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A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Retirees dodge bullet, but ‘gun’ still loaded

Bill Knight column for Thursday, Friday or Saturday, May 19, 20 or 21

Sixty-five-year-old Teamster retiree Ron Hill was relieved when the U.S. Treasury Department this month announced the rejection of a plan to drastically cut pensions for 272,600 Teamster workers and retirees, including thousands in Illinois.

“It is great news,” said the Pekin resident, who’s drawing a 25-year pension after retiring almost eight years ago following 34 years of working for area contractors and over-the-road companies including Maytag and Bosch.

“But the fight isn't over,” he continued. We “still have to get the Kline-Miller Act changed or repealed. Way too many factors are still up in the air.”

Despite scant media attention, the decision was momentous.

In September, the Central States, Southeast and Southwest Areas Pension Plan applied to Treasury to drastically cut promised pensions in a “rescue plan” under the Kline-Miller Multiemployer Pension Reform Act of 2014 to restore solvency to the troubled fund. Hundreds of thousands of retired truck drivers, construction workers and other service personnel were notified of cuts the fund wanted to take effect July 1, and although the plan claimed the average cut would have been about 23 percent of what had been promised, many faced cuts of almost 60 percent and a few were looking at financially catastrophic reductions of 90 percent.

That’s been headed off, for the moment.

“Thousands of Illinoisans earned their pensions through years of hard work and I’m thrilled that the Treasury Department recognized the importance of protecting the benefits they earned,” said U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Moline).

The decision by Treasury attorney Kenneth Feinberg – who supervised the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and the program compensating families of 9/11 victims – derailed the reductions, a victory for labor unions and retirees.

It used to be illegal to cut promised pension benefits. But in 2014, Congress – after heavy lobbying by Central States, no public hearings and no debate – changed that within a must-pass spending bill containing Kline-Miller. That law lets multi-employer pension plans –jointly run by unions and employers – to apply to temporarily or permanently cut benefits. The controversial law gives trustees of distressed plans covering workers and multiple employers broad authority to cut retirement benefits.

Central States isn’t controlled by the union. Four trustees are appointed by the Teamsters International but four are named by participating employers.

The administrator appointed to implement Kline-Miller, Feinberg said that he rejected the rescue plan because it unfairly imposed uneven cuts among retirees, sent notifications to participants that were too technical to be understood, and was based on unrealistic assumptions about investment returns.

“We at Treasury do not believe that the plan as submitted will reasonably avoid insolvency," he said. “The investment return assumptions are not reasonable.”

The decision had been anxiously anticipated not just because Central States is large, but because the government oversight was a test case for cutting already-earned benefits.

The $16.1 billion Central States plan, based in Rosemont, Ill., holds retirement money for more than 400,000 trucking industry workers and retirees across the country, many in the Midwest. Fund officials say it faces insolvency in 10 years.

Weeks ago, thousands of Teamsters and supporters protested outside the U.S. Capitol in opposition to slashing their pension. Months earlier, town hall meetings from coast to coast included a two-hour session in Peoria, where Hill was one of dozens of people Feinberg heard.

The independent Pension Rights Center had objections, too.

“The application fails to demonstrate that the plan took all reasonable steps to avoid insolvency,” commented PRC’s Norman Stein.

It’s unclear whether Congress will act, but there are bills to deal with the problem. Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio introduced the Pension Accountability Act, which could guarantee thousands of retirees and workers threatened by pension cuts a voice in their future, without government overriding their choice. Another, Keep Our Pension Promises, was introduced by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and could underwrite a new Legacy Fund within the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. to make yearly payments to financially-troubled multiemployer pension plans, funded by closing two tax loopholes that mainly benefit wealthy individuals and their estates.

Meanwhile, thousands of retirees at least temporarily have a little breathing room.

[PICTURED: Ron Hill speaking at Treasury's town-hall meeting in Peoria (top), and Kenneth Feinberg listening to two hours of concerns from retirees and workers there.]


Thursday, May 19, 2016

Past time to prioritize people over profits

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., May 16, 17 or 18

As thousands of people in labor, community and religious groups from across Illinois prepare to descend on Springfield for a march and rally this Wednesday morning, it’s past time for political prioritization.

At a time when the state of Illinois has been unable or unwilling to meet its financial obligations to social-service providers because of the lack of a state budget for going on a year, the state has been paying big banks big bucks for an array of financial services, not the least of which are notorious interest-rate swaps.

“Governor Rauner and Illinois Comptroller Leslie Munger, who writes the checks for the state, have chosen to let the state’s most vulnerable residents’ needs go unmet at the same time that they have chosen to continue paying Wall Street banks approximately $6 million per month, on average, for toxic swaps,” according to a new report from Roosevelt Institute’s ReFund America Project.

The situation is a stark example of the amoral efficiency of big banks, which can profit from the direst circumstances, and of the immoral actions of a governor more loyal to peers in the 1% than everyday Illinoisans.

“Through recklessness and fraud, they crashed the economy, costing millions of people their jobs and their homes,” writes Curtis Black in Chicago Reporter. “Then, as cities and states struggled with the fallout from the crisis, slashing service to their most needy residents, the banks picked their pockets to pull out an additional few billion, just because they could.”

Again, Wall Street banks are getting paid – a lot – while vendors are not and as social services and their clients, seniors, students and more all suffer. Because of interest-rate swaps that went south during the market collapse of 2008, Illinois will have paid out nearly $618 million by the end of Fiscal Year 2015 and could end up paying out more than $1.45 billion total.

Each month, Illinois is paying $6 million for 19 different interest-rate swaps, Black reports.

And in Chicago, where “Governor Bruce Rauner seems determined to force Chicago Public Schools to go bankrupt, taxpayers recently paid Wall Street lenders $110 million as part of a deal to lend CPS $725 million to pay off old debt,” according to Ben Joravsky in the Chicago Reader. “We get $615 million but have to pay back $725 million because CPS’s credit rating is shot.”

Compelling governments to capitulate to onerous terms at the expense of constituents is a troubling trend, according to Lester Spence, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor and author of “Knocking the Hustle.”

“As federal and state governments reduce local governments’ ability to collect tax revenue, cities themselves are forced to become more ‘competitive’ by remaking themselves for the purposes of capital,” he writes.

Indeed, hedge-fund multimillionaire Rauner – whose office claims he’s exploring financial options – seems to have chosen to give Wall Street banks a free pass despite the budget woes, forcing the most vulnerable people to do without until he gets his anti-union “turnaround agenda.”

Meanwhile, it can get worse.

If the budget crisis continues and the state’s credit rating drops more, Illinois could end up paying an additional $124 million in penalties, ReFund America says.

However, some governmental bodies are taking legal action against the financial interests, the project adds.

Some banks misrepresented the risks accompanying the deals, which “likely violated the federal fair dealing rule,” say ReFund America’s ReFund America’s Saqib Bhatti and Carrie Sloan. “The state of Illinois can … potentially recover up to $618 million in past swap payments and eliminate the threat that it could have to pay up to $286 million in termination penalties in the future.”

Illinois lawmakers can petition the Securities and Exchange Commission to bring enforcement action against the banks, ReFund America says, adding that Illinois also can sue the banks under state law for fraudulent concealment or misrepresentation.

Elsewhere, at least eight local governments have successfully challenged such swap deals in court, and some have won partial refunds. Baltimore, Houston, Philadelphia and Reno all have active lawsuits against Bank of America, Citigroup and JPMorgan, some of which sold such swaps to Illinois and to Chicago.

It’s past time for elected officials to take action on behalf of the people they’re supposed to represent.

[PICTURED: Photo from progressillinois.com.]

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Beyond Bernie

Bill Knight column for Thursday, Friday or Saturday, May 12, 13 or 14

Will Americans “feel the Bern” with President Clinton – or Trump?

Let’s hope so.

After primaries in Indiana and Guam, and county delegates from the state of Washington, Sanders has raised more than $140 million (mostly in donations averaging $27) and he’s won 1,411 delegates in 19 state primaries and caucuses compared to Hillary Clinton’s 1,708 in 26 victories.

It’s time to grab the moment and strengthen it for the long term.

That starts with Sanders deciding what to do with his capable organization. Next, he must plan how the primary campaign will continue, his options for Democrats’ convention, his presence during the general-election campaign (regardless of nominees), and what happens after November.

Most importantly, the grassroots has to organize more.

“We’re going to build a democracy movement in this country,” said Larry Cohen, the former president of the Communications Workers of America who’s led the grassroots “Labor for Bernie” group.

Sanders has emerged as a movement leader more than a politician tied to a major-party establishment.

“The two-party reliance on the wealthy has disenfranchised large portions of our society,” said Geoff Gilbert of Georgetown University. “Half of our society has zero net assets: They don't have any money lying around to ‘pay to play’ in our democracy. They are politically invisible, without democratic input.”

Some groups in Sanders’ corner have suggested goals “beyond Bernie” – dealing with the corrupting concentration of wealth and power in the elite; ending discrimination at all levels; coping with climate change through environmental and energy policies; reimagining national security so solid infrastructure, affordable education, expanded Social Security, and Medicare for All are valued more than military budgets and adventures costly in lives and treasure; and reviving the right to organize to promote working-class interests.

“There’s Bernie and there’s his movement,” said RoseAnn DeMoro, director of National Nurses United, the first national union to endorse Sanders. “He amplifies the movement, but he’s not the movement.”

Vice President Joe Biden, who hasn’t endorsed either candidate, distanced himself from the cautious pragmatism voiced by Clinton, telling the New York Times, “I like the idea of saying, ‘We can do much more’ because we can. I don’t think any Democrats ever won saying, ‘We can’t think big; we ought to really downsize here because it’s not realistic’.”

Of course, Sanders can be practical, too – and he’s built up leverage. Illinois’ Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin told reporters, “He’s got a heck of an email list, and if he decides to use it to help the Democrats take control of the Senate, that creates a better opportunity for his ideas to see the light of day.”

Accumulating votes and delegates means influence with Democrats’ platform and the direction of the party in changing times – times of greater diversity in the population and more openness to social-justice issues ranging from the importance of unions to the freedom of people to marry. So maybe the Democratic convention will see improvements in substance as well as rhetoric.
The future of the nation depends on participatory democracy, and everyday working people are key.

“Labor unions will be central to moving this political project forward,” said Peter Olney, a retired organizer for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). “The labor movement provides a base in the working class and the necessary savvy and resources. However, labor – under relentless assault from the same corporate interests and billionaires that pollute our political process – cannot do it alone. It must share leadership with other dynamic social movement organizations [which] should be enlisted to share their experience, embrace the strategic approach to be a coordinated force.”
In the next few months, four approaches seem smart:
* Build a list of supporters and resources independent of the Democratic Party.
* Encourage voters, volunteers and contributors to become more – members and organizers.
* Do democracy; urge not just involvement, but input and power within the movement.
* Go local by tying global concerns to communities, neighborhoods and individuals.

Sanders’ wife Jane last month told the Washington Post, “If he’s president, he wants to keep this movement going. If he’s not president, he’ll have to keep this movement going for a lot more reasons, because nobody else wants to accomplish what has ignited the interest of the voters.”

A conference is planned in Chicago June 17-19, after the crucial California primary and before Democrats’ July 25–28 convention in Philadelphia. This “People’s Summit” is backed by a coalition of unions, environmental and human-rights groups, and political organizations.

“Maybe we’re on the cusp of some really interesting political changes,” said Charles Lenchner, founder of the People for Bernie group that emerged from the Occupy movement.

Let’s hope so.

And act on it.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Changing job market could benefit from worker ‘Superfund’

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., May 9, 10 or 11

There’s understandable tension between jobs and the environment in situations like switching from polluting, coal-fired power plants, fracking, and the Keystone XL pipeline. Changes can mean jobs lost – and also jobs gained.

Some say it’s time for an effective transition program for workers displaced by innovation, and it’s an old idea that could also apply to a changing economy.

The late, great labor leader Tony Mazzocchi of the old Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers (now part of the Steelworkers) in the ’90s envisioned a program to help workers who lose jobs to otherwise-beneficial changes. Mazzocchi focused on changes from environmental improvement, but it could also address a more general economic objective.

To provide a just transition for workers harmed by environmental policies, Mazzocchi proposed the idea of a “Superfund for workers.” The fund would provide financial support and educational opportunities for workers displaced by factors beyond their control.

“There is a Superfund for dirt,” Mazzocchi said 23 years ago. “There ought to be one for workers.

“Paying people to make the transition from one kind of economy to another is not welfare,” he continued. “Those who work with toxic materials on a daily basis ... in order to provide the world with the energy and the materials it needs deserve a helping hand to make a new start.”

A broad-based workers’ Superfund could strengthen the hit-and-miss responses of the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program, which is supposed to help workers who lose jobs because of policies tied to NAFTA and other “free trade” pacts. TAA provides displaced workers an average of $10,000 over a two-year period, in addition to unemployment compensation, health coverage, etc.

“A strategy has been emerging to protect workers and communities whose livelihoods may be threatened by climate-protection policies,” said author Jeremy Brecher (whose books include “Building Bridges: The Emerging Grassroots Alliance of Labor and Community” and “Common Sense for Hard Times”).

“Protecting those who lose their jobs due to necessary environmental policies has often been referred to as a ‘just transition’,” he added.

Whether tied to environmental innovations or corporations locating overseas, such a Superfund could be structured to provide for full wages and benefits for a transition period, possibly years; for years of schooling, including living expenses; and for decent pensions and health care for those near retirement age.

“Such a program would in many ways resemble the GI Bill that provided education and training, loan guarantees for homes, farms and businesses, and unemployment pay for veterans returning from war,” Brecher wrote in Dollars and Sense magazine. “The program was first established in 1944 for returning veterans of World War II and has been revamped repeatedly. It was critical for the economic boom that followed World War II and for the ability of returning veterans to integrate back into American society. A similar program is needed today for those who are displaced from their jobs through no fault of their own.”

Communities would benefit, too since they’re adversely affected by the individual casualties of job cuts. A decade ago, the federal government conducted a widespread closure of military bases, but that was accompanied by comprehensive government assistance to affected communities and individuals, again targeted to a specific, if widespread, phenomenon.

“Workers dislocated by base closings also received extensive support,” Brecher said. “The Department of Defense provided advance notification of job cuts, counseling, a hiring-preference system with federal agencies to re-employ qualified displaced DoD employees, and financial incentives to encourage early retirement of those eligible. Workers affected by base closings were also eligible for help under a variety of financial support and retraining programs.”

Others could get similar attention – and have, at least in one non-military example. In the 1990s, the U.S. Department of Energy eliminated 47,700 contractor personnel at 13 major sites as a result of downsizing the nation’s nuclear weapons complex, Brecher wrote.

“The DoE conducted a Worker and Community Transition Program that provided grants and other assistance for communities affected by the shutdown of nuclear facilities,” he said. “The goal was to assist displaced workers and provide economic recovery and diversification assistance to the affected communities.”

Maybe something like that could work for Americans who lose their jobs because Caterpillar retrenches or Maytag or Oreo shifts work to Mexico.

It doesn’t seem outrageous to ask, “Shouldn’t U.S. workers be treated at least as well as dirt?”

[PICTURED: Dept. of Labor photo of Tony Mazzocchi.]

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Labor working to defeat Trump

Bill Knight column for Thursday, Friday or Saturday, May 5, 6 or 7


I am no relation to Bobby Knight, the Hall of Fame college basketball coach who last week endorsed Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump in a bully/buddy story. But I am a union man, proud that other men and women in organized labor are informing each other about Trump, even as he leads in polls of voters in Indiana, which had a Tuesday primary.

The Service Employees International Union and the Jobs With Justice coalition were among the groups that signed an open letter calling for Americans to stand together and stand up against Trump. Others signing the letter included leaders of the Sierra Club; the United States Students Association, Greenpeace USA, and a dozen other organizations.

Working people and progressives can’t afford to make the same mistake GOP leaders did by failing to confront Trump until it was too late, they said.

“This is a five-alarm fire for our democracy,” the letter said. “A hate-peddling bigot who openly incites violence is the likely presidential nominee of one of our nation’s two major parties. It is alarming and dangerous.”

The groups call Trump “a threat to the America we love, and we must respond to him and what he is stoking with a nonviolent movement grounded in love and community that ensures that he never comes anywhere near the White House, and perhaps even more importantly, makes clear to every other politician and every person in the United States that racist demagoguery is a dead-end political strategy that most Americans reject.”

As this is written, Trump’s April 26 primary victories boosted his pledged-delegate total to 956 – 281 short of a first-ballot win at the Republican convention.

“We cannot allow this hate-baiter anywhere near the White House, and we will not accept legitimization of hateful, bullying and authoritarian politics,” the letter said. “This is about more than an election. This is about the tide of history. Who will write it: Donald Trump or us?”

Some of the groups have endorsed Democratic hopefuls Hillary Clinton, and some support Bernie Sanders, but they all called for a multi-level, anti-Trump campaign.

“We are calling for a massive nonviolent mobilization of working people, students, immigrants, children of immigrants, great-great-grandchildren of immigrants, people of color and white people, the unemployed and under-employed, people of faith, retirees, veterans, women, and men – anyone who opposes bigotry and hate and loves freedom and justice – to stand up to Trump’s bullying and bigotry,” the letter said.

The call for action suggests:

* “Door-to-door conversations about the values that make our democracy thrive” plus teach-ins about confronting hate, writing letters to the editor, using social media and holding prayer vigils.
* Non-violent mobilization, ranging from “500 families rallying against hate at the high school football stadium, to 50,000 marching in the streets of your city for love and against hate.”
* “Asking every media outlet, corporation and office-holder – from the school board on up to Congress – ‘Will you condemn Trump’s racism, misogyny and xenophobia?’ ”

In Washington, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka called on unionists to remind each other about Trump to ensure the nation’s 12.7 million union members oppose the billionaire businessman. The labor federation, which hasn’t endorsed a candidate in the primaries, will launch digital attack ads against Trump and will ramp up its canvassing campaign.

“We can’t be fooled,” said AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka. “Trump isn’t interested in solving the problems he yells and swears about. He delivers punch lines, but there’s nothing funny about them.”

Trumka is optimistic that the vast majority of union households will reject Trump and his proposals if they’re better informed. For example, many everyday Americans may not realize Trump supports Right To Work laws, which prohibit contracts from requiring workers benefiting from union representation to have to contribute to the costs of bargaining and enforcing agreements – a provision that research shows weakens unions and results in lower wages across the board in states with such laws.

“When you give working-class people the facts, I think he falls apart,” Trumka said about Trump. “He’s a house of cards.”

[PICTURED: Editorial cartoon by Jen Sorensen, from the Progressive Populist.]

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Legislature has days to decide to make income taxes fairer

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., May 2, 3 or 4

Jesus wasn’t talking tax policy when he told dinner guests, “All those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” But it’s not a bad message for lawmakers reluctant to change Illinois’ flat-tax to a graduated system.

Thirty-four states with an income tax have a graduated system, as does the federal government; seven have no income tax; Illinois is one of just nine with a flat tax.

A burden on regular people because they pay the same as those with extra money, Illinois’ flat tax was created in 1970’s Constitutional Convention, which established an across-the-board tax that’s never taken into account taxpayers’ ability to pay.

Last week, Illinois’ Senate delayed voting on a constitutional amendment to let voters decide on changing to a graduated tax in November, along with other proposed amendments reforming how legislative districts are set and eliminating the lieutenant governor position.

But the General Assembly is scheduled to return on Tuesday (May 3) and must vote this week for the measure to make it onto the ballot.

Meanwhile, State Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie) moved to consider an amendment to permit a graduated (or progressive) income tax. If that passes, Democrats say they’ll introduce legislation that would cut taxes to all but the wealthiest taxpayers and raise an additional $1.9 billion a year.

Lang suggests a tax rate on incomes up to $100,000 (twice that for couples) would be cut to 3.5 percent; increasing to the current rate of 3.75 percent for incomes up to $750,000; to 8.75 percent for the next $750,000, and to 9.75 percent for income above $1.5 million for couples filing jointly. Corporate income taxes would be unaffected.

Similar efforts failed in 2014, but last year the temporary 5-percent income tax approved in 2011 expired, so lawmakers facing a growing debt may reconsider.

Supporters say taxing the rich more could stabilize the economy and society, adding that a graduated income tax would not only be fairer to the working class and middle class, but would raise much-needed revenue when Illinois needs funds to continue the programs people want and underwrite education and infrastructure, which attract businesses and offer children chances to succeed even if their families are poor.

“We support a fair tax where people who make a higher amount pay a higher rate and people who make a lower amount pay a lower rate because that’s the most fair way to make sure that children and families are not carrying a heavier tax load than they should be carrying,” Emily Miller of Voices for Illinois Children told Jamey Dunn in Illinois Issues magazine.

The Senate has a measure to amend the constitution to permit a graduated system. To change the constitution, three-fifths of the Senate and the House must OK it, and also three-fifths of November voters.

Opponents say it’s a scheme to seize more money. That’s not incorrect, but the state’s backlog of unpaid bills could hit $10 billion this summer, so it’s not spendthrift foolishness to meet financial obligations. Those against a graduated tax also say it would drive successful people to other states.

The debate is “a battle between ‘fairness’ and a potential business flight from the state,” summarized Greg Hinz in Chicago Business magazine. But the “vast majority of the state's taxpayers … will be untouched.”

Plus, income tax rates are higher in surrounding states, according to the Illinois Economic Policy Institute. Compared to Illinois’ 3.75-percent flat tax, Indiana’s is 3.3 but with county income taxes that hike its average to 4.8 percent; Iowa is up to 8.9 percent; Kentucky is 6 percent; Missouri is up to 6 percent; and Wisconsin is 7.65 percent. Also, nearby states tax services and some retirement income, too.

“Adopting Indiana’s tax structure would give Illinois $4.6 billion more each year,” writes Curtis Black in Chicago Reporter. “Using Iowa’s structure would bring in $7.3 billion more, and Wisconsin’s would yield $8.3 billion more. That would put Illinois in the clear.”

The idea is popular with voters, who in 2014 overwhelmingly voted to enact a “millionaires tax” increasing taxes on incomes greater than $1 million by 3 percent. But in an election year, lawmakers’ backbones to do what’s right are weakened by the fear of political attacks.

“Lower rates would apply to lower incomes and higher rates would apply to higher incomes,” said Michelle Paul of the Illinois Federation of Teachers. “Eliminating our current flat tax will give 99.3 percent of Illinoisans an overdue tax cut and raise about $1.9 billion for public education and state services.”

Isn’t it time for the wealthy to pay their fair share?

Say a prayer.

[PICTURED: Graphic and data from the Tax Foundation.]

Sunday, May 1, 2016

‘Preemption’ laws either irony or hypocrisy

Bill Knight column for Thursday, Friday or Saturday, April 28, 29 or 30

When North Carolina lawmakers recently passed a bill after just nine hours of discussion in a special session, most media coverage focused on language nullifying a Charlotte ordinance that let transgender people use public bathrooms in accordance with their gender identity and also extended discrimination protections to transgender citizens. However, the law, signed by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, also sought to “supersede and preempt” other local ordinances.

Such controversial laws are about more than checking who uses what bathrooms. Prohibiting what laws cities can pass and enforce, it’s a phenomenon called “preemption,” and given the South’s long-time claim to advocate for so-called states’ rights above federal laws, it’s either irony or hypocrisy.

In North Carolina and elsewhere, preemptive laws ban towns, counties and other local levels of government from approving ordinances ranging from minimum wages, paid sick leave and fracking restrictions to sanctuary-city immigrant protections, plastic-bag bans and fire sprinklers.

“Agriculture, guns and knives, minimum wage increases and employee benefits … and a wide range of environmental protections were the most common targets of preemption,” said Marc Pertschuk of the Preemption Watch advocacy group. “But perhaps the newest trend was exemplified by bills that sought blanket preemption of ALL local authority over ANY topic already addressed at the state level, limiting local control and democratic processes across public health, safety and social justice.”

Conservative legislatures are being helped by the right-wing, Koch brothers-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which at its December conference warned of “draconian” restrictions against fracking.

In some states, corporate-cozy lawmakers have become ardent foes of local control or the grassroots activism that sparks change, especially if those ordinances are progressive or worker-friendly.

Besides forbidding local governments from enacting nondiscrimination laws (Mississippi, Arkansas and other states), at least 29 legislatures have introduced bills to block local laws, according to another advocacy group, PR Watch. Such preemption statutes aim to override ordinances:

* requiring higher minimum wages (Michigan and Oregon) and “living-wage” ordinances (Florida),
* paid sick days (Arizona and Missouri),
* mandates on reasonable scheduling for retailers (Michigan),
* “home rule” authority for communities (Oklahoma),
* regulating e-cigarettes (Pennsylvania and Wisconsin),
* rules on the sale of firearms (Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Wyoming),
* rules on fracking (Florida, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Wyoming),
* limits on businesses using plastic bags (Arizona),
* requirements for providing broadband access to residents (Missouri),
* “sanctuary cities” protecting undocumented immigrants from detention or worse (Texas),
* obligations to label foods that are Genetically Modified Organisms (Congress), and even
* residential fire sprinklers (Nevada and Tennessee),

However, some pushback has started. In Minnesota, legislators are considering a measure to restore rights to local governments, and in Oregon a ballot initiative this fall could empower local jurisdictions to set their minimum-wage thresholds above the statewide standard.

“The good news is that there has never before been a national grassroots movement this powerful and diverse fighting for the right to protect our families, communities and workers at the community level,” Pertschuk said.

[PICTURED: Graphic from the National Partnership for Women and Families.]

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Report underscores importance of Workers Memorial Day

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., April 25, 26 or 27


Workers Memorial Day will be marked from coast to coast on Thursday (April 28) with marches, rallies and solemn remembrances of everyday workers who’ve been injured or killed on the job, and a new report from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) lends timeliness and credence to those memories and concerns.

Nationally, sobering statistics show that risks at work aren’t confined to history books. Thousands of U.S. workers last year were casualties of workplace dangers.

OSHA has reported that 2,644 workers lost fingers, arms and legs through amputations requiring hospitalization last year, and an additional 7,636 suffered on-the-job injuries needing hospitalization.

“In a small Illinois town, a worker at a food processing plant was hospitalized after his arm was mangled in a screw conveyor,” the federal agency reported. “Following an inspection that resulted in citations, the plant installed guards and handrails around the machinery, added a nitrogen monitoring system for another part of the plant, and conducted extensive employee training.

“Then he urged other employers in the area to check for hazards and invited OSHA to make a presentation to the local Chamber of Commerce,” the report added.

The report also shows OSHA found previously unsuspected patterns of injuries and amputations in entire industries, citing dozens of fingertip amputations suffered by workers at food slicers in Southern grocery store delis and restaurants.

“Too often, we would investigate a fatal injury only to find a history of serious injuries at the same workplace,” the report said. “Each of those injuries was a wake-up call for safety that went unheeded.”

And, as other studies demonstrate – notably of Michigan workers’ comp claims – employers vastly underreport on-the-job injuries. The report estimated that half of such severe injuries may go unreported, especially since this report covered only large firms.

The report also reflected findings from the first year of a new OSHA rule ordering employers to report within 24 hours any time a worker suffers any on-the-job injury requiring hospitalization. Before 2015, the agency required prompt reports, within eight hours, only if a worker died. That mandate stayed the same.

The point of the new rule was to pressure employers to clean up their acts on their own. However, the report has revealed an epidemic of severe on-the-job injuries.

For example, slaughtering and processing plants were seventh on OSHA’s list of groups of companies with such injuries last year, as 213 workers were severely injured in those facilities. That figure trailed “foundation, structure and building exterior contractors,” with 391 severe injuries, building equipment contractors (343), mining support activities (325), nonresidential building contractors (271), the U.S. Postal Service (229), hospitals (221) and grocery stores (215). Another 16 groups of firms had from 100 to 201 severe injuries each.

For details on Workers Memorial Day, go to http://www.aflcio.org/Issues/Job-Safety/WorkersMemorialDay.

[PICTURED: Graphic from Catholic-Labor Network.]