News and Updates
Workplace Safety & Health
August 30, 2006
Unions, Supported by Scientific Community,
Petition California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board for Emergency Temporary Standard for the Chemical
(Buena Park, California) – On August 23, 2006 the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union, Western States Council and the California Labor Federation petitioned the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board to immediately issue an Emergency Temporary Standard for diacetyl, a deadly chemical used in flavorings. This follows action taken on July 26, 2006, when two affiliate unions of the Change to Win federation – the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters -petitioned the Department of Labor (DOL) for an Emergency Temporary Standard for diacetyl under Occupational Safety and Health Act.
Diacetyl is a hazardous chemical that has been connected to a potentially fatal lung disease that has been experienced by food industry workers across the nation. There have been dozens of cases of what has become known as “”popcorn workers lung,”” or bronchiolitis obliterans-a severe, disabling, and often-fatal lung disease experienced by factory workers who produce or handle diacetyl. Several food industry employees in California have developed devastating lung problems after being exposed to diacetyl in the workplace. There are currently no OSHA standards requiring exposures to diacetyl and flavorings be controlled.
According to the Division of Occupational Safety and Health, there are 16 – 20 plants producing flavorings in the state of California. And thousands of food processing workers are involved in the production of popcorn, pastries, frozen foods, candies and even dog food that use these chemicals.
The petition was accompanied by a letter from forty-two of the nation’s leading occupational safety scientists, including a former OSHA director, five former top officials from OSHA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Health and Human Services, who all agree that there is more than enough evidence for OSHA to regulate.
The UFCW and the California Labor Federation are petitioning the Standards Board to require employers to control airborne exposure to diacetyl and ensure that all employees who are exposed to a certain airborne level of the chemical are provided with air purifying respirators. The safety of these workers would be additionally monitored through medical surveillance and regular consultations.
The petition also demands that Cal/OSHA immediately issue a bulletin to all employers and employees potentially exposed to diacetyl outlining the dangers of the chemical. Cal/OSHA is being asked to conduct inspections and begin rule-making proceedings to establish a permanent standard that will put an end to this tragic epidemic and protect workers from exposure to all flavorings.
July 26, 2006
(Washington, DC) —On July 26, 2006, two affiliate unions of the Change to Win federation — the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters — began petitioning the Department of Labor (DOL) to immediately issue an Emergency Temporary Standard to stop the continued risk of diacetyl exposure to workers. In 2002 and 2003, OSHA’s own scientists studying diacetyl unsuccessfully urged their leaders to take broader action to protect workers. There are currently no OSHA standards requiring exposures to be controlled.
Diacetyl is a hazardous chemical that has been connected to a potentially fatal lung disease that has been experienced by food industry workers across the nation. There have been dozens of cases of what has become known as “popcorn workers lung,” or bronchiolitis obliterans—a severe, disabling, and often-fatal lung disease experienced by factory workers who produce or handle diacetyl.
“Three workers have died and hundreds of others seriously injured,” said Jackie Nowell, UFCW Safety & Health Director. “It’s time for action. We will not let food processing workers continue to be the canaries in the coal mine while waiting for the industry to regulate itself.”
More than 8,000 workers are employed in the flavorings production industry and may be exposed to the dangers of diacetyl and other similar chemicals. Tens of thousands of food processing workers are involved in the production of popcorn, pastries, frozen foods, candies and even dog food that use these chemicals. It is not clear whether consumers are at risk from exposure to diacetyl but certainly the workers who deal with high concentrations of the flavoring chemical are at risk of developing serious and irreversible lung damage.
The unions’ petition is accompanied by a letter from forty-two of the nation’s leading occupational safety scientists, including a former OSHA director, five former top officials from OSHA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Health and Human Services, who all agree that there is more than enough evidence for OSHA to regulate.
“”Study after study have shown that breathing artificial butter flavor destroys workers lungs. We know how to prevent this terrible disease but OSHA refuses to act”” said Dr. David Michaels of the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy at the George Washington University School of Public Health.
The UFCW and Teamsters filed the petition for an Emergency Temporary Standard with the DOL to require employers to control airborne exposure to diacetyl and ensure that all employees who are exposed to a certain airborne level of the chemical are provided with air purifying respirators. The safety of these workers would be additionally monitored through medical surveillance and regular consultations.
The petition also demands that OSHA immediately issue a bulletin to all employers and employees potentially exposed to diacetyl outlining the dangers of the chemical. OSHA is being asked to conduct inspections and begin rule-making proceedings to establish a permanent standard that will put an end to this tragic epidemic and protect workers from exposure to all flavorings.
“The science is clear. Now it is time for the Department of Labor to employ their regulatory mandate and protect the public,” said Lamont Byrd, Teamster Safety & Health Director. “Such illnesses and fatalities are avoidable and therefore, inexcusable. An Emergency Standard is necessary to prevent the suffering and death of the additional workers who will get sick during the time it would take for OSHA to set a Permanent Standard.”
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union’s 1.4 million members work in America’s supermarkets, meatpacking and food processing plants. Founded in 1903, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters represents more than 1.4 million hardworking men and women throughout the United States and Canada. Both unions are founding members of the Change to Win federation. www.changetowin.org
For more information and studies about Popcorn Workers Lung Disease, go to www.DefendingScience.org
November 29, 2005
If a bird flu pandemic were to break out in the United States, workers in America’s poultry industry would be the first to notice sick birds, the first to risk exposure to the deadly virus, and the first to sound the alarm. That’s why the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) has sent a letter to President Bush urging him to initiate coordinated protection for poultry workers on the front lines by initiating a Cabinet-level meeting to discuss worker issues and the potential pandemic.
The poultry industry is a major force in the U.S. economy, generating more than $35 billion per year in revenue. The nation’s 200,000 poultry workers produce 500 million pounds of chicken every week. We must have a plan to protect these workers-the chicken catchers and those that slaughter, process, and package the millions of chickens and turkeys that Americans eat each year.
The Bush administration has taken the first, important steps in containing a potential outbreak of bird flu by discussing and planning the control of the virus at its source-in animals.
However, if we are to avoid a pandemic, America’s plan to contain the bird flu must have a worker component. The Bush administration should consider:
–Direct contact with infected poultry or contaminated surfaces and objects is considered the main route of human infection. This kind of direct contact is the norm for workers in the poultry industry. A poultry worker immunization program will prevent the spread of the disease and assure the public that a meaningful step has been taken to contain the disease at its source.
–Poultry workers are in the best position to visually identify sick birds and report suspected cases of bird flu. These front line workers are the nation’s best defense against a pandemic, but they will need whistleblower protections in order to avoid discrimination and to assure that profit doesn’t override health and safety.
–Many immigrant, undocumented, or Spanish-speaking poultry workers are unaware of workplace safety regulations. This population is unlikely to ask for safety and health protections such as respirators or flu shots. Unfortunately, a recent sting operation where ICE agents posed as OSHA officials has hurt the credibility of government safety programs and further increased immigrants’ mistrust of government. We must reach out to these workers with health and safety information and we must strictly enforce a policy that prohibits sting operations that undermine OSHA credibility.
These worker issues are of paramount importance. Worker organizations, like unions, should be consulted and integrated into the effort. The UFCW stands ready to work with all interested stakeholders, including worker representatives, government agencies, and poultry companies.
November 14, 2005
Justices Agree to End the Workplace Rip-off
(Washington, DC) – Meatpacking, poultry and food processing workers finally have the backing and protection of the highest court in the land. Today, the United States Supreme Court affirmed the position long held by workers and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) – that employers must pay workers for time spent obtaining required safety equipment and reporting to their work location in the plant. The UFCW has advocated for decades that all required time is paid time.
For far too long, employers have cheated workers out of their full paycheck by refusing to pay them for the time it takes to pick up their required safety equipment such as chain mail gloves, hair nets, aprons and heavy boots. Meat industry giants like Tyson Foods, which owns IBP, have long insisted that workers paid time does not include as much as thirty to forty minutes per day spent collecting and putting on their gear and walking to their station on the production line.
Today, the Supreme Court justices unanimously agreed that workers deserve to be paid for that time. In reality, the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court had to rule on such a case speaks volumes about the greed and arrogance of employers in this country. It wasn’t enough to cheat workers out of their wages, the meat packing industry fought for the right to continue its rip-off all the way to the highest court.
The time has finally come for the hundreds of thousands of workers to receive their rightfully due wages when they report for duty in America’s food industry workplaces. Today’s court ruling is a tremendous victory for workers.
October 21, 2005
Strikers Hospitalized from Brutal Attacks
(Washington, DC) – As the temperature begins to cool here in the United States, a bitter and brutal cold has crept into the air surrounding the Tyson beef plant in Brooks, Alberta, Canada. More than 2,300 workers, many of them workers who are refugees from the Sudan, have been forced onto the streets and onto picket lines in a battle to preserve a decent standard of living. Tyson is leaving workers and their families out in the cold, again.
Workers at the Brooks plant stood up for a voice with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 401 in August, 2004, eager for basic workplace protections such as an end to harassment, improved safety training, and better handling of biological hazards. More than 600 Sudanese immigrant workers were lured to Alberta with the promise of a good job and bright future. Tyson’s disregard for the basic safety needs of its workforce, immigrant and native, is reprehensible. Picket lines went up on October 12, 2005 after Tyson Foods threw out a proposal by a mediator appointed by the Alberta government to facilitate a first-contract agreement.
“UFCW members and Tyson workers in the United States stand firmly in support of our Canadian brothers and sisters as they stand up against Tyson’s greed,” said Joseph T. Hansen, UFCW International President. “We are committing every resource available to support our striking workers in Alberta on the frontlines against Tyson’s inexcusable greed.”
Provincial law enforcement officers stood by yesterday as replacement workers and management verbally and physically assaulted Sudanese workers with racially-motivated jeers and anti-immigrant insults. Several strikers were reportedly beaten with metal pipes, left injured in a ditch before being transported to the hospital.
“Tyson recruits workers from all over the world to bring them to work in their North American operations in a race to the bottom. Exploitation of a vulnerable immigrant workforce is part of their business plan. Now, it is particularly galling to see that the Tyson is allowing racially-motivated violence to take place on the picket line,” continued Hansen.
Tyson’s behavior in Alberta follows a pattern it sets in the United States – doing everything in its power to lower wages, cut benefits and reduce workplace standards for employees, particularly immigrant workers. In 2003, Tyson forced long-time meat processing workers in Jefferson, Wisconsin onto picket lines for nearly one year in order to lower wage and benefit levels for unionized workers in the United States. In this instance, Tyson’s message to the black immigrant workforce is clear: we brought you to this continent so that we can pay you less than native workers.
Tyson Foods is the Wal-Mart of the meat industry – dominating 27 percent of all beef, pork and chicken sales in the U.S. But size doesn’t give it the excuse to drag workers’ wages, health care benefits, and workplace standards to the even lower levels. The company carries very little debt and share prices have increased by 25% in the last year. Tyson has no financial need to demand sub-standard wage and benefit levels for workers in the U.S. or Canada.
The Brooks facility handles 40% of all beef slaughter in Canada. It operates under the name “Lakeside Packers.” Tyson has owned the plant for ten years.
UFCW members in the U.S. will be marching and leafletting in support of the strikers at the Millions More Movement on the National Mall in Washington, DC tomorrow.
July 24, 2005
Washington, D.C. — The segment of the American workforce most likely to suffer injury or death on the job was targeted in a scam operation by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. ICE officers masqueraded as safety instructors to round up documented and undocumented construction workers in North Carolina with a flier announcing a mandatory Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) meeting, earlier this month, then arrested 48 undocumented workers who attended the meeting.
“OSHA is responsible for worker safety and health,” said UFCW International President Joe Hansen. “For ICE to stage a sham OSHA meeting in order to round up and arrest people undermines OSHA’s mission, and is a step backwards for state and federal efforts to reduce worker injuries and deaths. The word being brought back to worksites, after a scam like this, is that OSHA can’t be trusted. That kind of perception diminishes OSHA’s ability to do the critical work of protecting America’s labor force.”
There are more than 10 million foreign-born workers in the US, making up about 15% of the workforce. Immigrant workers have the highest rates of on-the-job injuries and fatalities. Hispanic workers suffer 69% of all on-the-job injuries/deaths. In the meatpacking industry, more than half of the workers are foreign-born, and in some plants, up to 80% of the workers are immigrants.
“This unscrupulous action has shattered the trust between OSHA and the workers who depend on the agency the most,” said Hansen. “More and more often, it is immigrants who work in the most dangerous industries such as construction or meatpacking. How can OSHA reach these at-risk workers with safety information now? To these workers, OSHA no longer means safety, but betrayal. The Bush administration must denounce the kind of trickery that undermines safety.””
July 24, 2005
Seven hundred and fifty workers at two Koch’s Foods poultry processing units in Morristown, Tennessee have filed a petition for a union election to be conducted by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Workers at the Morristown plant approached the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) Local 1995, seeking a voice on the job. Workers have been organizing at the plant for the past month. A majority of workers at the two units have signed UFCW union authorization cards.
“UFCW currently represents Koch’s Foods workers at two plants in Mississippi,” said George J. Saleeby, International Vice President and Director of UFCW Region 3. “Koch’s workers in the Morton and Forest plants are able to bargain collectively for wages, benefits, and working conditions. The workers in Morristown came to us because they also want a voice on the job.””
The U.S. government requires workers and the union of their choice to have at least 30% of their co-workers sign union authorization cards in order to file for a NLRB election. During an election, eligible workers at the location vote for or against the petitioning union. When a union is voted in by 50% plus one person, both the company and union sit down to negotiate a mutually beneficial contract for the workers and to improve workplace conditions.
May 18, 2005
Omaha, Neb-Community leaders and activists from Omaha are urging Nebraska Beef to live up to community standards and guarantee its workers their democratic right to vote for union representation without coercion or intimidation.
The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 271, Omaha Together One Community (OTOC), members of the clergy, and elected officials are calling on Nebraska Beef, one of the largest beef-kill operations in the country, to drop its systematic and illegal anti-worker tactics and allow workers to participate in an upcoming union election without fears of reprisals. The Community leaders are calling for Nebraska beef to allow fair-minded, community monitors to bear witness in the run up to the voting and to ensure that the company lets the election take place in an environment free from coercion and intimidation.
On April 6, 2005, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ordered a new election at Nebraska Beef after citing the company for violating workers’ rights in an August 2001 election, after UFCW had filed charges on behalf of the workers. The NLRB upheld a hearing officer’s findings that the company used a broad range of intimidation tactics to deny workers a voice on the job in the 2001 election, including:
Illegal interrogation of employees concerning their union sympathies;
Illegal threats of job and benefit loss if workers selected a union as their collective bargaining representative; and
Illegal threats to change working conditions if they selected the union.
Deliberately providing an inaccurate eligible vote list, which the hearing officer ruled was a “”bad faith effort to impede the union’s access to voters.
The mostly Latino workforce has endured continued mistreatment at the hands of company managers. Jose Guardado a worker at Nebraska Beef for more than seven years and union supporter said, “”I was fired for standing up for a voice at work. They made up some excuses, but I know it was because of my union activism. I would expect this to happen in El Salvador, but I was hoping workers had grater liberties in America.”” Guardado was an observer in the 2001 election and rendered testimony at the NLRB hearings. “”Only if the company allows the community to be witness of how they treat the workers we can hope for things to be different,”” Jose added.
UFCW Local 271 successfully fought on behalf of seven workers who had been fired in retaliation for standing up to management and demanding safer working conditions. In addition, the company has had to pay back wages in settlement charges filed by UFCW Local 271 for illegally firing three employees who protested unsafe working conditions.
May 17, 2005
Washington DC – WakeupWalmart.com, America’s campaign to change Wal-Mart, called on its 50,000 supporters to immediately contact and pressure Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich not to veto the “”Fair Share Healthcare”” legislation.
As adopted, by both the Maryland State Senate and the House of Delegates, the “”Fair Share Healthcare”” bill requires companies with more than 10,000 employees to live up to their responsibilities as profitable employers and pay their fair share for health care.
Contrary to some reports, the Maryland bill does not specifically target Wal-Mart.
There are 4 corporations in Maryland with more than 10,000 employees (Giant Foods, Northrup Grumman, Johns Hopkins, and Wal-Mart). Wal-Mart is simply the only company that fails to live up to its moral responsibility of providing its workers with adequate health care. The bill is designed to ensure large employers don’t use state public health assistance as a method of providing healthcare for their workers.
“”With over $10 billion in profits last year it is morally bankrupt that Wal-Mart fails to pay its fair share of health care costs,”” said Paul Blank, WakeUpWalmart.com’s campaign director. “”It is sad to see Governor Ehrlich say no to health care for families and children and yes to tax subsidies for multi-billion dollar corporations.””
The Fair Share Healthcare legislation in Maryland is part of growing effort by the UFCW, WakeUpWalmart, and numerous civic and community groups, who are determined to make corporations, like Wal-Mart, live up to their responsibilities. The goal of such legislation is to ensure that large companies do not shift their healthcare costs on to taxpayers at a time when our healthcare system is already in crisis.
April 22, 2005
Omaha, Nebraska-The National Labor Relations Board ordered a new election at Nebraska Beef in Omaha, Neb., after citing the company for violating workers’ rights in an August 2001 election, after the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) had filed charges on behalf of the workers. The Board ordered the election to take place on May 26. The NLRB upheld a hearing officer’s findings and recommendation to set aside the 2001 election where the company used a broad range of intimidation tactics to deny workers a voice on the job. The workers had tried to organize with the UFCW Local Union 271.
Nebraska Beef, one of the country’s largest meatpacking plants, was cited for violations that included:
Illegal interrogation of employees concerning their union sympathies;
Illegal threats of job losses or loss of benefits if workers selected a union as their collective bargaining representative; and
Illegal threats to change working conditions if they selected the union.
The company employs approximately 1,100 mostly Latino workers who slaughter and process 2,400 cattle a day at the plant.
The NLRB ruling is just the latest in a series of actions, over the last few years, directed at Nebraska Beef by federal agencies for breaking the law. The U.S. Department of Agriculture temporarily removed federal Food Safety and Inspection Service personnel from the plant in 2003 due to the company’s food safety violations. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service raided the plant in 2000, detaining more than 200 undocumented workers and indicted several mid-level company managers.
“”This ruling represents a victory for the workers at Nebraska Beef, who have had to wait four years before justice was done about the outrageously illegal behavior of the company,”” said Donna McDonald president of Local 271 in Omaha. “”We hope the entire community will bear witness to what goes on in the plant from now until the election is held, and hold Nebraska Beef accountable if they don’t live up to community values.””
UFCW Local 271 represents nearly 1,000 meatpacking workers in Omaha. The UFCW International Union represents approximately 250,000 members in the meatpacking and food processing industry.