“We hear a lot of concern about the next President’s Supreme Court appointments, but we should also consider his cabinet appointments,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “Under the Bush Administration, we had constant problems because the President’s safety-related choices were generally pro-industry, anti-union and anti-science as well.”

Sabitoni notes that cabinet and sub-cabinet appointees set policy that determines which issues are addressed – or not – and how budgets are allocated to such efforts.  Subtle, day-to-day decisions often have as much or more impact than high profile decisions which subject the appointee to more public scrutiny. 

”It’s been a long time since we could count on the government to put safety first. An Obama administration is necessary to reverse this long, irresponsible slide.”

Armand E. Sabitoni
LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer
LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman

Take, for instance, the Bush Administration’s Secretary of Labor, Elaine Chao. She oversees the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as well as the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Yet, she is married to Senator Mitch McConnell (R – KY), the Republican Minority Leader who, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, receives more coal industry campaign contributions than any other senator. She has been heavily criticized for mine safety failures under her watch.

Chao also has steered OSHA away from standards development and enforcement. Under the Bush Administration, OSHA’s budget kept up with inflation but priorities shifted toward voluntary cooperation programs between the agency and industry. Only three percent of the budget is devoted to standards development, and the pace has slowed to a crawl. Meanwhile, enforcement funding has not kept up with the rapid growth in the number of American worksites and employees.

When regulatory efforts falter, the only remedy short of election of a new Administration is Congressional intervention, a process that is, at best, slow and cumbersome. At this point, because Democrats still do not have the votes to stop a Republican filibuster or to override a Presidential veto, effective intervention is almost impossible.

A recent example is the decision of the Department of Labor (DOL) to change the way OSHA sets limits on worker exposure to toxic chemicals.  Despite the fact that the current limits have not been updated for decades, the DOL plan would make updates more difficult while also raising the likelihood that any future updates will increase exposure and endanger workers even more. Criticism from the scientific, professional and labor sectors was swift.  Congressional leaders reacted with legislation to block the plan, but, with a lot of major legislation under consideration in the few remaining days of this session, the bill is unlikely to pass before DOL acts.  Then, only the next Administration or Congress can reverse it.

In addition to the leaders of OSHA, MSHA and the DOL, the Administration’s picks at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have been sharply criticized for the way they have handled policy issues to the detriment of safety and health.

So, what are the candidates’ positions with regard to cabinet appointments and the regulatory process as it relates to safety and health?

Because safety and health – aside from health care reform (see Sharp Divide on Principles of Health Care Reform) – is not a hot-button campaign issue, the candidates do not speak to it directly. However, indirect evidence is revealing. Obama co-sponsors S-1041, the Employee Free Choice Act that would make it easier for workers to gain union representation, and union representation is one of the most important safeguards for workers who speak up about safety conditions. McCain opposes that bill.

A more direct measure of interest may be S-1244, the Protecting America’s Workers Act that was introduced by Senator Ted Kennedy (D – MA). This bill would raise civil penalties for employers who are liable for fatalities to $250,000 and allow prison terms in particularly egregious situations. It also would allow family members of workers killed on the job to provide comments before OSHA could withdraw or modify a contested fine. Lastly, the bill would provide more protection to whistleblowers. McCain opposes the legislation while Obama is a co-sponsor.

“Regulatory issues can have a profound effect on workplace safety,” says Sabitoni, recalling the gains of OSHA’s first decades. “It’s been a long time since we could count on the government to put safety first. An Obama Administration is necessary to reverse this long, irresponsible slide.”

[Steve Clark]