Labor and its discontents

Charles Wowkanech, president of the New Jersey AFL-CIO, writing for

On April 17, a deadly blast at a Texas fertilizer plant took the lives of 14 people and injured more than 160. It is apparent that insufficient oversight and negligence are to blame.

The West Fertilizer plant stored 540,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive chemical — 100 times the amount that was used in the Oklahoma City bombing.

Despite this obvious hazard, West Fertilizer never filed a required report to place it on the Department of Homeland Security’s high-risk chemical facilities.

In addition, the plant was not considered high-risk by the EPA, which may be due to the fact that West Fertilizer did not check the box saying that the plant might face a risk of fire or explosion, in a report submitted to the agency in 2011.

Even more recently, on April 24, a building that housed a number of garment factories in Bangladesh collapsed, killing at least 300 people.

Visible cracks in the building were detected the day before the collapse, prompting police to issue an evacuation order.

However, some employers chose to defy the order, and 2,000 people were still told to report to work. This disregard for safety and human life is criminal.

This tragedy is by no means an isolated event.

Just five months earlier, a garment factory fire took the lives of 112 people in Bangladesh.

In both cases, the garment factories supplied some of the world’s best-known corporations. These companies have the power to ensure that factories that manufacture their products adhere to the highest safety standards but have failed in their moral obligation.

An excellent example of why the rights of workers to unionize and collective bargaining don’t need further depression. Those who demonize unions as unnecessary collectives driving up costs miss the point: without a counterbalance to the powers of business owners (who many would argue are just as self-interested), workers are left completely to the whims of management. Surely labor oversteps its bounds at times, but the policy solution isn’t to use these excesses as justification for union abolition, but instead to ensure both sides can fairly resolve their conflicts as frequently as possible.

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