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Everything Happens in Texas

If you have any time or other resources, get involved in today's class struggle! Check out the incredible list of "things to do" right now! Here are some of the recent events as reported from our worker correspondent in Houston:

Texans grapple with worker and community safety

By Paul Hill

HOUSTON - Members from at least 10 unions convened at the United Steelworkers Local 13-1 in Texas City on July 10 to discuss how air pollutants affect health and safety. They met with Jonathan B. Ward, Jr., Ph.D., Professor and Director of the Division of Environmental Toxicology, and the Deputy Director of the NIEHS Toxicology Center at the University of Texas Medical Branch.

Ward told the group that ozone has regularly reached high levels at Galveston's Scholes International Airport and "We're badly out of compliance and in violation of ozone standards." He indicated the region has been out of compliance with standards set by the Federal Clean Air Act for a long time. Galveston is a resort area about 65 miles from Houston and is very close to Texas City, home of a number of chemical plants including the infamous BP plant where 15 workers were killed in an explosion in 2005.

Chemical plants and diesel vehicles produce high levels of nitrogen oxide and volatile air compounds which result in ozone when exposed to sunlight. Ward noted that federal clean air regulations prohibit an area from exceeding pollution by more than 85 parts per billion more than three times in a three-year period. He reported, "The overall greater-Houston area typically has 30 to 35 noncompliance days per year." People with health problems are hit hard by ozone toxicity." Ward noted, "The correlation between high levels of ozone are followed by a day or so of increased doctor or emergency room visits mainly from respiratory disease…People who have pre-existing bronchitis or asthma are the first to see the effects."

Lee Medley, President of the Galveston County AFL-CIO, told the audience that his daughter has asthma and this may be a result of her involvement in outdoor sports such as soccer and track in high school. "We want to work to ensure safety and health for our families and workers. We want to live in a safe community," he declared.

In a related development, Linda Hunnings, who is the widow of a contract worker killed in the 2005 BP explosion in Texas City testified to a U. S. Senate panel on July 10. She demanded that the federal government do more to address industrial safety problems. Her husband, Jim Hunnings, was a quality control inspector with the Fluor Corp. and was killed along with 14 others in the BP blast. Mrs. Hunnings questioned the purpose of agencies such as OSHA and EPA since they have not prevented a number of major industrial accidents.

The Chronicle reviewed OSHA records from 2002 through 2006 and found that "regulators hadn't conducted unplanned inspections at most area refineries in those five years, instead inspecting mostly in response to complaints or accidents."

Hunnings testified that her husband had called the BP plant "an accident waiting to happen" prior to his death. She testified before the Senate subcommittee on Transportation Safety, Infrastructure Security and Water Quality, which is seeking ways to improve federal handling of industrial safety problems. "I can remember that when his supervisor called to ask him to go to Texas City, he was sure he was going to ask him to go to Iraq as he had many times before," Hunnings tearfully testified. "Jim made the statement 'Iraq-BP - what a choice.'"

Several months ago, the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board found that BP management lacked commitment to safety and noted there was lax regulatory oversight at the plant prior to the disaster. The chairperson of the Chemical Safety Board, Carolyn Merritt, concluded that "The accident was predictable as well as preventable."

Hunnings voiced support for legislation sponsored by Rep. Al Green, D-Houston, which would make willful safety standard violations resulting in the death of a contract employee subject to criminal prosecution. She also supports a bill introduced by Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, which would require employers to report to OSHA contract workers' injuries or deaths in the same manner as their own employees. Such reports are not currently required.

Hunnings, who was a petrochemical industry worker in the past, stated, "I will do whatever is necessary to advocate change in the petrochemical industry."

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Houstonians celebrate hike in minimum wage

By Paul Hill

HOUSTON - Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Houston) held a press conference on 7/22/07 at the Christian Rescue Mission Church in the heart of the Third Ward near downtown Houston to celebrate the first raise of the minimum wage in 10 years. The purpose of the conference was to publicize the raise so that poor and working people would have the information that the federal government has mandated that employers pay $7.25 an hour up from $5.15 and hour.

Participants, which included representatives from AFL-CIO, SEIU, ACORN and church goers, enthusiastically reacted to Rep. Jackson Lee's pronouncement. Rep. Jackson Lee has worked tirelessly on behalf of the poor and working people and was instrumental in getting this legislation passed despite stiff opposition from the ultra-right wing.

Rep. Jackson Lee noted that as of "Tuesday, July 24, more than 13 million workers will receive a long overdue raise. When the minimum wage increase is fully phased in in 2009, minimum wage workers will have an extra $4,400 to feed, clothe, house, and educate their families." She stressed that Texas has one of the lowest minimum wage rates in the country and now 888,000 Texans will see a direct increase in their hourly pay and 1,774,000 workers overall would likely benefit from the raise. She pointed out that currently a minimum wage worker earns a wage nearly $6000 below the poverty level for a family of three. In contrast, "the average CEO now earns 821 times more than a minimum wage worker, earning more before lunchtime than the minimum wage worker earns all year," according to Rep. Jackson Lee.

She noted that the cost of milk is up 24%, bread is up 25%, public college tuition is up 96%, health insurance is up 97% and the cost of regular gas is up 149%. However, the minimum wage has not increased one cent since 1997. In fact, she indicated today's minimum wage is less than the minimum wage in 1995 when adjusted for inflation. Women, disadvantaged workers and working households at the bottom of the income scale will be disproportionately helped by the wage hike. She states this increase will help reverse the trend of declining real wages for low-wage workers. Obviously, the wage hike will benefit the children of these working people.

She pointed out the modern day tragedy that many of the families of soldiers fighting in Iraq are on food stamps because their incomes are so low. Ten percent of military spouses earn between $5.15 and $7.25 per hour. 50,000 military families will benefit from an increase in the minimum wage to $7.25 per hour.

Jolanda Jones, a Houston attorney who represents people who cannot afford an attorney, maintained that disadvantaged people are targeted by the criminal justice system. She concludes that the raise in minimum wage will help families defend themselves and ultimately will make our cities safer because "desperate people do desperate things." Another participant from the community declared, "hard work deserves fair pay."

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BP fined again: Hazardous conditions continue

By Paul Hill
HOUSTON - The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined British Petroleum (BP) $92,000 and cited the multinational corporation for violations discovered in January at its Texas City plant. The federal regulators found that conditions were similar to those that preceded the March 2005 explosion which resulted in the deaths of 15 workers and injured scores more. Dean McDaniel, a regional manager for OSHA, said in a public statement, "The citations issued today are based on the identification of hazardous conditions similar to those that led to the tragic March 2005 explosion."

BP was fined $21.3 million in September and was cited for 300 willful violations of safety regulations connected to the deadly blast in 2005.

OSHA cited BP with a willful violation in that it allegedly failed to ensure that a pressure relief system called the "fractionator" conformed to industry codes. Regulators maintain that inadequate pressure-relief equipment could cause another disaster like the one in 2005. OSHA defines a willful violation as intentional disregard of its requirements or plain indifference to employee safety or health.

A serious violation is defined as one that could cause death or physical harm and the employer knew or should have known of the hazard. Federal regulators alleged four serious violations on the part of BP for failure to:

* Identify, evaluate or address hazards in the fractionator processing unit.
* Ensure that piping and instrument diagrams were accurate.
* Ensure the installation of the correct type of pressure relief valves.
* Ensure use of safe electrical equipment where flammable liquids and gases are processed.

The Houston Chronicle quotes Lynn Baker, a spokeswoman for the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union as saying, "Hopefully this will be the last time there are such fines." She noted that union officials met with BP in June to discuss health and safety issues. "And with the new working relationship between the union and company on health and safety, we're hopeful that we can make significant changes in the health and safety culture at BP," she said.

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Women sue Halliburton for sexual assault in Iraq

By Paul Hill
HOUSTON - The Houston Chronicle reported on June 30 that four women who are former employees of Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR) have filed suit alleging they were sexually harassed and, in two cases, raped while on the job in Iraq. KBR is a former subsidiary of Halliburton, which is the notorious previously Houston based company that has been the prime beneficiary of an astronomical number of tax dollars as a result of the Iraq war. Vice President Dick Cheney is the former CEO of the company.

Attorneys for the complainants state that the women were exposed to a "sexually charged atmosphere where women were repeatedly demeaned and solicited for sex despite reporting harassment to supervisors" according to the Chronicle article. The women have been forced to turn to civil courts since they cannot determine whether federal authorities are proceeding with criminal prosecutions.

Experts have noted that many crimes are not being prosecuted against civilian war contractors because it has not been determined which judicial system to apply to U.S. civilians working in a war zone in an occupied country. Peter W. Singer of the Brookings Institution was quoted as saying, "You are using more and more contractors and yet you've created a legal netherworld where there's, at the least, a lack of accountability…At the same time you're paying contractors more than you pay soldiers, yet you're holding soldiers to higher standards."

The alleged sex crimes were committed in 2004 and 2005. One woman from Conroe, a suburb of Houston, states she needed surgery to repair torn muscles and ruptured breast implants after she was drugged and raped by drunken male co-workers in Baghdad in July, 2005.

The lawsuit alleges a work environment which was permissive towards males and excused their abusive behavior and may have encouraged it.

As I was reading about this case, I was reminded of a similar case I read about in the early 1990s. The VA Practitioner reported that four women had been raped on the job at the Houston VA by their supervisor and after a long struggle won a lawsuit against the hospital. In fact, there is so much sexual abuse in the military that the VA has set up counseling programs around the country to help women veterans who have been sexually assaulted while on duty. I believe it was Gore Vidal who said that a country that is aggressive towards other nations will be aggressive to its own citizens.

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