Published on
The Boston Globe

Obama Needs to Bail Out Workers

Derrick Z. Jackson

Having rolled out Warren Buffett and the economic wizards and Hillary Clinton and the security squad, President-elect Obama needs a press conference to roll out Joe the Plumber. No, not that Joe! That was bipartisanship over the edge when we discovered he was unlicensed, owed back taxes, had no business plan, would have done better under Obama's tax plan than John McCain's, and then campaigned with McCain to call Obama a socialist.

I'm talking about the Joes in chemical plants, the Janes in food plants, the Jamilas on service-center keyboards, and the Josés on construction sites.

One of the Bush administration's final gifts to American workers is a rule to make it even more difficult to prove the dangers of workplace chemicals. Instead of regulating a chemical based on basic human risk to its exposure, the administration would add a requirement that risk data must first be compiled industry-by-industry. The New York Times reported this week that "Administration officials acknowledge that such data did not always exist."

An aide to the House Committee on Education and Labor, chaired by George Miller of California, said over the phone yesterday that the "industry-by-industry" requirement could add two years to a standard-setting process that often takes six to 10 years.

Regulations are hard to reverse once enacted. But it can happen and it did happen in 2001, when Bush and congressional Republicans killed President Clinton's ergonomics protections for repetitive-motion or heavy-lifting injuries. By making rule-making potentially a three-administration process, it would be more likely that new administrations would increasingly throw workers to the mercy of industrial giants, cost-cut contractors, and the US Chamber of Commerce.

This is just one rule-change carcass Bush intends to lay at Obama's feet, despite the president's pledge to make the transition "as smooth as possible." Smooth as an oil slick, perhaps. Other rule changes would blunt federal protection of wilderness.


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The chemicals rule, crafted by Labor Secretary Elaine Chao's office with all the secrecy of Dick Cheney, and sniffed out in July by the Washington Post, insults American workers. In the first seven-and-a-half years of the Bush administration, the Labor Department did not voluntarily issue a single health ruling. The only health ruling it did issue was under a court order.

To his credit, Obama, along with Miller, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, and Clinton, wrote to the Labor Department in September to complain that "no representatives of workers, scientists, or health experts were included in the development process" of the toxic-risk rule. Obama had also written over the summer to Chao about worker pay and environmental protections, demanding "transparent governance."

Over the past year, the Government Accountability Office has released a slew of reports that add up to a collapse of federal responsibility in protecting Americans. In March, the GAO found that the Environmental Protection Agency's database on the effects of toxic chemicals to humans "was at serious risk of becoming obsolete." The EPA's proposed revisions were so lame that a month later, the GAO said it "does not respond to the recommendations."

In September, the GAO found that the EPA was not using its advisory committee to protect children from toxic substances. In July, the GAO found that the Labor Department did not adequately enforce basic pay and overtime protections for low-wage and minimum-wage workers. Overall, the GAO found in July that the annual number of enforcement actions by the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division dropped from 47,000 in 1997 to 30,000 last year.

Obama helped bail out gluttonous Wall Street and is working on incompetent Detroit. He worked hard to bring rival Hillary Clinton into his administration. Now he needs to publicly and personally urge Bush to not utterly abandon the American worker. The Joes and Janes of America need their own press conference. Obama should stand before them to declare that if Bush institutes the "industry-by-industry" toxics regulation, he will move as swiftly as Bush did in 2001 to kill it. It would be a strong sign that his White House will be one where the working stiff is not stiffed.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be readched at

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