional governments, consumer groups, and environmental organizations.
In Germany representatives of workers and other groups have voting positions on corporate boards. That approach might be exactly what the doctor ordered for the United States, since the recent action of United and other American corporations have proven the old adage that if you're not at the table, you're on the menu.
By focusing slavishly on short-term profits and maximizing the portion of corporate income going to shareholders, American corporations threaten to destroy the American middle class -- and the buying power of American consumers.
That threatens the long-term viability of the American economy. Worse it runs directly contrary to the essence of American democracy.
The American Revolution was fought to create a new democratic nation that could escape the hidebound society of 18th-century Europe where a tiny minority of aristocrats prospered at the expense of the vast majority of ordinary people.
The facts are now clear. America must take dramatic action to save its middle class and the American Dream.
And as a small start, United Airlines should abandon its plan to outsource the middle-class jobs of its employees and replace them with personnel who are paid so little that many would qualify for food stamps. Some of the United employees who will lose their jobs, or be forced to move to another city, or take early retirement have worked for United for 30 years.
If you agree tweet, your agreement to #ShameOnUnited. Tell United that it should add another slogan to its current ad campaign touting how it is "O'Hare Friendly" or "Wireless Friendly." How about "Middle Class Friendly."
An Addendum from Steve Silberstein, Executive Producer of the Documentary,Inequality for All featuring Robert Reich:
United CEO Jeff Smisek gave himself $8.1 MILLION dollars in 2014. If he had cut his salary to a "lousy" two million dollars a year instead -- that would save about as much money as the purported saving of lowering the pay of those 630 jobs.
As a point of comparison, the CEO of Southwest airlines, Gary Kelly, gets paid "just" $4 million a year.
In other words. an extremely successful airline is run by a CEO who gets HALF of what the less successful CEO of United gets.
The CEO of Lufthansa Christoph Franz got 2.3 million euros (i.e. less than $3 million dollars) in 2013.
The problem in the US is not that workers are highly paid -- it is that many many CEOs are outrageously overpaid.Tags: UALoutsourcing
Rail Workers Raise Doubts About Safety Culture As Oil Trains Roll On
July 2, 2014 | EarthFix
How Many Rail Cars Carrying Hazardous Materials Get Inspected?
by TONY SCHICK
More Than 15 Oil Trains Per Week Travel Through Washington
by TONY SCHICK
Crew Fatigue Persists As Oil By Rail Increases Risks
by TONY SCHICK
BNSF Railway, the second-largest freight network in the U.S., is at the center of the boom in crude by rail. The railroad touts its commitment to safety. Current and former workers question the safety culture on the ground.credit: Michael Werner
BNSF Railway, the second-largest freight network in the U.S., is at the center of the boom in crude by rail. The railroad touts its commitment to safety. Current and former workers question the safety culture on the ground. | credit: Michael Werner | rollover image for more
SNOHOMISH, Wash. — Curtis Rookaird thinks BNSF Railway fired himbecause he took the time to test his train’s brakes.
The rail yard in Blaine, Washington, was on heightened security that day, he remembers, because of the 2010 Winter Olympics underway just across border in Vancouver, B.C.
The black, cylindrical tank cars held hazardous materials like propane, butane and carbon monoxide. The plan was to move the train just more than two miles through three public crossings and onto the main track.Rookaird and the other two crew members were convinced the train first needed a test of its air brakes to guard against a derailment.
But that kind of test can take hours. A BNSF trainmaster overheard Rookaird talking over the radio about the testing. He questioned if it was necessary. The crew was already behind schedule that day.
Rookaird stood firm.
“If you don’t have brakes the cars roll away from you,” Rookaird would later say. “You don’t have control of the train, you can crash into things.”
The trainmaster replied by saying he didn’t intend to argue. They’d talk about it later. Then he phoned their boss.
Minutes later, managers had a crew ready to replace Rookaird’s. Within a month, after Rookaird got federal investigators involved, he received a letter from BNSF informing him his employment had been terminated.
That account — based on Rookaird’s recollection and findings from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration — rings true with more than a dozen current and former employees interviewed for this report.
BNSF Railway officials say their company is absolutely committed to preventing derailments, ensuring work crews follow all safety rules, and avoiding retaliation against whistleblowers.
But BNSF critics claim the railway has long prioritized speed and profits over safety, with a history of retaliating against workers who report accidents, injuries and safety concerns. Most current employees contacted for this report spoke only on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. These criticisms were echoed by railroad experts in their appraisals of the industry as a whole.
Railroads safety has come under public scrutiny now that trains are hauling millions of gallons of oil across North America. BNSF is the only rail carrier transporting oil from all of the country’s western shale deposits, where oil production is soaring. In the Northwest, BNSF carries the vast majority of the especially combustible Bakken crude from North Dakota and neighboring states. The railroad now moves nearly 20 oil trains per week through the Columbia River Gorge.
BNSF and crude oil infrastructure
Data Sources: BNSF, Energy Information Administration, National Bureau of Transportation Statistics, U.S. Census Bureau. Map by Jordan Wirfs-Brock, courtesy of Inside Energy.
At least eight significant incidents involving crude-by-rail have occurred across North America since 2013, according to documents from the National Transportation Safety Board. Over one million gallons of oil spilled from trains in 2013, more than in the previous 38 years combined.
The worst of these happened a year ago this weekend in Quebec, when a train carrying Bakken crude killed 47 people. Left unattended, its brakes failed to prevent the 72 tank cars from rolling into the town of Lac Megantic and bursting into flames. The precise cause remains under investigation.
A subsequent Wall Street Journal analysis showed brake failures have caused or contributed to 1,330 freight train accidents since 2003, including the death of a BNSF employee in 2007 in Illinois.
Most recent oil train derailments remain under investigation, but suspected causes range from bad track to improper securement and broken wheels or axles.
“There’s a lot of talk about safety as the top priority,” said railroad consultant George Gavalla, who has 37 years of industry experience, including seven as head of the FRA’s safety office.“But if safety were the top priority all the time, we wouldn’t be having all of these accidents and injuries that we do have.”
Examples of the culture Gavalla describes can be found in court documents, OSHA investigations, congressional reports and letters between regulators and railroads:
• Cases are pending in at least three different states in which BNSF conductors allege they were fired for insisting mandatory brake tests not be skipped, contrary to orders from their managers.
• More than a thousand cases of whistleblower retaliation have been filed against railroads,including BNSF, since workers gained protection under federal law in 2008.
• OSHA reached an agreement with BNSF in 2013 to change some of the railroad’s policies after discovering a system it alleged violated federal law by assigning more disciplinary points to workers for reportable injuries than for non-reportable injuries.
• Studies and congressional reports document widespread underreporting of accidents and injuries on railroads dating back decades, citing retaliation against workers and incentives for managers to improve safety statistics.
Industry grows safer, concerns persist
BNSF does not particularly stand out amongst railroads in this regard. Major derailments or spills on all railroads, including BNSF, are rare. Along with the rest of the industry, the BNSF network’s reported accidents and injuries have plummeted since the 1980s. BNSF representatives say the company invests billions in infrastructure each year to move trains more efficiently, and its officials preach safety at every turn.
“Without focus on the elements of safety, the social license to haul crude by rail will disappear, to say nothing of the regulatory agencies’ response,” BNSF Executive Chairman Matt Rose said in a May speech at the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference in Bismarck, North Dakota.
BNSF has publicly stated its commitment to preventing derailments like the one that happened on its tracks in Casselton, North Dakota last year. Those efforts include purchases of stronger tank cars, increasing inspections and slowing train speeds in some areas. Even the harshest critics of BNSF’s approach to safety — many of whom are its own workers and the lawyers who represent them — readily acknowledge railroads are far safer than they used to be.
Walt Garrison, a Vancouver area mechanic who retired from BNSF nine years ago, said the railroad is more committed to safety than it ever was, and the reason is financial — derailments are costly.
“They’re more than conscious of what should be done, and most of the time those people that don’t do what should be done are no longer in the game after a while,” Garrison said. “It might take a while to weed out the problems but in my experience anyway they got rid of most of the problems.”
Given BNSF’s status as the only long-haul railroad moving that oil through the Northwest, safety advocates say the railroad should be held to an exactingly high standard.
Bruce Fine, a safety consultant who spent more than 20 years with the Federal Railroad Administration, said the easy fixes to rail safety have already been done. Finding the complex ones, he said, will require a culture change between railroads, laborers and regulators that hasn’t happened fast enough.
Fine and other industry experts said a culture that silences workers’ safety concerns and obscures clear accident patterns can hinder efforts to prevent train crashes.
“If workers think they’ll be blamed, they’re not going to be forthcoming and you won’t get to the root cause,” Fine said. “It should not be about just finding someone to blame. That’s over simplistic.”
Tank cars, many of them placarded as holding crude oil and other hazardous materials, sit in a BNSF yard in Northwest Portland. Credit: Tony Schick
Whistles blown, jobs lost
Having been replaced by another crew that night in 2010, Curtis Rookaird sat and ate in the company lunchroom. He then noticed another employee he suspected had already worked more hours than safety rules permit. A heated discussion ensued.
Brewer complaint (p. 1)
OSHA preliminary findings in the case of David Brewer. Brewer alleges he lost his job because he insisted on brake tests and voiced concerns about fatigue. OSHA did not connect his firing with his whistleblower activity, and Brewer is appealing his case.
Former FRA expert report on brakes (p. 1)
Paul F. Byrnes, formerly of the Federal Railroad Administration, explains how BNSF conductor Chad Dafoe was in the right to test air brakes and delay trains, despite what his managers claimed.
Peterson findings (p. 9)
The situation between workers and management turned toxic quickly in Willmar, Minnesota, where condcutor David Peterson and others claim they were fired for reporting injuries and safety concerns. Their manager is overheard in a cab expressing a desire to target workers involved in the case. Peterson was recently awarded damages over $1 million.
Elliott complaint (p. 4)
According to the OSHA account of the incident, their trainmaster heard the two talking loudly, entered and told Rookaird to stop questioning the employee and to “go eat at McDonald’s.”When the conversation continued, his boss returned and told Rookaird to “Leave, leave, leave!”
So he left, he said, forgetting to first sign his time slip after printing it.
He was soon brought up on discipline for an inconsistency in his timesheet, for failing to work efficiently and failing to leave the premises when instructed.
Meanwhile, Rookaird called BNSF’s anonymous rules hotline, describing his trainmaster as intimidating and hostile in the process. He also called the FRA, twice, to check whether he was correct to insist on the air brake tests. As a result the FRA inspected the yard and found violations of brake safety rules. BNSF Railway was fined $2,500.
Rookaird was fired two days after the inspection took place.
“I was just doing my job like I was trained to do that day,” Rookaird said. “I didn’t know I was going to be in such a battle. And it’s a battle for my life, for my family, not just for my job.”
Former employees in Montana and Minnesotahave also alleged under a federal whistleblower statute that they were fired after raising concerns about air brake tests.
“Where the dispatcher is telling a crew to get the train out of there even when the air brake test hasn’t been performed, that to me is a clear example of putting profits ahead of safety,” said George Gavalla, who oversaw safety at the FRA until 2004 and now works as a consultant and expert witness.
Other engineers and conductors with BNSF in the Northwest recalled similar pressure to prioritize train movement. In interviews they cited hurried or forgone brake tests, the ignoring of requirements to put cars in a particular order, and instances of riding out of the yard for miles at a time clutching the ladder on the outside of a rail car because of the extra time it would take to walk thousands of feet back to the front of the train.
Zak Andersen, BNSF’s Vice President of Corporate Relations, said in most instances a train is ready to go for the crew, and has already been air tested by mechanical personnel or a qualified inspector at a prior arrival. If not, he said, it is the crew’s responsibility to make sure the proper inspection has been completed.
“It is in BNSF’s interest to ensure that employees comply with the rules for safe operations with no advantage for failure to adhere to the proper rules and procedures,” Andersen wrote in an email. The company declined a request for an interview but responded to written questions. “BNSF conducts frequent operational tests and audits to verify employees are working safely and in compliance with all company rules, policies, instructions and procedures on an ongoing basis.”
2008 letter to employees shows profit sharing breakdown (p. 2)
This incentive compensation plan letter from 2008 shows the weights for various categories factored into the profit sharing.
2013 velocity goals not met (p. 1)
Despite surpassing its safety goals, the incentive compensation plan payout for BNSF employees was lower than usual in 2013, in part because the company failed to achieve its velocity goals.
Allegations of insufficient brake tests persist in the rail industry despite a similar case dating back to 2003.
Rail labor attorney Harry Zanville said material from that case, which involved both the United Transportation Union and the FRA, was used in congressional efforts to improve rail safety, including a 2008 law giving railroad workers recourse to sue if they’re terminated for reporting accidents, injuries or safety concerns.
In it, 10 employees in Sioux City, Iowa, sued BNSF alleging 15 years of employees being harassed and intimidated into skipping safety measures including brake tests — sometimes for cars carrying highly hazardous materials — so that trains could continue to move on time.
“They do put pressure on employees to get trains moving,” said Herb Krohn, the legislative director for the United Transportation Union, representing 2,000 railroad workers in Washington. “I know a lot of employees who have been criticized because they took too long to do a safety related matter.”
“The history of railroads in America has been one where things generally don’t get corrected until people die,” Krohn said. “And that is frightening to me.”
NTSB Board Member Robert Sumwalt views damaged rail cars on scene of BNSF train accident in Casselton, N.D. Credit: NTSB/Twitter
Long history of underreported injuries
In 2008, Jeanette Wallis was injured while standing on a ladder on a string of locomotives and giving hand signals to a new employee. She lost sight and sound of the other employee, according to the OSHA findings, and saw only a locomotive approaching at what she thought was an unsafe speed.
Not in control of a locomotive herself, she saw no choice but to leap from the locomotive, injuring her knee in the process.
The BNSF train master and terminal manager followed her to the hospital and, according to the OSHA findings, more than once attempted to gain entry into her exam room. Hospital security told them to leave.
“As far as the injury, it is going to be reportable, however,… With the locomotive downloads that show no hard joint we might be able to fight it, that is a big might,” one of Wallis’ managers allegedly wrote in an email, according to documents revealed during her case.
Wallis did file an injury report. Three months later, she faced a disciplinary hearing about the incident. She was later suspended. The employee driving the locomotive on the day of her injury was not formally disciplined, according to depositions taken in Wallis’ case.
"Unfathomable" that BNSF would allow employee suspected of causing injury to forgo discipline (p. 22)
Railroad consultant George Gavalla explains his view of BNSF's discipline choices in Wallis' case.
Wallis later won in federal court under the whistleblower statute and has since returned to work for the railroad. She said she loves the work despite the experience, which is a common sentiment amongst railroad workers.
Wallis’ was not Washington’s only case involving railroad injury reporting. In 2010, for instance, a crew of BNSF maintenance workers in the Seattle area alleged they were threatened by their manager that if they reported another injury the crew would be abolished and forced to seek other work.
“I’ve had employees who’ve called me on their way to the hospital saying that they got injured on the job. They need stitches and they’re afraid if they tell the hospital how the injury happened the railroad will find out and then bring them up on charges,” said Herb Krohn.
Roughly 60 percent of railroad cases filed involve workers who allege they were fired after reporting an on-the-job injury, a practice that’s been documented on the railroads for decades and was a major driver behind the whistleblower law.
FRA officials have stated the agency uses accident and injury data to set its general safety priorities and to focus its geographic inspections, neither of which can be done effectively without accurate reporting.
Since the passage of a whistleblower law in 2008, more than 1,400 cases have been filed against railroads in the U.S. OSHA now handles more cases cases under the railroad statute than it does for all but two of the 22 whistleblower statutes it enforces.
Whistleblower cases, regardless of industry, are often dismissed. Many railroad whistleblower cases are withdrawn or kicked out to federal court. BNSF claims 90 percent of OSHA investigations it receives are deemed to have “no probable cause.”
Still, OSHA and the FRA found the number of claims filed in the railroad industry, which has risen every year, concerning.
In 2012, the agencies wrote to the industry saying the agencies were “very concerned about the high number of complaints” and that the number is escalating. The perception of employees being singled out for discipline, the agencies wrote, “leads to the development of an organizational safety culture that may inadvertently suppress accurate reporting.”
Changing railroad culture
Between 2009 and 2010 a curious thing happened at Amtrak.
The number of reported injuries jumped from 441 to 647. The reason, FRA and OSHA concluded, wasn’t a major increase in unsafe activity at the railroad. Instead, the passenger rail service abolished its policies discouraging workers from reporting injuries, including those rewarding managers for low injury numbers.
Federal regulators conducted audits and concluded the 206 extra injuries that weren’t a real increase, they were simply now being reported. Federal regulators hope to see similar changes on the nation’s freight railroads.
Lawrence Mann, an attorney for railroad unions who wrote much of the federal whistleblower law, is confident the law is enough to change the industry.
“The culture in the railroad industry is going to change because of the whistleblower law, as it relates to harassment and intimidation,” Mann said. “An employee should no longer fear an issue of rail safety being brought to the attention of the federal government, or the railroad, of notifying the railroads of safety problems.”
He and other attorneys say OSHA has been aggressive in enforcing the statute.
In 2012, OSHA scolded BNSF for asking the agency to release the names of witnesses it intended to interview for investigations. In a letter, the agency informed BNSF that “such requests are wholly inappropriate and that OSHA will not comply with them.”
A year later, OSHA reached an agreement with BNSF after discovering a policy, in part because of Wallis’ case, it alleged openly violated the whistleblower law: the railroad was automatically assigning 40 disciplinary points for a reportable injury and only 5 for a non-reportable injury. OSHA approached the railroad with more than 30 examples of complaints involving such practices, which ultimately led to a settlement of the cases and changes to BNSF’s policies.
BNSF spokesman Zak Andersen said in addition to that voluntary agreement, BNSF is also part of a government-sponsored Whistleblower Advisory Board, comprised of union representatives, Department of Labor administrators and railroad personnel.
“It is not only BNSF policy but also Federal Law that harassment or intimidation of any person that is calculated to discourage or prevent such person from receiving proper medical attention or from reporting an accident, incident, injury or illness will not be permitted or tolerated,” Andersen wrote.
Andersen cited an internal BNSF audit that shows a vast majority of employees who reported on-the-job injuries never received discipline connected with the events that led to their injuries.
“BNSF simply makes every effort to ensure that whistleblowers are not retaliated against. And the numbers bear that out,” he wrote.
Few can state with much certainty how the culture has changed since the whistleblower law went into effect. Cases are often appealed several times over, first going through the railroad review process, then the unions, then OSHA and ultimately federal court. That can leave fired employees in legal battles for years before they might return to work.
Nancy Lessin, who has more than 30 years of experience in occupational health and safety, much of it evaluating employer safety practices on behalf of labor unions, said in a deposition for Wallis’ trial that recent awards in favor of injured workers do not seem to be stopping the practice of retaliation.
“It is of grave concern that this history in rail of retaliating against workers for reporting injuries and now having these cases, having these cases being decided in favor of injured workers, having some, you know, awards provided to the injured workers doesn’t seem to be stopping the practice overall,”Lessin said in the deposition.
After dismissal, a life unravels
But when Curtis got a letter in the mail in March of 2010, informing him of his dismissal from the railroad, that life began to unravel.
“Prior to the BNSF incident our world was perfect,” Kelly Rookaird said, sitting at the kitchen table with her family one day. “We were very very happy. We finally got our kids and it was a miracle that we got them. We were very blessed.”
“And the lord blessed us all,” Roman, 9, piped up.
Curtis Rookaird has been in a legal battle with BNSF Railway for more than 4 years. During that time he’s fallen behind on mortgage payments — more than $100,000 behind. He took a job as a trucker in the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota to make ends meet, spending two months away from his family at a time.
“It’s a hard time with me and my family,” Roman says, between mouthfuls of after-school snack. His father was away during a boy scout camping trip, “And when we went camping at Fire Mountain it wasn’t fun without him because he can’t help us do our fish hooks and fishing stuff.”
Boy Scouts is the boys’ main social outlet, as the family can no longer afford any other sports or extracurricular activities.
Curtis Rookaird drives a fuel truck locally now, which has made it easier on the family, but the money isn’t as good as his job with BNSF Railway and they are facing the loss of their home within a matter of weeks.
In September of last year, OSHA ordered BNSF to put Rookaird back to work. As it has in other cases, BNSF has refused to do so and has appealed the case.
“And it’s a shame that they can just appeal and appeal and appeal a decision, basically an order, that says I’m supposed to be back to work,” Rookaird says, desperation in his voice. “I’m going to wither away and die here.”
Rookaird’s case will go before a federal court in May of next year.Tags: BNSFoshahealth and safety
By Lawrence Goun and Biko Koenig
Workers at Tom Cat Bakery sharpened their resistance against company attacks this summer with a solidarity BBQ in front of the Queens-based factory. Tom Cat's private equity owners, Ancor and Merit Capital, are seeking devastating health care cuts and other takeaways from workers in contract negotiations with the Bakery Union. Dual-card IWW members are leading a struggle to build long-term power and secure a good contract, after beating back a de-certification attempt from a mob-dominated union earlier this year.
“These out-of-town investors already have their mansions, while we barely can support our families. The cuts they're demanding are impossible and we're united against them,” said Marino Aquino, a night-shift packer at Tom Cat and a member of the IWW. “Our unity is our strength and we will keep the pressure on until justice prevails.”
United Transportation Union demands historic concessions from train conductors
By Jeff Lusanne
21 July 2014
A United Transportation Union local has proposed a contract with BNSF railway that, if enacted, will serve as a model for workforce reduction across the entire rail industry in North America. Once new signaling technology is implemented in 2015, the contract would allow the railroad to replace an on-board conductor on many trains with a roaming, on-the-ground conductor. This would leave many trains with only one crew member: the engineer.
The proposal would potentially lead to job losses as the new “master conductor” position is assigned a greater share of work across an area. The contract would expand the range of tasks and assignments of a conductor, while offering a pittance of compensation in return. It also may risk the potential safety of crewmembers and the public by enacting widely-criticized one-man operations on a large scale for the first time.
The contract is being promoted by the UTU SMART local GO-001, which represents 3,000 conductors, brakeman, yardmen, and enginemen on portions of the BNSF railroad across the midwest and western United States. Throughout the contract the union uses the term “transformational” to describe their agreement to fundamentally undermine the jobs and protections of conductors it claims to represent.
The proposed contract is based on the implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC), which was mandated by Congress and the Federal Railroad Administration to be in place by 2015. It will provide constant enforcement of speed restrictions and protection from collisions. Through GPS and other electronic equipment, a train with PTC would receive continually updated information about its authority for movement at a given speed in a given area, and equipment in the locomotive would enforce these restrictions.
The proposed BNSF contract makes clear that the private freight railroads intend to use the cost and added safety of PTC implementation as an excuse for implementing one-person operations.
When PTC is in place, BNSF and UTU claim that it will be safe to have just the engineer operating the train, assuming some of the responsibilities of a conductor. This comes as railroads push year after year for longer and heavier trains, which in turn require more experience and skill on the part of engineers. As it is, some BNSF trains are over 2 miles long, and others are more than 20,000 tons. These massive trains run through both major urban centers and remote regions with challenging geography.
Railroads have progressively reduced the size of train crews to cut costs, going from five people in the 1970s, to three people in the 1980s and two people in the 1990s. Ever since then, the railroads have pushed for one-man crews. Since 1970, railroad employment has fallen from 617,000 to 238,000 at present. Of those, 38,350 employees are conductors or yardmasters.
If the UTU contract passes at BNSF, it will serve as a model for every freight railroad in North America to restructure operations and cut their workforce.
On July 16, Carla Groleau of CSX, a major railroad, told WKYC that it “currently operates all mainline revenue trains on two-person crews, but future technology such as PTC should be tested to assess best practices over time.” Undoubtedly the freight railroads will claim that one-person crews are safe.
These comments are made even as public concern over rail safety rises in the wake of several major railroad derailments. In several locations around the country, trains carrying crude oil have derailed and the oil has burst into flames, endangering both crew and communities.
A BNSF oil train that derailed near Cassleton, North Dakota on December 30, 2013, causing a massive explosion and the release of 400,000 gallons of crude, was only just outside a more populated area where the damage could have been far worse.
On July 6, 2013, an oil train operated by Montreal, Maine, & Atlantic Railway ran away near Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, then derailed in the town. The damaged cars of oil burst into flame, leveling the center of the town and killing 47 residents. The train was operated by a one-person crew consisting of just an engineer, a cost-cutting practice pioneered by the owner of the railroad, Ed Burkhardt.
In response to these accidents, the Federal Railroad Administration has proposed the issuance of a rule requiring the use of two-person crews on oil and other trains. But the proposed rule “is expected to include appropriate exceptions” and will be the subject of enormous opposition from the multi-billion dollar freight rail industry.
At the moment, that industry is experiencing an upturn in traffic, making the UTU’s proposal all the more remarkable. BNSF is wholly owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, and it is the railroad with the greatest access to the booming Bakken Crude region. Oil traffic has expanded so rapidly that it overwhelmed the railroad’s capacity and staffing this winter. Yet instead of a struggle for better working conditions, the UTU offers radical labor cuts to a corporation gushing with profits.
The proposed contract has already been met with enormous opposition from railroad workers, both conductors and engineers, who are represented by another union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. Engineers have expressed that they don’t want to be alone in the cab, stressing how two people are better equipped to identify and address problems that threaten safety and operation. Despite this, for years the UTU and BLET have pitted the trades against each other.
Certain provisions of the contract make it clear that the UTU is offering itself as a cooperative partner with BNSF in return for a privileged position over the other railroad unions. The contract would allow the UTU “master conductor” to run yard engines, haul other crews around, and communicate with trains operating through maintenance zones. All of these tasks are currently performed by other craft unions.
In effect, the strategy of the UTU is to accept the dictate of the railroads—one-person operations—and then negotiate the best conditions for maintaining its dues base as the job cuts come, behind the backs of its own members, and against the interests of other railroad workers. To do so, its proposed contract undermines the working conditions and safety of the very conductors it claims to represent.
Do you want to get involved? Check out the "Baldwin" tab of our website. And come to the next community meeting on August 5th, 7 pm, at 3344 Churchview Ave: see flier here.
Railroad Worker Jen Wallis On Health And Safety, Rail Labor, One Man Crews And Warren Buffet
Jen Wallis is a railroad worker and health and safety advocate who
was injured and blew the whistle on the Warren Buffet owned
railroad BNSF. She is a member of IBT BLET Division 238 and
Railroad Workers United RWU who works in the Seattle area.
She discusses her injury and the systemic attack on workers
health and safety by the railroad and how this threatens the community
and public due to dangerous oil cars and lack of proper manning.
This includes systemic retaliation, workplace bullying and intimidation for
workers who fight for health and safety on the railroads
She also discusses the role of some union officials in pushing 1 man crews
even though these labor reductions are serious threats to the safety of the
railroad workers and the communities that railroads travel through.
This presentation was made in San Francisco on July 19, 2014 at a
conference of the Injured Workers National Network.
For more information go to:
Production of Labor Video Project www.laborvideo.org
Obama Union Busting Appointed Rail Panel Says No Back Pay In Philly Rail Fight
Philly SEPTA rail unions dislike presidential Obama panel recommendations
SEPTA workers picket outside the SEPTA Roberts Avenue Yard in June. (Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer)
UIRER STAFF WRITER
LAST UPDATED: Saturday, July 19, 2014, 1:07 AM
POSTED: Friday, July 18, 2014, 2:21 PM
The two unions representing SEPTA railroad engineers and electrical workers on Friday expressed disappointment with the recommendations of a presidential panel on their long-running labor dispute.
The panel, appointed by President Obama, on Monday sided with SEPTA management on most of the issues in the dispute, which prompted a one-day strike last month.
"We are disappointed with the recommendations of the [presidential emergency board], particularly because the board, instead of directly addressing the economic analysis of the employees, simply sidestepped the core issue of this labor dispute," the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and IBEW Local 744 said in a joint statement.
"As we have been for the past five years, we are willing and prepared to meet with SEPTA to discuss a settlement that treats our members fairly and consistent with how they have treated their other 6,000 employees. The BLET and IBEW remain committed to achieving that outcome and hope that, in light of the board's recommendations, SEPTA is, too."
SEPTA on Monday called the recommendations "a good basis for a settlement" and said its negotiators were ready to resume talks with the unions.
The presidential board, whose recommendations are not binding, said the rail workers should get the same 11.5 percent raises negotiated in a five-year contract in 2009 by bus drivers and subway operators.
The railroad workers are not entitled to retroactive raises or an additional increase based on a pension boost received by the bus drivers' union, the board said.
Those two issues are at the heart of a dispute that led to a brief strike last month by 200 engineers and 215 electrical workers. The strike, which followed years of fruitless negotiations, ended June 15 after Obama appointed the emergency board. But another walkout by the railroad workers could happen late this year or early next year if the sides do not agree to accept the board's recommendations or reach some other resolution.
@nussbaumpaulObamaPhilly Rail Fight
SAN FRANCISCO (July 18, 2014) – The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) today issued the following statement:
After several days of ongoing talks, both parties will break from negotiations next Monday and Tuesday in order for the ILWU to convene its previously scheduled Longshore Division Caucus in San Francisco. Negotiations are scheduled to resume Wednesday.
No talks will take place July 28 to Aug. 1 so the ILWU can resume unrelated contract negotiations in the Pacific Northwest.
The previous labor contract covering nearly 20,000 longshore workers at 29 West Coast ports expired July 1. While there is no contract extension in place, both parties have pledged to keep cargo moving.
The coast-wide labor contract is between employers who operate port terminals and shipping lines represented by the PMA and dockworkers represented by the ILWU. The parties have negotiated a West Coast collective bargaining agreement since the 1930s.
For Daimler, the truck driver of the future looks something like this: He is seated in the cab of a semi, eyes on a tablet and hands resting in his lap.
Daimler demonstrated its vision Thursday along a stretch of the A14 autobahn near Magdeburg in eastern Germany, the culmination of years of innovation. It says the vehicle — called the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025, a nod to the year the carmaker hopes it will be introduced — is capable of responding to traffic while driving completely autonomously down a freeway at speeds of up to 85 kilometers per hour, or 52 miles per hour.
Click here to read more at The New York Times.Issues: Freight
US port strike fears hit supply chains
Thursday, 17 Jul 2014 | 8:43 AM ET
Fears of a strike or lockout at the west coast ports that handle more than 40 per cent of all container imports to the US are disrupting businesses' supply chains, as shippers anticipating a stoppage divert cargo to Canadian ports.
Canada's largest rail network has already imposed restrictions on handling goods bound for the US after a surge in cargo diverted to the ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert in British Columbia. Prince Rupert's container imports for June were 22 per cent up on the same month last year. Canadian National Railway (CN) took the action amid concerns that talks between US port employers and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union over a new contract might end in a strike or lockout. The port workers' existing contract expired on July 1.
Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images
The Guenther Schulte container ship departs the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro, Calif.
The expiry of a previous six-year contract in 2002 led to a 10-day lockout and serious traffic disruption that ended only when the federal government intervened. The two sides later reached agreement in 2008 with only minor disruption.
Truck drivers at Los Angeles and Long Beach ports – which handle around a third of US container imports – went on strike last week in a separate dispute.
CN said US-bound imports through Canadian west coast ports had increased "noticeably" as shippers sought to protect their supply chains against potential industrial action.
"During this short-term bump in volumes, CN and its terminal partners will be striving to ensure that our base level business . . . will continue to be supported appropriately . . . such that normal dwell time levels are maintained," CN said, referring to the time a container spends at a port before being moved on.
JJ Ruest, CN's chief marketing officer, told customers on July 8 that delays at terminals in Vancouver and Prince Rupert had become "untenable". The company would allot space on trains for shipping lines based on their traffic earlier this year and a percentage above that. Any other cargo might not be handled, he warned.
Jonathan Gold, vice-president for supply chains at the National Retail Federation, said many retailers had moved shipments to Canada and the US's east and Gulf coasts to avoid potential trouble. He hoped none would suffer serious consequences from the resulting congestion.
Read MoreWest Coast port talks more positive this time
"The whole point of companies' putting these contingency plans in place was to make sure that their cargo was able to move and wouldn't end up sitting somewhere else," he said.
Because it prioritises Canadian traffic, CN's stance should ensure the company avoids a repetition of the criticism it and Canadian Pacific, its main rival, faced earlier this year over their handling of grain from last year's record harvest. In March, the Canadian government threatened both railways with significant fines unless they boosted movements.
CP, which also serves Vancouver, said last week it was not imposing any limits to cargo growth.
Neil Davidson, ports analyst for London-based Drewry Shipping, said it was hard for shippers and shipping lines to know how serious the threat of a work stoppage was, given how differently the last two negotiations had turned out.
Read MoreClock winds down on West Coast port talks
"You've had two extremes – one with a 10-day blockade and one fairly smooth," he said.
Some shippers had moved their cargo to vessels heading to New York and New Jersey, Norfolk, Virginia and other US east coast ports, Mr Davidson said.
Anthony Hatch, an independent rail analyst, said that while a work stoppage would affect supply chains, rail companies had grown better since 2002 at handling unusual events. "From a rail perspective, I don't think it would be as disruptive," he said.
Read MoreWest Coast dockworker talks a tense time
The 2002 stoppage, together with severe service disruptions in 2004, prompted Prince Rupert to build a container terminal marketed as a route for importers around troubled US west coast ports.
The Prince Rupert Port Authority said its supply-chain partners had been able to recover quickly in the past from the effects of any short-term spikes in demand. "We're confident that will continue to be the case," it said.
Port Metro Vancouver confirmed it had seen diversions of US-bound cargo but could not quantify them.
—By Robert Wright, The Financial TimesTags: ILWU West Coast Contract