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The Secretary of Labor Is the Enemy of Labor
Published on Wednesday, February 4, 2004 by Newsday / Long Island, NY
The Secretary of Labor Is the Enemy of Labor
by David Moberg
 

By law, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao is required "to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners of the United States." Given her record, American workers might want to make a symbolic citizens' arrest of the secretary for breaking the law.

At the moment, Chao's prime offense is promotion of changes in overtime pay rules. They would deprive an estimated 8 million workers - such as secretaries, sales representatives, and medical or legal workers - of their right to time-and-a-half premium pay when they work more than 40 hours a week. Last month, Chao testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee that only 644,000 workers would lose that protection. But Economic Policy Institute economist Jared Bernstein explained how the Labor Department ignored large groups of affected workers to come up with its inaccurate, low-ball number.

Chao also insisted that the new rules would make 1.3 million new workers eligible for overtime pay, but Bernstein showed that fewer than 700,000 would benefit. Even many of those workers could be denied the premium overtime pay if employers follow the suggestions that the Labor Department helpfully provided. Departmental guidelines illustrate how employers could first lower workers' base pay, then add the overtime premium, so that the employers will pay no more than they do now.

The law was originally intended to exempt a small number of executive, administrative and highly educated professional employees from the requirement that their employers pay a premium for overtime.

But Chao's Labor Department vastly expanded the definition of what counts as professional training. Now the training that veterans received in the military could be used as an excuse to deny them overtime pay for such jobs as engineer, accountant or medical technologist.

The Senate voted last fall to deny the Labor Department funds to implement the new rules, but the Bush administration threatened to veto the omnibus appropriations bill if the Senate blocked the rules. Last month, the Senate passed the appropriations bill, giving the president and Chao the green light to implement rules that will cut the pay of many workers and increase employer pressures on others to work longer hours with no extra pay.

The overtime fight, which unions vow to continue, is simply one of many reasons why AFL-CIO president John Sweeney said that "in all my years I've never seen a secretary of labor so anti-labor." Within her first month in office, Chao was defending administration executive orders to restrict labor-management partnerships in federal government, to reverse Clinton-era job protection for janitors in federal buildings and to ban "project labor agreements" for federal construction projects.

These agreements typically provide uniform negotiated work rules and a ban on strikes - benefiting workers while reducing cost and construction time for the projects. Chao also supported canceling new rules on the design of work to prevent debilitating muscular-skeletal injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome that affect millions of workers. Although finally promulgated under Bill Clinton, the rule-making was initiated by the labor secretary in the first Bush administration.

Chao bragged to a conservative think tank that she had cut her department's budget more than any other cabinet secretary. She slashed funds for enforcing federal laws governing the workplace (including safety and labor standards), practically eliminating the department of international affairs - which fights against child labor and for higher labor standards in countries around the world. She removed labor representatives from trade and workplace safety advisory committees. Her Occupational Safety and Health Administration has withdrawn roughly two dozen planned regulations, including a rule that would have required employers to pay for workers' personal protective equipment - leaving low-income and immigrant workers especially vulnerable.

She offered no resistance to administration moves to deny collective bargaining rights for many federal workers, including those in the new Department of Homeland Security. In the fall of 2002, Chao and other Bush administration officials intervened on the side of employers in a West Coast docks contract dispute, ultimately by threatening to issue an injunction prohibiting the union from striking at a time when the employers had locked out the workers and closed the docks.

While Chao was cutting enforcement of worker protections, she stepped up enforcing union reporting requirements. Federal courts first stopped her from implementing massive new financial reporting that largely was costly harassment, then later simply delayed the rules until after July 1.

At the same time, Chao did nothing to renew temporary extended unemployment compensation when that program expired in December, even though workers had just experienced the longest period of job loss since the Depression. The number of unemployed persons for each job vacancy was greater than a year earlier, and the number of long-term unemployed had not declined, but Chao didn't speak up for those workers.

Chao pushes her intense ideological agenda even in the smallest gestures. For example, she appointed anti-union Labor Department officials to the board of the department's Labor Hall of Fame, which pays tribute to famous American labor leaders like Mother Jones, Eugene Debs and John L. Lewis. Last year, Chao's appointees chose chocolate magnate Milton Hershey, whose managers organized a "loyal workers club" in 1937 to beat "with clubs, pipes, blackjacks and fists" 200 sit-down strikers defending the desire of a majority of workers to form a union, according to labor historian Donald Kennedy.

The choice may be an insult to workers, but it's a fitting embodiment of the values of the current Secretary of Anti-Labor.

David Moberg is a senior editor at In These Times, a Chicago-based biweekly news and opinion magazine.

Copyright 2004, Newsday, Inc.

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