By Doug Porter
Local gasoline prices have increased by roughly 20% over the past few weeks. Retailers dependent on imported goods are voicing concerns about bottlenecks in supplies coming through west coast ports. And that could be bad news for consumers. There’s more to the story than what you’ve likely seen or heard.
While the factors surrounding both these development are complex, a major element in each are labor unions seeking safe working conditions. In what amounts to a sad commentary on the state of the news media in the U.S. the coverage has been largely one dimensional, leading with management’s pronouncements about wages and benefits.
Four thousand workers represented by the United Steelworkers union on strike at refineries in California, Kentucky, Texas and Washington were joined by another thousand employees at sites in Ohio and Indiana over the weekend.
The Pacific Maritime Association, the group representing port terminal operators, effectively locked out the International Longshore & Warehouse Union, representing 20,000 dockworkers at West Coast ports over the weekend.
It doesn’t help matters that getting the unions’ side of the story is made more difficult by a strategy focused mostly on informing their members. The public perception is that the union demands are financial. In a day and age where collective bargaining is under sustained assault, winning the public relations battle is increasingly important.
Right now the issues being put before the public are rising fuel costs and the possibility the next new gadget may be in short supply. What’s missing is the realization that the health and safety issues are at the core of these economic disruptions. Today I’ll try to round out the picture of what’s really happening here.
The Refinery Strike
While it is true that crude oil prices have bottomed out for now and there is a typical uptick at this time of the year due to maintenance shutdowns and seasonal trends, much of the price increase we’re seeing in California is strike-related.
From the LA Daily News:
The rising pump prices are caused by a sharp increase in the wholesale price “likely on news of a strike at the Tesoro refinery in Carson,” said Jeffrey Spring, the corporate communications manager of the Automobile Club of Southern California.
“At current levels, the margin between wholesale and retail prices is closer than it’s been for several months, meaning that prices are likely to rise more in the near future.”
Since the Steelworkers are not seeking any increases in wages or benefits, news accounts of the refinery strikes have focused on the words “bad-faith bargaining” used by union leaders. There is little to no coverage of what the bargaining is about.
From Think Progress:
The workers in the industry clearly have some issues with the existing business model and their place in it. USW International Vice President Gary Beevers, head of the union’s National Oil Bargaining Program, stated that Shell has refused to continue bargaining toward a fair agreement.
“This work stoppage is about onerous overtime; unsafe staffing levels; dangerous conditions the industry continues to ignore; the daily occurrences of fires, emissions, leaks and explosions that threaten local communities without the industry doing much about it,” said Beevers, who also cited “flagrant contracting” as having a negative impact on health and safety.
USW represents about 30,000 workers at more than 200 refineries, terminals, and pipelines across the country. A full USW strike could disrupt as much as 64 percent of U.S. fuel output, according to Bloomberg. Right now the USW is negotiating for a new national contract at 63 plants. More walkouts could be in order as previous negotiating impasses have lasted months.
Environmental groups have been supportive of the refinery workers. From Common Dreams:
In an industry known for health and safety violations, as well as large-scale environmental disasters like BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the workers have garnered support from green groups.
“As we move towards a clean energy economy, there should be no throw-away communities and no throw-away workers,” said environmental organization 350.org in a statement supporting the strikers…
...Brooke Anderson, organizer with Climate Workers and Movement Generation, toldCommon Dreams that she took part in a strike picket line at the Tesoro refinery in Martinez, California and found that, at a rank-and-file level, “a lot of those workers get the problem with refineries and pipelines. They know better than anyone how dangerous this stuff is and how dirty the industry is.”
“The oil refinery workers there were so clear that they were on strike because they don’t have the power to call out problems on the inside of the refinery,” Anderson continued.
“If they can’t blow the whistle on health and safety issues, they know the consequences will come back on everyone.”
West Coast Port Workers: It’s Not About the Money
Last Wednesday the organization representing west coast port managers went public with their pay and benefit offers, hoping to shame the union into capitulating at the bargaining table.
It’s no secret that longshore workers make good money. It’s hard work in a business flush with cash. And, as the unions have said for weeks now, they are close to making a deal. It’s just those pesky safety and job security issues getting in the way, like:
- Outsourcing work on the docks that was previously done by longshore workers, including the management, maintenance and inspection of tens of thousands of container chassis units.
- Creating new companies, twice removed from PMA-member employers, who are receiving subcontracted work that was formerly done by longshore workers.
- Failing to provide sufficient training for current and future dockworkers to improve safety and protect ILWU jurisdiction.
Management has been very vocal in publicly accusing the unions of backups at the ports along the west coast. And from what I’ve been able to ascertain, there may well be a work-to-the-rule tactic in play here. But…
From the January 13, 2015, ILWU Dispatcher:
In contract negotiations this afternoon, officials from the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) told a federal mediator and longshore negotiators that West Coast ports have reached a point where there is little space available for additional import containers arriving on the docks – and no space for export and empty containers returning to the docks.
The PMA made it clear in the negotiating session that they were not blaming union workers for the primary causes of the congestion crisis, explaining that the lack of space for returning empty and export containers was exacerbating the existing chassis shortage – because the export-bound containers are a key source of desperately needed chassis that have become the #1 choke-point, ever since shipping lines recently stopped providing a chassis for each container arriving to West Coast ports.
Working Class Hero Darrell Issa?
Information technology workers at Southern California Edison are being laid off and replaced by workers from India brought in under H-1B work visas. The move by the company, which supplies much of SoCal’s–but not San Diego’s– electricity was so egregious that even Congressman Darrell Issa posted a statement saying it was “deeply disturbing,” according to UT-San Diego.
Issa co-sponsored the “Skills Act,” increasing the number of foreign workers who can come in under the H-1 program.
In a statement posted to his website, Issa said: “Based on the information currently available, this appears to be an example of precisely what the H-1B visa is not intended to be: a program to simply replace American workers en masse with cheap labor from overseas.”
Issa, R-Vista, said immigration law requires employers to certify that hiring an H-1B applicant “will not adversely affect the working conditions of workers similarly employed.” He also called for new legislation with stronger wage protections to help prevent companies from using the program to replace existing workers with lower-cost imported labor.
Needless to say, the 400 Southern California Edison employees being laid off are not happy.
The employees say that some of SCE’s U.S. workers have been training their replacements, either in person in SCE’s IT offices or over Web sessions with workers in India. The IT workers say the Indian tech workers do not have the skill levels of the people they are replacing.
The SCE outsourcing “is one more case, in a long line of them, of injustice where American workers are being replaced by H-1Bs,” said Ron Hira, a public policy professor at Howard University, and a researcher on offshore outsourcing. “Adding to the injustice, American workers are being forced to do ‘knowledge transfer,’ an ugly euphemism for being forced to train their foreign replacements. Americans should be outraged that most of our politicians have sat idly by while outsourcing firms have hijacked the guest worker programs.
Taking Pity on the Poor Billionaires Who Own Football Teams
UT-San Diego has reached deeply into its stash of editorial lunacy to come up with an editorial attacking proposed legislation introduced by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez.
The legislation is in part a response to lawsuits filed by women who’ve worked as cheerleaders for a half-dozen or so professional sports teams. Citing long hours and minimal pay, they’re also asking for better working conditions.
Apparently it’s okay with UT-San Diego’s testosterone-driven editorial board for women to be auctioned off at charity events to sit in contributors’ laps. Or to undergo a weekly “jiggle test.” Or to be told what kind of tampon they should use. Or to be ordered not to wear underwear under their uniforms.
These practices are among those described in the Oakland Cheerleaders’ employee manual, leaked to Mother Jones last year.
Because women seek the “exposure and indirect benefits” that cheer leading offers it’s all okay, according Manchester’s minions.
A bill introduced in the Legislature by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, is yet another example of unnecessary state interference in the business of private business. It would require any California-based professional sports team that uses cheerleaders to provide them with “all of the rights and benefits afforded” the team’s employees.
The UT-San Diego editorial concludes by rising to the defense of the pitiful billionaire NFL owners:
This bill is just Gonzalez, a former college cheerleader and professional labor leader, sticking a needle in the eye of what she disdainfully calls the “billionaire owners” of sports teams.
On This Day: 1950 – U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy charged that the State Department was riddled with Communists. This was the beginning of “McCarthyism.” 1961 – President Kennedy asked Congress to approve creation of the Medicare program, financed by an increase in Social Security taxes, to aid 14.2 million Americans aged 65 or older. 1964 – The Beatles made the first of three record-breaking appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” 73 million people watched the show. It was their American TV debut.
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