2006-05-19 / Columnists

The Progressive

By John Paul Culotta

My wife and I frequently use the 311-call center set up by Mayor Bloomberg. We find the service efficient, courteous, and the staff gives correct information. This initiative should be studied as an example of governmental success.

Graffiti artists are now finding new methods of defacing subway cars. Our city and the MTA must find a way to stop this destruction immediately. Minor annoying infractions of law lead to a breakdown in societal norms.

The recent attacks by corporations and governmental agencies on health and deferred compensation benefits of retirees gave cause for the President of the American Federation of Teachers to comment. He said: "As a nation, we're in the middle of a retirement security crisis. The federal budget calling for billions in cuts to Medicare makes it worse. We dodged a bullet in the Social Security fight last year, but it created a felling of "social insecurity" in millions of Americans. And no one can feel good about the fact that more than 2,000 companies have unloaded their pension obligations on the federal Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation." He went on to say: "The elimination of pensions and other retiree benefits at companies like United Airlines, while top executives lock in lucrative retirement awards is scandalous."

Governor Pataki on March 22 signed legislation that was passed by the legislature 197-1, which the President of the Public Employees Federation Roger Benson states "will permit the Legislature and public to actually begin to determine the real size and cost of state government with true cost comparisons of contractors versus state employees." In June the legislation becomes effective. This is welcome news.

When the leader of Mainland China Hu Jinato was at the White House on his official (not state) visit, his discourse was interrupted by a journalist. Although the journalist broke the law, her courageous action brought to the spotlight the cruel and inhumane activities of a regime despite its' accomplishments in the economic sphere. We need to evaluate our relationship with this regime.

On April 25, 2006 The New York Times reported on a development in the labor movement. It was reported that the coalition that broke away from the AFL-CIO is requesting that the coalition and the AFL-CIO form a third group to concentrate on political and legislative goals both groups share. It appears the AFL-CIO president is not favorable. All Americans should welcome a united American labor movement. Stagnant wage growth, the attacks on health benefits, immigration reform are issues that call for input from working Americans. Unions best represent working men and women.

Democrats, despite Mr. Bush's unpopularity in the polls, need to focus on the issues that resonate with Americans. These issues are the porous borders, the security of our ports, how to fight terrorists without losing our liberties, a humane and sane immigration policy, the rebuilding of the Gulf region, an effective and affordable energy policy and peace in Iraq. The mid-term elections can be lost if a clear message is not put forth by the party.

Governor Pataki has submitted legislation regarding the state Workers' Compensation Law. His proposal would increase the maximum weekly benefit from $400 to $525. Unions are opposed despite this positive development because the legislation would limit benefits for many workers particularly workers who have permanent partial disabilities.

The legislation would also change procedures that would limit workers rights to fair and full hearings. In October 2005, the Workers' Compensation Board began to include more cases to conciliation. The law limits the use of conciliation to cases which the duration of benefits is expected to be less than 52 weeks. Conciliations, unions contend, favor employers. Workers in order to avoid delays accept lower levels of benefits. My wife was offered a lower level of payment when she was injured. She refused the lower level because we had sufficient savings. How many other workers live from paycheck to paycheck?

Safety Last

The New York Times is considered to be our nation's newspaper of record. It is customary for all media outlets to follow its' lead when that paper does a series of investigative reports.

For about three years The New York Times has done a series of reports regarding workplace safety issues and ecological issues concerning McWane Inc, which is based in Alabama. Few other media outlets reported the safety and environmental violations of that corporation.

It appears workplace safety is not an issue our media deems important. The only media outlet that I am aware reported the violation was the Public Broadcasting Services and National Public Radio. Both broadcasting services are under attack by the conservative media and politicians nationwide.

On May 2, 2006 The New York Times reported that a federal jury in New Jersey found Atlantic States Cast Iron Pipe Company, a company owned by McWane, guilty of "conspiring to evade workplace safety and environmental laws by lying to regulators and bullying employees into silence about dangerous working conditions." It is appropriate to surmise that employees in that type of working environment need union representation. Needless to say McWane Inc. frowns on union representation.

Meat packing plants have been historically unsafe workplaces. On May 10, 2006 The New York Times reported, "Nearly nine years after a unionization drive failed, a federal appeal court has ruled that the Smithfield Packing Company repeatedly broke the law in battling unionization at its giant pork-packing processing plant in Tar Heel, N.C." Since George Bush the Second was elected in 2000 unions have found it more difficult to unionize nonunion workplaces.

The same article noted the National Labor Relations Board found QSI a cleaning contractor had "assaulted and illegally fired several immigrants who staged a walkout in November 2003 to protest the firing of two supervisors." We claim we believe in democratic expression here and abroad and it took nearly three years to have an arm of our government to make such ruling.

Sago, West Virginia was the location of a mine collapse earlier this year. Coalmines were historically union shops in this nation until two decades ago.

The mine in Sago was nonunion.

If you feel the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (M.S.H.A.) is sufficient to safeguard miners, consider the statement of Ray McKinney, the agency's administrator of mine safety. He is quoted in The New York Times of May 5, 2006: "I'll tell you this. M.S.H.A. doesn't own Sago Coal Company. M.S.H.A. doesn't contract mine rescue teams for Sago Coal Company. And M.S.H.A. is not responsible if Sago Coal Company doesn't train their people to know what to do in an emergency."

A Republican in the West Virginia House, Bill Hamilton in the same article stated, "The night of this tragedy, we asked whether anyone was listening to hear the miners' pounding." He went on to say: "We were told yes, they were. But today we learned that wasn't true." Corporations have lied about workplace safety.

They use coercion and bullying to prevent employees from expressing their concern. Corporations have even used physical abuse when employees expressed concern about working conditions. This proves workers need to organize.

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