Neoliberalism is Finished, OSHA’s Time Has Come

Our federal government will either work for us or against us. It won’t be neutral. Now is not the time for hand wringing and worrying what the next administration will or will not do: It’s the time to forward concrete proposals that materially help workers and their families.

“Amtrak Joe” just might rebuild our national passenger and freight system; lower the Medicare age to 60; introduce a Public Option to the ACA; enhance Medicaid; move up the minimum wage to at least $15 an hour; oil & gas regulations in line with Climate demands; environmental climatic changes to deal with California fires and winds; and southern coastal issues to deal with increasing hurricane, tornadoes, rain/wind disasters and other immediate promises.

About 120 years ago Vladimir Lenin published his pamphlet “What is to be done?” It was based on a Russian revolutionary writer Nikolai Chernyshevsky novel. But, that question is often asked in periods of cataclysmic events which can guide and will influence tens of millions of people’s. The question asked: “What is to be Done?”

We currently are in such a period in the United States and on the world stage.

As Trump is dumped and we start returning to life as it was — does the defeat of Trump mean that new public policies are proposed that reflect the economic/political/pandemic crisis that is taking place? And that peoples’ everyday working and social demands are expressed by class-oriented trade unions who will promote and fight for them?

We at Labor Today choose the latter path.

The Political Economy of Neoliberalism

Understanding the political economy of neoliberalism as applied to working class conditions is crucial to any hope of serious restoration of a federal role in preventing dangerous life-threatening and killing working conditions.

This starts with documenting the ravages of the federal policies of neoliberalisms:

Anti government privatizations, deregulation and government shrinkages in a period of COVID19 must stop. The period between 1980 and the start of 2020 was bad enough. The scourge of Coronavirus and the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement has escalated the requirement of new and significant policy initiatives.

It’s tempting to include health policy a little, but for now we are focusing on OSHA. MSHA. NIOSH. & related agencies as required.


Pre 1980 wasn’t a breeze for OSHA

MSHA NIOSH and EPA AND health policy, but there wasn’t a thorough neoliberal ideology behind anti-working class federal government measures.

The country was still enjoying the end of the Vietnam war and the post Nixon impeachment and resignation PTSD period.

Rescuing the legislative intent of OSHA from Nixon Ford administrations was the first step. Newly elected President Jimmy Carter in 1976 hired, under trade union AND medical sciences pressure, qualified people and turn them loose.

After being hired, Dr. Eula Bingham, the new OSHA Director, simply took the legislative intent and fashioned a pro-worker/trade union strategy of federal standards development and enforcement that worked.

In those days the chamber of Commerce was the overarching corporate lobbying power. Pressuring democrat president Jimmy Carter and Congress was their simple strategy.

But it wasn’t enough to just to slow down OSHA in that 1976-80 period.

No, by 1980 corporate/Wall Street American had different ideas. They envisioned a period of time with them in the ascendancy. The then powerful Democratic Party leadership responded, unfortunately they responded in the wrong way.

The 1980 corporate backlash

In 1980, before the US elections, liberal US senators co-authored Senate bill 2153, “ the OSHA Improvement Act of 1980”. It was a bipartisan preneoliberalism signal. It was authorized and Sponsored by Republicans Oren Hatch and Wm Schweiker, and Democrats Harrison Williams and Alan Cranston. It focused on cutbacks in inspections, I.e. deregulation. It would have eliminated 90% of workplaces from routine inspections.

It would have also turned OSHA into a defunct management/ labor “cooperative” enforcement system. That is a dream of anti-union policy makers who simply fear powerful trade unions. Prior to the federal OSHA passage, state-based programs were based on this phoney labor/management enforcement system.

This corporate induced effort fell completely in its face.

A mobilization of trade union activists, probably some from the Eula Bingham inspired “New Directions” training programs, rose up and killed it. A New York Times paid advertisement called for its demise. It was endorsed by a broad trade union list.

But, unfortunately, that was one victory before a stunning row of defeats extending to this day. The victory did save OSHA from legislative changes.

Reagan and Thatcher

This changed, radically in 1980. The newly elected Reagan and Thatcher governments were elected in the US and Britain. That was bad enough.

But it became too very clear that both the British Labour Party and the US Democratic Party would both seek a bipartisanship as allies. They both silently adopted to the previously failed neoliberal attack by objectively making the working class fair game. The guard rails against corporate greed would be deleted.

Reagan election win, after years of Reagan being pictured as a Hollywood buffoon, was taken as sea change in the future of the United States. To this day Reagan’s media reputation remains positive.

The Democrats fell before Reagan and Tony Blair destroyed the once powerful Socialist Labour Party. Both proclaimed the invincibility of these right-wing governments.

Bush(s) and Clinton: 20 years

For workers and their unions, the Bush administrations did their usual and expected Republicans’ part, but then the Clinton administration, in between, followed strict neoliberalism requirements. They had their right-wing Democrat Leadership Council DLC as their tool and their organizational weapon.

Federal welfare policy was a disaster. Killing Policing against mainly Black men became the new federal policies. The US imperialist war on Yugoslavia coupled with the personal Clinton fiascos killed any positive labor law changes. The disastrous neoliberal North American Free Trade NAFTA sailed through Congress with little trade union militant opposition. The Teamsters sounded the alarm, but few listened.

The Promise of 2008

The almost genocidal Bush war on Iraq and surroundings stunned the country. Domestic policy kept its rightward direction. The Republicans had 8 years to do their damage. Then came the next national election.

The overwhelming victory and promises of the 2008 Obama Administration failed from the start. They were scrupulously ruled with neoliberalism and libertarian dictates.

For example, The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) would have given trade unions a new chance. That indirectly also meant good news for federal legislation of workers regulation. None of that happened. A major promise was broken. Union leadership was stunned, but went away silent.

(We got an insurance company controlled federal health system that only covered a short portion in need: with copays, deductibles and ceilings cost people plenty. Drug companies were still given almost free reign)

Libertarianism Rules the Education

and Regulation Roost

In the period 2008-20016, Cas Sunstein was the most openly aggregious applicator of the privatization-and-no-regulations policies, for example. Sunstein and his wife seemed to run the Obama Administration. Sunstein is a self-proclaimed libertarian. He knew what he was doing. And he did it with a Harvard flair. He may have left after 4 years but the dye was cast. No new federal worker protection regulations. Period

Privatization of public schools into “Charter schools” were the bread winner for DNC contributions. That was Arnie Duncan territory. And they were ruthless. This was a virulently anti-teachers union policy direction.

Competency was replaced with blindly enforcement of neoliberal deregulation.

Heading OSHA, Joe McDermott under Clinton and David Michaels under Obama were both highly competent administrators but the white Houses rejected their regulatory pro-worker policies.

The AFL-CIO safety and health department under both Administrations didn’t stand a chance. It wasn’t their fault. They did their best in saving the legal structures which they did. The laws are still intact. The AFL-CIO is simply not independent of the Democratic Party.

Deadly examples: Neoliberalism Protects cancerous Diesel Exhaust polluter: Detroit Motors et al.

In February 2012 Debra Silverman and NIH colleagues successfully associated Diesel Exhaust (DE) with lung cancer. By June 2012, IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer), WHO, lowered the DE exposure limit to the same as asbestos. Previously, the ACGIH (American Conference of Government Industrial Hygienist), had already lowered its TLV (Threshold Limit Value) and in 2012 lowered it to the cancer TLV. By June ACGIH lowered their DE TLV to the IARC Recommendation level.

The neoliberal controlled, no-regulation, Democratic Party government’s OSHA administration did not make any moves. The old OSHA rule for DE as a devastatingly dangerous rule stayed in place, and remains there today ,which exposes tens of thousands of workers and exponentially millions of people to deadly DE fumes.

This probably helped and abetted Volkswagen’s criminal actions to fix its emissions on its world-wide VW diesels automobiles and avoid the “DE causes occupational and environmental cancer” label. Keeping diesels under the hope of electrification.

The NIH team also scientifically associated industrial solvents with pancreatic cancer. This was in 2014. Again, no rule-making was started by OSHA.

Given the moribund status of NIOSH, it wasn’t surprising for scientists at NIH to step in their place to protect workers.

Following the 2012 DE findings, Dora Nigro, widow of a New York State MTA bus mechanic, successfully won a NYS Workers’ Compensation case for her diseased husband Tony Nigro. Tony was a proud member of Transport Workers Union Local 100.

A similar workers’ compensation case was filed on behalf of deceased Michael Jerome, a wheel and axle repair worker at the Coney Island overhaul shop, for his pancreatic cancer. That case is pending.

A New Period Has Opened

In a just a few short months a new period of workers related rights will open. Joe Biden has a good chance to significantly change this neoliberal scenario. Three things will present the Democrats with a radically new historical situation:


Black Lives Matter

Death and Life of Dr Bingham

The Coronavirus has shown the ravages in the wake of neoliberal federal and state policies. It went from a controllable virus to a pandemic. Privatized public/government health hospitals and a federal government not ready to protect risked all people. Public Hospitals downsized. In New York private non-profit hospitals became self-serving corporate monopolies with service cutbacks. Private equity funds controlled hospital ERs.

The VA hospitals have continued to be defunded over the last 30+ years. This shows the deadly hypocrisy of patriotism.

The Democrats were bad enough with mostly lip service in preparedness, the Republicans starting in 2016 proudly wiped out the lip service.

It’s well documented that the pandemic has rendered Black and Latin people most at risk of dying. Looking toward the future, they are now in worsening conditions. Removing all employee limits from enforcement will be a big step in covering all workers. Now, most regulations don’t cover employment places with fewer that 50 workers. That must be ended. A significant number of Black and Latin workers are employed in those places. They also tend to not have trade union protection.

The Chair of the Federal Reserve recently and widely said the current COVID19 related recession economy will make things much worse for those most at risk, specifically Black and Latin working class people, whether at home or work.

Neoliberalism is a World Wide Pandemic

Internationally, the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) neoliberal monetary policies have destroyed government socioeconomic infrastructure programs across Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. The British NHS and the national health systems In Spain, France, and Italy were decimated by neoliberalist financial cutbacks over the years. Their COVID19 deaths in those countries reflected that. Trade union demonstrations were and are still being held to restore these systems.

In the Western Hemisphere we are now seeing it most clearly in Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Venezuela and the rest of South and central America. Mexico is teetering.


The workers’ health and safety example of Smithfield slaughter houses, where workers were and are being forced to work with the virus with no ETS (Emergency Temporary Standard) ON INFECTIOUS DISEASES in place have been documented even in the New York Times. This ETS rule was not enacted under Obama either, even though it was in the infamous OSHA pipeline for a couple of years. It never made it to a final actual rulemaking standard. Neoliberalism killed its progress.

That Smithfield is not owned by a US based company, it is a Chinese, wholly-owned subsidiary of WH Foods , as is not JBS, a Brazilian-owned slaughterhouse, only enhances the disastrous neoliberalism trade policies’ point.

The BLM Movement of national and worldwide demonstrations has documented that Black workers and families/communities face the harshest working and living conditions and therefore require the strongest federal OSHA, EPA And RELATED federal protection Standards and Enforcement.

All workers must be covered, not just those in places of 50 or more workers.

Eula Bingham: pre-neoliberalism examples

The recent death of our heroine presents a multitude of actions that her life at Department of Labor shows we can run with. Never settling for plaudits, I’m sure she would want her accomplishments highlighted in new actual programs. It’s not complicated.

Strong standard setting: The asbestos, lead, cotton dust and BCME standards, and other NIOSH Generated rule-making under Bingham’s tenure are significant examples. Dr. Tony Robbins was NIOSH Director with a highly qualified set of researchers to prepare hazards for rule-making.

Enforcement was in high gear. Hundreds of newly marshaled enforcement officers were hired, trained and sent out to enforce the law. The playbook was simple: respond to all worker and trade union complaints. They utilized the range of violations: non-serious, serious, repeated and willful. Appropriate strong fines were imposed.

Employers were crying. Corporate elites were in stitches fearing losing their grip. The Chamber of Commerce was making regular White House visits.

Why? OSHA inspectors were responding to worker and union complaints. The law was being enforced. A new wrinkle must be adopted, in addition to reemployment of federal Marshall inspectors. That is, all workers regardless of size of establishment should be covered, not just those with over 10 or 50 workers.

“New Directions” federal money for training and education was a great Bingham innovation. Federal grants were given to non-profit and appropriate educational institutions. It is now once again desperately needed.

You get the picture.

I believe Eula would love her death to be a springboard to a “Back to the Future” regeneration of a strong government role using our tax dollars to protect us and not the Billionaires. Bernie’s call to arms.

And, now with the COVID19 public health crisis and the powerful street-based BLM movement ,the imperative to cover ALL workers is paramount.

For example, When Dr. Bingham, working with Dr. Jeanne Stellman, lowered the proposed lead standard to cover all women including those in birthing years, the precedent had been established.

Immediately OSHA adopting the TLVs of the ACGIH AND the IARC rules would be a good start.

A recent shallow thin New York Times top editorial ”OSHA IS AWOL” is the height of hypocrisy given the Times promotion of Democratic Party neoliberal policies that created our current situation. They barely mentioned standard setting and standard enforcement.

I can only hope that the single payer/Medicare for All movement moves closer to a National Health Service that the COVID19 proved we need and must have. Elimination of all private hospitals, whether they be for profit or so called not for profit, is called for. Again the BLM movement must remain our enforcement apparatus.

Can a Biden Do It?

Biden is similar to FDR. Both started off as conservatives. Biden could flower into more radical policies given our times. Remember in the 1932 election a widely discredited Herbert Hoover still received 39% of the vote.

Biden’s VP choice Kamala Harris is important. She understands law enforcement. His selection of a Black woman with politics as good as Henry Wallace who became the VP in 1940 is optimistic.

Anything is possible if it’s fought for.


Frank Goldsmith has a PhD from Columbia University’s School of Public Health; taught at Stonybrook, HSC, State University of New York; Transport Workers Union, Local 100, Director, Occupational Health 2000-2018; Current: Labor Today, Associate & International Editor; World Federation of Trade Unions, North American Coordinator.