Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Department of Labor: A Damage Assessment

The Department of Labor: A Damage Assessment

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Labor Day is a time to reflect on the achievements of the American worker and our nation's commitment to helping all families pursue the American Dream. But for millions of Americans there is little cause for celebration. While workers' wages have fallen, the cost of living has skyrocketed, the unemployment rate has soared, fewer workers have health coverage, and good retirement plans are increasingly scarce.

Nearly a century ago, Congress established the federal Department of Labor to be the advocate and champion for working Americans. Specifically, the department was created to advance three core goals: "to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners of the United States, to improve their working conditions, and to advance their opportunities for profitable employment."

However, under the Bush Presidency, these goals -- and the interests of workers -- have been under direct assault.

From day one, Bush's Department of Labor has actively worked to undermine workers' rights to organize, to fair pay and decent benefits, and to safe working conditions -- rights that are essential to growing and sustaining a strong middle class. U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and other high-level appointees came to their posts determined to weaken the agency.

Under Chao's leadership, the department has repeatedly torpedoed rules designed to help workers. One of her first actions was supporting the repeal of a rule that would have protected workers against repetitive motion injuries, the leading cause of workplace injuries.

Chao went on to severely weaken the department's Wage and Hour Division -- which enforces overtime, minimum wage, and child labor laws. Wage theft has skyrocketed at the hands of this administration: An ongoing U.S. Government Accountability Office investigation has uncovered repeated cases where the agency refused to go after scofflaw employers who admittedly owed their workers back wages.

Chao also consistently refused to support increasing the minimum wage, allowing it to erode to its lowest value in fifty years. It wasn't until Democrats took over Congress in 2006 that the minimum wage was finally raised for the first time in ten years.

Time and again, Chao has proven her loyalty to a different constituency. She has expended boundless energy making sure unscrupulous employers have a ready supply of exploitable labor. Just recently the department proposed new regulations that will cut the prevailing wage rates for agricultural guest workers and make it easier for employers to hire cheaper, temporary guest workers from overseas instead of qualified, available American workers.

And while the administration dragged its feet to assist victims of Hurricane Katrina, it moved quickly to slash wages for Gulf Coast workers in the hurricane's aftermath.

After President Bush tapped a mine executive to lead the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, the agency immediately set about withdrawing vital proposed health and safety rules. By the time a slew of mining accidents hit in 2006, nearly 200 staffers had been cut from the coal mine safety enforcement division alone -- a move that helped cripple the agency. When Congress finally acted in the wake of many tragic miner deaths, MSHA acted with little urgency to implement the law. More recently, when the House of Representatives passed additional much-needed mine safety protections, the administration threatened a veto.

It's the same story with Chao's U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Remarkably, the agency has not approved a single new health standard for workers in eight years, aside from one that was ordered by a court. Even in the face of solid scientific evidence documenting workplace dangers, Chao has turned a blind eye to growing health and safety risks.

Take, for example, the department's failure to address hazardous combustible dust. In 2006, the Chemical Safety Board -- an independent government agency that investigates industrial chemical accidents -- reported that a string of deadly explosions caused by combustible dust are a serious and preventable national problem. Although the CSB urged OSHA to quickly issue a new safety standard, Chao refused -- and continued to refuse even after a sugar dust explosion killed 13 workers last February.

The tragic results of the department's fatal failure to act continue to mount -- on crane and construction safety, popcorn lung disease, silica, beryllium and more.
And in one of its most telling -- and insulting -- moves to date, the department is now rushing to enact last minute "secret rules" that would make it even harder for health and safety agencies to issue future protections for workers and that would jeopardize workers' retirement savings.

Our nation's workers, battered by unfair global competition, stagnant wages, declining benefits, and poor employer compliance with labor laws, deserve a Department of Labor that lives up to its name, led by individuals who believe in its mission.

A Secretary of Labor that actually fights to help and protect hard working Americans - now that would be a reason to celebrate.


U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-CA), is the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee

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