In case anyone hasn’t heard, there’s an election coming up next week. One of the messages that I try to communicate to workers reading this newsletter is that the way you vote in November will largely determine your chance of coming home from work healthy and alive at the end of the day.
In case there is anyone out there still wondering whether it’s worth voting this time around, I thought I’d chime in with some reasons to vote for those interested in workplace safety. Sure, there are plenty of other reasons to vote: Trump’s lies, Trump’s racism, Trump’s divisiveness and intolerance, his crushes on Putin, Kim Jong Un, Duterte and Bolsinaro, Trump’s Supreme Court choices, Republicans’ hostility to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and coverage for pre-existing conditions (and their lies about being for coverage after they were against it,) and their general hostility for anything that would benefit women, labor or unions.
But if your main interest is safety and health in the workplace, there are plenty of reasons to vote next week (or before). And by “voting,” I mean for Democrats — in case you hadn’t figured that out yet.
So what will change in January if Democrats take back the House of Representatives (or even the Senate?)
Oversight and Investigations
One of the roles that Congress plays as a separate branch of government (or a role that they played prior to January 2017), is oversight over the Executive Branch — in this case over OSHA, MSHA and NIOSH. Using its oversight authority, Congress has the power to push agencies to effectively administer the laws that Congress has passed. Generally Congressional committees do that by holding hearings and conducting investigations
For example, the first line of the Occupational Safety and Health Act reads “To assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women; by authorizing enforcement of the standards developed under the Act.”
Has Trump’s OSHA been enforcing the law to the extent authorized and envisioned by the law? How many inspections are being conducted? What kind of inspections? Where are they being conducted? What about penalty levels? And what is OSHA doing about issuing standards that protect workers from the numerous hazards that currently have no standards; hazards like heat, workplace violence, infectious diseases, thousands of hazardous chemicals, chemical plant safety, noise and on and on? Why is OSHA spending most of its regulatory efforts rolling back standards instead of improving protections for workers? Is OSHA following the appropriate legal process for weakening worker protections? How is Trump’s one-regulation-in/two-regulations-out Executive Order going to work? What is OSHA doing to stop the rise in workplace fatalities?
Is OSHA’s whistleblower program adequately protecting workers from retaliation? Are OSHA state plans providing coverage at least as effectively as the federal program? What about polices that OSHA is issuing that weaken worker protections, such as a recent memo that weakened protections for workers who may be retaliated against for reporting injuries or illnesses? Why did you take the list of worker fatalities off the homepage of the OSHA website. Why won’t you post companies’ injury and illness summaries on the OSHA website?
The advantage to being able to hold hearings (as opposed to just whining abut problems in blogs and newspapers) is that witnesses can be called — experts in the field who have studied these issues, and workers and family members who can describe first-hand how they have been impacted by injuries, illnesses or deaths in the workplace. And questions can be asked.
Now, both Republicans and Democrats hold hearings, but over the past almost two years of the Trump administration, no OSHA hearings were held in the Senate and only one in the House of Representatives last February which starred two Republican witnesses and former OSHA head Dr. David Michaels. (I wrote about that hearing here, here and here.) But it would be a stretch to call that an oversight hearing as no one from OSHA was even invited. The House also held a somewhat related hearing on regulatory “reform.” Again, no administration officials were invited.
And here’s the thing about hearings in Congress. Only the majority party gets to decide what hearings to hold and they get to decide how many witnesses the minority gets to invite (usually only one.)
So a change in control of either House of Congress will mean more actual oversight hearings with more Democratic witnesses — particularly workers, family members, and union representatives — and leadership of OSHA or MSHA to answer questions about how they’re running the agency.
Oh, and in case you’re asking why the majority party in Congress would ever feel the need to oversee an Executive Branch agency like OSHA that is controlled by your own President — especially when there’s not even a confirmed head of OSHA…. In 2009, when Democrats controlled the House of Representatives and OSHA, there were four OSHA oversight hearings — with testimony by OSHA officials, even before the Senate had confirmed Dr. Michaels as head of the agency. I know, because I testified at three of those hearings.
The majority party also gets more staff than the minority party — especially in the House. That means they have more power and resources to request information from the agencies and conduct investigations. For example, in 2008, during the Bush administration, the House Education and Labor Committee issued a report on underreporting of injuries and illnesses — a report that eventually contributed to additional funding for recordkeeping investigations, and ultimately regulations that improved OSHA’s recordkeeping process.
The main responsibility of Congress is to pass legislation. It is unlikely that any legislation that strengthens OSHA or MSHA, or that benefits workers significantly, will become law even if it passes the House of Representatives. To become law it has to pass both Houses of Congress, and in the unlikely event that the Democrats take both the House and Senate, any House-passed bills would also have to be passed by the Senate — and by 60 votes if the Republicans decide to filibuster. And even in the unlikely event that a bill passes both Houses of Congress, it would still have to be signed by the President.
But don’t lose hope. After the Sago mine disaster in 2006, a Republican-controlled House and Senate passed legislation strengthening MSHA — and signed by a Republican President — within a matter of weeks. Should any similar disaster lead to legislation in the future, Democratic control of even one house of Congress would likely result in improved legislation.
But passing bills into law is not the only benefit of Congress’s legislative authority. Even if a bill passes just one House of Congress, it establishes a marker for activists to organize around and a goal that can be more easilty pursued when the political environment changes for the better.
The other benefit of holding legislative power is keeping bad legislation from seeing the light of day. One of the main policy proposals that Trump and Republicans push is cutting regulations and reducing protections for workers, consumers and the environment. Numerous “regulatory reform” bills have been introduced into Congress with the sole goal of gumming up and slowing down the regulatory process even more than it is now. A Democratically controlled house of Congress would keep damaging legislation from moving through the process.
Congress holds “the power of the purse.” In other words, Congress gets to decide (with the President’s signature), through its appropriations bills, what each government agency gets to spend in the following year. Butit’s not just money. Congress can decide to not provide any funding for a program, eliminating it, or Congress can decide to under-fund a program, significantly weakening its ability to conduct its business. The Trump administration, for example, proposed in its FY 2018 and FY 2019 budgets to eliminate funding OSHA’s $10 million Susan Harwood Worker Training Grant Program. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives went along with the President’s proposal. Happily the Senate, where power is more balanced (and relationships more collegial) than the House, refused to go along. With a Democratically-controlled House, such proposals would be non-starters.
“Riders” on appropriations bills are the favorite means that Representatives and Senator often seek to use to stop an agency from doing things it doesn’t want to do (or in some cases, to make an agency do things it may not want to do.) Riders tell the agency that they’re not allowed to spend money on a certain activity. For example, throughout the first part of the 1990s, Congress passed riders prohibiting OSHA from using any of its budget to work on ergonomics. And during the Obama administration, Congress passed a rider prohibiting the agency from implementing its new “retail exemption” policy covering chemical facilities. Congressional representatives have also unsuccessfully proposed riders that would have stopped OSHA from enforcing its silica standard. And a rider on OSHA’s budget since the 1970’s stops the agency from operating on small farms. Control of one or both houses of Congress (especially the more volatile House) would significantly reduce the chance that any damaging riders would be successful.
The more workers are able to act together, to form unions and to use the power behind those unions, the greater their ability to protect not just their wages, benefits and security, but also their bodies and lives.
So far I’ve been focusing on the effect of elections on OSHA. But OSHA standards and enforcement are only one means of protecting workers. Ultimately, it is workers themselves who are best able to protect themselves in the workplace. And the more workers are able to act together, to form unions and to use the power behind those unions, the greater their ability to protect not just their wages, benefits and security, but also their bodies and lives. A Democratically controlled Congress will be better able to oversee and impede the actions of the Trump-controlled National Labor Relations Board and the Department of Labor who are spearheading this administration’s efforts to weaken unions and undermine workers’ rights.
Bottom Line: Vote
Vote. If you’re sick and tired of what’s been going on for the past couple of years, vote. Vote for tolerance. Vote for inclusion. For for truth. Vote for justice. And vote for safer workplaces. In the words of former Republican Max Boot:
If you’re sick and tired, too, here is what you can do. Vote for Democrats on Tuesday. For every office. Regardless of who they are. And I say that as a former Republican. Some Republicans in suburban districts may claim they aren’t for Trump. Don’t believe them. Whatever their private qualms, no Republicans have consistently held Trump to account. They are too scared that doing so will hurt their chances of reelection. If you’re as sick and tired as I am of being sick and tired about what’s going on, vote against all Republicans. Every single one. That’s the only message they will understand.