Obama budget: A 180 degree turn on how workers will be protected

“If we expect our workers to come to work, every day, we have to protect them,” declared Jordan Barab, acting head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, when he spoke to union nurses at their legislative gathering in Washington D.C. last week.

Talking about his boss, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, Barab said, “She is assuming and hoping that most employers want to do the right thing, but those who don’t will be targeted for strong enforcement action.”

If the Obama budget is any indication, the administration seems, on the issue of workplace safety, to be putting its money where its mouth is.

In the budget sent to Congress on May 7, OSHA would get a 10 percent increase in its budget and staff and would close the door on its failed Bush-pushed “voluntary compliance” approach.

The Obama plan to allocate $51 million more to OSHA, raising its funding to $568 million, is, in fact, just one of many pro-worker changes in the budget. It is also proposing major changes in discretionary programs that would help workers.

The number of federal OSHA inspectors, in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, will rise from 38,600 to 40,900. The number of state inspections would rise from 50,000 to 57,650. Money for federal OSHA enforcement would increase 14.6 percent to $227 million.

During the Bush years the Department of Labor lacked sufficient funding, also, to pursue and prosecute employers who violated minimum wage and overtime laws. The new budget boosts funds for enforcement in this area.

Another area to which increased funding will be devoted is Trade Adjustment Assistance, designed to help workers who lose their jobs to subsidized foreign imports. These funds will double, to $1.8 billion, covering larger numbers of workers. Trade Adjustment Assistance includes extensions of jobless benefits and even subsidies for health insurance coverage to workers who lose their jobs.

In the Obama stimulus bill which Congress passed, Trade Adjustment Assistance was expanded to include service-sector workers and workers at firms who lose jobs because their companies depended upon business from laid off workers at other companies affected by foreign trade. Under this new approach a restaurant worker in Mahwah, N.J., for example, who lost his job when the Ford plant there closed, could be eligible for benefits under Trade Adjustment Assistance. This new eligibility begins May 18.

The Obama budget will actually slash one section of the Department of Labor’s enforcement apparatus – the section created by George Bush to harass and “investigate” unions – the Office of Labor-Management Standards. That office, a favorite of the radical right’s National Right to Work Committee, will be cut by 10 percent to $41 million.

Solis has already killed a recent Bush rule that would have forced union officers and staffers to publicly disclose virtually all of their personal finances, something corporate leaders and staffers are, of course, not required to do.

For the first time, ever, the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division has set a goal to secure for 350,000 or more workers back pay owed to them by their companies.

Additional funding has also been provided to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., which pays out pension plans when employers,, usually due to bankruptcy, dump them. The Department of Labor expects that it will take over plans affecting 692,484 retirees in the year starting Oct. 1, up from 665,000 this year. It expects another 100 corporate pension plans to be dumped this year.

The National Labor Relations Board will get a small increase, up $21 million to $283.4 million. The number of workers employed by the board will increase by 48, to 1,285, still, however, well below levels it had reached during the Clinton Administration.

In a statement, Solis said, “The president’s budget launches new and innovative ways to promote economic recovery and the competitiveness of our nation’s workers.”

Most in the labor movement are hoping that the efforts in the Obama budget to protect people who go to work every day are the beginning of a permanent departure from the way business was done during the Bush years.