Tuesday, January 27, 2004

More Mail: Is Truth Political?

Once again, it’s time to read (and respond to) our mail. I enjoy getting comments, especially those that don’t necessarily agree with me. I get used to picturing my readers smiling and nodding when they read my gems of wisdom. It’s easy to forget that there are some people who wonder onto this site who aren’t left-wing pinko labor symps.

Which brings me to this comment, left yesterday by N. Johnson on my article about the lies of Dick Cheney
Did you listen to the David Kay interview on NPR Sunday morning? I don't think your comments fit with his remarks. Consider what everyone says and all the facts, instead of assigning "liar" to a person (Cheney) you dislike well ahead of the rest of the story.

Dear N:

Thanks for writing.

Yes I did hear and read and see David Kay. And I heard Dick Cheney, I considered all the fact and came to the conclusion that Dick Cheney is a liar. The only thing David Kay seems to have found are “weapons of mass destruction-related programs” (a.k.a. drawings and desires). He's been interviewed everywhere trying to say he didn’t find anything without trashing the administration too badly. Anyway, if you’re interested, I can provide plenty of news stories and analyses – including quotes from David Kay – confirming he didn’t find anything.

And even if you think that “weapons of mass destruction-related programs” constitutes “something,” it doesn’t come anywhere near Dick Cheney’s assertion that those trailers provide “conclusive evidence” that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. I won’t even go into the allegation that there is overwhelming evidence” of a Saddam – Al Queda connection. Even Bush and Colin Powell have said that no such connection exists. Either Cheney’s an idiot, delusional or lying – and I don’t think he’s and idiot or delusional. Which leaves…

I was a CSHO [an OSHA inspector] too. Unions are not the defenders of the helpless portrayed here. I investigated complaints put up by unions that were only contract negotiation "ruses". Citations fell apart for lack of cooperation from the union because they were getting a better deal on some other aspect of the contract. Left or right, people with power are easily tempted.

When they’re doing what they’re supposed to do, unions are not “defenders of the helpless,” they are organizers of the indivisually powerless. Despite the laws on the books and the rights that workers supposedly have, unless you have a union covering your back it's hard to use those rights -- or even know they exist.

I was not a CSHO at OSHA, I was a Special Assistant, dealing mostly with policy issues. But for sixteen years before that I ran the health and safety department for one of the largest unions in the AFL-CIO. And I know first-hand, and spent too much energy fighting the fact that that health and safety issues often tend to get dumped in favor of more “bread and butter” issues like wages and benefits.

Sometimes health and safety issues get raised during organizing drives and contract negotiations that had never before seen the light of day. But these generally aren’t "ruses" or false issues that suddenly materialize; they’re real issues that have been ignored in the past. The fact that they are sometimes forgotten about after some of the “more important” issues are settled causes all union health and safety activists to tear their hair out. It’s not so much a matter of being “tempted” as much as it’s a (mis)perception of what’s more and what’s less important to the members.

I happen to think that many unions don’t put enough emphasis on workplace safety and health issues. And it becomes a vicious circle. Union officials compromise away health and safety issues because they don’t think they’re important to the members. The members, seeing that health and safety issues aren’t being addressed by the leadership, don’t insist that health and safety issues be put on the table. Or they’ve never been educated about the hazards and about their rights and aren’t even aware that the issues can be put on the table. And if the members aren't pushing the issues, the leadership ignores them.

Fighting this mentality – educating workers and union officials about the importance of workplace safety issues is one of the main purposes of this blog.

You have the privilege of publishing important H&S warnings to lists that are read by many influential stakeholders. What you say about H&S is too important to bog down in overly biased politics. Be straight. Listen to everyone. Truth is not political.

Truth itself may not be political, but how truth is revealed, how it is covered up and to what end the truth (or the lies) are used is what politics is all about in this country.

The repeal of OSHA’s ergonomics standard and nothing to do with the truth, and everything to do with politics. And millions of workers are paying the price in lost careers and lifelong disability.

Working people need more than just workplace health and safety resources -- fact sheets and health and safety manuals and Material Safety Data Sheets. All that is important, but they also need opinion and commentary on the politics of workplace health and safety, which is what this blog is about. Similarly, even safety and health in the workplace is largely dependent on the political/power relationships in that workplace. And most policy issues and standard are more a product of political compromise than a product of the "truth."

There is something very like a war going on in the occupational safety and health field right now. The regulatory process is all but dead, OSHA is on its way to becoming nothing more than an information clearinghouse, research is under attack by initiatives such as the Data Quality Act and associated rules, and regulatory protections are being overturned by a combination of lies and big money. And if we think that we can make workplaces safer by just distributing hazard warnings and fact sheets without talking about politics we'll be left on the sidelines of the very issues we seek to promote.

That being said, you raise a good point. Why are we reading about Dick Cheney’s lies in a health and safety blog?

Well, first, it’s my blog and I can write whatever I want. That’s why the subtitle of Confined Space is “News and Commentary on Workplace Health & Safety, Labor and Politics” The fact that this President (and Vice President) started a pre-emptive war based (at best) on faulty intelligence, or (at worst) on lies, makes me angry – especially when they continue to lie after the truth has emerged. Six American soldiers killed today, over 500 since the beginning of the war, thousands seriously injured and for what? Weapons of mass destruction-related programs? And when I’m angry I find it much more constructive to write about it than to kick the kids and yell at the dogs (or vice versa).

On a more serious level, however, if you re-read that posting, you’ll notice that the point I was trying to emphasize was the “very smart, very deliberate strategy” by Administration officials to mislead people and count on the fact that by the time the media catches up (if they ever do), people aren’t paying attention any more. Perhaps I could have been clearer, but these are the very same tactics used by the business community, Bush administration officials and more than a few of our Congressional representatives to fight OSHA standards or enforcement.

I’ve followed politics all my life, so the fact that our elected (sic) leaders often lie to us is nothing new. But when the lies are literally about life and death issues -- the need for war or the need for worker protections (as opposed to blow jobs) -- it’s important for all of us who know the facts to call a lie a lie.

Hope this all makes sense. Thanks for writing. And don’t forget to vote for Confined Space to win the Koufax Award for Best Single Issue Blog.

-- Jordan