Tag Archives: safety

SF Chronicle Op-ed Scapegoats BART Workers, Ignores Real Problem

by Steve Smith

I’ve seen some pretty outrageous anti-worker opinion pieces written about the contract negotiations at Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) over the last two months. But nothing I’ve read is as infuriating as today’s San Francisco Chronicle op-ed from Chuck and Barbara McFadden.

In short, the McFaddens assert that workers like those at BART are not deserving of the middle-class wage their unions negotiate.  To make their point, they use an argument that’s all too common today — private sector workers are suffering so public sector workers should too. What’s so absurd about this logic is that the very reason so many private sector workers are struggling is because most don’t have the ability to bargain with their employer for a decent wage in return for a hard day’s work.

Workers should be able to negotiate with their employers over wages and benefits like health care and retirement security. In BART’s case, workers are coming off a four-year wage freeze. No question, our state has been through some hard times over the last four years so a wage freeze may have been reasonable at the time the last contract was negotiated.

But now, ridership is up and so is revenue. BART is running a surplus. Yet, BART’s proposal this year is to make workers pay more on the benefits side while only giving a minuscule wage increase. End result? Workers take home less to their families. BART also refuses to negotiate over rider and worker safety, critical issues for the unions.

That’s not a fair proposal given the situation. So workers are standing up to management with their union. And while a strike is an absolute last resort, it remains possible if management continues to refuse to negotiate in good faith.

Now let’s take another example. A worker at Walmart makes poverty wages and can’t afford health insurance. There’s no negotiation on these issues. It’s a “take it or you’re fired” kind of offer. It doesn’t matter that Walmart is the most profitable company in the U.S. It doesn’t matter that Walmart could easily afford a modest wage increase or affordable health care. It doesn’t matter because workers have no leverage. They are not able to stand together to bargain for a middle-class wage, so they won’t ever get it. And many private sector workers today find themselves in that same sinking boat.

So, there are two ways to go from here. We could, as the McFaddens suggest, lower standards and cut take-home pay for those workers who are still able to earn a middle-class wage for a hard day’s work. Or we could chart a new course. How about, instead, we stand together as public- and private-sector workers to demand that corporate America, whose profits have soared while the rest of us suffered, start doing right by their employees?

Big corporations and the politicians they bankroll like the first option. They want to turn workers against each other. “Let them fight for the crumbs while we enjoy the pie,” they say. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had it with that. Those at the top have had it too good for too long at our expense. It’s time workers shared in America’s prosperity again.

It’s no coincidence that the zenith of the American middle class coincided with the peak in union density. Workers were able by homes and cars with the wages they earned. Families thrived. The economy hummed. That was a result of workers being able to bargain for a share of the pie, just like BART workers are trying to do today.

The problem with America’s economy isn’t that there are too many workers – like those at BART – who have the ability to stand together to bargain with employers for better wages and benefits.  The problem is far too few workers have that opportunity today.

And until we recognize that, we’re doomed to a future of increasing income inequality and a shriveling middle class. I doubt that’s what the McFaddens are angling for.  

Safety of BART Employees and Riders At Center of the Current Dispute

by John Logan, San Francisco State University

For several weeks, BART management has run a sophisticated media campaign telling the public that the lack of real progress in negotiations is solely the fault of the unions’ unreasonable and uncompromising economic demands.

When it comes to wages and benefits, however, management has presented a highly misleading picture: it has failed to mention the enormous concessions that BART workers accepted in 2009 at the depth of the economic recession. BART President Thomas Blalock stated that he was “extremely pleased” with that cost-cutting agreement. BART employees were much less pleased, of course, but they recognized the need for significant sacrifice in the dismal economy.

Under the guidance of their highly paid, out-of-state chief negotiator, Thomas Hock, BART management is misrepresenting key economic and safety issues. Hock has an outstanding reputation for driving down employees’ wages and benefits, but a dismal one for resolving disputes without disruptive strikes. By characterizing its bargaining position as fair and generous, BART management has failed to explain that, under its most recent written offer, most BART employees would barely stay in place, while many on the lowest incomes would likely fall even further behind. Nor has management explained how top management, not frontline workers, enjoy some of the system’s most expensive and wasteful job perks.

BART management has also consistently misrepresented several key safety issues that are at the heart of the dispute.  BART management has, for the most part, failed to resolve the unions’ concerns on worker and rider safety.  Indeed, State Controller John Chiang, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, and Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones wrote to management recommending that they “treat frontline employees-many of whom have raised numerous valid concerns about worker and rider safety-as partners in creating a safer system.” Thus far, BART management has failed to heed their wise advice.

The figures on safety for BART employees speak for themselves. Since 2009, BART management has cut the system’s operations staff by 8 percent. During the same 4-year period injuries that BART reported to Cal-OSHA have increased by a whopping 43 percent. Hundred of BART workers are now injured on the job every year. And as a result of BART’s dysfunctional and inefficient workers’ comp system, many injured workers are involuntarily forced out of their jobs for weeks or even months at a time.

BART workers also face the threat of physical violence on a regular basis. 30 BART station agents were assaulted at work in 2009, while the same number were assaulted during the first four months of 2013. Recent incidents have involved an agent being attacked with a knife, an agent being punched in the face, an agent being thrown down stairs, and an agent being attacked by a group of five teenagers. As a result, several BART station agents have ended up in hospital with serious injuries. Other BART agents have had to deal with fatal shootings or horrific suicides in or around their stations. Yet BART management has thus far refused to do what is necessary to ensure worker and rider safety throughout the system.

BART management needs to spend more time engaging in real discussions at the bargaining table and less time trying to win the battle of public opinion through its sophisticated media campaign. Negotiating through the media may be easier than doing it face-to-face, but it won’t resolve this dispute.

And neither will management’s misrepresentation of the key economic and safety issues at the heart of the negotiations.


Bike Safety Legislation Inches through the Legislature

Legislation aims to balance traffic concerns with safety

by Brian Leubitz

Capitol Public radio mentions Asm. Bradford’s AB 1371, a bill to improve safety for bicyclists. Bradford has dubbed it “Three feet for safety” but, things are always more complicated.

I travel along Highway 1 in Sonoma County quite frequently. It’s a favorite of cyclists, and for good reason. It’s beautiful. But it’s also a very curvy road, frequently right on top of a sheer cliff. Bicyclists ride next to this cliff, with drivers maneuvering around them. As it stands right now, we have the worst of both worlds. Drivers do dangerous things to get around bikes, but also get far too close to the bikes. Add on the fact that frequently the bikes end up leading a procession of cars when they can’t mix, and you have a  dangerous mix.  What ever happens, we need to ensure that there are clear rules for drivers and riders. That’s what Bradford is attempting to do, with a lean towards the bikers.

“Bicycles have as much right as anyone to use the public streets,” Bradford said. “Everyone needs to share the road, and cyclists deserve legal protection to ensure their safety.”

Some recent high profile traffic accidents involving bicycles have sparked calls for increased protections for cyclists. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa broke his elbow in 2010 in a traffic accident while riding his bike.

Now, Bradford and others have been working on this legislation for a while. Last year, Gov. Brown vetoed SB 910, saying that it went a little too far in favor of the bicyclists, and could cause rear-end accidents if drivers were forced to slow too much. With AB 1371, Bradford is attempting to balance the interests in a way that pleases CalTrans and the Governor. With Gov. Brown, you may not know if he is comfortable with the balance that was struck until you get a decision on the bill. As it stands, the bill is getting some amendments in the Senate, and looks like it will be passed when the Legislature resumes action.

However, even if Gov. Brown signs it, there is still a lot of work to do in terms of education. Drivers and cyclists both need to understand what their rights and responsibilities are as they share the road.

Photo credit: Brian Leubitz, Google+. 2012 Tour of California, on Highway 1 in Sonoma County.

Playing Russian Roulette With Our Neighborhoods

Remember this phrase – Condition-Based Maintenance.  CBM.   Crash and Burn Maintenance.  CBM.  

The San Bruno explosion should be a wake up call.  As the inevitable regulatory reviews, recriminations and revisions of history play out in the wake of San Bruno, it is important to keep CBM in mind because it is one of the most nefarious and dangerous lingering effects of the deregulation mania that swept over California and the nation in the last 15 years.  It must be eliminated from utility practice.  Let me explain.

Utility systems provide essential services whose loss even for a moment can be devastating in a very short time. – in the  case of manufacturing processes a matter of milliseconds.  For this reason operation and maintenance of these systems should be rigorously scrutinized and high standards enforced.  This is especially true of gas pipeline systems, because the substance they carry, methane gas under relatively high pressures, can be highly explosive and dangerous.

For decades standard practice in the utility industry was to perform Preventive Maintenance (PM) at relatively short intervals, with regular inspections between preventive maintenance applications.  This provided a high degree of assurance that equipment or material failures would not occur.

Deregulation placed a premium on cost cutting, job cutting and corner cutting, in the name of maximizing profits.  Preventive maintenance was one of the casualties.  It was replaced by CBM, Condition-Based Maintenance.   CBM is a concept that substitutes inspection intervals for maintenance intervals, with actual maintenance occurring only as needed based on the observed condition of the equipment or system.  If system or equipment is close to failure, maintenance or replacement is supposed to be performed “just in time.”  However, as San Bruno demonstrated, the inspections can miss something and place our communities literally at risk of blowing up.  There is no place for CBM in the utility infrastructure for delivering essential services and explosive substances.

The risk of catastrophe is enhanced in California because even though improved inspections can identify potentially hazardous conditions that warrant repair or replacement, the actual maintenance and capital spending by the utilities is set at a level that deliberately cuts safety margins to the edge of failure.  For example, gas utilities in California are currently operating pipes and equipment far beyond their designed life, with schedules for replacement as much as seven years into the future.

The PG&E San Bruno explosion has sparked a renewed sense of urgency in addressing infrastructure safety issues.  There are federal initiatives to improve pipeline safety that pre-dated San Bruno; there are state and federal investigations and there is sure to be a flurry of legislative proposals in the wake of the disaster that focus on improved inspections.  But until the philosophy of utility deregulation and the practice of CBM – push equipment and systems to the brink of failure in the name of cost-cutting – are eliminated, we have to ask: Whose neighborhood will blow up next?  Spin the chamber and pull the trigger.

Carl Wood is the Democratic candidate for the 65th State Assembly district (Riverside and San Bernardino Counties). Wood is a member of the Utility Workers Union of America and former Public Utilities Commissioner.  He has worked as a power plant maintenance electrician.

We failed the people who cleaned up 9/11. Will we fail the people cleaning up the Gulf?

In the aftermath of 9/11, we saw thousands of workers develop devastating respiratory conditions and other illnesses as a result of exposure to toxic dust that filled the air in the days and weeks after the twin towers fell. To this day, these peoples’ plight continues to add misery to the ongoing tragedy of 9/11. What makes it even worse is that these people were assured the air was safe.   As we all know now, it wasn’t.

Today, sadly, history may be repeating itself in the Gulf of Mexico.

(Thank you to Ligia Ercius-Dipaola, who posted this video on the NRDC Action Fund Facebook Page)

Amazingly, despite reports like this one, BP “continues to pretend that – just like an oil spill of this magnitude could never happen – there also could not possibly be a worker health concern.”  While the potential health hazards posed by chemical dispersants and oil itself are debatable, it is clear that significant risks existed.  

Already, we’ve seen evidence of the impact that spilled oil can have on human health. For starters, an increasing number of workers and residents in Gulf Coast areas have reported “suffering from nausea, vomiting, headaches and difficulty breathing.”  Considering that oil contains “petroleum hydrocarbons, which are toxic and irritating to the skin and airways”, as well as volatile chemicals “which can cause acute health effects such as headaches, dizziness and nausea” it’s no surprise that these symptoms are appearing.

(Thank you to Gary Chattem, who posted this on the NRDC Action Fund Facebook Wall)

So now, with the “60 exposure-related complaints filed with the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals”, not to mention the “overwhelming evidence that many of the compounds found in crude oil are dangerous,” shouldn’t BP be protecting the people who are cleaning up this mess? If they aren’t doing so, why aren’t they?

The bottom line is this: people along the Gulf Coast deserve to know the facts regarding the dangers they are facing and how to protect themselves.  It’s bad enough that their economic livelihoods are in danger of destruction in part due to BP’s greed and recklessness.  But if their lungs and other organs are damaged by oil and dispersant particles in the air, more than their economic livelihoods could be damaged.

None of us should ever forget that this disaster was brought on, at least in part, by BP cutting corners to save a few (million) bucks, and by the government’s failure to prevent the company from doing so.  As a result, the unthinkable has happened.  We must learn from those grave mistakes, not repeat them.  That means, in the long term, ridding ourselves of our dangerous, destructive addition to oil.  But what must happen now – right now – is for BP to stop cutting corners with the health of the people cleaning up the Gulf.

At the minimum, BP must switch its philosophy from “hope for the best” to “do whatever it takes, whatever the cost, to make sure people are safe.”  If BP won’t “make it right,” as the company’s ads like to say, then the government should force BP to do so.  In the words of one Venice, LA mother: “I’ve got the two most beautiful children in the world. If something were to happen to them, how could I look in those baby blues and say, Mommy didn’t know?”  It’s a great question.  What’s the answer, BP?

Urge EPA to rethink toxic chemical after scientists say it can’t be managed

“Adequate control of human exposure would be difficult, if not impossible.”

-CA Scientific Review Committee

This is the time of year many talk about United Farm Workers’ founder Cesar Chavez. Cesar was many things, among them he was a strong voice on pesticides.  

PhotobucketCesar Chavez said, “In the old days, miners would carry birds with them to warn against poison gas. Hopefully, the birds would die before the miners. Farm workers are society’s canaries. Farm workers-and their children-demonstrate the effects of pesticide poisoning before anyone else…There is no acceptable level of exposure to any chemical that causes cancer. There can be no toleration of any toxic that causes miscarriages, still births, and deformed babies.”

As you celebrate his legacy, add your voice to continue Cesar’s fight.

Cesar’s UFW is currently working on a campaign that is critical for farm workers health and safety. We are working together with a coalition of environmental and farm worker groups to try to get the EPA to re-review the toxic pesticide methyl Iodide.  

Science has proven that methyl iodide is a water contaminant, nervous system poison, thyroid toxicant and carcinogen. In other words, it’s a toxic poison that should not be used near where people live.

Despite this, the Bush Administration’s EPA registered methyl iodide nationally in 2007–automatically permitting this toxin for use in a number of states. Other states like California have their own state regulations and are still deciding whether to allow it to be used.

However, there is finally hope to pull this toxic poison off the market. On September 25, 2009, U.S. EPA publicly agreed to reopen its decision on methyl iodide, pending results of the California Department of Pesticide’s Scientific Review Committee, comprised of scientists from across the country.

The Panel’s data is in.

Their report: this pesticide is toxic and harmful. “Adequate control of human exposure would be difficult, if not impossible.”

In addition their report raised serious questions about the scientific accuracy of the federal review that was done under the Bush Administration.

Difficult if not impossible to control–yet this carcinogenic chemical is being used in North Carolina, Florida and fields across the country right now.

This has to stop. Help us hold EPA to their promise to follow the science on methyl iodide. Sign the petition today!

Help Protect Children From Toxic Pesticides

Luis Medellin and his three little sisters, aged 5, 9 and 12, live in the middle of an orange grove in Lindsay, CA–a small farming town in the Central Valley. pesticide driftDuring the growing season, Luis and his sisters are awakened several times a week by the sickly smell of nighttime pesticide spraying. What follows is worse: searing headaches, nausea, vomiting.

The Medellin family’s story is not unique. From apple orchards in Washington to potato fields in Florida, drifting poisonous pesticides plague the people who live nearby–posing a particular risk to the young children of the nation’s farm workers, many of whom live in industry housing at the field’s edge.

This situation also often exists in schools in agricultural areas where it’s not uncommon to have a school next to a field.

Nov. 7, 2009 – Salinas Californian:

Salinas Valley schools perched near pesticide-sprayed farmland

“When schools use pesticides on campus, they post a warning a day before. But when acres of farmland next to classrooms are sprayed with industrial-grade chemicals, often no sign goes up.”

Gonzales resident Aurora Valdez said she’s fearful pesticides sprayed near Gonzales High School, where her kids attend classes, will harm her teenage sons. She said she often prays to the Virgin of Guadalupe to keep her sons from experiencing what she said her husband, Francisco, went through 12 years ago after being exposed to pesticides. “I worry constantly about pesticides,” Valdez said.

That’s why the UFW, Earth Justice, Farm Worker Justice and a coalition of environmental groups petitioned the government to set safety standards protecting children who grow up near farms from the harmful effects of pesticide drift–the toxic spray or vapor that travels from treated fields. We’re also asking officials to immediately adopt no-spray buffer zones around homes, schools, parks and daycare centers for the most dangerous and drift-prone pesticides.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has taken the first step in addressing this problem–opening up the petition for public comment. It’s a promising sign.

Environmental News Service:

EPA Proposes Labeling to Control Pesticide Drift, Evaluates Petition

November 4, 2009 (ENS) – Pesticide labeling to reduce off-target spray and dust drift was proposed today by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The new instructions are aimed at improving the clarity and consistency of pesticide labels and help prevent harm from spray drift, the toxic spray or vapor that travels from treated agricultural fields and into neighboring communities.

The agency is also requesting comment on a citizens’ petition to evaluate children’s exposure to pesticide drift.

The agency’s leadership needs to hear that you think they’re on the right track. Because they’ll surely be getting an earful from the pesticide industry telling them to keep the status quo. In fact, industry interests like Monsanto and CropLife have already started weighing in.

If we want EPA to do the right thing and put immediate pesticide buffers in place around homes, schools, daycare centers and playgrounds, we need to push back. Please help.

In the past, the EPA has not made this issue a priority–ignoring a law Congress passed that requires the agency to protect children from all exposures to pesticide, including pesticide drift. The agency is already three years overdue in setting safety standards that protect children from drift. But there is new hope with the Obama administration. Will you please send your e-mail today and add your voice to those calling for a change?

Thank you!    

Keep your eyes on the road

The auto industry is undergoing a major transition.  How can we set a course for its healthy development?

Automakers, by their nature, must make plans many years in advance.   Right now, we have people designing products for 2015.  That means that, if environmental standards are to be effective, it is crucial that we have very good collaboration between government and the auto industry.  It requires smart regulatory practices, achievable goals, and a national roadmap we can depend upon.

We are in this thing together.   It is time to collaborate.

Take emissions standards, for example.  We understand the direction of the carbon economy.  We embraced 40% higher federal fuel standards in the 2007 energy bill, and we fully expect a decade of rising standards, year by year, starting with the standards for 2011 to be announced in the near future.

We intend to accomplish those standards.  In order to do that, we’ve urged the federal government to set emissions standards for multiple years into the future, to give us a predictable set of regulations to plan and design for.  In recent years, California and other states have played an important role in setting emissions standards when there was no federal action on the issue.  But today, the federal government is acting.  Additional uncertainty can only undermine that progress.  A single, national standard administered by the federal government is a reliable roadmap and we can move forward rapidly.

We also need to know that the infrastructure will be in place to support the advanced technologies we’re developing.  You can’t have a fleet of plug-in hybrids and electric cars without a place to plug them in, or without sufficient energy to power them all.

Patchwork fixes and band-aids are not a good solution to our common problems.  Our environmental and economic problems involve our whole country.  So do the solutions.  An integrated national plan provides a stable foundation for progress.

We’re committed to reinventing the automobile.  We will provide you with an even wider range of efficient automobiles.  And if we can depend on a smart and stable set of regulations, the auto industry will be the driver behind a new low-carbon economy.