Thursday, July 20, 2006

Never A Dull Moment For Anti-Worker Attorneys

I often joke about how there are a whole crew of high-priced attorneys at corporate law firms in DC who miss the good old days when OSHA actually did things like issue standards. No better opportunity to run up those billable hours than an OSHA standard that takes ten years to issue, and several more to run through the inevitable lawsuits.

But, of course, I was wrong to have worried. There's never any shortage of opportunities to screw workers.

You may have seen this unfortunate development in today's news:
A federal judge struck down a Maryland law yesterday that would have effectively forced the nation's largest employer, Wal-Mart Stores, to spend more money on health care for its employees here.

U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz ruled that the "Wal-Mart Law," which won overwhelming support in the General Assembly this year, ran afoul of a 32-year-old federal statute intended to protect corporations from having to navigate a patchwork of benefits requirements from state to state.

The ruling could stymie plans by labor unions and health-care advocates to replicate Maryland's law in states across the country and turn the legislation into a model for shifting more of the health-care burden onto large corporations.
The lawsuit was brought by the Retail Industry Leaders Association, of which Wal-Mart is a member.

And representing the retail association was none other than Eugene Scalia, known to most as the son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. But Gene is best known to us health and safety types as one of the leading lawyers in the fight to kill OSHA's ergonomics standard. To reward his services, President Bush nominated Scalia to be Solicitor of Labor, the Labor Department's chief lawyer. Fortunately, there were enough Senators who didn't understand how a strident opponent of regulating Americas biggest health and safety problem would fit in as the Departments chief attorney, forcing President Bush to go around Senate confirmation with a one-year recess appointment. But after a year Gene either decided he'd never be confirmed or that the job wasn't as much fun (or as lucrative) as private practice, so he packed his briefcase and headed back to his previous lair at the lawfirm of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher.

According to Wal-Mart Watch, Scalia is legal counsel to defend Wal-Mart against whistleblower claims, which must keep him busy -- and well paid.
At the Department of Labor, Scalia undermined whistleblower protections and supported the Bush Administration’s efforts to limit overtime pay.

Scalia’s actions at the Labor Department even concerned several of his fellow Republicans. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) sharply criticized Scalia’s application of whistleblower protection provisions of federal law: “If this is the way the Labor Department intends to enforce the new law, then most corporate whistle-blowers won’t be protected.” Unsure of his chances of being confirmed by the full Senate, the Bush Administration gave up on Scalia when his recess appointment expired in 2003.
But we still fondly remember Gene as the slightly nutty guy who attended almost every single (billable) day of OSHA's multi-week ergonomics hearings in 2000 and persisted in showing every ergonomics expert who testified a photo of a desk and computer, and asking them to determine whether the photo showed any ergonomics hazards. The usual response, of course, was that you can't evaluate ergonomics problems from a photo. But that never stopped Gene from coming to every hearing with his show-and-tell props.

And it all makes sense as my former partner-in-crime notes: First make sure musculoskeletal disorders like back injuries or carpal tunnel syndrome aren't considered to be work-related (or compensable), then make sure workers don't have health insurance so that taxpayers end up picking up their health care expenses for ergonomics injuries. It all makes perfect sense -- if you're a corporate attorney like Gene Scalia, an apple who clearly hasn't fallen far from the tree.