With the departure of George Bush from the White House, working people and their unions have finally ended one of their toughest fights ever – an eight-year-long struggle with the most virulently anti-labor presidents in American history.
Of all those bidding Bush good riddance, none have more reason than organized labor and the workers it champions. The record of Bush’s antipathy to them is truly staggering.
Consider, for starters, Bush’s appointment of a notoriously anti-union secretary of labor , Elaine Chao, and an anti-union majority to control the National Labor Relations Board.
The Bush appointees have played a major role in stripping union and civil service rights from more than a million federal employees, cutting back raises that had been due them and most others on the government payroll, and shifting thousands of unionized federal jobs to private non-union contractors.
They’ve increased the staff and budgets for investigating and auditing unions, while decreasing those for enforcing employer violations of labor standards, including those covering child labor and pay discrimination and violence against women.
They imposed onerous, highly dangerous working conditions on air traffic controllers, made it much harder for unions to finance political activities and conduct routine day-to-day operations, reversed dozens of the Labor Board’s pro-worker rulings, and denied millions of workers the right to overtime pay. Millions more, such as the temporary and part-time workers who make up a substantial and growing segment of the workforce, have even been denied the basic right of unionization.
And there’s more. Much, much more. For example, Bush’s blocking of strikes against anti-union airlines and waterfront employers, his opposition to increasing the pitifully inadequate minimum wage and his refusal to support strengthening the rights of workers for leaves to care for ill family members.
Not to mention Bush’s failure to deal with chronic unemployment and need for extensive job creation and job training programs. His approval of trade agreements and so-called guest worker programs that do not guarantee basic rights and decent treatment to either foreign or domestic workers. His attempts to require federal contractors to actively dissuade employees from joining unions. His rescinding of a regulation that denied federal contracts to companies that repeatedly violate labor or environmental laws.
As bad as all that is, there’s worse. There’s the Bush administration’s abysmal record on job safety — a record that the chairman of the occupational health section of the American Public Health Association, Robert Harrison, rightly cites as one of "dismal inaction."
Bush has stood by while the number of workers dying on the job has reached almost 6,000 per year and the number seriously injured has grown to more than two million. At least 50,000 others have been dying yearly from cancer, lung and heart ailments and other occupational diseases caused by exposure to toxic substances.
What’s needed most is strengthening the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the two related laws that cover mine safety and the agencies that administer the laws. For more than three decades, the agencies have been the only real tools for protecting workers from physical harm. Yet they’ve been woefully underfunded, woefully understaffed and woefully lax in enforcing the law.
The agencies have been run by political appointees of Bush, many of them former executives from the industries they’re supposed to regulate, with little input from workers or their representatives. They have blocked, withdrawn or weakened dozens of safety rules and stopped development of others recommended by safety and health experts. They’ve discontinued safety education and training programs, reduced their staffs, and cut their budgets by millions of dollars, despite the steady increase in deaths and injuries.
The agencies take the word of employers that they have voluntarily complied with those rules that remain on the books and have provided little protection to workers who face employer retaliation for challenging their word. Fines for violations have, in any case, rarely been more than token amounts. Even rarer have been criminal charges against employers whose willful violations have led to injury, illness or death.
In one of his first acts as president, Bush signed Republican-sponsored legislation that repealed regulations – enacted under President Clinton after a decade of research – that covered the most common occupational hazards.
The regulations were designed to protect the many workers who risk the serious neck and back problems, chronically sore arms and wrists and other "repetitive motion injuries" that now account for more than 60 percent of all on-the-job injuries.
One of Barack Obama’s first acts as president clearly should be to reinstate those regulations and take the many other steps needed to undo the great damage that George Bush has done to America’s working people.
Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based journalist, has covered labor and political issues for a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.