In The News
Improvements, neglect herald Workers Memorial Day
For the first time in a decade, there is actual progress for workers as the community gathers to “Mourn for the Dead and Fight for the Living” on Workers Memorial Day, April 28 -- around the nation and in Milwaukee at Zeidler Union Square Park.
The need to mourn was given new impetus April 5 in a mine disaster that reminded the nation of how long it takes to remedy entrenched corporate practice. With 29 confirmed dead, , it became clear that the mine involved was a landmark of our nation's history of neglect. See our companion report at www. Milwaukeelabor.org.
The Worker Day remembrance comes with a special AFL-CIO poster and new availability of “Death on the Job” – a state by state survey of the cost of failed attention to worker safety and law enforcement. The report is created every year by researchers. Those items are available for download in the Take Action section of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council’s website, www.milwaukeelabor.org.
The remembrance also reminds the public that there is indeed a “new sheriff in town” or at least in Washington, D.C., paying serous attention to worker rights and safety on the job.
A little more than a year after taking office, the Obama administration and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis have taken significant steps to repair the damage to workplace safety and health left behind after eight years of the Bush administration.
More proof came April 5 when Solis launched a major campaign to attack the epidemic of wage theft. The new “We Can Help” multi-lingual campaign is aimed at low-wage and vulnerable workers with a special focus on reaching employees in such industries as construction, janitorial work, hotel/motel services, food services and home health care. It also will address such topics as rights in the workplace and how to file a complaint with the Wage and Hour Division to recover wages owed. Solis has also added 250 inspectors to that division.
We Can Help will work with unions, faith groups and community groups to get the information into workplaces and neighborhoods. Interfaith Worker Justice also offers a Wage Theft Online Resource Center, which includes a list of resources and information about the wage theft crisis. “If someone is stealing your wages,” Solis urged, “call the Department of Labor. You are protected by our laws.” Her approach is hailed as a major change from the past where the federal government was perceived as complicit in attempting to gut overtime and close off workers cheated of both regular and overtime pay.
The country is recognizing there are real teeth in the changing of the guard, as Esther Kaplan recently wrote in the Nation magazine: “During the Bush years, the Department of Labor became a cautionary tale about what happens when foxes are asked to guard the henhouse.”
The foxes in that case were Elaine Chao, Bush’s DOL choice, and her husband who regularly traded staff members with her. She’s gone to sit on private corporation boards friendly to the GOP, but he is painfully still there – Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, now the GOP minority leader in the Senate.
For eight years under the Bush Administration, corporate officials and management representatives headed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).
Bush’s first MSHA head, David Lauriski, was chief safety officer at Emery Mining. Its mine in Wilberg, Utah, in 1984 was the site of an explosion that killed 27 coal miners. The blast, as Kaplan noted in her article, “was later attributed to numerous violations at the mine.” The owners, it turned out, had been trying for a one-day production record. A recent tragedy reminded the country of the current price of such profit concern.
Some 17 years after that 1984 disaster, Lauriski became George W. Bush’s first mine safety chief, a perch from which he halted a dozen new safety regulations initiated under the Clinton administration, advocating instead a more “collaborative” approach with the industry. The price of that collaborative approach leaped into the nation’s headlines during Bush’s second term when 16 miners died in explosions in the first 32 days of 2006 – signaling a reversal in the improvement in mine safety enjoyed in the decades before Bush took office. Later public hearings and investigation revealed that emphasis on worker safety and protective devices had stalled in the Bush era after steady advances when there was more cooperation between labor and management.
Today, MSHA is headed up by Joe Main who began work in the mines when he was 19, became a local union safety committeeman, a safety inspector in the Mine Workers (UMWA) Safety and Health Department and eventually its director. Main and Solis have both said they are working under laws that lack the regulatory power they want, largely an inheritance of the Bush era.
At OSHA, Bush’s last administrator, Edwin Foulke, was former partner at the notorious anti-union law firm Jackson Lewis. He so strongly opposed workplace safety and health laws that the New York Times labeled him “an antiregulatory ideologue.” Contrast Foulke with David Michaels, Obama’s choice as OSHA administrator. Michaels is an occupational safety and health expert, co-founder of the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) and epidemiologist at George Washington University.
Under Bush, OSHA and MSHA emphasized voluntary compliance programs over strong enforcement of workplace safety and health regulations. When they issued penalties, the employers often negotiated down the fines, which were negligible to begin with.
Now, both OSHA and MSHA have stepped up enforcement, assessing large penalties against employers with serious, repeated and willful violations. In October, OSHA levied the largest fine in its history -- $87 million against BP Products for failing to correct the safety problems that caused a 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers and injured another 170 people at a Texas City oil refinery.
OSHA also is strengthening its enforcement program to focus more on repeated violators and to develop corporate-wide approaches to enforcement. It’s launched a national investigation in the under reporting of injuries and employer practices that discourage workers from reporting job injuries. It’s not enough, union advocates say, but it is finally a push within existing regulations to reverse some long-standing trends away from worker concerns.
During the eight-year run of the Bush administration, not only did OSHA and MSHA put the brakes on new safety and health rules laws in the pipeline when they took office, neither agency issued any new standard unless forced by the courts or Congress. OSHA is now moving forward with rules on silica, cranes and derricks, hazard communication, combustible dust and other workplace hazards.
The Bush administration presided over the repeal of the nation’s first ergonomics standard and tied OSHA’s hands on new ergonomics initiatives. But the agency now has proposed changes in the injury recordkeeping rule to reinstate a requirement, repealed by the Bush administration, for employers to identify musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) on the workplace injury log.
At MSHA, mine safety boss Main is moving to identify the top risk factors that lead to mining deaths and injuries and help educate mining companies on how to eliminate them -- but not as a substitute for enforcement.
“We’ll provide assistance to the mine operators who do need it, .but never as a replacement to the enforcement tools,” he said in an interview before the recent West Virginia tragedy. “There was some confusion about that in recent years. I’m not confused about that.”
Both safety agencies suffered drastic cuts in budget and personnel (especially in inspection and personnel) under the Bush administration. The Obama administration has restored those cuts and its FY 2011 budget includes some admittedly modest increases.
Both agencies have established programs focusing on workers’ rights, including whistleblower and anti-discrimination protections and better worker access to fatality and injury. The Obama administration also is backing congressional efforts to improve workplace safety and health laws, including the Protecting America’s Workers Act (H.R. 2067 and S. 1580), which toughens penalties, expands OSHA coverage to public-sector workers, strengthens anti-discrimination protections and expands workers’ rights.
It’s likely the same corporate and Republican forces that blocked improvements in workplace safety and health will fight this legislation and each and every new safety initiative.
That will turn Workers Memorial Day toward a two-edged purpose. It will honor workers killed and injured on the job (including in Milwaukee members of the military) and continue to demand good, safe jobs with decent wages, health and retirement security and a voice on the job. But with new hope at the Department of Labor and new bills gaining strength in Congress, unions will use the event to focus all American workers on the fight for strong new safety and health protections.
A powerful new video produced by the Brave New Foundation also explains the new laws aimed at putting strong worker protection into the OSHA laws. It can be found at 16deathsperday.com.