Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Politics of Heat In California: Lessons of the Predator

Headline after headline in California has been highlighting California Governor Schwarzenegger as the hero of working people for courageously pushing through an emergency OSHA standard that will protect outdoor workers from death by sun after the death of at least five workers from heat-related illness this summer.
The new rules would require employers to provide a quart of water per hour for each employee working outdoors. Workers feeling ill would be entitled to at least five minutes in the shade to recover. Employers and workers will be trained to recognize and treat heat stress.

As part of a separate crackdown on businesses that evade labor laws, the state is adding 64 inspectors who will enforce the heat regulations along with other workplace rules.

The governor has made a mini-campaign of the issue. On July 23, Schwarzenegger devoted his weekly radio address to the topic. Tuesday, he held a news conference with growers, workers, senators from both parties and state labor officials to encourage the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration to adopt the stricter rules on an emergency basis, and then permanently.

Wednesday, he went to a farm in Walnut Grove, in the delta, to talk to workers about their rights to speak up when they feel ill and about how to recognize heatstroke.
So what has spurred the Governator to suddenly change stripes into a hero of working people and Hispanics? Mainly his plummeting ratings -- particularly among those groups. Over the past few months, Schwarzenegger has alienated labor by attacking public employee pensions, delaying safer nurse-patient staff ratios, slashing education funding, pushing through a disasterous workers comp "reform" and briefly supporting a new rule on lunch breaks friendlier to employers.

And alienated Hispanic citizens with his praise of the "Minutemen" vigilantes who are planting themselves along the Mexican border to deter illegal immigrants.

Of course, we can be cynical about Schwarzenegger's political motives (as with most politicians), but the fact remains that although this summer was hotter than most, death by heat is not a new phenominon in California and no other governor has issued regulations.

Phil Yost of the Mercury News surmises:
I don't doubt the governor's sincerity when it comes to working in the heat. Schwarzenegger often relates policies to his personal experience. Discussing the dangers of working in the heat, he told of falling ill while filming "Predator" in Puerto Vallarta. He was in bed six days, had to be fed intravenously and lost 15 pounds.

Whatever his motives, if the governor wants to advance his political prospects by easing the lives of farmworkers, he ought to be applauded.
Schwarzenegger has said he wants to make the emergency regulations permanent. The next test for the Governor will come soon when he has to decide whether or not to support HB 805 a broader bill that passed the Assembly and now sits in the Senate The bill is opposed by the state's powerful agricultural interests and every Republican member of the assembly voted against the measure.

AB 805 also includes indoor workers and imposes more rules on employers, such as a mandatory 10-minute break each hour during heat waves. The emergency rules depend on the worker asking for relief.