The Blog of the Frances Perkins Center

Posts Tagged ‘Teresa Ghilarducci’

American worker safety is still an issue

In Biography, General on April 26, 2010 at 8:10 am
Frances Perkins inspecting a factory.

Frances Perkins inspecting a factory.

Frances Perkins was galvanized by personally witnessing the horrifying Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911, in which 146 young workers died. From that time onward, she worked to create legislation that would provide safeguards for workers, going from New York’s Factory Investigation Commission to FDR’s Cabinet as secretary of labor from 1933 – 1945.

Almost 100 years after the Triangle fire, the issue of worker safety is still in the news, most recently with the tragedies at the Massey mine in West Virginia and the British Petroleum oil rig blast.

Teresa Ghilarducci, director of the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis at the New School for Social Research and speaker at the Frances Perkins Center’s 2009 conference, “The New New Deal,” has written several articles for the Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog, “Brainstorm,” about these recent disasters. In Who Needs Pesky Unions, Ghilarducci wrote:

All the recent disasters are in non-union mines. Union muscle make companies work better and safer. One reason is that, in union contracts, mine workers are protected from being disciplined if they stop work because of unsafe conditions. If a union miner says, “Hey, the belt is about to catch fire — I’m getting out of here,” he (or she) can’t be fired.

Humans in the 20th century learned to mine coal without carnage. Britain does it, Germany does it, and other countries do too. In Europe and Japan, computer sensors detect methane buildup and mining companies have to hire safety officers who are in their own union and who only monitor safety, not production. In American mines, the supervisors have to monitor safety and be responsible for production. Guess what goal is number one!?

And in More Energy Workers Killed, she wrote:

The causes of these deaths are not freak gassy build ups—as if the earth violently struck back at humans for using fossil fuels…

The cause of worker deaths is a plain old economic deal. The government made a deal that BP and Massey Coal can operate in the United States without adequate precautions for making the workplace tolerably safe.

If Frances Perkins were alive, she’d be voicing her outrage along with Ghilarducci. It’s shocking that the U.S. is far behind other countries in protecting our workers.

Phantom Menace and this “turkey of an economy”

In Economics on December 1, 2009 at 5:12 pm

Teresa Ghilarducci, who spoke at our May conference, had a great post, “The Second Thanksgiving of the Great Recession,” in the Brainstorm blog on The Chronicle of Higher Education web site. In it, she points to the fact that people seem more worried about the deficit than about the fact that a huge number of people are currently unemployed.

But at least in my admittedly unscientific sample, people’s legitimate anxieties about losing their homes, or jobs, or retirement savings were focused in the wrong place. Instead of calls for continued job creation, I’m hearing a lot of misplaced fear about inflation and the growing federal debt — what Paul Krugman correctly calls the phantom menace.

So, in the spirit of having vigorous family discussions, if your Aunt Teresa the economist had been at your dinner table, here’s what I would have said.
Shouldn’t the Government balance its budget? Sure, over the long term, but no, not now. If the economy was booming, the government should be shrinking  the debt. That is what the Clinton Administration did during its eight years in office, cutting it to zero, and actually leaving a surplus.  And that is what George W. Bush didn’t do, increasing spending on prescription drugs, wars, and unnecessary tax cuts for the wealthy, while not paying for any of it.

Paul Krugman, as Teresa mentions, has also been bemoaning this focus on the deficit in his blog:

When I was on This Week yesterday, George Will tried his hand at the debt scare thing, saying that we’re in terrible shape because by 2019 the interest on the debt will be SEVEN HUNDRED BILLION DOLLARS. (That should be read in the voice of Dr. Evil). I get that a lot — people who talk about the big numbers which are supposed to imply that things are terrible, impossible, we’re doomed, etc.

The point, of course, is that everything about the United States is big. So you have to interpret numbers accordingly. As the graphic above shows — it’s taken from an article that managed to maintain a grim tone while reporting numbers that actually weren’t all that grim — what we’re talking about is a debt-service burden roughly comparable to that under the first President Bush. How many of the people now warning about the impossible burden of currently projected debt were issuing similar warnings back in 1992? Not many, I’d guess.

How cynical are you? Do you believe that this focus on the BIG BAD DEFICIT might serve those who’d like to cut Social Security and Medicare? Need I remind you that fear worked very well in the recent past, when politicians wanted the American public to swallow something they otherwise would have rejected (9/11, 9/11, 9/11; weapons of mass destruction, weapons of mass destruction, weapons of mass destruction).

Don’t let the fear-mongerers win again.

This is a good time to remember Frances Perkins’s words from 1935:

We must devise plans that will not merely alleviate the ills of today, but will prevent their recurrence in the future. The task of recovery is inseparable from the fundamental task of social reconstruction.

I’ll end with another quote from Teresa’s post:

Aunt Teresa reminds you that economic policy makers respond to particular historical and economic situations. Inflexible theology does not help. Our situation now calls for continued government deficit spending, keeping interest rates virtually at zero, and doing everything possible to create jobs. When the economy begins to recover, then we should fight inflation.

When an overweight patient with high blood pressure and high cholesterol has a heart attack, there are lots of things that should be done over time to make the patient healthy — better diet, exercise, proper medication. But first you have to save their life and deal with the heart attack. That’s our economy now — we need to save the patient, and then do the long-term rehab (deficit reduction, stricter regulation of the financial sector, stronger government guarantees for retirement savings) to stave off future crises.

I hope you had a Happy Thanksgiving weekend, and that this turkey of an economy is better by next year.