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October 23, 2006

Why We Need Unions

What a grotesque, tragic story. As I never tire of pointing out, unions aren't just about wages and benefits, they're about workplace regulations, and safety codes, and making sure earning a salary doesn't mean watching your lungs get shredded by diacetyl, the artificial flavoring used in butter. But the story of this worker, who's now incapacitated by popcorn lung, contracted through his job bagging cheese and popcorn flavorings, has one of the cruelest twists imaginable:

As much as he hates to do it, the man who collapsed while playing basketball will report to work until he can figure out another way to support himself and his three children, he said.

He will continue pouring, mixing and bagging flavors that, when ventilated through a fan in the roof, turn the snow outside the plant yellow and orange in the winter, he said.

With no bachelor's degree and little professional experience, he fears he won't be able to match the roughly $18 an hour he earns at the flavor plant. Plus, he said he needs the medical benefits now more than ever.

"There are a lot of reasons I can't just walk away from this job," he said.

"So what kind of a country is this," Jordon Barab asks, "that even knowing that exposre to a chemical can cause death, will allow people to continue working with it. And what kind of a country is this where a sick man seems to have no choice but to continue being exposed to a chemical he knows is killing him?" What kind of country indeed?

October 23, 2006 | Permalink

Comments

Why isn't the left blogosphere railing on OSHA. Ya' know the agency that was created for issue just such as this?
This is more of a political push for unions than it is for any kind of meaningful safety.Having the Unions regulate workplace health issues is ludicrous.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Oct 23, 2006 12:04:51 PM

'We need a government agency that will issue regulations that will eleminate hazardous exposures to this chemical, and if that's not possible, to ban the use of the chemical alltogether. Ask most people on the street and they'll probably tell you that we have agencies that will do that: OSHA, EPA and maybe even the FDA.'

(Fromn Confined Space, where you got your quote.)

News flash just in! Centralized bureaucracies don't work! Film at 11!

Confined Space blames it on the Bushies. Odd really, as one of the stories is about someone who worked with the material for 19 years. My knowledge of US constitutional law is patchy but I'm sure that Presidents are only allowed to serve 8 years.

I'm perfectly willing to believe that there's health hazards out there, that the system of monitoring and preventing them needs changing. I'm not, I'm afraid, convinced that more bureaucrats in offices in DC is an answer. Nor that giving unions more power so they can cut a few more sweatheart land deals with Terry McAuliffe.

Try a little harder to find a decent solution Ezra will you, you're a clever chap, you can come up with better than this sort of knee jerk.

Posted by: Tim Worstall | Oct 23, 2006 12:16:01 PM

News flash just in! Centralized bureaucracies don't work! Film at 11!

Well, yes, when you strip their funding and purposely make sure they don't work, they really don't work well at all. Go figure.

Posted by: chdb | Oct 23, 2006 12:35:22 PM

Doesn't the fact that the job pays $18/hr (almost $40k/year) + medical benefits indicate that workers are already being compensated for taking a riskier job? In fact, if we take the man at his word, he's working "12-hours days" which - if true - means with overtime, he's pulling in over 50K a year for bagging popcorn.

This is definitely not the typical pay scale for someone with "no bachelor's degree and little professional experience" - the writer somewhat coyly does not even say whether he graduated from high school. Notice too, that the man is 35 and has only worked for the company for 2 1/2 years - meaning he was out of the workforce for a long stretch of time.

The man is right he can't walk away from the job - but that seems to be a rational choice on his part. He knows the dangers and he knows the rewards. He also knows he won't have a chance of making the same kind of middle-class income anywhere else.

Posted by: Kevin Baker | Oct 23, 2006 12:42:18 PM

he won't have a chance of making the same kind of middle-class income anywhere else.

And that's exactly the problem.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Oct 23, 2006 12:47:05 PM

Kevin: I can't figure out if you're joking or not. In case you're being serious, let me point out a few things. First, $36,000 a year is hardly a princely sum these days, certainly not enough to compensate for a job that's going to kill you in your 30's or 40's. Second, the whole concept that we should be paying people to die was legally outlawed when the Occupational SAfety and Health Act was passed (and morally outlawed way before that). The OSHAct says employers have to maintain a safe workplace. Period. It doesn't say that employers have to maintain a safe workplace unless they pay employees a little more to get sick, hurt or killed.

Finally, not that it's relevant, but he has worked for that company for 2 1/2 years. There's nothing saying what he did before that.

We need to treat people better than cattle or lab rats -- no matter what education they have or how much money they make. It's the only legal, moral and civilized way to run a society.

Posted by: Jordan Barab | Oct 23, 2006 1:47:00 PM

I do love Tim and Fred here: No solutions, no concern for employees having their lungs chewed away by toxins -- just don't give OSHA anymore funding! And make sure there are no union stewards such injured workers can go to to make sure someone with a seat at management's table is demanding better ventilation -- unions talk with Terry McAuliffe(?)!

And by the way, Tim: When you try to dismiss unions on such flimsy grounds, you take yourself out of bounds for constructive discourse. You may or may not be a smart chap, but you can at least be one worth engaging with. Not, however, if ryour only answer to an argument for organized labor's role in promoting safety regulation is that some union somewhere cut a land deal with the past head of the DNC. Give me a break.

Posted by: Ezra | Oct 23, 2006 2:13:22 PM

Small correction -- diacetyl is used in artificial butter flavoring, not in butter. What this means is that we're harming and killing people for the sake of crappy butter flavoring.

Posted by: nolo | Oct 23, 2006 2:44:44 PM

News flash just in! Centralized bureaucracies don't work! Film at 11!

Ever heard of the United States Army? Oh, wait--

Posted by: JR | Oct 23, 2006 3:12:38 PM

The CDC Website recommends several measures to protect workers, beginning with substitution (using another chemical--not always a good idea); engineering (proper design and implementation of ventilation equipment, for starters), and administrative controls (ensuring proper cleanup and containment procedures, for example).

OSHA has assigned diacetyl a Registry of Toxic Effects (RTECS) Identification Number, and lists the chemical's potentially hazardous incompatibilities: strong oxidizers, bases, reducing agents, metals. It also offers links to the scientific literature (there have been various studies) on diacetyl.

I found both sources in a few nanoseconds. Clearly no-one at the government level doubts that diacetyl is more than just potentially harmful to workers' lungs and skin. I am puzzled that any thinking, feeling human being would be against an organized push to regulate the handling and use of this stuff. Indeed, I'm puzzled that it's in our bloody food supply to begin with, even if the exposure to the chemical when making a bag of microwave popcorn in the kitchen is lower than the exposure one would receive as a factory worker. Then again, other volatile chemical agents used in food are also indicated in various illnesses and disorders, and nothing is being done about them, either.

Posted by: litbrit | Oct 23, 2006 4:28:10 PM

(I meant implicated, not indicated.)

Posted by: litbrit | Oct 23, 2006 4:32:30 PM

I do love Tim and Fred here: No solutions, no concern for employees having their lungs chewed away by toxins -- just don't give OSHA anymore funding!

Are you on crack? I never said anything clost to that! I wondered why you weren't railing on OSHA!

Go back to the pipe.

And for Neil:

he won't have a chance of making the same kind of middle-class income anywhere else.

And that's exactly the problem.
---Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Oct 23, 2006 9:47:05 AM

Here's the first part of that sentence Neil conveniently left out:
With no bachelor's degree and little professional experience...

*THAT's* the problem!!

With no bachelor's degree and little professional experience...

Posted by: Fred Jones | Oct 23, 2006 4:33:06 PM

Kevin: The man is right he can't walk away from the job - but that seems to be a rational choice on his part. He knows the dangers and he knows the rewards. He also knows he won't have a chance of making the same kind of middle-class income anywhere else.

That you seem to see 'working at a job that is literally killing you' as a 'rational choice', presumably made by the kind of free actor assumed by the Econ 101 courses so beloved by conservatives indicated just how totally, utterly void your moral conscience is.

Some people might think that forcing someone to work a job that is poisoning him to death in order to secure a living wage for him and his family is a little cold. Not you, though.

Fred, why do I find it hard to believe that you'd be totally comfortable with a fully-funded and aggressive OSHA that would advocate for people like this? I agree with you, surprisingly, that OSHA should be one of the front-line entities in cases like this, but somehow I just can't wrap my brain around the idea of you being smiles and rainbows with an OSHA with the muscle and time (time == money) to attend to every instance like this in our country.

Posted by: NBarnes | Oct 23, 2006 4:42:26 PM

And you know what, Fred? Back in the 1950s, when things were better for unions, people with no bachelor's degrees and little professional experience weren't ruled out of the middle class.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Oct 23, 2006 4:56:08 PM

Ah, guys, what Fred et al aren't saying is that they, like BushCo, don't really want America to have a strong, sizeable middle class. Since 2000, the push to polarize wealth has been an ongoing effort, and it has been effective. Sure there are lots of jobs to be had today: service-sector jobs. Jobs that cannot support a healthy single person living in a one-bedroom apartment in most US cities, much less an entire family, or anyone with health issues, or anyone trying to better himself through education while also working.

It's all about the ownership class, remember?

Posted by: litbrit | Oct 23, 2006 5:11:51 PM

Tim -
So would you advocate we go back to a time when big construction projects were measured in the number of fatal accidents that occured during construction? Go on most large construction sites now and you'll see a sign reporting the length of time since the last "time lost" accident. They used to have the same signs, except it would identify the number of days since the last fatal accident. What turned this is OSHA.

Fred -
Unions provide a safety net for the workers. Even with many whistleblower laws and such it is not easy to stand up to an employer and demand they make the job safe - or turn them in to OSHA. The federal OSHA program is far too extended to handle more than investigations of accidents, direct employee complaints and indirect complaints of employee health and safety - in that order of priority. The accidents take up the majority of the attention - investigations into working conditions are usualy very cursory and unless the investigation favors the employee they are not protected by the law. This is true, even if the employer makes the changes needed before OSHA comes to look into the matter - they can then find a reason to let the offending worker go, remove whatever safety device they installed (which more often than not, reduce the efficiency of the operation), hire a replacement and go back to business as usual. It would be great to have an OSHA program that is fully funded to make sure that this crap doesn't happen butthe bush administration reduced the funding - which was already way to low.

Unions on the other hand are able to stand for the employee - every employee that will have to deal with a task the can be a health hazard. They make it so that no employee has to feel they are alone in a struggle to make their workplace a safe and healthy place to be.

Posted by: DuWayne | Oct 23, 2006 6:09:53 PM

Ezra: I most certainly didn't say that OSHA should not have more funding. I did say that more bureaucrats in DC might not be the solution. My admitedly rather cynical view of the world leads me to the conclusion thought that giving OSHA a larger budget would in fact leas to more bureaucrats in DC.

As to whether unions would solve this problem: from the original articles it appears that workers in this industry in some states are unionized and in others are not. So an intrepid reporter could do some useful work by finding out whether the incidence of this disease is hgiher, the same, or lower, in those plkaces where said workers are unionized. That would thus prove (or reject) your contention that unions are a solution.

From the original newspaper articles:

'The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which regulates and enforces workplace safety, does not regulate exposure to diacetyl. Despite the letter and an alert by NIOSH in December 2003 warning employers at nearly 4,000 plants nationwide, including 280 in Wisconsin, to minimize occupational exposures to flavorings and flavoring ingredients, OSHA officials say they still are "evaluating specific workplace protections for exposure to diacetyl" and are considering the petition to issue an emergency temporary standard. They declined to comment further.

"This is just an example of the regulatory system falling on its face," said David Michaels, professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University and director of the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy.'

That isn't, as far as I can see, a powerful argument in favour of centralized bureaucracies regulating such exposure.

As to the larger question, of whether it is right that people should be coughing their lungs out to bring microwave popcorn to the nation: no, of course not. My only contention is that more pen pushers and more unions might not be the best answer.

Posted by: Tim Worstall | Oct 24, 2006 7:56:28 AM

"This is just an example of the regulatory system falling on its face," said David Michaels, professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University and director of the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy.'

That isn't, as far as I can see, a powerful argument in favour of centralized bureaucracies regulating such exposure.

A conflicted, underfunded, and largely captive centralized bureaucracy failed to fix this problem, therefore I declare that a well-managed, fully funded, non-captive centralized bureaucracy would not address the problem. Instead, I imply that I disapprove of the status quo (since I don't like the idea of poisoning people for profit being legal), but I don't outline any solution at all, pausing only to piss all over the most obivous solution with specious logic.

Brilliant! The next Instapundit is born!

Posted by: NBarnes | Oct 24, 2006 9:26:40 AM

Tim, what do you think the answer is?

So it's since 2003 that OSHA has been sitting on recommendations to do something about diacetyl. This may not be an argument against centralized bureaucracy, but against the Bush Administration's sabotaging of centralized bureaucracy. Now, you could argue that centralized bureaucracy is not the answer simply because every so often malicious Republicans will get into power and sabotage it, but if you did that you should also oppose putting malicious Republicans into power while those bureaucracies are around, and you don't.

So again, you've said what you think isn't the answer; what is?

Posted by: Matt Weiner | Oct 24, 2006 10:00:39 AM

Unions on the other hand are able to stand for the employee - every employee that will have to deal with a task the can be a health hazard.

DuWayne,

Most people are not in a union. Unions do not have the force of law. I really can't believe this is coming out of your keyboard.
This is one area that is obvious for government simply because it is universal and our society has decided that a safe workplace is required.

Instead, you wish to turn it over to your pet private group who can't even regulate themselves.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Oct 24, 2006 10:54:59 AM

Fred -
Read what I wrote - all of it. In no way did I imply that OSHA is a bad organization that should be replaced by unions. What I said was, Unions should help offset the shortcomings inherent in an underfunded, overextended OSHA program.

I should also eplain that I think the federal OSHA program should be entirely restructured. The current OSHA standards should be a minimum standard for every state to follow but, each state should be pushed to build it's own OSHA program, like those in MI and I believe CA. Much of the federal OSHA funding, currently used for investigations should be moved to the states to allow enforcment on a state level. MI has had a much higher safety rating than states without their own OSHA program - this would aliviate a lot of the problems that I am suggesting could be dealt with by unions. Even so, I believe that unions can be very effective at dealing wiht many of these issues.

But you will never hear me say that I am, in any way, against OSHA. As I mentioned upthread, OSHA has saved a lot of lives and the health of many workers since it's inception. h

Posted by: DuWayne | Oct 24, 2006 11:27:11 AM

"non-captive centralized bureaucracy"

If you know of a way that centralized bureacracies or regulators will not become the captives of one interest group or another then please do let us all know. You've obviously heard of the phrase 'regulatory capture' and I assume that you know it doesn't just refer to business groups doing the capturing.

A solution? Over here we have laws against killing people. I assume you do too in the US. We have laws against injuring people too, whether through malice or neglect, as I assume you do too. Criminal, not just civil ones as well. Why not use them?
If the charge that the diacetyl caused this man's lung disease cannot be proved to the criminal standard, try the civil. If that can't be proved.....well, we can't prove it then can we and the argument rather falls over at that point doesn't it? If we can't prove that it is the diacetyl then why are we claiming that it is?

Posted by: Tim Worstall | Oct 24, 2006 11:43:51 AM

If the charge that the diacetyl caused this man's lung disease cannot be proved to the criminal standard, try the civil. If that can't be proved.....well, we can't prove it then can we and the argument rather falls over at that point doesn't it? If we can't prove that it is the diacetyl then why are we claiming that it is?

Tim is exactly correct. There is no big gaping hole in our system. When bad things happen, we have the means to fix them. Why not use them?

To Tim: Not everything here is as it seems. This obvious conclusion you came to doesn't promote the Unions as was the purpose of this post.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Oct 24, 2006 12:32:41 PM

"News flash just in! Centralized bureaucracies don't work! Film at 11!"

Posted by: Tim Worstal


News flash just in! Libertarian propagandist, disguised as think tank analyst, jumps in with predictable libertarian non-solution! Film at 11!

Posted by: Barry | Oct 24, 2006 3:46:17 PM

So Tim Worstall comes out in favor of an aggressive plaintiff's bar. Good to know. Hasn't Drum posted on the link between weak unions and lots of personal injury lawsuits?

As for the captive bureaucracy, it's a bit rich to talk about the inevitability of regulatory capture when you've done what you can to make the situation worse. (Oh, but it seems you're afraid that the nasty old unions are going to capture the regulatory apparatus. That's likely. I hope DCI is paying you well for this.)

Posted by: Matt Weiner | Oct 24, 2006 3:50:22 PM

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