Thanks to what Texas AFL-CIO President Becky Moeller calls a “historic, robust bipartisan effort,” the Texas Legislature approved on Monday a “Buy American” provision for water projects that establishes a preference for iron, steel and manufactured goods produced in the United States. Says Moeller:
For the first time in memory, Texas, under this legislation, will give strong priority to American goods and products in the course of major construction projects. The Texas Legislature deserves high commendation from working families for sending a message that buying American creates jobs. This bill will benefit our economy.
The Buy American provision included a major water development bill (H.B. 4) and includes a requirement that iron and steel products and manufactured goods used in the project be produced in the United States. The bill received overwhelming support, passing 141-4 in the House and 30-1 in the Senate.
Earlier in the session lawmakers approved a “Buy Texan, Buy American” bill that applies to state purchases of manufactured goods. Texas AFL-CIO Communications Director Ed Sills says both bills ”have the potential to create jobs in Texas and in the U.S.”
The labor movement has always been about good jobs. In a legislative session that had the look of potential disaster on several fronts at the start, seeing two “Buy American” ideas succeed in bipartisan fashion is a signal accomplishment that is at the core of what we do.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) is expected to sign the bill.
HR 1406, the hilariously named, “Working Families Flexibility Act,” would replace time-and-a-half pay for hours worked past 40 hours with a “comp time” system that favors the employer. As the video above explains, “comp time” sounds like you’re getting time off to spend as you see fit, but in fact allows your boss to decide when you take your days off – and when you don’t.
If your boss decides that your request for days off “unduly disrupts the operations of the employer” they have the right to reject it. If your boss decides that your request was not made “within a reasonable period,” you can’t take your vacation.
So instead of getting paid extra for working more than 40 hours a week, as we’ve done for decades, you get some days off that your employer has complete control over. And yes, you can still take the option of overtime pay, but what’s to stop your boss from treating you differently because of it? (Nothing.)
To review: The Working Families Flexibility Act provides less flexibility to working families. Classic bill naming!
What’s sickening about this vote in the House is that three Democrats voted for the bill along with all but 8 Republicans: Tim Matheson of Utah, Henry Cuellar of Texas, and Collin Peterson of Minnesota. The House Republican caucus has continuously demonstrated their lack of concern with American workers (33 votes to repeal Obamacare, anyone?) and it’s a shame that these three so-called “representatives” decided to cross the aisle on this harmful, misguided bill.
But in general, we should keep this vote in mind next time those 223 members of Congress come back around asking to get “rehired” in November 2014. After all, Congress operates less than half of the year, and yet they earn an exorbitant salary for their troubles – paid by you, the taxpayer.
They might think that our bosses should completely control how we spend our time. Don’t forget, though: we are their bosses. And if they don’t change their attitude and their work ethic, a pink slip might be in order.
It’s been a good few years for taxi drivers gaining a voice on the job. Today in Austin, Texas, the National Taxi Workers Alliance (NTWA) granted its first local chapter charter since it joined the AFL-CIO. The NTWA was chartered by the AFL-CIO in 2011, with New York City and Philadelphia locals as the founding members.
Austin taxi drivers founded the Taxi Drivers Association of Austin (TDAA) to organize and collectively address drivers’ concerns, from economic hardship to harassment and physical safety on the job. TDAA says drivers work up to 15 hours per day, seven days a week and yet earn less than minimum wage on many days and have no job security. While income is tightly regulated by the city through the meter, owners regularly increase lease fees charged to drivers that eat up much of their earnings.
Today at a ceremony welcoming the chapter, Becky Moeller, president of the Texas AFL-CIO, told KUT News the affiliation will allow the drivers to “Speak with one voice, whereas before they would speak and we would assist them. And now they’re actually part of organized labor, and we’re excited about that.”
Merga Gemada, vice president of the TDAA, said:
The bare minimum protections required for a taxi driver to have a dignified life are not available to us today because of the economic instability we work under. At the same time, drivers are not covered by workers’ comp or disability and have no insurance to protect themselves in the case of an accident. Today’s affiliation is also the launch for the TDAA’s campaign for economic rights and dignity, in which drivers are demanding greater job security and a safety net against their precarious working conditions.
Bhairavi Desai, president of the NTWA, added:
Austin joining the national Alliance is just the beginning of a much bigger change in Texas.
In 2011, the West Fertilizer Co. filed an emergency response plan with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that said there was no risk of fire or explosion, despite the fact that as much as 54,000 pounds of flammable and toxic anhydrous ammonia could be stored on the site.
In addition, several other federal and state agencies had pieces of the regulatory responsibility to protect the workers and community. The plant was surrounded by homes, a senior citizen housing project and a nearby school. But as Bryce Covert of Think Progress writes:
Many of these agencies have previously cited and/or fined the company. But they aren’t required to coordinate with each other, and small distributors like the one that exploded are part of a system that focuses more on larger plants.
While those state and federal agencies may inspect certain segments of a plant’s operations—emissions, for example—OSHA is the agency with the broadest mandate and authority to inspect a plant’s entire operations, enforce safety and health laws and, if need be, shut it down. But as the 2012 AFL-CIO report Death on the Job notes, OSHA is so understaffed and underfunded that federal inspectors can inspect each workplace on average of one each 131 years.
There are some 2,200 OSHA inspectors for the country’s 8 million workplaces and 130 million workers. In Texas, OSHA conducted 4,448 inspections in the past fiscal year, a pace that would mean it would visit every workplace in 126 years, according to Death on the Job.
In addition, says AFL-CIO Safety and Health Director Peg Seminario, the West Fertilizer plant had just seven employees and “these kind of workplaces are not typically inspected by OSHA.”
What people don’t understand is how limited resources are to oversee workplace safety and health.
BlueGreen Alliance Executive Director David Foster calls the 35-year gap, since the last inspection at the West Fertilizer plant, “a stunning indictment” of OSHA’s underfunding.
While the Obama administration has increased funding for OSHA after nearly a decade of cuts under the Bush administration, the Republican sequester now in place “means fewer inspectors to monitor facilities like the West Fertilizer Company,” says Keith Wrightson, worker safety and health advocate for Public Citizen.
Small budgets also make it even harder for the agency to issue new safety standards. The agency’s budget is similar to what it was several decades ago, but the size of the economy—and the number and complexity of workplaces to inspect—has grown tremendously.
With adequate funding for more OSHA inspectors, more potentially dangerous sites— like this fertilizer manufacturing plant—can be inspected and hazards abated.
But while workplace safety advocates have pushed for stronger health and safety standards—including chemical safety standards for facilities such as West Fertilizer, Covert writes:
Even with all of the evidence that the plant fell through a variety of regulatory cracks, an industry-backed bill with ties to the Koch brothers with the support of 11 congressmen would reduce the EPA’s powers to regulate major chemical sites.
Members of Fire Fighters (IAFF) locals are part of the emergency response team on the scene in West, Texas, following last night’s massive explosion at a fertilizer plant that killed as many as 15 people, injured 160 and left many missing, including a member of Dallas IAFF Local 58, who lives in West. IAFF sends us this report.
Hazmat teams from IAFF Local 478 in Waco, Texas, and IAFF Local 2505 in Killeen, Texas, and other emergency service personnel are responding to the scene of the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, which has killed as many as 15 people, including several firefighters, according to reports.
IAFF 11th District Vice President Sandy McGhee is in contact with Local 478, the IAFF affiliate closest to the blast. He says, “Local 478 President Steve Tull reports that none of our members have been hurt as a result of the explosion, although their homes may be damaged.”
However, Local 58 reports that 30-year Capt. Kenny Harris, who lives in West, is missing. The IAFF and its affiliates continue to contact members in the area of the blast in hopes of accounting for all.
Hazmat teams have been dispatched, and firefighters are assessing conditions and addressing safety concerns.
IAFF President Harold Schaitberger says:
Our members are doing what they do best and are on scene making calm out of chaos by assisting their neighboring community. This is another situation where this country is counting on our first responders to be there, and our members never disappoint—they respond no matter the circumstances.
“The severity of the damage remains unclear,” says Texas State Association of Fire Fighters President Guy Turner. “We won’t have a clear picture until the entire scene has been swept by emergency personnel.”
The explosion occurred around 8:00 p.m. on April 17, leveling a four-block area around the West Fertilizer Company. U.S. intelligence officials say that, so far, there is no indication that this was a terrorist event. However, nothing will be ruled out until the investigation is complete.
Dozens of homes are damaged or destroyed, some belonging to IAFF members.
On Thursday, Working America will kick off its 10th anniversary celebration by announcing plans to expand into all 50 states in five years as well as new efforts to organize workers at their workplaces.
“Every day, we talk to people struggling to support their families or piece together a living with their current jobs,” said Working America Executive Director Karen Nussbaum. “These are people who want to see changes in their communities or on the job. This expansion allows working people to make a difference in new states and communities.”
On Thursday, Working America will host a “50 in 5” launch event, featuring AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO President Emeritus John Sweeney, American Bridge 21st Century President Rodell Mollineau, U.S. Sens. Al Franken, Tim Kaine, Martin Heinrich, Bernie Sanders and other guests.
As Working America expands nationally, it will continue its year-round community organizing and electoral and legislative work, as well as pilot different methods of organizing workers on the job. Those models and tactics include a workplace organizing site launching in May called fixmyjob.com.
Currently, Working America is in a dozen states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Colorado, New Mexico, Michigan and Oregon. It recently opened offices in Texas and North Carolina.
“Working America is an example of the way the AFL-CIO’s door has to be—and will be—open to any worker or group of workers who want to organize and build power,” said Trumka. “Its expansion into 50 states means that every week, at front doors, workplaces and community gatherings all over America, thousands of people can build power locally.”
“Working America’s impact has already been felt here in Texas,” said Richard Shaw, secretary-treasurer of the Harris County AFL-CIO Council. “It brings an entirely new outreach dynamic to our labor movement in Houston, and it will do the same in all the communities it expands into.”
Pennsylvania Woman Becomes a Super-Activist with the Labor Movement’s Partner for Nonunion Workers
One day in Havertown, Pa., a neighborhood organizer in a red shirt knocked on Vicki’s door, asking how Vicki felt about cuts in her state’s school budget. A retired school teacher who has a grandson with special needs, Vicki worried the cuts her governor was pushing would eliminate resources for special education.
Vicki was already angry about these cuts. She felt that one of the most important people in her life was being targeted. But until that day, she felt powerless to do anything about it. Like so many people, she thought she couldn’t change the process, and that her elected leaders weren’t listening. Then someone showed up at her door with a solution—a strategy to change things.
That day, Vicki didn’t just sign a petition. She became a member of an organization called Working America. She sent a letter to her state senator and governor telling them she wouldn’t stand for cuts that threatened her grandson’s education. And from there, she has gone on to become an activist and a leader in her community.
Founded in 2003, Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO, is the fastest-growing organization for working people who don’t have a union on the job. At 3 million strong and growing, Working America empowers people year-round to make a difference in their own communities.
Next, Vicki went to her hair salon, a favorite meeting and chatting place. But the conversation with her stylist wasn’t about the weather this time. It was about state politicians going after her grandson’s special education funding. The stylist said she, too, was worried about the school cuts. “I wish there were something we could do about that,” said the stylist.
And Vicki replied, “Actually, there is something you can do.” That day, Vicki helped her stylist write a letter to their state senator. Her stylist got the salon owner involved. “Everyone who walked into that beauty shop wrote a letter,” said Vicki. Becoming an organizer was “exciting,” she said. “That was a wonderful process.” It happened because she felt stronger as part of an organization—and it’s all because somebody knocked on her door.
“Any time a stranger comes to your door, you wonder, ‘who are they?’” Vicki said. “But they had a way about them that was so inviting, so engaging, and they really brought me in.”
Now Vicki takes part in her local Working America community action team. Once a month she gets together with other local Working America members to share snacks and coffee and talk about key issues. “People talk about their struggles,” said Vicki, “and listening to each other is so meaningful.” Vicki is even training other Working America members to encourage their friends and neighbors to speak out.
Working America’s strategy can be summed up in three words: Strength in numbers. Many people Working America visits feel disconnected, isolated and, like Vicki, powerless.
Joseph, a waiter from Albuquerque, N.M., is a shy young man who reluctantly agreed to join other Working America members at a state House committee hearing about raising the minimum wage but didn’t want to say anything. In the packed hearing room, a high-powered lobbyist from the restaurant industry trade association testified that restaurant workers made “enough money” and that indexing the tipped minimum wage to inflation would put restaurants out of business. Joseph stood up. “I work in a restaurant,” he said, “and I can’t afford to buy a meal where I work.” And many of his co-workers were scraping by, trying to raise families on the low minimum wage for tipped workers.
Joseph had something important to add to the conversation, and he had the confidence to say it because he wasn’t there alone.
“Strength in numbers is the only way to make change,” Joseph said. “People need to organize for the greater good. I like to know that I’m contributing.”
Working America knocks on more than 10,000 doors every week—and two out of three people organizers talk to become Working America members, with many taking action right away on issues such as education, health care and workers’ rights. These members are a vital part of the union movement. Across the country, Working America is partnering with unions to expand the reach of the labor movement and bring working people together on important campaigns.
People are looking for reliable information they can’t get from Fox News and talk radio—and Working America provides it with face-to-face conversations.
Working America doesn’t just visit a member once. It builds relationships, maintains two-way conversations about issues that really matter and gives members plenty of opportunities to get engaged and to become powerful advocates.
Working America members took action in huge numbers to fight anti-union “right to work” for less laws in Minnesota, New Hampshire and Maine. They stood up to Gov. Scott Walker’s attack on collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin. They voted overwhelmingly to overturn the union-busting S.B. 5 in Ohio, helping send it to a resounding defeat. They supported the rights of child care workers in Vermont and fought the radical expansion of for-profit “cyber schools” in Michigan. In one of the organization’s most important recent victories, hundreds of letters from Working America members helped convince Ohio state legislators to drop a proposal—sponsored by the amusement-park lobby—that would have shortened the school year by five weeks. In Texas, union members are strengthening the local labor movement by signing up friends, family and neighbors as Working America members. And Working America is exploring new ways to talk to people about their work and helping them organize to make their lives better.
Vicki and Joseph aren’t alone anymore. They’re making a difference in their communities, and so are thousands of others. That’s the difference Working America can make.
As Vicki said, working together is “a vision our country needs to have.”
“I always believed in the labor movement, even though I don’t have a union at work,” Joseph said. “Working America gave me the outlet, a way to get involved.”
You can be part of this movement, too. Join Working America.
Since 1999, 31 million votes have been cast in the state of Pennsylvania. Since 1999, there have been 12 cases of voter fraud – someone trying to vote twice or impersonate another voter. That means 0.0004 percent of votes cast since 1999 have had a problem.
The bill passed the House, was amended in the Senate, and is expected to pass a concurrence vote today on its way to Gov. Corbett’s signature. In a state where teachers have had to literally work for free because of cuts to schools, somehow Corbett’s philosophy of “limited government” and “fiscal responsibility” has lead him to spend $11 million of taxpayer money to infringe on citizens’ right to vote.
But while Pennsylvania’s leaders are on the edge of making this stupid, wasteful, unjust decision, voter ID laws in other states have come to the attention of the legal system. And thank God, because from a legal standpoint, voter ID laws can’t last an ounce of scrutiny.
The Obama administration on Monday blocked a new law in Texas requiring voters to show photo identification before they can cast a ballot, citing a concern that it could harm Hispanic voters who lacked such documents.
The Justice Department said that data from Texas showed that almost 11 percent of Hispanic voters, or more than 300,000, did not have a driver’s license or state-issued identification card, and that plans to mitigate those concerns were incomplete.
A Wisconsin judge on Monday struck down the state’s voter identification law less than a week after another judge temporarily stopped it, complicating plans for state officials who want the law in place for the upcoming April 3 presidential primary.
Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess issued the permanent injunction, finding the law unconstitutional because it would abridge the right to vote. He wrote in his eight-page ruling that “voter fraud is no more poisonous to our democracy than voter suppression.”
Note that although this means the voter ID law won’t be in place for Wisconsin’s regularly scheduled spring elections on April 3, we can’t know for sure that the law won’t be in place for the recalls tentatively scheduled for June.
But here’s the key point from the decision in Wisconsin:
“A government that undermines the very foundation of its existence — the people’s inherent, pre-constitutional right to vote — imperils its legitimacy as a government by the people, for the people, and especially of the people,” Niess wrote.
Past the politics and the framing and the yammering on Fox News, the most important point is this: if we lose our right to vote, we lose the only voice we have against extremism, cronyism, and corporate power.
And when corporations have more control over our election outcomes than we do – when a corporate-backed SuperPAC can spend millions on ads while a citizen can’t even cast one ballot – we cease to be a democracy. That’s why out of all the battles we’re fighting, this one may be the most important.
The Justice Department today blocked Texas’s new voter ID law, which is among the toughest in the country, under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, noting that “over 600,000 registered voters do not have either a driver’s license or personal identification card issued by [the Department of Public Safety]—and that a disproportionate share of those registered voters are Hispanic.”
The data provided by the state of Texas on two different occasions shows that Hispanic voters are more likely than white voters to lack the ID now required to cast a ballot. The law was clearly intended to benefit Republicans; for example, a handgun permit is considered an acceptable form of ID but a university ID is not.
That really says something about what the state legislature of Texas values.
For those voters who lack the proper ID, obtaining the correct documentation can be a difficult task. Texas is required to provide a free ID to voters, but an applicant must possess supporting documentation in order to qualify. “If a voter does not possess any of these documents, the least expensive option will be to spend $22 on a copy of the voter’s birth certificate,” DOJ writes. That expenditure can be rightly construed as a poll tax, which the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited.
Moreover, getting that ID from the DMV is not as easy as you’d think. Hispanics in Texas are twice as likely as whites to not have a car. There are DMV offices in only eighty-one of the state’s 254 counties. Not surprisingly, counties with a significant Hispanic population are less likely to have a DMV office, while Hispanic residents in such counties are twice as likely as whites to not have the right ID. “During the legislative hearings, one senator stated that some voters in his district could have to travel up to 176 miles roundtrip in order to reach a driver’s license office,” wrote DOJ.
So, you get a “free” ID, but the cost of obtaining that free ID is pretty high. Paying for a pricey birth certificate, and taking the time off from work to travel hundreds of miles to the DMV is expensive. It seems likely that it’s intended to keep folks from getting the “free” ID.
The state hasn’t publicized the new law to make voters aware of it, nor have they trained poll workers to handle the changes brought about by the new law.
Meanwhile, the push for Voter ID laws continues around the country. The legislatures in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New Hampshire will all be voting soon on ID laws.
And just to point this out, while Texans can use a concealed handgun permit as an ID at the voting booth, that’s not cheap either: A new permit costs $140, discounted to half price ($70) for seniors and the indigent.
This past fall in San Antonio, Texas truck drivers working for Oak Farms Dairy plant took the leap in fighting to form a union at their workplace. Their goal: for all workers to be able to negotiate for better wages, better hours, safety conditions, health care, and to have a democratic method of collectively bargaining with their employer. The response: months of captive audience meetings, intimidation tactics by employers, and the hiring of professional union busters to intimidate Oak Farms drivers from voting to form a union. One driver was pushed out of his position early in the organizing drive, but his dedication and passion led him to continue to take an active role in engaging his coworkers to continue fighting, even during his time of intense economic struggle.
The drivers fought long and hard for months, but when the vote finally came, intimidated employees backed down from voting for the union in fear of losing their jobs. At the end of the day, Oak Farms‘ big pockets and crackdown on workers’ rights had won…for now.
Feeling deflated after the vote, workers and the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Union came together to decide how to continue the drive, channeling the passion that so many of the dedicated drivers of Oak Farms still held to fight for democracy in their workplace. This was no time to quit and they knew that the workers united can truly never be defeated. They decided to come together to recruit fellow workers to become members of Working America, which will let them share a few of the benefits and some of the shared voice that union membership provides. In a joint training with Working America, they learned about the benefits of Working America membership and developed an outreach strategy to connect their co-workers with these benefits.
These dedicated drivers have come together to stay engaged in fighting for democracy in their work place, and to fight for the broader issues affecting working families including the attacks on education, health care, voting rights, and corporate accountability. By reaching out to others and welcoming them into the movement, these community leaders have joined a network of over 3 million Working America members nationwide to fight for good jobs and democracy across the country, starting with their local San Antonio community.
From Oak Farms to corporate greed, these empowered drivers will continue to build the community power to fight back against the attacks on working families at home and abroad.