Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Will This Be a Debs or Gompers Weekend?

Isn't it a bit ironic that the drama of California's workers' compensation reform debate, now centered on the constantly changing language of SB 863, is coming down to the wire just before Labor Day?

With projections concerning both the savings and benefits of SB 863 still quite amorphous, workers can't quite be sure whether they should celebrate or not.

The context of the drama is even more distinct given the origins of Labor Day and the apparent divide that is happening between Labor groups - with some groups supporting SB 863 and others opposed.

Labor Day was signed into law in 1894 by President Grover Cleveland following police action against railroad workers demonstrating because of wage cuts and working conditions in the Pullman Strike.

The Pullman Strike was precipitated by a unilateral decision by the Pullman Car Company, manufacturer of railroad cars, to decrease wages but not any of the mandated living expenses of its workers (Pullman established a company town, getting rent from its workers and controlling the supply of goods as well). In addition to lowering wages the company was requiring up to 16 hour work days.

Many of the Pullman employees were already members of the American Railway Union (ARU). Eugene Debs was the leader of the ARU at the time. He called for a boycott in which union members refused to run trains containing Pullman cars. This effectively shut down production in Pullman factories.

Within four days 125,000 workers had quit their jobs and refused to handle Pullman cars. The railroads hired replacement workers (strikebreakers, aka scabs) many of whom were black - blacks were fearful of the racism that had been expressed by ARU and did not want to be locked out of jobs in the future. This gave the strike even more volatility with the racist divide brewing.

The strike was broken up by United States Marshals and some 12,000 United States Army troops, sent in by President Grover Cleveland on the premise that the strike interfered with the delivery of U.S. Mail, violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, and represented a threat to public safety. The arrival of the military and subsequent deaths of workers led to further outbreaks of violence.

Though a subsequent Supreme Court decision (In Re Debs) found Cleveland's actions justified, Illinois Governor John P. Altgeld was incensed at Cleveland for putting the federal government at the service of the employers, and for rejecting Altgeld's plan to use his state militia to keep order, instead of federal troops. As the leader of the Illinois delegation to the Democratic Party Convention in 1896, Altgeld used his influence and blocked President Cleveland's bid for renomination at the 1896 Democratic National Convention.

A national commission formed to study causes of the 1894 strike found Pullman's paternalism partly to blame and Pullman's company town to be "un-American". In 1898, the Illinois Supreme Court forced the Pullman Company to divest ownership in the town, which was annexed to Chicago.

After the strike President Cleveland and Congress made conciliation of organized labor a top priority. Legislation for the holiday was pushed through Congress six days after the strike ended. Samuel Gompers, head of American Federation of Labor, which had sided with the government in its effort to end the strike by the American Railway Union, spoke out in favor of the holiday.

Debs, on the other hand, was tried and convicted of violating a court injunction, and was sent to prison for six months.

Similarly, Labor is divided over whether to support SB 863.

An "informational hearing" was held yesterday by the Assembly Insurance Committee.

Angie Wei, the legislative director for the California Labor Federation, which represents more than 2 million workers in California, said the compromise between labor and management isn’t a perfect deal, but it is better than maintaining the status quo. Wei is also Chairperson of the Commission on Health, Safety & Workers Compensation (CHSWC).

The California Teamsters Public Affairs Council, which represents about 250,000 union members, on Monday took an “oppose unless amended” position on SB 863. Their problem with the bill is that removal of the future earnings capacity modifier in determining permanent disability indemnity will reduce benefits specifically to “blue collar, high-wage earners whose injuries receive a low rating but nonetheless cannot return to work.”

Christy Bouma, a lobbyist for the California Professional Firefighters, and is also on the CHSWC board, said she is “substantially uncomfortable” with the proposal, but added that “acting now is a benefit to all parties versus waiting.”

Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-West Hollywood, said he received a letter from the United Firefighters of Los Angeles City who are opposed to the bill and say it would curtail their due process right to get medical treatment and would make it difficult to obtain appropriate disability ratings.

The legislative session ends at midnight on Friday.

Will it be a Debs, or a Gompers, holiday weekend?

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