Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Bush & Congress: Fiddling While Workers Die

Washington Post and American Prospect columnist Harold Meyerson notes that the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress have given up on trying to attract moderates to their cause and are instead trying to fire up the right wing with votes on red meat issues as single sex marriage, even though "the Senate, as all its members know full well, is no more likely to come up with 67 votes for this bit of campaign-year demagoguery than it is to enact workers' and peasants' soviets."
The zeal and single-mindedness with which the Bush campaign is pursuing this goal is best understood as a consequence of Bush's failure to even win, or much less hold, more moderate voters. Bush has been consistently trailing John Kerry among independent voters, and his level of support among his fellow Republicans has declined from the mid 90s to the low 80s. That's partly a function of the failure of the war in Iraq. It's also a consequence of the president's screwing up his two chief outreach-to-the-middle legislative vehicles. Bush subverted his No Child Left Behind initiative by failing to fund it. He botched his Medicare reform act by turning it chiefly into a giveaway to drug companies at the expense of American seniors.
And what, my many critics are asking, does this have to do with workplace safety?

Well, allow me to carry his arguments further. Not only are important issues like the budget, health care and minimum wage ignored, education underfunded and prescription drug coverage sold to the highest bidder, but the only thing the Republicans can think to do about workplace safety is to pass bills that will attack the alleged harassment plaguing small businesses by the jack-booted thugs over at George Bush's OSHA. This would be laughable, if it wasn't so tragic. Because while the Republicans and business associations try to convince their constituents that they still have something to fear (and therefore should keep contributing to the R's and paying membership dues to NAM, NFIB and the Chamber), workers continue to die in unshored trenches and unventilated confined spaces. Meanwhile, their employers, who should have (or did) know better, get off with ridiculously low fines and Congress refuses to even consider making it a criminal offense to willfully kill one of your employees.

While health care workers die of tuberculosis and hospitals remain ignorant of the symptoms and basic precautions, OSHA has killed the TB standard and all Congressman Roger Wicker can focus on toothless report language that seeks to reduce the incredible "burden" that OSHA has placed on his contributors hospitals by forcing them to make sure their workers' respirators fit properly.

While OSHA continues to enforce chemical standards based on "science" from the 1950’s and 1960’s, and workers' lungs are destroyed by a popcorn butter flavoring chemical that they didn't know was dangerous, Congress refuses to even consider legislation that might help OSHA to start modernizing standards for the tens of thousands of unregulated chemicals that workers are exposed to every day. Meanwhile, the Bush administration’s only chemical "initiative" consists of fighting a European initiative that would introduce the communistic "precautionary principle" where chemicals must be tested before workers and consumers are exposed.

And while lawsuits seem to be the only way to force companies not to poison workers or the community and behave like the good corporate citizens they claim to be, the Bush Administration and Republican Congress obsess about tort reform, limiting jury awards and attacking John Edwards for being a trial lawyer.

And the Kerry Years?

So will electing John Kerry (and John Edwards) -- or taking back one or even both houses of Congress -- set the workplace safety world right? Not by a long shot. We'll still have to fight Congressional Republicans who will accuse pro-workplace safety Democrats of catering to the anti-free market, anti-small business bias of the "big labor bosses." We'll still have to deal with the sell-out Democrats who take too much corporate money and vote against worker interests like the ergonomic standard (e.g. Senators Baucus, Lincoln, Landrieu, Hollings, Miller, Breaux), still have to deal with overly cautious political operatives who hold out the hope that the business association leopards will change their spots before the next election if only we compromise with them a little more.

On the other hand.... What? What is to be done? Can OSHA be saved? Or, more specifically, will the agency ever be able to issue another significant OSHA standard? If not, what other useful roles can the agency fill? Will funding ever be increased to a point where employers have a reasonable fear of being cited? These are just a few of the questions rolling through my head.

On the optimistic side, there is still much that can be done at OSHA even without major (beneficial) changes in the law. Funding for worker training grants could be substantially increased and targeted where they will have the most benefit to those workers most at risk. Congress can put its "money" where its mouth is and make it a criminal penalty with significant fines and jail time for willfully killing a worker. Some changes in the law could possibly be worked out making it easier to modernize chemical standards. And John Kerry and John Edwards say they favor a new ergonomics standard.

Too optimistic? Who knows? But if we don't do the job on November 2, and then plan to take the offensive starting January 20, we'll never find out.