Thursday, March 30, 2017

To Work, Perchance to Die

With the number trade union workers in the private sector (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) continuing to decline, now a mere 6.4% of that workforce, more than ever it falls to federal and state government to protect our private employee base. But we haven’t even raised the federal minimum wage ($7.25/hour) since 2009 (the minimum wage had more buying power, for example, in the late 1960s). Even the workplace rules aimed at minimizing workplace accidents and injuries – maintained and encouraged by the federal Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) – are being scaled back, in some cases completely eliminated, by a regulation-averse Trump administration.
Further, the practice of past administrations of publishing fines against employers for workplace safety violations – intended to send a clear message to other employers to follow safety rules – just stopped completely under the Trump administration. By comparison, the Obama administration averaged well-over 400 such reports a year.
Some rules intended to keep workers safe from harm have already been rescinded, even though the Trump administration just got into office, with more repeals and reductions in the works: “As Mr. Trump vows to roll back regulations across the federal government, the early experience in the Labor Department shows that there are many ways to signal the administration’s new direction. Concern among labor unions and advocates of workplace safety is so high that some unions raced to court last month to intervene in a lawsuit seeking to undo a new rule that prevents companies from retaliating against employees who report workplace hazards.
“Jillian Rogers, a spokeswoman for the Labor Department, declined to comment when asked why OSHA had not issued any such releases. But she said that the agency’s enforcement efforts were unchanged and that such efforts were ‘reflected across various media channels,’ like newsletters and social media.
“‘The Department of Labor is continuing to operate business as usual, including enforcement operations,’ Ms. Rogers said.
“In addition to the rule on worker retaliation, several other OSHA regulations or standards, on issues like record-keeping practices and use of a mineral linked to a deadly lung disease, face delay or elimination.
“[In early March], the Senate passed a measure to repeal an Obama-era rule that required companies seeking significant federal contracts to disclose violations of labor standards, like safety and fair-pay rules, or instances when they were accused of such violations. The so-called blacklisting rule was intended to prevent companies that violated workplace regulations from getting federal money.
“Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president for the Professional Services Council, a trade association that represents federal contractors, hailed the measure, which Mr. Trump may now sign into law. He said the rule was onerous and unfair, because companies had to report unproved accusations.
“‘The regulatory scheme was overly burdensome,’ Mr. Chvotkin said. ‘We applaud the change.’
As an agency, OSHA has long struggled to have an impact. Its rule-making procedures are arduous, and changes can take years or even decades to enact.
“Last year, to help the agency flex its muscles, Congress passed a law doubling the fines companies faced for safety violations. The agency also took aim at certain industries it considered repeat offenders.” New York Times, March 13th.
The thrust of the new administration appears to be that anything that interferes with any industrial effort – regardless of whether its involves dangerous chemicals being discharged into the air or waterways, or handled in a manner that jeopardizes the health and safety of the workers handling these materials – must be eliminated. This may kill or injure more of us, but it is the price to pay for “job creation.” Do we want those jobs anyway? Every day, it seems that employees are pretty much going to have to go it alone when dealing with serious safety failures in their places of work. And the government doesn’t want the general public to know about those failures or require employers to report accidents or give OSHA enough time to investigate and punish the wrongdoers.
“Industry groups are pushing back against an Obama-era regulation meant to exert pressure on companies to better comply with record-keeping rules. A provision of that rule, which was supposed to take effect last month, would require companies to electronically submit accident data to OSHA so the agency could post the information on a public website. As recently as early January, OSHA said on its website that it expected the site to be live in February.
“But in recent weeks, the agency changed the wording so that it now states, ‘OSHA is not accepting electronic submissions at this time.’… ‘That was not an accident,” said [Eric Conn, a lawyer in Washington who tracks such cases]. ‘That was a big signal to employers that even if they report the data, it will not be published online.’… Ms. Rogers, the department spokeswoman, did not comment on the wording change.
“In addition, OSHA’s ability to charge companies with failures to properly record workplace injuries may be severely curtailed… For years, the agency had taken the position that it had up to five and a half years after an alleged violation to issue a citation to a company. But a court in 2012 found that OSHA’s interpretation was inconsistent with what the court called the ‘clear’ wording of the law, which gave the agency only six months to bring charges…
“In addition, the agency said recently that it was delaying a rule intended to sharply lower occupational exposure to beryllium, a widely used mineral linked to a deadly lung disease. The rule, which was set to go into effect this month, will be delayed until at least May.
“The action is the latest twist in a four-decade effort by safety advocates to tighten beryllium exposure limits. Those advocates say they are optimistic that the new exposure standard will go into effect with only minor changes, but they added that any long delays or major revisions could jeopardize worker health.
“Michael Wright, director of health, safety and environment for the United Steelworkers, said that if the rule was delayed or overhauled, ‘then we will have a big problem, and we’ll be fighting that with every resource we have.’” NY Times. Guess when all those jobs are replaced by robots, we can just fix or replace the damaged ones.
This effort to end federal rules, even where they appear necessary and make common sense, applies to environmental laws, financial transparency and honesty requirements, worker safety and consumer protection. Coal mines/coal power generation plants are now free to pollute public waterways and our common atmosphere, and their workers are no longer as well-protected as they once were.
There is even a bill pending in Congress, already passed by the House, which would eliminate federal class action lawsuits, thus making it impossible to aggregate “little wrongs” not worth suing over, into a larger case to punish bad corporate behavior. It’s OK to steal a small amount from a lot of people but not OK to steal a large amount from one person… even if the numbers are the same in the aggregate? Welcome to Trumpworld and the GOP rule of big business above all else.
I’m Peter Dekom, and this will be our legacy for the next four years and the years beyond that it may take for us to care about each other again.

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