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Weekly Digest – May 15, 2014

Compiled by Steven Wishnia and Neal Tepel

North Dakota Most Dangerous State to Work In
North Dakota “stands out as an exceptionally dangerous and deadly place to work,” according to the AFL-CIO’s annual “Death on the Job” report, released May 8. The state’s rate of 17.7 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2012 was by far the highest in the nation, more than five times the national average and more than double its rate in 2007. Its booming construction and oil and gas industries were particularly perilous, with about one in every 1,000 workers killed on the job—more than six times the national average in oil and gas and mining and almost ten times the national rate in construction. Nationally, the report said, on-the-job fatalities have dropped by more than 80 percent since the Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed in 1970, but there are now less than 2,000 safety inspectors for the 8 million workplaces covered by the law.

Baltimore Hospital Workers Protest Low Pay
More than 3,000 people, a mix of Johns Hopkins Hospital employees and supporters from New York, New Jersey and Washington, rallied May 10 in Baltimore to demand that the hospital pay at least $15 an hour. Local 1199SEIU says nearly 70% of workers at Hopkins Hospital would qualify for food stamps if they were supporting children, and 25% make less than the poverty level for a family of four. “I can’t believe that Johns Hopkins made $1.9 billion in revenue and $140 million in profit, yet they can't pay a living wage?” said actor Wendell Pierce, who lived in Baltimore while working on the TV series The Wire.

Michigan Republicans Seek to End Detroit Pensions
Republicans in the Michigan legislature on May 8 introduced a package of 11 bills that in exchange for $195 million in state aid to help Detroit out of bankruptcy, could give the state veto power over the city’s finances for more than 20 years. The plan would also require the city to give all new employees 401(k) plans instead of pensions. State Rep. John Walsh said the oversight would be “patterned” after the state control over New York City’s finances after the 1970s fiscal crisis. 

Illinois Casino Settles UNITE HERE Suit
Illinois’ most profitable casino has settled unfair labor practice charges by UNITE HERE that it tried to prevent employees from unionizing. The agreement requires Rivers Casino, in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines, to post a notice telling workers that they have the right to organize a union without interference. The casino will also remove “overly broad rules” about what employees can say on blogs and social media, and will delete disciplinary letters sent to two workers for union activity. “We see this settlement as a victory for workers to continue to organize without fear,” said Carly Karmel of UNITE HERE Local 1.

‘Gig Economy’ Dominates New Jobs
More than 80 percent of new jobs in the last eight years have been nonpermanent “contingent labor,” with workers hired temporarily, on-call, or as independent contractors. Construction, services, and agriculture have the highest percentages of these precarious jobs, and more than two-thirds of college professors are adjuncts. Employers find contingent labor profitable because it is more “flexible”—they can lay workers off at any time and can avoid paying for benefits. In the 1990s, more than 95 percent of new jobs were permanent.

Amazon Warehouse Workers Sue for Lunch
Seven Amazon warehouse workers in South Carolina have sued the company in federal court, charging that they got “less than 18 minutes” to eat lunch. The workers are supposed to get a half-hour unpaid lunch break, but allege that they had to complete unfinished tasks before they could leave, wait in line to go through a security screening, and take a six-minute walk across the warehouse—and often had their meals interrupted by supervisors berating them for not working fast enough. The suit also names two temp firms, Staff Management and SMX, that Amazon uses to hire “pickers and packers.”

Texas AFT Criticizes New Teacher Evaluation Rules
Texas education officials announced a new policy in early May that would require school districts to base 20% of the teachers’ ratings on “student growth” data that includes standardized test scores. Texas AFT president Linda Bridges said the policy, a response to a federal mandate that the state consider student achievement in evaluating teachers, was illegal, because state law does not “authorize the commissioner to dictate to school districts that scores of an individual teacher’s students on state assessments will be a significant factor in the evaluation of that teacher.” Both gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Wendy Davis and Republican Greg Abbott, have criticized the policy on the grounds that it puts too much emphasis on test scores.

Vermont Bus Drivers Sign Teamsters Cards
More than half the employees of the Green Mountain Express bus company in Bennington, Vermont, have signed cards seeking to join the Teamsters, said Local 597 business agent Tony St. Hilaire. In response, the company—a nonprofit that runs public bus service in the county and transportation for the elderly and disabled—has hired a “union buster” to discourage them from joining, which St. Hilairesays is illegal because the bus service receives state funds. Company officials said they had hired an “educational consultant” to “make sure our employees are well-informed on all the facts regarding unions.” The vote is scheduled for May 28.

Boeing Engineers’ Union Eyes South Carolina
Representatives of Boeing’s engineering union came to the company’s plant in North Charleston, S.C., May 13 to tell members how much they’ll be getting from an arbitration award won last month—and also to talk a little union. “We’re meeting with groups of Boeing employees that have an interest in joining,” said Ray Goforth, executive director of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace. “The moves that the company has been making to lay off people, outsource work, and cut pay and benefits have personnel at Boeing interested in organizing across the company.” South Carolina is one of the least unionized states in the nation.

Washington Farm Seeks Guest Workers as Scabs
Federal regulations say a company can’t hire foreign guest workers on H-2A visas if there is a strike or lockout at the worksite—but after 250 berry pickers at Sakura Farms in Burlington, Washington, went on strike last year against low wages and bad housing conditions, the owners applied to bring in 438 guest workers from Mexico for the four-month harvest season. Another requirement is that the employer has to hire any qualified U.S. worker who applies, but Sakura has not yet offered work to the strikers from last year who applied to work this summer.

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