How About This: Business Will Just Want to Be Good
Published on Tuesday, April 16, 2002 in the Long Island, NY Newsday
How About This: Business Will Just Want to Be Good
by Marie Cocco
THE PRESIDENT wants us to volunteer.

"Fight evil by doing some good," President George W. Bush says in making his pitch.

No one, he says, should be exempt. He wants old people, young people, school kids, church groups. He wants the best and the brightest, those already most committed and those yet unconvinced.

He wants the worst polluters and the most worrisome employers.

Perhaps you have not heard the president call them to action. They are, nonetheless, the newest recruits in his army of compassion.

Under the regulatory scheme emerging from the bowels of the administration, there is no longer a need for rules to force businesses to do anything they simply do not wish to do. They get to fight evil by getting a pass.

Employers who ignore evidence that workplace conditions cause repetitive-motion injuries to nearly 2 million people annually won't be forced to take steps to spare them. They are asked to volunteer to do better.

Polluters who violate the mandates of the Clean Air Act with expanded coal-fired plants that generate illegal levels of pollution won't be hauled into court. They are asked to volunteer to do better.

American industries and consumers, the world's most prolific contributors of emissions believed to cause climate change, won't ever have to clean up their act. Under the president's framework for combatting global warming, they are asked to volunteer to do better.

We are used to having presidents, from time to time, who let businesses in the door to write the regulations that apply to themselves. That is, after all, what those campaign contributions buy.

Now there is a twist that outdoes Tammany: We let businesses in the door so they can decide there will be no regulations at all.

That is how the Labor Department came up with its non-rule on ergonomics. After Clinton-era regulations - a decade in the making - were repealed by Congress, the Bush administration promised to come up with something less costly and more workable.

It did not try to claim (at least not publicly) that repetitive-motion injuries are a fantasy conjured up by unhappy workers who just aren't sufficiently chipper to work through ordinary aches and pains. This is what the department's solicitor, Eugene Scalia, has argued.

"Ergonomics injuries are real," his boss, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao has testified.

There is, though, nothing she intends to make business do about them. Perhaps, she suggests, they should check the department's Web site from time to time for hints on how they might - if they choose - make helpful changes.

It is easy to dismiss this as more of the same from an administration everyone expected to be business' friend. Except that it isn't the same.

Under President Ronald Reagan, the Labor Department first brought major enforcement actions against industries with high rates of repetitive-motion injuries. It took on big automakers and big agriculture.

The policy continued in the first Bush administration. But some cases ended with administrative judges calling for specific rules, applied to specific tasks. That is why Elizabeth Dole, then the Labor Secretary, began the now-abandoned effort to come up with rules.

But rules, we are now told, are bad. Most businesses will voluntarily make their workplaces - or their polluting plants - safe for everyone. This may or may not be true. It is, for example, true that some big employers such as the auto industry have invested millions in workplace changes to cut ergonomics injuries.

It is also true that meat-packers, poultry processors and nursing-home operators find it cheaper to fire a $6-an-hour complainer than fix the source of the complaint. There is always another low- wage worker - a welfare mother? an illegal immigrant? - lusting for work. Here, the logic of compassion meets the crassness of the bottom line.

Surely the president knows this. Most motorists stop voluntarily at red lights. Conscience, for them, is enough.

Some do not. The volunteers need no fines, insurance penalties or threat of court to keep them from harming themselves - and endangering others. They are not the reason we need rules, and somebody willing to enforce them.

Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.