Stomping Labor. (Comments)

The Progressive, June 2002 | Go to article overview
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Stomping Labor. (Comments)


In early January of this year, the President decided to ban the presence of unions in the Department of Justice "out of concern that union contracts could restrict the ability of workers in the Justice Department to protect Americans and national security." This was as clear a symbol as any that the Bush Administration was seizing on September 11 to advance one of its central domestic priorities: the crushing of labor.

"A lot of these Justice Department workers have been members of unions for twenty years, and there's never been an allegation of a problem," said Steven Kreisberg, associate director for collective bargaining of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents more than 300 employees of the Justice Department. "It's a very cynical use of the September 11 tragedy by an anti-union Administration."

But worse news on the labor front was soon to follow. Next, Bush took advantage of a recess to bypass Congress and appoint two pro-business labor lawyers to the National Labor Relations Board: Michael J. Bartlett, formerly of the United States Chamber of Commerce, and William B. Cowen, the former chief attorney for Institutional Labor Advisors, which plotted with coal companies against the United Mine Workers.

A few weeks later, Bush again used the recess to make an anti-labor appointment. He placed Eugene Scalia, son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in the position of solicitor general for the Labor Department. The younger Scalia was an extremely controversial choice, and his nomination repeatedly hit bumps.

Scalia was a leading opponent of the OSHA ergonomics rule enacted by President Clinton. At public hearings on the rule, where Scalia served as the industry representative, he referred to ergonomics as "quackery" whose claims derived from "junk science." This must have come as a great shock to schools such as Cornell, Michigan, Louisville, and San Jose State, which offer courses in the field of ergonomics. Scalia accused OSHA, an office he will now represent, of pushing a "radical" ergonomics agenda. He dismissed union support of ergonomics regulations as occurring "only because new rules will slow the pace of work and force employers to hire more workers." As Scalia put it, unions simply want "dues-paying members."

As for the ergonomics rule, the writing was on the wall long before Scalia's appointment.

The repeal of the Clinton ergonomics rule was one of the first bills that Bush signed after entering office. The rule would have required businesses to inform their employees about the dangers of repetitive stress. If two employees came forward with injuries within eighteen months of each other, the companies would be responsible for taking care of the problem at its source.

The Clinton requirement was onerous for businesses, said Republicans, who claimed that it could cost companies more than $100 billion. OSHA disputed that number, claiming that complying with the law would cost less than $5 billion, while saving businesses $9 billion by increasing productivity and decreasing use of sick time by workers suffering from back injuries or tendinitis.

But on April 5, business got its wish when the Bush Administration announced voluntary ergonomics guidelines. Companies reveled in the victory. "We join employers and insurers in applauding the Bush Administration's proposal for voluntary safety standards, compliance assistance, and targeted enforcement to reduce ergonomics problems," editorialized the Crain publication Business Insurance. "This plan would be less costly and give employers much greater flexibility than the mandatory standard promulgated during the final days of the Clinton Administration."

Unions were horrified. "After a year of inaction, the Administration has come up with a meaningless measure that further delays action and provides no real protection to workers against ergonomic hazards which is the nation's biggest workplace hazard," said Peg Seminario, director of safety and health for the AFL-CIO, who denounced the plan as "a sham.

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