Friday, August 23, 2013

Wireless companies responsible for worker deaths.

Two workers fell from tower in Texas
by Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

When I was active in my Union I was for many years a member of the Contracting Out Committee. Working for a public utility we were always trying to prevent the private sector from getting our work.  The developers and real estate firms, in league with contractors that would do this work, had representatives on the Board of Directors that would assure their interests were protected.  They would generally be supported by building trades unions that wanted the work for their members.  So workers in the public sector were forced in to competition with workers in the private sector for who got the work.

I always argued for more hiring, bringing workers in as public sector union members expanding our workforce. Public sector employment even today after the onslaught we have faced, is generally a more humane and less competitive workplace with more security and better benefits and retirement, that’s why they want to smash the public sector Unions.

Sending out work to private (non-union) contractors in particular, always means workplace safety suffers as the effects of the market are greater.  The telecommunication companies like Sprint contract out a great deal of their work to contractors and sub contractors much like the retail giants contract work to sweatshops.  The race to provide faster, more extensive and advanced networks has led to an increase in the deaths of tower workers and 2013 has been a bumper year with ten tower workers dying in falls so far. After 2006, when 18 tower workers died, OSHA declared tower climbing beat out fishing and logging as “The most dangerous job in America.” *

I touched on the ineffectiveness of OSHA in an earlier commentary on the market driven catastrophe at the fertilizer plant in West Texas (here and here) pointing out that today there are 2200 OSHA inspectors for 8 million workplaces. It’s hard not to laugh at statistics like that were the consequences not so dire. Workers cannot put our lives in the hands of a state agency that was opposed by many politicians and the US Chamber of Commerce. If it was set up to seriously protect workers on the job, the ratio of OSHA inspectors to workplaces would be much different.

The fierce competition for market share and profits trumps safety, “…there is so much work this year that many crews are working around the clock and haven't taken days off in weeks.”,  industry representatives tell the Wall Street Journal,  “crews are working 12- or 16-hour days and, when they get tired, forget to clip on safety lines or clip them on improperly.” One project manager adds.

But am I not right in thinking there’s 20 to 30 million workers that capitalism refuses to put to work?  Yes, but it’s a better business decision to have people work longer hours than shortening them and hiring more people----it’s more profitable.  Sure, the pace of work destroys the body, the family and leads to unnecessary deaths and the tendency towards drugs that increase energy and keep you awake when your body demands rest.  But in order to win the bid to do this work for the telecommunications giant, a contractor has to underbid his or her competitors.  The wireless industries PR departments sing the same old tune workers are all too familiar with. Sprint says it is “deeply saddened” by the recent spate of deaths and “requires subcontractors to maintain written safety programs and designate one employee on site responsible for ensuring safety.”

OK, they’ve covered their asses, it must be the workers’ fault.  Let’s not forget though, that here in the US, a corporation has personhood; a corporation is a person and with the same rights as a person. And as any worker knows, the person making the decisions does not tend to take positions that are against their own self-interest. If the company-designated employee for safety takes action that hurts profits, they’re in trouble. This is why the Team Concept in the workplace is so destructive as it undermines independent worker power on the job. You can’t mobilize the power you have, and in our case it’s numbers and the ability to stop production, if the object of your activity is supposedly on the same team.

It’s obvious that a huge cause of death and injury in the workplace is the pace of the work and the competition between workers as we are forced to cut corners in order to help our bosses win market share from their rivals. 
One of the major contractors that oversees work for Sprint instituted a “Tower Construction Acceleration Program” that pays a $3000 bonus to contractors that finish on time and with no defects (workers health and happiness aside). One construction manager told the WSJ that some jobs pay $12,000 in bonuses per site and that the bonuses “encourage them to work more quickly.”  Nothing new there.

Many of the telecommunication companies are unionized so contracting work out eliminates those concerns, it’s the private, unorganized sector getting a hold of public work through these contracts and workers suffer for it, not just in in lower wages and benefits which is most often the case, but also in quality of life and workplace rights. Some tower workers admit that the carriers set “pricing and schedules that can create strong incentives to cut corners.”

The word terrorism is thrown about a lot these days.  Every individual or force that stands in opposition to capital’s rapacious quest for profits is given the terror label and their actions “terrorism”.  Some have not liked that I refer to the West Texas catastrophe or the mine explosion or the Fukushima disaster acts of market terror but they are exactly that; they are not accidents in the way we think of an accident.  Capitalism is an economic system that exists through coercion and force and is, by its very nature, a system of terror.  Workplace terrorism, economic terrorism, we don’t have to buy in to the language and terms that the 1% use to describe life’s events.  We have our own view of the world and our own language which describes what happens around us more accurately.

In the case of the tower worker, of course a bad decision by an individual worker might lead to an accident or death.  The issue is under what conditions are the decisions workers make made.  We have free will, Marx once said, but we rarely, if ever, get to choose the circumstances in which we exercise that free will.  And in the case of the workplace, there is no democracy there, we do not control the labor process, we are simply a part of it under the direction of the owner(s) of capital.

There are only two sources of power in the workplace, the bosses and the organized workers. Without organization it’s every man or woman for themselves as each individual tries to make a deal and the boss sets one against the other. Safety is strongest where workers are organized and elected worker representatives have a real presence on the job. The power to shut down an unsafe project is something workplace representatives must fight for.

Building and strengthening the organized workers’ movement in the workplace and in our communities as well is what will reduce injury on the job and disasters like the recent spate of mine deaths and catastrophes like the BP spill that killed 11 workers and did untold environmental damage. No one can work an eight-hour day these days and pay the rent.  Sixteen-hour days, speed ups caused by the competition between capitalists for market domination---this is why 13 tower workers have died this year.  They were victims of the free market at work. 

The Union hierarchy has all but abandoned any attempt to win a shorter workweek with no loss in pay or win anything for that matter. As recently as 1984, the AFL-CIO platform to the Democratic Party called for a continuation of the historic norm of reducing the hours of work.  The Democrats of course will do no such thing just like this party of Wall Street will not put any teeth in to OSHA. Along with workers having independent organizations in the workplace, independent of the bosses, we have to have political independence as well in the form of our own party based on these organizations and the communities in which we work and live.

I want to stress as another author on this blog did a few days ago, the small businesses that cannot afford a $15 or $20 an hour minimum wage must join with workers in the struggle for it.  For most community businesses don’t object to such a wage, they just can’t afford it.  The workers’ movement in return must fight to free small business from the clutches of the corporations, the insurance companies, the taxman, bankers and others that weigh heavily on them.  It is absurd that a community business should provide health care for workers; the sickness industrial complex, the hospital and pharmaceutical industries, must be taken in to public ownership and these vital services can be managed in the public’s interest.

These are all steps we must take that will curb the power of the bosses over our lives in the workplace and outside it. But each victory in this regard is only temporary until we take control of the labor process and the management of society as a whole.

* A New Spate of Deaths inthe Wireless Industry WSJ 8-22-13

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