Under Solis, Change Afoot at Department of Labor

The Nation takes an admiring view of changes at the U.S. Department of Labor under Hilda Solis in this week’s issue. In a lengthy piece on the labor secretary’s first year in office, the magazine says Solis is trying to restore worker protections that were rolled back during the Bush Administration. The article by Esther Kaplan cites as an example the agency’s hire of more than 700 new enforcement staff and its new push for tighter coal dust and silica regulations. Kaplan says the DOL will soon tackle misclassification of employees as independent contractors.

More evidence of the shakeup:

Indeed, Solis threw her weight around on Capitol Hill when one key deputy, Labor Solicitor Patricia Smith, faced stiff opposition from business lobbies and the GOP. One of Smith’s predecessors as labor solicitor–the nation’s top enforcer of labor laws–was Eugene Scalia, son of the Supreme Court justice. Scalia’s previous claim to fame was his successful campaign to block an ergonomics safety standard, using an industry-supported Astroturf group to question whether repetitive-motion injuries exist at all. As labor solicitor, he invoked the Taft-Hartley Act against West Coast longshoremen locked out by their employer (a former client) and made a habit of undermining his own agency, writing a brief supporting limits on whistleblower protections. After a one-year tour, he landed on the lush payroll of Gibson Dunn, a leading “union avoidance” firm, where he now serves as an expert on “downsizing” when not penning attacks on the Employee Free Choice Act for the Wall Street Journal.

Smith, on the other hand, has spent more than twenty years going to battle on behalf of vulnerable, low-wage workers, first at the New York State attorney general’s office and then as the state’s labor commissioner. “She turned it from a backwater agency to a national model in just three years,” says Andrew Stettner, deputy director of the National Employment Law Project. “In my career I’ve never seen an agency turned around so quickly.” What Smith did in New York, according to labor officials, community advocates and business leaders, was to take a targeted approach not just to rogue players but to rogue industries, such as retail, residential construction and restaurants, where minimum-wage and safety violations were rampant.

The appointment of David Michaels as director of OSHA also marks a departure, Kaplan says. The agency’s last director under Bush was a former partner at what the magazine calls a “unionbusting law firm.” He was a fan of voluntary compliance and showed a powerpoint presentatation of workers near live power lines and on unsafe scaffolding for laughs, Kaplan writes.These days, OSHA staffers meet below portraits of workers killed on the job, and a recent listening forum that brought together workers and industry made it clear where director Michaels’ sympathies lie:

At that event, industry was well represented, and Michaels gave prominent spots to speakers from the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, who complained that the department was “trying to scare employers by touting its enforcement agenda.” But it was no accident that he scheduled them immediately after a panel of grieving women who broke down as they spoke about their husbands or sons or uncles dying in factory explosions, burns and falls.

But Solis’ efforts at reform face plenty of obstacles — OSHA still has few inspectors (Kaplan says it would take 140 years for the agency to visit every worksite in the country), a well-funded opposition. And a huge range of issues from weak laws to toxic chemicals to wage theft are competing for its attention.

It is an open question whether Obama will eventually unleash his feisty labor secretary to push Congress to upgrade the nation’s moribund worker protections. But few observers have any doubt that the new team at the Department of Labor will do all it can with the broken laws and clunky regulatory powers at its disposal. “They know all the tricks of the trade,” says Celeste Monforton, a veteran of OSHA and MSHA who is now at George Washington University’s School of Public Health. “They know the Chamber of Commerce is going to come and say, This is going to kill jobs. None of that will surprise them, and none of that should make them blink.”

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Bridget Huber is a FairWarning contributor.

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