Unions say workers under siege
Bush administration defends labor policies as lifting onerous regulatory burdens




By Anne C. Mulkern, Denver Post Washington Bureau

Victor Ortega came from
Chihuahua, Mexico, to carve up cattle at a Nebraska slaughterhouse. Out of his $10.50-per-hour salary, he said, he repaid his employer $35 for boots worn on slippery, bloody floors.

Unions and even some Republican members of Congress think the law should require employers to pay for such safety gear.

The White House so far doesn't agree. It's just one piece of a policy that's affecting workers nationwide.

Post/Helen H. Richardson

Clark Wright, an electrician at the U.S. Mint in Denver, says he is postponing car repairs and trying to pay off his home loan early because he fears his job may be lost in the federal government’s privatization plans. ‘I have to make sure I’m scrimping and saving every last bit I’ve got,’ he says.




President Bush and his administration are quietly implementing an aggressively pro-business labor strategy that focuses on voluntary compliance

Since Bush's election in 2000, the Labor Department has yanked 41 worker-safety regulations in development off the books, including two addressing hazardous chemical dangers. The administration has frozen action on other rules, including one meant to prevent the spread of airborne diseases in the workplace. Bush has issued legally binding orders that weaken labor unions. The Labor Department now wants to rewrite rules governing who gets overtime pay.

The White House says the changes give workers more choice, streamline government and lift the regulatory burden on struggling companies. The Labor Department says it's focusing on enforcement of current laws.

Most of the changes have escaped notice outside Washington. That could change next month as the Labor Department makes its final push on the effort to change overtime rules. Critics say it will eliminate overtime protection for 8 million people, but the Bush administration says the number is far lower, closer to 644,000 workers. More than 85,000 letters have been filed with the Labor Department on the issue, most objecting to the proposed changes.

"There's sort of a stunning quality to the changes that have been proposed," said Chris Owens, director of public policy at the AFL-CIO's national headquarters in Washington. "This is an administration that really wants to undo some of the basic labor protections that American workers have enjoyed for decades."

Leaders of large and small businesses heartily support the changes.

"For large businesses, a lot of these issues are about profitability," said Tim Jackson, director of the Colorado chapter of National Federation of Independent Business. "For small businesses, they're often about survivability."

The White House referred specific questions about labor issues to the Labor Department.

"Everything we do is aimed at making the jobs and lives of workers more safe," said Labor Department spokesman Ed Frank. "We're not here to represent business, and we're not here to represent unions. We're here to represent workers, and that is at the core of every decision we make."

If Bush gets the rule rewrite through, it will prove a significant test of just how far the administration can reach on worker issues. One political watcher believes the changes in labor laws could actually help Bush get re-elected. In the 2000 election Bush ran with a $191 million war chest, with business donations helping finance the effort. Bush is trying to raise $200 million for his re-election effort.

"Fundamental to Bush's political future is pleasing business," said Larry Sabato, political scientist at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "Business supplies most of the money that fuels this gigantic re-election machine. He cannot afford to alienate business."

People who vote do so based on numerous issues, he said. But labor unions tend to vote Democrat, so Bush loses nothing by alienating those groups. And, he added, Bush gains the added benefit of weakening Democrats through weakened unions.

"The Bush people understand that the stronger labor unions are, the stronger the Democratic Party is," Sabato said.

Big business downplays the significance of Bush's changes, saying labor groups are trying to create a political issue where none exists.

"I'm not saying this wasn't important to us. It was," said Randy Johnson, U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president. "But it's not like some big rollback of labor protections - 99.9 percent of all labor laws are the same."

Labor draws a direct line between money and the changes.

"All of these changes the Labor Department has proposed really serve the ultimate goal of sort of unfettering corporations and how they treat their workers," Owens said. "It's hard to not see that as sort of a reward."

Changes came quickly

Bush's approach to labor became apparent in his first few months in office. Within two months, working with Congress, he repealed a Labor Department regulation requiring businesses to take specific steps to prevent repetitive stress injuries. A subsequent ergonomics standard released by the Bush administration relies on voluntary compliance by employers.

Ergonomic injuries account for the highest proportion of worker injuries, with 522,500 logged in 2001. They represented one-third of all worker injuries that year. It's the biggest workers' compensation cost for employers.

Toni Nation, 51, became one of those injured workers this year. An employee at an Albertsons store in Casper, she lifts 40-pound boxes throughout the day. The repetitive action has caused severe hand, arm and wrist pain, numbness and cramping. She takes painkillers and cortisone shots. Her employer has not changed her work environment in response, she said.

"It just aches," Nation said. "In the nighttime, it goes numb. You wake up because the pain is so bad."

Albertsons spokeswoman Karianne Cole said company records show no evidence of a repetitive stress injury for Nation. Cole confirmed, however, that Nation has a workers' compensation case but would not discuss the details.

"We believe that Albertsons has a pretty strong track record of developing workplace safety improvements," she said.

Albertsons is working with its unions and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to develop standards to prevent soft-tissue injuries, part of the Bush plan to enact voluntary guidelines.

Business groups say the mandatory ergonomics standard was not based on any scientific proof and would have cost billions to implement. Costs in Colorado alone would have been $5 billion to $6 billion per year, said Jackson of the Federation of Independent Business.

"It would be so hard to determine if the injury were actually encountered because of the workplace situation," Jackson said. "Most of these injuries could be sustained off the job or at a previous business."

Ergonomics was just the start. The Labor Department said many of the 41 worker-safety items it removed from a list of regulations in development were old and targeted special interests.

Some pending regulations remain on the agenda, but the Labor Department has yet to issue any final standard. The issue of requiring employers to pay for safety equipment has been in development for four years without a final rule being issued. A Republican-led U.S. House committee recently cited the lapse.

In a letter to OSHA, the House Appropriations Committee said it was "disappointed with the lack of progress. The rate of worker deaths and injuries, which decreased in the last decade for all American workers, has increased among Hispanic workers ... because they've taken on a disproportionate number of jobs in the nation's most dangerous professions."

Ortega, 34, worked at Nebraska Beef, an Omaha meat packing plant, until mid-August. He said he paid for his work boots and also for his own hairnet, earplugs and the knife used to carve sections of steer.

Ortega said some workers chose to go without rather than buy the $35 boots. When the U.S. Department of Agriculture came in for inspections, he said, the company would bring in boots to those lacking the gear.

"It's hard work, and the wages are low," Ortega said.

A spokesman for the company denied that workers pay for their own gear.

"I can guarantee you there is no expense to the employees for their boots," said Dean Miller, Nebraska Beef director of human resources.

The USDA attempted to shut the plant down in January for food safety violations.

Worries over airborne diseases

The Department of Labor also jettisoned finalizing a regulation to help prevent transmission of tuberculosis in the workplace. While tuberculosis cases are dropping, the AFL-CIO said, such a standard would help prevent transmission of all airborne diseases, including SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome.

The House Appropriations Committee, in the letter to OSHA, also urged the development of "an airborne-disease standard."

Frank, the Labor Department spokesman, said the agency is focused on results, and he pointed to statistics that show fewer workers were injured on the job in 2001 than in any other year since records have been kept. (Worker injuries have declined every year since 1992.) Repetitive stress injuries are declining, he said. OSHA inspections in 2001 were up 5 percent from the previous year.

The department also has been collecting overtime money for workers, he said. In fiscal 2002, the department ordered employers to pay more than $175 million in back wages, money that went to 263,593 employees. That was a 33 percent increase over fiscal 2001 and a 10-year high.

"I think the numbers speak for themselves," Frank said. "I'll leave the political posturing and rhetoric to others."

The AFL-CIO says those injury numbers aren't completely reliable because they rely solely on employer counts of injuries. Employers have been caught undercounting, said Peg Seminario, occupational safety and health director for the AFL-CIO. Some studies show workers do not always report injuries because of fear of reprisals. And she said other studies, including those that look at workers' compensation data and emergency room visits, show higher numbers.

Although OSHA inspections have increased, she said, the average time spent in an inspection has decreased and the average fine waged against employers has dropped.

"The enforcement is less aggressive than it was," Seminario said.

Bush's policies affect labor groups as well as individual workers. His second month in office, he issued four executive orders that reined in union rights. Most of the orders reversed Clinton executive orders. One restored an order that Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, had put in place when he was president and which President Clinton had repealed.

Business widely supported those Bush orders. Small businesses in particular welcomed the order that ended "project labor agreements" on federally funded construction projects. Those agreements required the use of union labor in exchange for agreements not to strike.

"Project labor agreements prevent small employers who are not union from competing for those contracts," said Jackson of the Federation of Independent Business. "It's monumental for the small contractor."

Labor objected. Those objections were not looked upon kindly. Bush promptly kicked AFL-CIO representatives off advisory panels they had been on for 20 years.

"They play hardball. We've had to play hardball back," said Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Firefighters, which also has butted heads with Bush on labor issues. "This is a person who doesn't like a push back, who doesn't necessarily understand that it's a democracy."

While other presidents disagreed with a union or unions on certain issues, temporary animosity didn't carry over to all issues, Schaitberger said. With Bush, it does.

"It gets to be unpleasant. There's clearly an atmosphere," Schaitberger said. "That is not something I've experienced with other administrations."

The AFL-CIO said it has had better relationships with Democrats but has always been able to work with previous Republican presidents.

"This is the worst," the AFL-CIO's Owens said. "It's absolutely the worst that folks here have ever experienced, sort of the zeal about undoing safety and health, overtime."

Privatization plans targeted

Unions also believe they were targeted in the Bush administration's move to accelerate the process under which the private sector competes for work now done by federal employees. Opening work to bids from private contractors often leads to privatization of federal jobs.

Under Bush's plan, private contractors will be able to bid on work involving roughly 850,000 jobs nationally. In Colorado, 35,538 jobs could be privatized, including some at the U.S. Mint, in the national parks and at the military bases.

The Bush administration says subjecting government work to competition saves 10 percent to 40 percent on costs, regardless of whether the competition is won by a private contractor or the government.

But for workers, the change can be disconcerting. If work is privatized, federal employees who stay on to do the work often lose their benefits, seniority and union protection.

Clark Wright, 52, an electrician at the U.S. Mint in Denver, is one of those who could see his job privatized. He's postponing car repairs, canceling plans to visit East Coast relatives and trying to pay off his home early.

"I have to make sure I'm scrimping and saving every last bit I've got," Wright said.

Bush rule changes also reshape the landscape under which businesses do government work.

Bush eliminated a law that would have barred the government from contracting with companies that did not have a satisfactory record of complying with laws, particularly environmental laws or labor laws. That rule, signed by Clinton the day before Bush took office, lasted just a few months.

Bush froze the rule in March 2001, repealed it in December 2001 and replaced it with a rule that requires a "satisfactory record of integrity and business ethics" and "satisfactory compliance with the law."

It was a win for businesses that opposed the Clinton rule, which they called the "blacklisting" requirement.

"We waged an all-out fight to ensure the finalization of the blacklisting regulation's repeal," the U.S. Chamber said after the repeal.

Bush changes to labor law have come mainly through regulations or stopping the finalization of pending regulations. That has allowed many of the changes to happen at a boringly bureaucratic level most people won't follow. Workers do not notice most of the changes immediately, making them less easily attachable to Bush, labor groups said.

"That's why it's so easy for the administration to do this stuff," said Tyler Chafee, political director with the Colorado AFL-CIO. "It takes a while for the effects to trickle down."

The changes have started to alienate at least some of those who have supported Bush, such as members of the International Association of Firefighters, which represents 260,000 firefighters, many of whom served in the military at some time. While the group is a union, many members supported Bush because of his defense policies, union president Schaitberger said.

Schaitberger declared Bush the most anti-worker president of all those he has dealt with dating back to 1976. That includes Ronald Reagan, who fired 11,359 striking air-traffic controllers but also extended overtime protections to firefighters. Gerald Ford gave death benefits to the families of firefighters killed on duty. Under George H.W. Bush, Schaitberger said, there were no gains but also no setbacks. George W. Bush's term, by comparison, has been an attack on labor, he said.

"This president, on balance, he fails the test on way too many of our issues," Schaitberger said.

Firefighters want Bush to recognize their right to negotiate contracts, which currently is not allowed in 19 states, Schaitberger said. Bush opposes giving firefighters that ability.

The firefighters union also objects to a proposal that would force all large unions to file detailed reports documenting how they spend their time and money. The Bush administration says it's necessary to prevent fraud and waste and to give union members more information about how their dues are being spent.

The AFL-CIO says implementation will cost $1 billion. Schaitberger said his union estimates it would require hiring six more people in accounting. He and other labor leaders say it's really a way to give the Bush administration more information about union political activities.

"The real intent is to place unions in noncompliance, which justifies the government coming after them," Schaitberger said. "The real intent is to tie us up in knots. But it's also a way to find out what we're doing politically."

Changes, proposals in labor regulations

Significant changes in labor law made by President Bush:

Eliminated a Clinton-era Labor Department rule requiring employers to take certain steps to prevent repetitive stress-type injuries in the workplace.

Jettisoned development of a rule requiring employers to track the incidence of repetitive stress injuries separately from other injuries.

Stopped action on 29 worker-safety regulations.

Rewrote a rule that prohibited government contracts with any company that had broken laws, especially labor and environmental laws. The rule now requires companies behave responsibly with a record of "integrity and business ethics."

Eliminated a Labor Department rule that would have allowed states to use unemployment funds for workers caring for a new baby.

Stopped action on a Labor Department rule that would have established procedures to prevent and limit the spread of airborne diseases, such as tuberculosis, in the workplace.

Abolished the Bureau of Labor Statistics' monthly reports documenting plant closings and layoffs of more than 50 workers at any workplace.

Required federal contractors to post signs telling workers that they do not have to join unions. Signs do not tell workers they can join unions if they desire.

Prohibited federally funded construction projects from requiring "project labor agreements," which require union labor in exchange for a no-strike promise.

Removed a Clinton-era rule that required new building service contractors in federal buildings to hire workers used by the previous contractor.

Eliminated collective bargaining rights for certain federal employees, including those who work for the CIA, Secret Service and Department of Justice.

Pending changes:

Revise overtime rules to reclassify certain workers as not eligible for overtime.

Require unions to file detailed reports with the government on how they spend their time and money.



Christopher M. Kemm, Legislative & Political Organizer
American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO
7450 W 52nd Ave.  #M195
Arvada, CO 80002
303.465.6079 (office)
303.465.6962 (fax)
202.550.8709 (cell)


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