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A Ray of Hope for Labor

All things considered, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis has had an impressive rookie year.  Not only has the former California congresswoman garnered praise from labor, immigration, human rights and other progressive groups, the case can be made that, of all 16 members of President Obama’s Cabinet, her performance—low-key and “unglamorous” as it was—has been the most impressive.

Consider:  With Solis at the helm, British Petroleum (BP), the fifth-largest corporation in the world, received the stiffest fine in OSHA’s 39-year history:  a whopping $87,430,000.  BP was found guilty of “egregious” and “willful violations” for repeatedly failing to fix safety problems at its sprawling Texas City oil refinery, following a massive explosion in 2005.

While government oversight agencies are renowned for dragging their feet in investigations and chickening out when it comes to punishment, Solis didn’t hesitate to fire a salvo across the bow of Corporate America.   By slapping BP with an $87 million fine, she showed she was serious about the changing the dynamic of employee-employer relations in regard to workplace safety.

Compare this attitude with that of Elaine Chao, Bush’s Secretary of Labor (former Peace Corps Director and wife of Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell), who, through incompetence, inaction and complicity, was judged to have set the labor movement back a quarter-century.  To make matters worse, she served two full terms, the most for any Secretary of Labor since FDR’s Frances Perkins.  A Labor Secretary can undo a lot of good in eight years.

It was Chao, the free-market zealot and ultra-ambitious career administrator, who accepted the notion that “Business can police itself,” a goofy management philosophy that’s been peddled for decades by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Heritage Foundation, among others.  Any student of human nature could have told her that such a philosophy can’t work.

Even the country’s prestigious military academies, steeped as they are in tradition, were forced to modify their “honor codes” after several embarrassing cheating scandals. How could anyone seriously expect some half-baked honor system tied to the profit motive to succeed?  Indeed, it was this same anti-regulation policy that Wall Street has been spouting for years (“Leave us experts alone and we’ll make money for everyone”), and look how that puppy turned out.

Safety doesn’t come cheap.  It costs money to establish and maintain a safe workplace, which is why union shops have better safety records than non-union shops (e.g., approximately 90% of mining accidents occur in non-union mines). Yet, astonishingly, businesses were able to convince Secretary Chao that, without interference or regulation, they could be relied upon to do everything in their power—including spending all the money necessary—to a ensure a safe facility.  As Bernie Madoff famously said, “You’re just going to have to trust me.”

Solis is also focusing on employee compensation abuses.  Each year there are hundreds of thousands of cases of restaurant, janitorial and low-end industrial employees being cheated out of their wages by unscrupulous employers.  They get away with this because the majority of these employees are Hispanic immigrants who fear losing their jobs if they complain too loudly or attempt to contact an outside agency.

The level of hypocrisy (to say nothing of the greed quotient) is staggering. You have businessmen who eagerly join flag-waving Republicans in railing against undocumented immigrants, but who continue to hire these workers, continue to pay them less than the federal minimum wage ($7.25 per hour), and—cheap bastards that they are—continue to systematically cheat them out of their hours, knowing they won’t go complaining to the state.

While immigrants are among the most victimized workers, they are by no means the exclusive target.  It was only a couple of years ago that Walmart, the world’s largest and highest profile retailer, was forced to pay $640 million in back wages.  The settlement was the result of 63 class-action lawsuits filed by Walmart employees for overtime hours worked but not paid (something that could never, ever happen in a union shop, not in a million years).

Solis has taken the first step.  She has already followed through on her promise to add 250 additional investigators to the Wage and Hour Administration—the agency responsible for handling pay disputes—and has promised to hire 100 additional OSHA investigators by the summer of 2010.

It should be recalled that after being sworn in, Ms. Solis dramatically declared, “There’s a new sheriff in town.”  This declaration was her promise to pursue corporate violators doggedly and with a vengeance.  Let’s hope she keeps that promise.

DAVID MACARAY, a playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor,” available at Amazon), was a former union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net