Category: Worker advocacy

FDA- Approved “Buttery” Food Flavoring Makes People Sick

diacetylA chemical flavoring used to create that delicious, buttery flavor in microwave popcorn, when heated, can cause a life-threatening, irreversible obstructive lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterates. The chemical, called diacetyl, was first found make popcorn manufacturing workers sick in 1985, after two workers employed in a factory where the flavoring was used developed a rare lung disease. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), tested the air in the employees’ workplace, found a high concentration of diacetyl, and confirmed a link between workers’ exposure to the chemical and their reduced lung function. Since then, hundreds of workers have reported becoming sick after working around the chemical. According to NIOSH, diacetyl is used extensively in the flavoring and food manufacturing industries. Diacetyl doesn’t just affect factory workers, either. Wayne Watson of Denver, Colorado, ate two bags of microwave popcorn every day for ten years and developed the lung disease now known as “popcorn lung.” In September, 2012, he was awarded $7.2 million in a lawsuit against Gilster-Mary Lee Corporation, which made the popcorn, and the Kroger and Dillon Companies, the grocery store chains that sold it. In his suit, Watson pointed out that neither the manufacturer nor the grocery stores warned customers that diacetyl — also recently linked to Alzheimer’s disease — was dangerous. In December, 2012, Sensient, a flavoring company in Indianapolis, Indiana, agreed to pay a fine for violating Indiana OSHA workplace standards for use of diacetyl. The company also agreed to reduce its use of the chemical. In 2004, a jury awarded another couple, Eric and Cassandra Peoples of Joplin, Missouri, a total of $20 million for health injuries they incurred due to workplace exposure to the chemical. So far, food manufacturers have paid out over $100 million in damages to workers who were exposed to the chemical and got sick. Despite this, FDA still lists the chemical as safe on its website. 

Resource: U.S. Centers for Disease Control 2011 Review and Recommendation for Standard for Use of Diacetyl  (pdf)

ALEC Authored Michigan’s Wage-Depressing Law

Michigan's Right-To-Work Legislation Draws Large Protests At Capitol

Michigan workers, locked out of their state capitol, protest a so-called “right tow work” bill that cuts wages and depresses benefits

The wording of the union-killing bill Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed this week was taken virtually word for word from “model” legislation crafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a stealth lobbying group for corporations.  The Natural Resources Defense Council has calls ALEC “Corporate America’s Trojan Horse in the States.” ALEC is essentially an exclusive club for state-level legislators and corporate representatives that masquerades as a charitable, non-profit group. ALEC charges legislators just $50 a year to join, while corporations pay anywhere from $7,000 to $25,000 a year. In return corporations get ongoing opportunities to have their lobbyists hobnob closely with thousands of state legislators.  ALEC puts on corporate-sponsored confabs at tony beach and golf resorts where lobbyists get plenty of face time with state legislators and influence them to introduce their favored legislation in state houses back home. Legislators never intentionally reveal that the bills came from ALEC when they introduce them. One of ALEC’s highest legislative priorities has been passing so-called “right to work” (RTW) bills across the country to slash the political power of unions.

Hostess Fleeced its Workers, Showered Execs with Extra Cash

TwinnkieDeath

The Hostess Corporation, not labor unions, killed Twinkies through corporate greed.

Hostess Brands publicly blamed its workers’ union for forcing it out of business, but now Hostess CEO Gregory Rayburn has admitted to the Wall Street Journal that the company had been quietly ripping off its own workers. Hostess took money out of workers’ paychecks that was supposed to go towards their pensions and put it towards company operations instead, Rayburn admitted. Rayburn said the company was not under his management when those diversions occurred. During its dispute with the union, Hostess pressured employees to take another pay cut ostensibly due to financial difficulties, but in November, 2012 — while the company was undergoing bankruptcy filing — Hostess  asked a judge to allow it pay out $1.8 million in bonuses to 19 of its top executives. The judge approved the bonuses, but did not, however, include any bonus pay for Rayburn, who was already being paid $125,000 a month, nor did the company seek any bonuses for its factory or other non-executive-level workers. The story that the union was responsible for tanking the Twinkie maker, then, is a myth designed to cast labor unions in a bad light.

Main source: Huffington Post, December 10, 2012

Walmart Workers Tell the Real Stories of Working at Walmart

Walmart employees have embarked on an effort to bring more respect, better pay and improved working conditions to all Walmart workers. Their group,  Organization United for Respect at Walmart, or OURWalmart, has a website,  ForRespect.org, lists exactly what employees want from Walmart. They want every employee to get a company policy manual and assurance that the company will enforce its policies  equally without discrimination. They want full time work and wages and benefits high enough so they won’t have to depend on government assistance to survive. They seek dependable, predictable work schedules, and affordable health insurance.  Walmart workers report that Walmart has been retaliating against workers who speak out about their low wages, unsafe working conditions and other issues they have with the company, and workers want the freedom to speak their mind without retaliation. OURWalmart also started a second website, WalmartAt50.org, to get a jump on the one-sided spin they expect the company to churn out about their anniversary. The site commemorates Walmart’s 50th anniversary by allowing Walmart “associates” to share stories of how they are treated at work, the difficulties they have in trying to advance within the company and what it’s like to try to live on Walmart’s super-low wages. The site also allows community members and owners of small businesses to post stories about how Walmart has impacted their living standards. Walmart workers and customers alike can share their stories on the site, and can upload photos. The site maintains that Walmart’s business model has dragged down the middle class and been bad for America. Their slogan is “Change Walmart to Rebuild America.” The site says that the “America Walmart helped to create isn’t working for most of us.”

Wisconsin Court Kills Gov. Scott Walker’s “Budget Repair” Law

WI Governor Scott Walker (R)

A Dane County, Wisconsin Circuit Judge has ruled invalid most of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s “budget repair” bill, saying it violates both the Wisconsin and United States Constitutions. Walker’s so-called “budget repair” bill, passed after stimulating weeks of massive street protests by hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin citizens last year, effectively swept away collective bargaining rights for most public sector employees. Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas, in ruling against the law, wrote that certain sections of the law “single out and encumber the rights of those employees who choose union membership and representation solely because of that association and therefore infringe upon the rights of free speech and association guaranteed by both the Wisconsin and United States Constitutions.” Colas found that by removing the rights of public sector employees like city, school and county employees, the law effectively created a separate class of workers who were treated differently and unequally, thus violating the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the section that guarantees equal treatment under the law. Walker fought back by calling the judge a “liberal activist” and vowing to appeal. The ruling rolls back the law to where Wisconsin public employees were before the law was signed. Walker introduced the law just six weeks into his first term as Governor. During his campaign for governor, Walker did not disclose his intent to introduce the union-busting measure, instead focusing primarily on promises to create jobs in Wisconsin. The Court’s ruling was a major blow to the Republican Party’s efforts to weaken unions.

Main Source: St. Paul Pioneer Press, September 14, 2012

Finally, A Law Firm that Helps the Beleaguered Working Class

Sharon Y. Eubanks, who helped start new law firm that advocates for regular working people. She headed up the United States’ 1999 legal case against the major tobacco companies.

An entirely new kind of law firm has opened up in Washington, D.C. and New York City. Its stated mission is to take the side of average working people against the big dogs: the corporate polluters, discriminatory employers and unsafe manufacturers whose policies, behaviors, products and activities make life difficult for the rest of us. The new, high-powered public interest law firm specializes in fighting for beleaguered, regular working-class clients and on the way getting court rulings that will benefit entire communities. The group, Advocates for Justice Chartered Attorneys (AFJ), is made up of activist-minded attorneys who have extensive experience litigating against big corporations in specialty areas like labor and employment, consumer rights, environmental justice and civil rights. “Our mission is to ensure that high-quality legal representation is not limited to the wealthy, but is available to those who need it most.  We represent regular, working people who suffer the bulk of our country’s legal problems,” says Sharon Y. Eubanks, one of the firm’s founding attorneys.  Ms. Eubanks is an example of the high caliber of attorneys at AFJ — she served as lead counsel for the United States in the largest civil Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) enforcement action ever filed, United States v. Philip Morris USA, et al., also known as the federal tobacco litigation. Other attorneys at AFJ are Arthur Z. Schwartz, Cate Edwards, Richard Soto and Tracey Kiernan. AFJ’s website is afjlaw.com. In one of the firm’s current cases, AFJ is representing 170 parents and community members in a civil rights action against a school district in New York. The suit alleges that the school district violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights by intentionally segregating white students into private schools, while cutting funds to the primarily black and Hispanic student population of the public schools. AFJ Law in D.C. is located at 11 Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C. 20036. The group also has an office on Broadway in New York City. If you need help or want a consultation, contact information is on the firms’ web site.

DumpsterCam PR Effort Boosts Respect for Garbage Workers

TrashCam photo credit: Roland Wilhelm/ Stadtreinigung Hamburg/ Scholz & Friends

Garbage workers around the world have a physically difficult, smelly job few people want, and typically don’t get much respect or recognition for their efforts, either. So the sanitation department in Hamburg, Germany decided to find a way to improve respect for their workers. With the help of a German advertising agency and a garbage worker who moonlights as an amateur photographer, they came up with a PR campaign that worked to turn Hamburg’s garbage collectors into celebrities. Sanitation workers converted a 290 gallon trash dumpster into a pinhole camera and hauled it around on their routes to places the workers had said they had always wanted to photograph. Dubbed the “TrashCam,” the container had a 0.3-inch pinhole in one side. The workers would open a flap over the pinhole and allow light to project onto a 39 inch by 31 inch piece of photographic paper inside the dumpster, creating a photo. Workers would expose the paper for anywhere from five to 70 minutes, and the photos were developed in a lab later that evening. The result was a series of striking black and white photos that won the sanitation workers a prestigious advertising industry award at the Cannes Lion advertising festival. The photos will be on exhibition starting June 23 at the Axel Springer Passage exhibition space in Hamburg. You can see the photo gallery here.

Source: Spiegel Online International, June 22, 2012