Occupational Health News Roundup

On December 5, fast-food workers mounted one-day strikes in dozens of cities (between 100 and 130 cities, depending which tally you consult) to demand higher wages and the right to unionize without reprisal. The strikes follow walkouts that started in New York City in November 2012, and a series of multi-city actions this past spring and summer. The Nation’s Allison Kilkenny shares the story of Mary Coleman, a worker who has participated in several of these actions:

Mary Coleman, known to her co-workers as Ms. Mary, works at a Popeye’s in Milwaukee for $7.25 an hour. Coleman, 59, lives with her daughter, who has a heart condition, and her two grandchildren. She also relies on food stamps to make ends meet and says she would gladly trade in her Qwest card for higher wages. Thursday marks Mary’s fourth strike. Previously, she walked off the job on May 15, August 1 and August 29.

“I’m tired of working for $7.25,” Coleman says. “I can’t take care of my household, I can’t even take care of myself.”

Little amenities many individuals take for granted, such as deodorant, are unaffordable for Coleman on fast-food low wages.

“Every day struggles are being able to keep food on the table, being able to get the necessities that’s needed for every day living…. And then if you need to go to the doctor, you can’t afford that either.”

Coleman says she is inspired by the organizing of low-wage workers in other states.

“I’m very excited about it, and it lets me know people can come together and do what’s right,” she says.

Some workers Coleman’s age might consider protesting a job for younger people, but she felt compelled to join the strikes, if only to show apathetic youth that change is possible.

“If we sit back and leave everything to the younger generation, we’ll never get anywhere,” she says. “At this point, it seems like a majority of the younger generation thinks that their voices don’t matter. I want to let them know that their voice does matter.”

Salon’s Josh Eidelson considers the movement’s influence:

Indeed, the fast food effort can tout a rash of bad press for top corporations – especially McDonald’s, which has made news both for workers’ strikes and for its advice they pray more often and budget zero dollars for heat. Organizers say the strategy has also shaken loose real gains at particular stores, from schedule fixes to $2 raises. Perhaps most significantly, organizers claim that tactics like a picket and occupation of a Wendy’s have largely succeeded at averting or reversing retaliatory firings of strikers (in contrast, over twenty workers fired by Wal-Mart after joining a June strike are still out of a job).

So where will it all go?

University of California at Santa Barbara labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein last month told me he believes fast food and Wal-Mart strikes have proven “successful” in that they’re “having a big impact on public policy at the local level” — echoing other academics who’ve argued the strikers’ ultimate impact will be through spurring policy change rather than securing collective bargaining. Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Raul Grijalva told Salon it had been “huge” and “very powerful” to see how fast food workers “risked everything” by striking, and that the $15 they demanded should be the federal minimum wage. Local SEIU president David Rolf and Seattle Council member-elect Kshama Sawant credited the strikers with helping lay the groundwork for the $15 minimum wage law that passed narrowly last month in the airport town of SeaTac. And someone present at an August gathering SEIU held with allies in Las Vegas told Salon that, along with a national deal with the top three burger corporations to facilitate unionization, strategies under serious consideration included a move to pass state and local laws mandating $15 fast food wages (asked about that account, SEIU characterized those discussions as preliminary and hypothetical).

In other strike-related articles, the Washington Post’s Lydia DePillis explains how the franchise structure common in fast-food chains can be an obstacle to higher wages; Thomas Frank takes a big-picture look at the fast-food industry in Harper’s; and Carrie Gleason, writing in a New York Times “Room for Debate” on “Making Low Wages Livable,” points out that low-wage workers aren’t just struggling to get by on low hourly wages, they’re also facing insufficient hours and unpredictable schedules that make their situations even more challenging.

In other news:

Center for Public Integrity: Workers from a Niagara Falls Goodyear plant have a bladder cancer rate nearly three times that of the general New York state population. Records show that Goodyear didn’t take steps to reduce workers’ exposure to the chemical ortho-toluidine until 13 years after the manufacturer, DuPont, warned its customers about risks.

Business Week: Production has increased at five pork-processing plants participating in a USDA pilot program that allows for fewer food safety inspectors and increased line speed (this may sound familiar, because USDA is pushing a rule to allow similar changes in the poultry industry). The increased production comes with a higher risk of worker injuries, from repetitive stress to cuts and amputations.

Washington Post: Documents and interviews with current and former Obama administration officials describe administration strategies to avoid issuing controversial rules in the months before the 2012 election. The delayed rules include the proposed OSHA rule to better protect workers from lung-damaging exposure to silica dust.

Huffington Post: Walmart contractor Schneider Logistics has agreed to pay $4.7 million in a settlement with hundreds of warehouse workers who reported the company failed to pay them for overtime and made illegal deductions from their paychecks. The workers’ suit alleged that the company pressured workers to sign waivers saying they were voluntarily foregoing meal breaks to which they were entitled.

NPR: In India, a “code of silence” has long discouraged women from reporting sexual misconduct by their employers. Now, some women are breaking the silence and accusing men in powerful corporate positions of sexually harassment and assault.

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