Democratic money bill halts Trump rollback of OSHA beryllium rule
Leo Gerard, president of the Steelworkers, lauded the bill for its inclusion of protection of workers from cancer causing beryllium. | AFT Twitter

WASHINGTON—A “minibus” money bill funding federal agencies for the year starting Oct. 1 contains a win for the Fire Fighters. And it orders GOP President Donald Trump’s Labor Department to preserve, not roll back, a key Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule against exposing construction and shipyard workers to the toxic element beryllium.

Those provisions were among specifics the Democratic U.S. House majority inserted in the bill, either in its original text or as amendments, as solons slogged through the measure, provision by provision, in an all-night session over two days in mid-June. They started in early afternoon of June 12 and finished after 4 am on June 13.

While they were at it, lawmakers bounced other Trump/GOP schemes. One cut spending on every domestic program by 14%. The other demanded more funds for Trump’s Mexican Wall.  Instead, solons zeroed out extra money Trump wanted for the wall and the Border Patrol and even yanked back $601 million Trump wants to spend this fiscal year, 2019, to erect what many call his racist barrier.

The bill, with spending for the Departments of Labor, Education, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Defense and other agencies, is what’s called “a minibus,” where six individual spending bills were combined.

The Fire Fighters won when the bill allotted $750 million, $50 million more than this year, for federal grants to train additional firefighters and to help cities and states buy and upgrade equipment, both key causes of the union. Many cities and towns do not meet national standards of four firefighters per truck and many of the trucks are old. Trump wanted $689 million for the two programs.

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., inserted the other victory, on beryllium. The Trump administration’s OSHA wants to drop specific protections for construction and shipyard workers against beryllium.

To cheers from the Steelworkers, who had toiled for 17 years – including in courts — to force OSHA to protect workers against the known cancer-causing substance, lawmakers came down like a ton of bricks on that protection rollback.

“Such an effort would represent the first time OSHA proposed to weaken a standard protecting workers against a known human carcinogen,” the report on the Labor Department section of the money bill said. “It would leave construction and shipyard workers vulnerable to life-threatening beryllium-related diseases.”

Steelworkers President Leo Gerard lauded Scott and the House for their decision, but warned the GOP-run Senate must go along. The majority there has repeatedly kowtowed to Trump’s wishes, including on workers’ issues.

“In 2017, OSHA released a new standard for beryllium, a highly toxic metal found in some abrasive blasting compounds and in certain high-tech materials, setting a lower exposure limit and including ancillary provisions for workplace monitoring, medical surveillance, and other protective measures,” USW said after the all-night House session.

“The incoming administration” – USW didn’t call out Trump by name — “let the standard remain for most workers but attempted to cancel the ancillary provisions for workers in shipyards and construction.”

“This process can only be done through new rulemaking,” USW added. Scott’s money bill amendment “forbids OSHA to complete that rulemaking, a first step in restoring the provisions.”

“OSHA’s action never made sense,” Gerard said in a statement. “How can the agency justify protecting one group of workers, and stripping those protections from another?” He thanked Scott and the House for its decision, and urged the Senate to agree.

While they were at it, the Democratic majority also scotched Trump’s favorite schemes for fortifying the U.S.-Mexico border and for pursuing Hispanic-named people within the U.S. His Mexican Wall, which critics call racist, ineffective or both, would cost $5 billion-$7 billion.

Solons eliminated new money Trump wanted for more “Border Patrol agents, border checkpoints or border barriers.” The also said he couldn’t transfer funds from other agencies for his wall. To reinforce the point, legislators rescinded – yanked bank — $601 million which Trump seeks to transfer this fiscal year from other agencies to build his wall.

Reps. David Price, D-N.C., Mark Pocan, D-Wis. – a Painter – and Barbara Lee, D-Calif., banned “use of funds for various Trump administration policies, including the detention or removal of DACA recipients and certain ICE and CBP (Customs) raids and other immigration enforcement activities,” the bill report says. The House Appropriations Committee inserted that ban into the money bill by a 28-21 party-line vote. It too survived on the House floor.

DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients are the 800,000-plus Dreamers, brought to the U.S. as undocumented young children. An Obama-era program brought them out of the shadows, letting them work, attend college and serve in the military. Catering to his nativist backers and his own prejudices Trump wants to throw all the Dreamers out of the country. Judges have stopped him.

There was one exception to the Democratic winning streak. It wasn’t labor-related.

Just after 2 am on the second day of debate, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., tried to let federal money be used to discuss how “Schedule I controlled substances” – allegedly the most dangerous narcotics – are suitable for medical purposes. Such discussions are now banned. She had won easily on a prior, unrelated amendment to the money bill.

For “Schedule I controlled substances,” read “marijuana.” The medical uses of pot have been known for years and led to legalization in several states. Ocasio-Cortez got 91 votes, including her own. More than 300 lawmakers voted “no.” Opinion polls show the country may be ready to legalize pot. But spending money on promoting its medical use? The U.S. House is another matter.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.