Job of Work

I was stuck waiting in my car yesterday evening so I improved my mind by listening to live coverage of the Republican National Convention.

There were politicians talking about how their parents, their grandparents, their families started small businesses. We love small businesses no matter what party we vote for. The big businesses and multi corporations that both parties answer to for the big bucks were staying discretely in the background. That’s always the way. McDonalds hides behind the Mom and Pop diner and Walmart wipes out the corner store. Good luck, small businesses, you are minnows in the shark pool.

Anyway, I am sick of this phrase, ‘Job Creators’. If you are religious, there is only one Creator, and His name is not Donald Trump. If you are scientific you know that Einstein said you can’t make something from nothing. Since when have some of our population assumed Godlike powers? This couldn’t be Evolution, could it? Wouldn’t that be problematic with the base?

With all this self-congratulation about being the party of Job Creators, the politicians I heard seldom used the word ‘work’. Perhaps because ‘workers’ has a slightly discomforting sound, as if perhaps the workers might start organizing. It’s better to focus on the Job Creators, who bestow employment on the deserving if we just give them enough tax breaks and deregulation.

I think we are all, Republicans and Democrats, looking in the wrong direction. A job is a task. You can get a job digging holes and filling them in, but that would not be meaningful or dignified work. Anyone with their eyes open knows that there is abundant opportunity for work that needs doing. Construction and rehabilitation of our cities, roads and bridges, creative problem solving, service work for our growing elderly population to name a few obvious crying needs. There are qualified people ready to do this work.

We still use construction almost 80 years old from the WPA. I wish the Obama Administration had called it that. ‘Stimulus’ doesn’t have the historical connection that would have made it clear how we got the job done in the Great Depression.

Beyond that, we are in a new millenium. No one has to spend forty years kicking a foot press in a stifling mill. It’s all automated. The human being, who is capable of so much more than being used as industrial machinery could make her contribution though meaningful work, or be discarded and despised for her unemployment.

It’s been said that ‘workfare’ only makes sense when the government is committed to 100% employment. You don’t shove someone out of the plane without a parachute. There are not enough jobs. There is more than enough work. To balance the real needs and resources will require both private and public institutions in coordination, with some commitment to the good of our country.

There was a phrase I first heard at Occupy Providence, ‘solidarity economy’. An economy that takes into account mutual aid and the public good, independence and free enterprise, equal representation for all regardless of social class. If we get too fixated on ‘jobs’ we are not aiming high enough. If we don’t recognize that we all built it, we are deluding ourselves.

It’s like a game of mis-direction. No matter which side is talking, don’t watch their mouths, watch their hands.

Tom Sgouros has an analysis of job destruction in North Kingstown at Rhode Island’s Future.

Workers Dark and Stranded at Fukushima

A damning report today from the Toronto Star details how the Fukushima nuclear disaster was worsened by lack of an emergency plan. Workers were left to their own desperate measures to try to stop the radioactive core from melting– their heroic efforts thwarted by omissions and errors of management…

TOKYO — A new report says Japan’s tsunami-ravaged nuclear plant was so unprepared for the disaster that workers had to bring protective gear and an emergency manual from distant buildings and borrow equipment from a contractor.

The report, released Saturday by plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co., is based on interviews of workers and plant data. It portrays chaos amid the desperate and ultimately unsuccessful battle to protect the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant from meltdown, and shows that workers struggled with unfamiliar equipment and fear of radiation exposure.

The March 11 earthquake and tsunami destroyed the plant’s power and crucial cooling systems, causing three reactor cores to melt and causing several explosions.

TEPCO has been criticized for dragging its feet on venting and sea water cooling — the two crucial steps that experts say could have mitigated the damage. Company officials have said the tsunami created obstacles that were impossible to anticipate. An investigation by an independent panel is pending.

The report revealed insufficient preparations at the plant that TEPCO hadn’t previously acknowledged.

When the Unit 1 reactor lost cooling functions two hours after the quake, workers tried to pump in fresh water through a fire pump, but it was broken.

A fire engine at the plant couldn’t reach the unit because the tsunami left a huge tank blocking the driveway. Workers destroyed a power-operated gate to bring in the engine that arrived at the unit hours later. It was early morning when they finally started pumping water into the reactor — but the core had already melted by then.

Again, greed, carelessness and human error are facts of life. We have no engineering that can protect deadly toxins for tens of thousands of years. This is not the answer to our energy crisis.

All of us have workplace experience of corner cutting– management and workers alike thwarting safety measures that seem onerous and too expensive. Everything is fine until it isn’t. A new idea is mini nuclear plants, spreading the risk and stretching the resources of government to regulate safety. We know what industry’s record is on self-regulation.

Conservation, smart use and decentralization can buy time until solar, wind and water grow into the market. We couldn’t put a man on the moon today, the vision and will are not there. But this is our own race against time and we can win.

Nuclear Gypsies and Expendable Day Labor

Today’s New York Times has testimony from Masayuki Ishizawa, a contract worker at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant, as he describes being detained in the plant during the earthquake, as the tsunami darkened the horizon…

Mr. Ishizawa, who was finally allowed to leave, is not a nuclear specialist; he is not even an employee of the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the crippled plant. He is one of thousands of untrained, itinerant, temporary laborers who handle the bulk of the dangerous work at nuclear power plants here and in other countries, lured by the higher wages offered for working with radiation. Collectively, these contractors were exposed to levels of radiation about 16 times as high as the levels faced by Tokyo Electric employees last year, according to Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, which regulates the industry. These workers remain vital to efforts to contain the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plants.

They are emblematic of Japan’s two-tiered work force, with an elite class of highly paid employees at top companies and a subclass of laborers who work for less pay, have less job security and receive fewer benefits. Such labor practices have both endangered the health of these workers and undermined safety at Japan’s 55 nuclear reactors, critics charge.

“This is the hidden world of nuclear power,” said Yuko Fujita, a former physics professor at Keio University in Tokyo and a longtime campaigner for improved labor conditions in the nuclear industry. “Wherever there are hazardous conditions, these laborers are told to go. It is dangerous for them, and it is dangerous for nuclear safety.”

The whole article is worth reading for a real-world picture of how workers are used up in the industry.

This is not particular to Japan, but rather, an aspect of hazardous work worldwide, including the US. I first saw the phrase, ‘nuclear gypsies’ in reporting on American contract workers who would temp at nuclear plants, max out on allowed exposure, and find work at another plant.

This is from a report by the US Department of Energy…

Since 1989, DOE has conducted an extensive and expensive hazardous waste remediation program at many of its sites across the United States. These are sites where radioactive materials were mined, stored, or processed; where nuclear weapons were designed, fabricated or tested; and where radioactive waste was stored, reprocessed, or disposed of. Increasingly, this remediation work has been done by subcontractors, which imposes a serious worker health and safety challenge.
There is a strong national and even international trend for employers of all sizes to rely on contract labor, temporary hires, or “labor-ready” workers (e.g., day laborers) for tasks that have traditionally been performed by direct hires. Historically, labor contractors have played a major role in the construction industry and in American agriculture, but “contracting out” now pervades most sectors of commerce. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) clearly requires site owners and prime contractors to be responsible for ensuring that subcontractors provide for worker health and safety.1 However, labor contractors often skimp on providing workers’ compensation coverage,2 and on the basis of our observations over 25 years of working with the hazardous waste remediation industry, they skimp on safety training as well. The relation between increasing reliance on contract labor or “outsourcing” and health and safety was examined extensively in a report from the John Gray Institute, which identified an appalling lack of data.3 The United States is not alone in these trends.4,5 Contracting usually saves money and sometimes takes advantage of specialized expertise.

Robert Peabody, the Rhode Island man who died in a nuclear reaction, was an undertrained part-time worker.

One of the dangers of nuclear power is human error. Another is corruption and the erosion of safety standards for profit and convenience. These factors exist in every human enterprise. Why should we trust that the nuclear industry is uniquely exempt from human nature and social inequity?