Behind the headlines: Walmart and workplace safety


Set the scene: a busy street in a major American city. The time: today. A young woman lifts her sign and walks to protest Walmart's treatment of its workers. She is one of many strikers and their supporters who have raised their voices in protests over the past several weeks.

Our striker carrying the sign has a sore elbow, caused by overuse at her job - and by the lack of employer-provided health care benefits that can teat that pain.

She marches on, trying to ignore the discomfort. Likely as not, she isn't alone amongst her fellow strikers in having to deal with work-related health problems.

Walmart and companies like it have few responsibilities to their employees to balance management's right to hire and fire at will, and what legal responsibilities they do bear have been eroded over the past decades.

The labor movement's struggle for worker safety protections began during America's Gilded Age of the late 19th century.

Today's oil companies, Wall Street gamblers, and money market moguls are like yesterday's robber barons. In each case they built their wealth by harshly exploiting workers, mismanaging natural resources, and buying governmental influence.

In an article on the Demos website Sept. 5, scholar Tali Kristal explored how corporate profits have risen in lock-step with a decline in worker compensation, and with the decades-long business push against union organizing.

Quoting from Kristal's piece, "Back in 1979, American workers claimed about 64 percent of national income, and if labor's share had stayed at this level, the 120 million American workers employed in the private sector in 2007 would have received as a group an additional $600 billion in compensation."

This works out to more than $5,000 extra per worker - which would pay for increased wages and health care that our striker with the aching elbow would surely welcome.

The cause of worker safety - long a critical issue for the labor movement - gained a potential champion when Congress created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1980.

However, for every worker-friendly guideline issued by OSHA, labor-hostile factions in Congress mandated paperwork logjams to keep the agency at bay. This included making OSHA run any proposed rules through the Office of Management and Budget, which begs the question of who's really looking after worker safety: OSHA or a budget-strapped OMB accountant?

As explained by law professor and author Thomas O. McGarity in his latest book, Freedom to Harm: The Lasting Legacy of the Laissez Faire Revival, Congress "also required OSHA to engage in extensive analyses of costs and benefits before they could promulgate rules. Not surprisingly, OSHA's rulemaking output dropped dramatically."

This handful of useful rules regulating industry shrunk from a trickle during the Clinton administration down to a droplet in the dust during the Bush years.

And OSHA "has published no rules of any significance during the Obama administration, though it has just proposed a rule to protect workers from silica," said McGarity.

Walmart has benefitted from worker-unfriendly statutes, particularly in so-called "right-to-work" states such as Texas. However, a rule that never passed has been particularly helpful to Walmart - although not to its employees.

Ergonomics, put simply, is a way of making the human-made things we encounter in our lives more human-friendly. Moving a pallet of cereal boxes, for instance, takes more than a safety belt and a blinking light to make the task safe for the worker. It also involves figuring out to keep that worker healthy from the first to the 1,000th time she moves that pallet.

In the waning days of the Clinton administration, OSHA published a rule on ergonomics. "That regulation required employers like Walmart to establish worker education programs and take other actions designed to prevent musculoskeletal injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome and strained backs," McGarity noted. "These are the sorts of injuries that primarily afflict Walmart employees."

However, before workplace ergonomics could become the law of the land, President George W. Bush signed a measure effectively vetoing the regulation under the Congressional Review Act. The tangle of congressional red tape imposed upon OSHA had turned into glue, for OSHA was now forbidden from putting forth any rule similar to what Bush rejected.

Our striking Walmart worker with the sore elbow, therefore, can't look to OSHA for a quick fix to her workplace conditions, but can the Obama administration offer any help?

McGarity pointed out that the administration could aggressively enforce the statute's general duty clause, which requires employers to provide workers with a safe workplace.

He added, "It could also do a lot of good by either eliminating or severely reducing the impact of the OMB review requirements. President Obama could do this by issuing a single executive order."

Today or tomorrow: another striker on another street. Someone with a work-related health issue that is predictable, preventable, and treatable.

For Walmart, because of its friends in Congress, worker safety is solely a corporate decision. The ergonomics of profit fits the worker to the cost, and shapes the hand, however painfully, to the wheel. In the end, it makes that worker quite dismissible. Unless, of course, she has a union.

Photo: Walmart workers and supporters demonstrate for "respect," June 7, 2013, in Chicago. PW photo