Saturday, August 21, 2010

Let's hope BP victims don't suffer the fate of those in Bhopal or those of the big U.S. fruit companies in Latin America

Big corporations in general don't have a particularly admirable record when it comes to social justice and human rights, and the U.S. government has been usually unwilling or reluctant at best to play any kind of role in improving that record.en

Many citizens who've suffered as a result of BP's giant oil spill in the Gulf Coast are still waiting on their claims. Complaints are already coming in, and BP's legion of lawyers are certain to look for any loopholes that their client can slip through. That's despite the federal government's demand that BP establish a $20 billion fund to repair the damages it has wrought.

A reminder of the long, sordid history of corporate malfeasance is ever present in faraway Bhopal, India, where a toxic leak from a Union Carbide pesticides plant killed nearly 4,000 on Dec. 3, 1984. Ultimately, more than 20,000 died from the disaster, and many more suffered life-debilitating injuries, including a second generation of birth defects and other health problems.

In fact, people across the entire nation of India are up in arms these days over the 26-year legal case that was only recently resolved with minimal sentences for seven defendants and minimal fines, too. Although victims are getting as little as $330 each for their suffering, both the U.S. and Indian governments appear ready to wash their hands of the matter and move on. Indian activist and writer N. Gunasekaran has written eloquently about the issue.

That quarter-century legal maze bring to mind the spirit-numbing Court of Chancery in Charles Dickens' Bleak House. Let's hope Gulf Coast victims don't suffer a similar fate.

Perhaps you recall the investigative project undertaken by the Gannett-owned Cincinnati Enquirer on Cincinnati-based Chiquita Brands International, Inc., (formerly the notorious United Fruit Company) in the 1990s. The newspaper and Gannett dropped the story after Chiquita threatened a lawsuit as a result of stolen voice-mail used in the investigation. Yes, dropped the story despite mountains of testimony regarding the practices of Chiquita in Central America. Bribes, behind-the-scenes deals to circumvent labor regulations, and environmental damage were all part of that dropped story.

Chiquita still faces legal disputes with victims as well as governments in the region, and with its own government due to its relationship with militia groups there. Guess who was one of Chiquita's top lawyers during these disputes. None other than U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

The Dole Food Company, formerly the Standard Fruit Company, isn't much better. It was the only major multinational company in the region to refuse to join an agreement in 1997 giving $41.5 million to some 26,000 workers. Five years later, a Nicaraguan tribunal ordered Dole and other companies to pay $489 million to workers suffering from exposure to Nemagon, a dangerous pesticide long banned in the United States. Nemagon is believed to have caused cancer, sterility, kidney and skin diseases, and birth deformities in workers and their families.

Ironically, the owner of the Dole Food Company, David Murdock, is the same corporate honcho who once owned the Cannon Mills textile company in Kannapolis, N.C., sold it, and left town with the hard-earned pension money of its employees. Eventually forced to pay back a paltry $1 million of the $39 million he took from the pension fund's excess assets, Murdock later returned and won over the town's skeptical, rightly bitter residents by promising a new research "biopolis" in Kannapolis that would "teach people about proper health, nutrition, and wellness" (Murdock's own words).

I was the first to publish the irony of Murdock's unhealthy Central American activities and his "proper health" activities in North Carolina. It appeared in my 2008 book, Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press.

Do you think research plans at Murdock's "biopolis" included studies of nemagon?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Following up on the workers' compensation issue

(Sorry it has taken me so long to get back to the blog--my day job as journalism professor at Ole Miss--super-intense now as a new semester gets underway--keeps getting in the way! In any case, here's a folo-up to my workers' compensation column)

My recent column on the pro-employer voting record of the Mississippi Workers' Compensation Commission has prompted a stir in the state. Mississippi claimants' attorneys are demanding a legislative investigation into the commission, one that was called for a year ago but which has been "in limbo" all that time, according to state House Insurance Committee Chairman Walter Robinson Jr., D-Bolton.

Robinson conceded to this writer that he is treading carefully on the issue, given the sharp divisions between those on the side of injured workers and those on the side of employers and insurance companies who'd just as soon do away with state-mandated workers' compensation! Isn't this the kind of thing we elect politicians to do? Take on those issues where the lines are sharply divided, and see on which side justice lies?

Over the past couple of weeks, I have received numerous letters from working people across the state of Mississippi who've been burned by the state's neanderthal attitude toward what is owed people who get injured on the job.

"An 80 percent overturn rate (the three-member commission's rate of overturning pro-employee court rulings) is a disgrace!" one writer wrote. "It is time to vote in a governor who appoints no more `pocket judges' owned by the greedy insurance companies."

"I was involved in an auto accident in 1979 and have an ongoing medical claim with the company," wrote another reader. "I know all too well the pitfalls of workers' comp in Mississippi. I do not believe the public has a clue what's going on."

"It is great to know that someone in Mississippi is paying attention to our pitiful workers' comp problems," said yet another. "In 2004, after suffering a work-related injury, I was told by my doctor I would never be able to return to work. I was devastated but thought `I have workers' comp. It will take care of me.' I was surprised to find that as soon as the doctor turned this notice into the workers' comp carrier, all payments stopped."

"Your article ... hit close to home," wrote a loving father. "My daughter's boyfriend works for a towing company and recently had an accident where he lodged a piece of steel in his eye. The boat captain carried him to the emergency room to have it removed. Last week, he received his paycheck (and) noticed it was very short. He called ... and was told that the towing company is not required to carry workman's comp insurance."

I'm going to follow this issue. Not only because it needs to be followed, but also because no one else is doing it. Where are the investigative media in this state? You know what? You could find the same compelling story in every single state in the South. I know my region, and I'll guarantee you it's a story not being covered anywhere in Dixie by mainstream media.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Injured workers in Mississippi have to fight for compensation

(Here is my latest entry, a column on workers' compensation and the pro-employer Workers' Compensation Commission in Mississippi. By the way, I'm back from my summer travels across the South--from Louisiana to Virginia and North Carolina to Florida and back to Mississippi--and will now be posting more frequently on this blog. You may have noticed the recent post on migrant workers in Singapore disappeared after a couple of days. The magazine In These Times plans to publish it in its September edition and prefers previously unpublished material. I'll have it back in LaborSouth soon after the edition comes out.)

OXFORD, Miss. – It has been 25 years since I wrote my first column about workers’ compensation in Mississippi, and as I sit down to write about it again I keep coming up with French expressions like “déjà vu” and “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (“the more things change, the more they stay the same”).

Just like in 1985, efforts to improve the lot of workers who are injured on the job are being thwarted by conservative politicians more familiar with corporate boardrooms than assembly lines. Just like in 1985, Mississippi ranks at or near the bottom of most indices in the way it treats injured workers and their families.

However, something has indeed changed: The lot of those workers is even worse than it was in 1985. In fact, according to Jackson plaintiffs’ attorney Roger K. Doolittle, it’s so bad that “this is unprecedented in Mississippi jurisprudence.”

How bad is it?

A year ago this month, the state House Insurance Committee held a hearing on findings in a study ordered by Doolittle that showed the three members of the state Workers’ Compensation Commission—Chairman Liles Williams, John Junkin, and Augustus Collins II (who recently stepped down)—siding decisively with the employer in most cases before them, particularly in reversals of administrative court decisions.

For example, 77 percent of the reversals of administrative judge rulings sought by Williams were in favor of the employer. For Junkin, 91 percent of the reversals were for the employer’s benefit. For Collins, 75 percent were for the employer.

Although the committee discussed the possibility of a state investigation into the commission and its actions, House Insurance Committee Chairman Walter Robinson of Bolton told me recently that such an investigation is “still in limbo.”

“You’ve got judges that collectively have the highest experience rate in the history of the (workers compensation) act, and they are being reversed at the rate of about 80 percent,” Doolittle said, referring to reversals of decisions favoring the employee. “What they want is for people like me to stop representing poor people.”

Jackson attorney John Jones agrees with Doolittle’s findings. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I’ve never seen a commission this conservative. … The irony is that by statute and by history, (workers compensation) is supposed to be tilted toward the worker. The worker is supposed to get the benefit of all doubt.”

Not in Mississippi, the last state in the nation to adopt a workers’ compensation law and perennially among the bottom feeders among states in what it pays injured workers or their families in cases of death. Statistics can be hard to find, but some 80 workers in Mississippi died in work-related injuries in 2008. Jones estimates approximately 13,000 workers were injured on the job every year, and many more may go unreported.

State Workers’ Compensation Commission Chairman Williams, whose first six-year term ends in December, said Doolittle’s numbers are misleading because they don’t include affirmations of court rulings that would present a more balanced picture. Even so, his own numbers show a pro-employer tilt: 59 percent of cases for the employer, 41 percent for the employee.

“I don’t think it is accurate to say we are biased,” said Williams, a veteran political figure in Mississippi and former vice president of the Stuart C. Irby Co. in Jackson. “We objectively make what we believe is the right decision based on the law.”

For Jackson attorneys Lance Stevens and Rogen Chhabra, the problems is the makeup of the commission itself, all gubernatorial appointees, none of whom had prior workers’ compensation experience. Due to the complexity of workers’ compensation law, “I would prefer that all three commissioners were lawyers,” Stevens said.

Jaribu Hill, executive director of the Greenville-based Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights, said that “more of a fair and even playing field” is needed for workers in Mississippi, something the state Legislature and other political leaders need to recognize. “We go back every year to the same well to draw water. It’s frustrating and demoralizing. People are not willing to move an inch. We’re not even talking about a mile.”

Déjà vu.