Saturday, September 26, 2009

Labor Update: Savannah co. blamed for explosion, Alabama co. linked to abuses, Memphis worker slowdown, new AFL-CIO chief

Let's take a quick look at some of the recent labor activities and debates around the South and beyond.

Big news came out of Savannah, Georgia, this week when the U.S. Chemical Safety Board issued a report putting the blame squarely on the Imperial Sugar Co. and a foot-dragging U.S. Occupational and Health Administration for the Feb. 7, 2008, explosions and resulting fires that killed 14 and injured dozens of others.

The report said the tragedy was caused by the combustible sugar dust allowed to accumulate at the plant. OSHA waited until this year to finally pass new rules to prevent such hazards. The Savannah Morning News, which has been covering the incident closely, quoted Evan Yeats of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union as saying OSHA's long-delayed action was merely a "public relations maneuver" and that regulations will have no teeth for years to come unless the agency approves an emergency rule in the case.

. . .

The killings of union leaders and other crimes and human rights abuses in the South American nation of Colombia have raised questions about the role of the Birmingham, Ala., coal company, Drummond Co. In fact, this past week the United Steelworkers Union called on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to investigate illegal activities at Drummond's Colombian coal mine.

Labor organizers risk their lives everyday in violence-torn Colombia. Some 400 union members were killed there between 2002 and 2008. Officials and friends of the U.S.-backed Uribe government in Colombia are under investigation for possible connections to some of the killings. Drummond's own role in this murky story has yet to be determined, but a Colombian labor union sued the company in 2002 after three union leaders at its plant were tortured and murdered.

Alabama Power and other companies serving customers in Georgia, Florida, and Mississippi get coal from Drummond.

My good friend Stephen Jackson, associate editor of the Latin American Post in Bogota and a professor of journalism at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, has been following this case and was even subjected to a gag order issued by a federal judge in a related international tort trial in Birmingham in 2004.

. . .

In Memphis, Tenn., this month, a trash buildup led city public works director Dwan Gilliom to accuse AFSCME Local 1733 members of conducting a work slowdown in protest of recent new additions to their workload. Local 1733 President Ruth Davis deferred comment until she talked with all the members. The city's sanitation workers became part of labor lore in 1968 when they led a strike that brought the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis in a show of support. King was assassinated during that visit.

. . .

The national AFL-CIO elected labor veteran Richard Trumka to take the reins from retiring president John Sweeney this month. After the organization's action during its Pittsburgh conference, Trumka issued a statement calling for a "younger labor movement, a greener labor movement, a labor movement that can project its power to defend workers anywhere in the world, a labor movement that's organizing the unorganized.

My old radical friend in New York City, labor writer and activist Martin Fishgold, editor of The Unionist, AFSCME Local 371,
maintains a healthy skepticism, however. He says any real change in direction by the nation's largest labor organization won't come until it recognizes the need for a renewed sense of militancy in the labor movement and more grassroots involvement by labor leaders themselves in the real lives and challenges of working people.

The crisis in the movement "has been facing organized labor for years, at least since the CIO kicked out the most militant unions in the early 1950s to prove what good Americans we union members all are," Fishgold wrote in a recent exchange on the "" listserv in New York. "Corporate unionists are still trying to prove it, to our detriment."

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