Chao’s Priorities on Display in Postville

Kathy G directs our attention to Thomas Frank’s Wall Street Journal column (sub only), which uses the AgriProcessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa to illustrate Labor Secretary Elaine Chao’s record. In May this plant, which happens to be the country’s largest kosher meatpacking facility, was the site of the largest single immigration enforcement operation at a single workplace: 389 workers were detained. It turned out that several of these workers were underage – an especially serious problem given that meatpacking is such a dangerous job.

The New York Times followed up on the issue of AgriProcessors’ underage workers, and reported that the group of detainees included 20 workers below the age of 18, with some as young as 14. “Some said they worked shifts of 12 hours or more, wielding razor-edged knives and saws to slice freshly killed beef. Some worked through the night, sometimes six nights a week,” NYT’s Julia Preston reports.

Then, there are the safety violations. Frank cites a Des Moines Register report that the Iowa Division of Labor Services cited the plant for 39 violations of safety rules. Frank looked for federal Labor Department fines against the company, and found a single instance in 2006 when the company paid a paltry $2,250. So, he asks:

…where was Ms. Chao? Sure, the Labor Department is investigating AgriProcessors now, but what has this exemplary agency been doing for the past seven years? When department officials weren’t dreaming up schemes for “voluntary compliance” with federal rules by businesses, they were getting tough with labor unions – the one institution that can be relied on to protect blue-collar workers.

We’ve been hammering on the theme that the Labor Department’s love of “compliance assistance” has been disastrous for workers; kudos to Thomas Frank for pointing this out to Wall Street Journal readers.

In response, Kathy G has five suggestions for how to reverse the appalling state of affairs that allowed this to happen:

Well, first and foremost, we need unions. As Frank points out, unions are an indispensable institution that keeps the pressure on and fights for the rights of all workers, not just union members. Changes in labor law such as card check, which would make it easier to organize, are crucial.

Secondly, we need federal bureaucrats who will actually do the job they’re supposed to do and enforce laws that look out for workers’ interests.

Thirdly, we need to step up workplace inspections. In practice, this will mean hiring more civil servants and devoting more resources to our pathetically defunded regulatory agencies.

Fourthly, we need to change the law, so that employers who violate labor standards will get off with more than just a slap in the wrist. They need to know that if they’re caught breaking the law, it will hurt. Fines of just a few thousand dollars are not gonna cut it.

Fifthly, we need immigration law reform that includes a general amnesty and a path to citizen for undocumented workers. A big part of the reason AgriProcessor was able to screw over so many workers so hard for so long is that their workforce mostly consisted of undocumented immigrants.

In particular, the second and third items require getting elected officials who believe 1) each employer has a responsibility to furnish workplaces “which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees” and 2) the government should enforce #1 – in other words, lawmakers who will uphold the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which Richard Nixon signed into law in 1970. This shouldn’t be a stretch, but these days, it is.

Comments

  1. #1 Tony Coen
    August 8, 2008

    Great article presenting the deplorable state of compliance to the labor laws but offering clear and concise solution to the problem. Unions here in Australia, while presenting problems all of their own, do a great job in championing the rights of the workers and ensuring that only union members actually get a start at a job site. Tonys Product Reviews