Labor's Influence Shrinks under Pressure

Article excerpt

The anti-regulatory mood in Washington has organized labor on the defensive. Facing a new political reality, OSHA's biggest supporter is prepared to expect less and compromise more on workplace safety and health.

Tom Donahue, the veteran AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, had hoped to deliver a speech late last year titled "America's New OSHA Reform Law: A Trade Union Blueprint for Change." The title reflected organized labor's confidence in being able to push labor legislation through a Democratically controlled Congress and have President Clinton sign it.

But when it came time for Donahue to address the AFL-CIO Conference on Safety and Health last December, the speech might well have been titled "The Failure of OSHA Reform and Labor's Other Problems." Literally overnight, union fortunes had plummeted.

"The disaster on Election Day," Donahue told union members in Los Angeles, "means that the prospect of constructive OSHA reform coming out of Congress will be somewhere between very bleak and nonexistent. It was our biggest defeat ... in decades."

For at least the next two years, labor leaders will be lucky to maintain the status quo, yet alone see new legislation passed. Labor's job now is to "defend the rationale" for the current level of government involvement and regulation in safety and health, according to Robert Ginsburg, research director of the Midwest Center for Labor Research in Chicago. "This is not a good time for new programs," he said.

Quick Turnaround

Two years ago, organized labor thought it was in a good position to orchestrate an expansion of the OSH Act. For the first time in a dozen years, labor enjoyed the presence in Washington of a Democratic administration, while the Senate and House of Representatives remained in control of the Democrats. With momentum from the September 1991 Hamlet, N.C., chicken processing plant fire, labor was pushing for far-reaching OSHA reform legislation.

Now, the Democrat-sponsored legislation is dead and Hamlet has faded from the public consciousness. Congress is controlled by the Republicans, many of whom favor voluntary compliance and state action over far-reaching federal mandates. And the Clinton administration, once again espousing its "New Democrat" credentials, is looking for ways to make government less intrusive.

AFL-CIO Director of Occupational Safety and Health Peg Seminario said unions will oppose proposals to cut OSHA's budget, turn over enforcement to the states, or diminish the impact of existing standards. They will continue to urge the administration to move on a federal ergonomics standard. Anticipating a paucity of new federal initiatives, however, they hope to elevate safety and health at the local level - in organizing, collective bargaining and day-to-day dealings with plant management.

"We have to work on the basics - educating the public and Congress about the importance of government involvement in safety and health," AFL-CIO safety and health specialist Keith Mestrich said. "We will spend an inordinate amount of time working to defeat [Congress' anti-regulatory] agenda."

"We will remind people how well OSHA, industry and labor working together have done over the years," added Mike Wright, director of health, safety and environment for the United Steel-workers of America. "We've saved 130,000 lives. By that standard, it is one of the most successful agencies in the nation's history. We can't let Congress take a meat ax to this agency."

OSHA's Friend

The labor movement was one of the strongest influences behind Congress' establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1970. Labor fought for, and won, authority for OSHA to inspect private workplaces and issue mandatory standards.

Since then, organized labor has been the most likely constituent to criticize OSHA when it is quiet and reserved, and defend it when it is active and aggressive. …