Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Make Workplace Safety an Election Issue

Quiz: What was the first major piece of legislation signed by George Bush?

Buzzz, time's up. Readers of Confined Space know that answer: The bill repealing the federal ergonomics standard.

It was so long ago, -- pre-taxcuts, pre-deficit, pre-9/11, pre Iraq, pre-Overtime regs, that many have forgotten this first of this administration's many crimes against working people. Long ago, but not far away for the millions of workers who continue to suffer every year from musculoskeletal disorders.

Well, now it's time for payback. Let them know that we haven't forgotten.

The United Auto Workers has just issued its "trade union activist's toolbox filled with facts about the issues that matter most to workers, retirees, our families and communities." One issue sheet addresses workplace health and safety issues. The sheet deals with four main issues:
  • Ergonomics: Bending to the wishes of the powerful corporate interests that opposed the ergonomics rule — who also happened to be major contributors to the election campaigns of George W. Bush and GOP congressional leaders — Congress for the first time invoked the Congressional Review Act to repeal the ergonomics rule.

    Upon repealing the rule, the Bush administration promised a “plan” that would protect workers. After more than a year, and 1.8 million ergonomic injuries, the administration announced it would not issue a mandatory standard. It promised to issue voluntary guidelines in several industries, but has so far ignored the auto and auto parts industries.

  • GOP Attacks on OSHA: Corporate interests opposed to regulations have turned their attention to the executive branch. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is a part of the White House with authority to delay or block any OSHA standard. The Bush administration appointed a regulatory czar at OMB who favors phony cost-benefit analyses and otherwise obstructs health and safety protections.

    OSHA and the Department of Labor are headed by Bush appointees who see their role primarily as protecting corporations from “intrusive” regulations, rather than as protecting workers from on-the-job injuries. Funding cuts to OSHA enforcement personnel and to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) have made the situation worse.

  • Asbestos: Lawsuits by victims seeking compensation for asbestos-related illnesses are backlogged in the courts. Asbestos manufacturers have gone into bankruptcy, some of them phony, leaving many victims without recourse. The UAW supports efforts to develop national asbestos disease compensation legislation that will provide victims fair, timely and certain compensation.

    Insurance companies and some corporations supported by some Congressional Republicans, such as Dick Cheney’s former company Halliburton Corp., are trying to escape their liability under the compensation system. They are unwilling to pay enough into the fund to properly compensate all asbestos victims. The UAW, along with the rest of the labor movement, is insisting the fund be adequate to pay all claims.

  • Chemical exposure limits, especially metalworking fluids: Most of the chemical exposure limits used by OSHA were set before 1970, when the agency was established. Since then, OSHA has been able to update limits for 15 agents, but for hundreds of others the standards permit exposures that will make workers ill. The most pressing example for UAW members is exposure to metalworking fluids. The UAW was forced to file suit in October against Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao to compel the Labor Department to resume action on this issue
There are, of course, many other issues that could make it onto union agendas this election year: withdrawal of tuberculosis rulemaking, failure to push for criminal penalties for workplace deaths, failure to issue the payment for personal protective equipment standard, OSHA's refusal to initiate the regulatory process for reactive chemicals, withdrawal of OSHA's nursing home initiatve, lack of action on workplace violence and on and on.

And while we're focusing on the all-important Presidential election, don't forget Congress where most evil is spawned. And while we're focusing on defeating Republicans, don't forget that some Democrats have also betrayed workers. Six Democratic Senators and sixteen Democratic Congresspersons voted to repeal the ergonomics standard. No Republican Senators and thirteen House members voted against repeal. (The Senate vote is here. The House vote is here.)

Workplace safety and health issues need to be raised every time you have a meeting with a candidate. We're pissed, we're hurting and they need to know about it, we need to put these issues on their radar screen no matter what party they belong to.

But there are plenty of other issues important to workers and unions: jobs, health care, pensions, minimum wage, labor law reform, taxes, privatization. In other words, we will need to fight within our unions to get health and safety issues on the election year agenda.... just as the UAW has done.