Saturday, May 19, 2012

A Labor South Roundup: 175 birds a minute, child safety on the farm, and workers getting the squeeze at Pinnacle

Here's another Labor South roundup from across the region:

175 birds a minute

Without first studying the effects on assembly line workers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has changed the rule on line speeds at poultry plants for the first time in more than a half-century, increasing the speed from 91 birds a minute to 175 birds a minute. An extended comment period on the new rule comes to a close at the end of this month.

The United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents poultry workers, has opposed the change, saying the USDA should first consider the effects on workers. An estimated 43 percent of poultry workers have shown indications of carpal tunnel syndrome and other musculoskeletal disorders, according to a 2007 Duke University study. Latino workers, a major portion of the poultry industry workforce today, are more than twice as likely to have such disorders as workers in other manual labor or low-skill jobs.

"Tens of thousands of poultry workers may soon find their already dangerous job becoming much more so, with almost no public debate," author Gabriel Thompson wrote in an article on the issue in The Nation's May 14 issue.

Using a strange logic, USDA claims the change actually will improve food safety by increasing pre-assembly line inspections and freeing staff to pay more attention to safety problems. It also will save taxpayers $90 million by reducing the overall number of online inspectors. Furthermore, Thompson writes, the rule will mean $257 million in annual savings to the industry.

As it made public its new rule, the USDA pledged to work with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to determine how the rule change will affect workers.

That's exactly the reverse of what the process should be, the UFCW argues.

Child labor on the farm

The Obama Administration has stepped back from plans to place new restrictions on child labor on the farm. The Labor Department, responding to studies showing three-fourths of young people who die from work-related injuries worked in agriculture, proposed new rules preventing children under 16 from operating power-driven farm equipment, including tractors. The rules also would have prevented children under 18 from working in stockyards, grain silos and feed lots.

The proposed rules specifically exempted children working on farms owned by their parents.

That didn't prevent a howl of protest from Southern members of Congress, however. "This rule could prevent children under 18 from using such tools as a power screwdriver, a milking machine or something as simple as a wheelbarrow on the family farm," charged U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

The American Farm Bureau Federation also opposed the new rules, saying the family farm also means farms owned by uncles, grandparents and other relatives, and restricting child labor there could be very disruptive to operations.

The rule changes never mention wheelbarrows.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said 40 percent of fatalities of under-age workers are connected to "machines, equipment, or facilities related to agriculture" even though only 4 percent of young people actually work on the farm.

The Labor Department, bombarded with protests from farmers and farming interest groups, has backed off the proposed rules changes but pledged to work with the Farm Bureau, 4-H and others in developing programs to improve child safety on the farm.

Is Delta pushing an anti-worker agenda at Pinnacle?

The United Steelworkers says the Memphis-based Pinnacle Airline Corp. is feeling the heat from its partner, Atlanta-based Delta, in seeking to re-negotiate agreements with three unions representing pilots, transport workers, and other workers.

Pinnacle is facing Chapter 11 bankruptcy and asking union members to agree to hand back pay and benefit gains won over the past couple of years.

Delta is an important partner with Pinnacle, and the Steelworkers believe it is pressuring the troubled airline to put more squeeze on workers. Delta officials have denied the Steelworkers' claim but asserted they do want Pinnacle to be competitive and successful.

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