Thursday, October 14, 2004

The Great Presidential Debate You Didn't Watch

Due to overwhelming popular demand, President George W. Bush and Senator John F. Kerry agreed unexpectedly to one final debate over workplace health and safety issues. The debate was held earlier this evening. Due to the last-minute nature of the debate, it was unfortunately not televised. But I did manage to get a copy of the transcript.

Following is a transcript of the fourth and final presidential debate between President Bush (R) and Sen. John F. Kerry (D). The moderator of the nationally untelevised debate is Geraldo Rivera.

RIVERA: Good evening from Groundhog State University in Smallville, PA. I'm Geraldo Rivera of CBS News. I want to welcome you to the fourth and last of the 2004 debates between President George Bush and Senator John Kerry.

As Jim Lehrer told you before the first one, these debates are sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

Tonight the topic will be workplace safety and health, but the format will be the same as that first debate.

RIVERA: Gentleman, welcome to you both.

By coin toss, the first question goes to Senator Kerry.

Senator, you’ve been highly critical of this administration, calling it anti-worker because of its failure to enforce the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Yet we have the lowest level of injuries and illnesses in this nation’s history.

So what’s wrong with what this administration is doing?

KERRY: That’s not nearly good enough. More workers were killed in the workplace last year than the year before. 5,559 workers were killed in 2003, compared with 5,534 in 2002 . That means that more people die on the job in this country last year than were killed on 9/11, in Afghanistan and in Iraq put together. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. 50,000 to 60,000 died from occupational diseases. The number of reported workplace injuries was over 6 million, and that number is clearly understated.

And yet we’re spending just over $400 million on Occupational Safety and Health, while we’ll be spending $200 billion in Iraq and Afghanistan, where, by the way, we let Osama bin Laden escape from the cave of Tora Bora because we outsourced the job of capturing him.

BUSH: We’ve reduced injuries and illnesses because we've reduced the adversarial relationship between OSHA and employers and we’ve increased the OSHA budget during my watch. And if employers violate the law, we will hold them to account, we will come down on them hard. Just like we held to account a terrorist regime in Saddam Hussein.

In other words, in order to make sure we're secure in the workplace and in the world, there must be a comprehensive plan.

My opponent just this weekend talked about how terrorism could be reduced to a nuisance, comparing it to prostitution, illegal gambling and workplace fatalities. I think that attitude and that point of view is dangerous. I don't think you can secure America for the long run if you don't have a comprehensive view as to how to defeat these people.

KERRY: We clearly need to dedicate more resources to workplace safety. We've got 2,000 job safety inspectors in the country responsible for overseeing and enforcing the safety and health laws in more than 6 million workplaces.

OSHA actually has fewer staff today than it did in 1980. The workforce and the number of workplaces has grown, but the agency's resources have not grown

RIVERA: President Bush, you’re opposing the Corzine bill which makes it a felony and calls for significant jail time when a worker is killed on the job due to a willful violation of the law by the employer. Why shouldn’t an employer go to jail when he knowingly violates the law and a worker dies?

BUSH: Well, Geraldo. We’re talking about accidents. I mean shit happens. Mistakes are made. And these employers aren’t bad people. These are small businessmen, trying to make a living, who can’t possibly read all those OSHA regulations.

Look at all the labor laws and regulations that they are expected to comply with. They have to face these every day. I wonder how many of us in government really realize the burden we are asking them to shoulder. Is this the most effective way to protect workers?!

There are more words in the Federal Register describing OSHA regulations than there are words in the Bible. They’re a lot less inspiring to read… and a lot harder to understand!

This is not fair.

It’s not fair that small businesses are expected to know every rule and regulation without any decent help from the bureaucrats who write them, promulgate them, and penalize them if you aren’t abiding by them!

It’s not fair to you small businessmen, and it’s not fair to the American worker. My opponent talks about helping workers. But you can’t help workers if regulations cause businesses to shut down. His record in the United States Senate does not match his rhetoric. He voted to increase regulations 2,398 times.

And it's not like we're not doing anything. Were focusing major programs on important issues like seatbelts and workers who take drugs.

RIVERA: Senator.

KERRY: Thank you Geraldo. The law provides for criminal penalties only in cases where a willful violation has resulted in the death of a worker. A recent New York Times article revealed that over the past 20 years, the agency failed to seek criminal prosecution against 93 percent of the companies whose willful violations of safety rules caused workers to die. The level of criminal penalties in the Occupational Safety and Health Act basically make the events a misdemeanor, which means that these are not high priority cases for the Justice Department to take up and prosecute. Do you know that the penalty for causing the death of a worker by willfully violating safety laws is half the maximum for harassing a wild burro on federal lands?

Senator Corzine has introduced a bill to make criminal violations of OSHA a felony, which is a step in the right direction.

And not only is OSHA not prosecuting as many employers as they should, but they've totally gone out of the standard making business. Twenty-four rules that were in some stage of development on OSHA's agenda under the Clinton administration were withdrawn by this administration and not one major new regulation has been issued. These aren't just regulations, they're protections for workers.

BUSH: Well, it’s just simply not true that OSHA has stopped issuing standards. That’s kind of like one of those e x a g e r a t i o n s. Why just a couple of weeks ago, OSHA issued a formal proposal to protect workers from the hazards of hexa- hexa- hexavalium chromates.

We’re going a different way. Our way protects health and safety in a way that provides the most flexibility and economic growth. We’re trying to get this economy moving again and the best way to do that is to reduce burdensome regulations.

I believe the role of government is to stand side by side with our business owners to help them make their workplaces safe, to form partnerships and alliances with them, not punish them for making honest mistakes.

My opponent talks about helping workers. But you can’t help workers if regulations cause businesses to shut down. Remember, he voted to increase regulations 3,298 times. I mean, he's so pro-regulation that Ted Kennedy is Massachusetts' most pro-business Senator.

KERRY: That’s hexavalent chromium. It causes lung cancer. And the only reason the administration issued that proposal is because they were under a court order to do so.

RIVERA: OK, lets go to one very contentious issue: ergonomics. President Bush, one of the first actions you took as President was to sign a bill repealing the ergonomics standard even though musculoskeletal disorders like back injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome are the biggest source of workplace injuries in this country. What has your administration done to address this serious problem?

BUSH: Well Geraldo, I’m glad you asked that question because I’m very concerned about musco—muscu—uh back injuries. I know about what it’s like to work hard. In fact, a lot of this job has been a major pain in the, in the uh, neck. Heh. Uh…

But seriously, as soon as the ergonomics standard was repealed – and by the way, Geraldo,it would have cost American businesses over $100 billion every year and put small businesses out of business. Now let me finish. There’s one more thing. Do you know how long that ergonomics standard was? It was 600 pages long. It was a typical liberal Democratic attempt to tell employers how to run their jobs – and it was 600 pages long! And there was no science behind the standard. 600 pages.

But Geraldo, we have a comprehensive plan to address ergonomic hazards – outreach and assistance, guidelines, research and enforcement. And it’s been working. We’ve put out three guidelines – for health care, for grocery store workers and for poultry plant workers. And we’re enforcing. When employers show disregard for their workers, we enforce. We’re tough on them.

RIVERA: Senator Kerry.

KERRY: Geraldo, let me look right into the camera and say this. I strongly support implementation of a mandatory ergonomics standard and one of the first actions I take as president will be to order the Occupational Safety and Health administration to begin work on a new ergonomics standard.

Some people may not know this, in fact the President probably doesn’t even remember this, but the ergonomics standard was initially promised under his father’s administration back in 1990. Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole committed the agency and the department to developing and initiating an ergonomics standard.

And, let me ask you President Bush, did you even bother to read the standard before you killed it?

BUSH: (snorting) 600 pages. 600. A lot more than My Pet Goat. Ha. Heh, Want some wood? Oh, never mind.

KERRY: Because it was actually only 8 pages long. The other 592 pages was the justification that Congressrequires to show that the standard makes economic sense. And it wouldn't have cost anywhere close to $100 billion. They would have cost businesses only $4.5 billion to implement but would have saved $9 billion through increased productivity and reduced sick days.

Now workers have no protection. Geraldo, I’ve talked to workers in Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, Iowa, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire … and maybe even Colorado who process chickens, who hang thousands of live chickens above their head every hour, 8 or 10 hours a day. We had a standard to protect workers from that kind of abuse, and now it’s gone.

The Bush administration has refused to move forward any new regulation. Instead, it has put forward a voluntary approach based on guidelines and outreach. They've said they’re enforcing under what’s known as the general duty clause, but in almost four years, OSHA has issued less than 20 ergonomics citations – for a hazard causing 1.8 million serious injuries a year.

And these injuries aren’t just bad for workers, they’re bad for the economy as well. This is a huge problem economically. The cost of these injuries is massive. These injuries probably account for half of all the worker's compensation costs. They are soft tissue injuries, the type of injuries that take time for people to recover from -- some people never recover -- so people lose a lot of time from the job. An average case of carpal tunnel syndrome results in 27 days off the job, for example.

We can do better. And when I’m president we will protect workers.

BUSH: Well, Geraldo, those are terrible jobs. Those workers should go get new jobs, safer jobs. We’re growing jobs in this country. But perhaps the best way to create safer jobs and keep this economy growing is to make sure our education system works.

I went to Washington to solve problems. And I saw a problem in the public education system in America. They were just shuffling too many kids through the system, year after year, grade after grade, without learning the basics.

And so we said: Let's raise the standards. We're spending more money, but let's raise the standards and measure early and solve problems now, before it's too late.

No, education is how to help the person who's got a lousy job. Education is how to make sure we've got a workforce that's productive and competitive and safe.

RIVERA: Senator. The final question is about the high death rate among Hispanic workers in this country. I can personally relate to that. I’m Hispanic and I’ve faced danger many times on the job. Let me tell you about one time when I was in Iraq, I….oh, never mind.

OK, where was I? Senator Kerry, the rate of fatalities among Hispanic workers is 25% percent higher than the rate recorded for all workers, and foreign-born Hispanic workers are more likely to die than Hispanics born in this country. Why is that happening and what can we do?

KERRY: It's a major problem, Geraldo, and I have a plan. Last week, I met a worker from Mexico. He had been working on construction projects in the United States for eight months, sending whatever money he can spare home to support his wife and four kids. He usually makes $10 per hour, often working 10 to 14 hour days without overtime pay. He said the most dangerous jobs are the ones where he works up high, such as roofing and painting, and he rarely wears a harness. In fact, his friend was just killed on the job.

He told me he was scared sometimes, but he had to do it because he needed the money. He said "If you say 'I'm scared,' then (the bosses) say 'I'll find another.'

They don’t speak English well, they need the money and they’re afraid to complain because they’ll be fired, or if they’re undocumented, they’ll be deported. They're intimidated, discriminated against, exploited and they're dying.

This administration has done almost nothing to help these workers. In fact, President Bush has refused to issue a standard that was almost finished by the Clinton administration that would force business owners to buy protective equipment like boots and gloves for these workers. And every year since he became President he has tried to cut money from grants for training these workers.

BUSH: Well that’s just not true, Geraldo, we’re dong a lot to try to help Mexicans. We’re doing more outreach, OSHA has a Spanish language webpage. . I created a Hispanic Workers Task Force. And the biography of Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao has been translated into Spanish, Chinese and Korean.

The problem is that many people are coming to this country for economic reasons. They're coming here to work. If you can make 50 cents in the heart of Mexico, for example, or make $5 here in America, $5.15. You're going to come here if you're worth your salt, if you want to put food on the table for your families. And you don’t care if you’re going to drown in a tank of grease, water and chicken parts or cut your belly open because you haven’t been trained to operate a chain saw. And so in order to take pressure off the border, in order to make the borders more secure, I believe there ought to be a temporary worker card that allows a willing worker and a willing employer to mate up, to join up in order to be able to fulfill the employer's needs, so long as there's not an American willing to die on the job, to suffocate in a silage pile, or be buried in freshly poured concrete.

Now, as for the training grants, I wouldn’t use the word ‘cutting',” I don’t think that these training programs should be based on one-on-one training. We are developing materials and technology to get information out to more people. We’re using all the internets.

KERRY: Now George, that’s complete bullshit and you know it. Give me a break! That so-called “Summit” was nothing but a stupid photo-op for the Secretary of Labor to give away some money in a swing state. I’ve had it, I’ m sick of your simpering, simian smirks and stupid ignorant responses. Blah, blah, no child left behind. More like no billionaire left behind you sick bastard! More liberal than Kennedy. Ha! You make me sick! You and your simpleton wife and bimbo daughters can all go to hell!

RIVERA: President Bush, Senator Kerry, Thank you. We gotta go.