Giving Laws the Finger

by DAVID MACARAY

Wouldn’t it be great if federal regulations were like household and auto repairs?  When you have a leaky faucet, you call a plumber; when your brakes squeal, you take your car to a mechanic.  If only legislation and federal regulations were as efficient and reliable.

Consider the Equal Pay Act (EPA).  The EPA was passed by Congress in 1963 as part of President Kennedy’s “New Frontier” slate of social reforms.  Its noble goal was to eliminate the gap in gender compensation, which, in 1962, had women earning about 63 cents for every dollar earned by men. 

While progress has undeniably been made in that area, an alarming discrepancy still exists even today, with women earning about 76 cents for every dollar men earn.  This despite a law that has now been on the books for almost half a century.  In fact, a 1979 study found that in the sixteen years immediately following passage of the EPA, not only had the gap not shrunk, it had actually widened a bit.  Regulation and enforcement are two different animals.

Consider the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision.  This landmark ruling required, in effect, that America’s public schools be desegregated, striking down the long-standing “separate but equal” arrangement. 

Yet, a full ten years after the ruling, only about 2 per cent of schools in the Deep South were integrated.  A Supreme Court decision was handed down, laws were changed, perceptions were altered, expectations were raised….and a decade later the tangible gains were miniscule.

Consider the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA).  Had it become law, joining a labor union would have been made much easier.  It should be noted that the reason the EFCA was even on the table in the first place was because employers were regularly intimidating and unduly influencing their employees, trying to scare them off unions.

Such tactics are illegal.  Federal law clearly states that employers cannot resort to intimidation or veiled threats. Yet, it happens every day.  In a CounterPunch interview, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich stated unequivocally that companies use “illegal” tactics to prevent employees from joining unions.  The laws are already on the books; it’s the enforcement that’s lacking.

Consider the minimum wage.  What could be less complicated than paying employees what the law requires?  It’s simple arithmetic.  But law or no law, employees are regularly cheated out of the minimum wage, particularly in the restaurant industry.  Why?  Because employers can get away with it.  Again, it’s not the statutes that are weak or poorly written; it’s the enforcement that falls short. 

Consider the BP fiasco.  It’s been revealed that many of the MMS (Minerals Management Service) regulators in charge of overseeing safe drilling procedures were ex-oil company employees or cronies of company officials, and that these ostensible “regulators” had become so cozy with the oil execs, they were woefully negligent in their jobs. 

It wasn’t a case of the regulations being lax, or the language being too vague, or the regulatory agencies being too dimwitted to anticipate potential problems with deep-water drilling.  Rather, it was a case of the personnel in charge of carrying out the inspections not doing what they were supposed to do.
    
Consider China.  While no one is advocating that the U.S. emulate China, the manner in which the two executives involved in the tainted milk powder scandal of 2008 (six infants were killed and several hundred hospitalized as a result of adulterated baby formula) were treated reflected a profound sense of judicial simplicity.  The two guilty managers were executed by firing squad in November, 2009.

Again, we’re just spit-balling here; no one is suggesting that the U.S. government start executing corporate miscreants.  [Speak for yourself, Macaray! Editors.] After all, we’re a nation given to empathy and judicial restraint, and the days of frontier justice—where horse thieves were summarily hanged from the nearest tree—are well behind us (and Texas and Florida already execute enough folks). 

But because Americans can still be sentenced to death for “treason,” consider what message Wall Street bankers would have gotten from witnessing a “traitor” like Kenneth Lay, the Enron CEO who was convicted of wiping out the pensions of thousands of loyal employees, being led outside, placed against a wall, and shot.  A memorable image.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net      

 

 

 

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