McGarrah is the AFL-CIO’s point man on workers’ compensation issues. A lawyer with a Master’s in Public Health, he travels the country to meet with legislators at the state and national levels, attempting to counter the actions of lobbyists in the employ of insurance companies and other well-funded industries. It is, he said, an uphill battle since there are many of them and only one of him.Roger Cook, director of the Western New York Council on Occupational Safety and Health (WNYCOSH), summed up the significance of the demise of the AFL-CIO’s Health and Safety program:
"I’m just one person and we don’t have that large of a budget," McGarrah said. "Every time I travel to a state over workers’ comp issues, I run into at least dozen [insurance] industry lawyers." As the national organization’s only workers’ compensation specialist, McGarrah said he is concerned that the cuts will have a detrimental effect on workers’ ability to be fairly compensated when they are injured at work. Most injured workers are forced to subsist at or near the poverty level by state compensation laws, he said.
According to a 2003 study by the capitol-based think tank National Academy of Social Insurance, Workers’ Compensation payments in many states barely meet the poverty level. Sixteen states allow injured workers to live in poverty, with Mississippi bringing up the rear, compensating them at slightly higher than 70 percent of the poverty level, according to the study.
With his function soon to disappear, McGarrah worries that unions lack the resources and expertise to adequately combat the insurance industry at the political level. "The difficulty, from the very beginning, is that the AFL-CIO is outspent right now, plain and simple," McGarrah said. "The industry has billions of dollars to spend on this at the state and national level. We don’t. With these cuts… well, it only gets worse for unions."
If nothing else, Cook said, the AFL-CIO currently sets the agenda on health and safety issues. Now he has no idea who will.
"The AFL-CIO has been a unifying voice for safety and health nationally," he said. "And the AFL-CIO's commitment to this issue through the department filters down to state and local affiliates that workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths are unacceptable and that this is something that rank and file members and would-be members in organizing drives care about. It sets a tone for the labor movement."
"Basically, the Safety and Health department has been organized labor's voice on safety and health in Washington, DC and around the country," Cook said.