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Bush Shirks Role as Top Labor Cop

Workplace safety has eroded under the Bush administration, but we can make workers safer again, write David Madland and Karla Walter.

Construction workers carry a wreath to lay it at the site in downtown Boston where a scaffolding collapse killed three people. (AP/Elise Amendola)
Construction workers carry a wreath to lay it at the site in downtown Boston where a scaffolding collapse killed three people. (AP/Elise Amendola)

Every year nearly 6,000 American workers are killed on the job and many more are bilked out of an estimated $19 billion in wages by their employers. Unfortunately, workers do not have the protections they need and deserve because President Bush’s Department of Labor has failed to effectively police low-road employers, and unions—which give workers a voice on the job and help to ensure laws are followed—have been under attack and therefore shrinking in size.

Laws exist to protect workers from unsafe working conditions and employer wage theft. Unions lobbied hard and won comprehensive wage-protection laws passed during the FDR administration and occupational safety laws enacted during the early 1970s. Minimum wage and overtime rules, anti-discrimination laws, and workplace safety standards create a guaranteed floor for all American jobs. They also require the Department of Labor to police American workplaces and penalize scofflaw employers.

However, negligent firms often ignore these rules, and Bush’s Department of Labor has shirked its role as top labor cop. Irresponsible employers know that they will be rarely penalized for workplace abuses, and when they are, penalties will likely be so low they will not hurt the firm’s bottom line. In recent years, wage theft investigators assessed fines on only 6 percent of known lawbreakers. Moreover, in 2006 the average workplace safety penalty for serious violations that “pose a substantial probability of death or serious physical harm” was only $881.

The risk of employer abuse is especially high for workers in traditionally low-wage and potentially dangerous industries. According to recent reports, at least 50 percent of garment, nursing home, and poultry employers are in violation of the basic minimum wage and overtime protections. At least one in ten meatpacking workers are injured on the job every year, but safety inspectors are only able to inspect about 75 of the more than 5,000 meatpacking plants each year.

And it’s not only workers who get cheated. Employers who play by the rules and treat their workers with respect can’t compete with irresponsible firms who cut corners with employee safety and wages.

Although Bush’s Labor Department is leaving workers to fend for themselves, unions can give workers an important voice in standing up to employers who flout the law. Labor unions empower workers to speak out against employer abuses and can defend whistleblowers from employer retaliation. Moreover, as on-the-ground experts, unions can provide important targeting information to worker-protection agencies. Indeed, the workers that are the most abused by their employers are frequently low-wage, non-union labor. These disempowered workers are also the least likely to report workplace abuse.

Unfortunately, these days it is rare for any American worker to be unionized—only 8 percent of the American workforce belongs to a labor union compared to one-third of private-sector workers in the decades after World War II. The reason: Existing laws make joining a union a Herculean task that few are able to undertake. Employers legally can force workers to attend anti-union meetings, including “one-on-one conversations” with supervisors, and often pressure workers to reveal their private preferences for the union. When employers who oppose unionization break the law, penalties are weak and insufficient. Workers are illegally fired in about one-quarter of union organizing campaigns, but they can at best hope to recover their lost wages and get reinstated in their jobs, often after years of legal battles. And if workers prevail against these odds, employers often refuse to negotiate with the union.

An important step toward improving workplace safety and wage standards is to give workers a stronger voice through increased unionization. Congress can reduce the barriers to joining a union by passing the Employee Free Choice Act. The bill would allow an employee to choose to join a union by signing a membership card—a system that works well at the small number of workplaces that choose to permit it—and also promotes good-faith bargaining so that employees can negotiate a first contract. The act does not deny workers their right to vote in a union election, as some conservatives maintain, but rather allows workers to choose between signing a membership card and having an election.

The House of Representatives has already passed this important legislation, and although a majority of senators support it, opposition from a few conservatives has prevented the bill’s passage. The next president must prioritize the protection workers’ rights both through better enforcement of existing wage theft and worker safety law, and through inducing the Senate to pass the Employee Free Choice Act.

Learn more from the Center for American Progress Action Fund’s American Worker Project.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


David Madland

Senior Fellow; Senior Adviser, American Worker Project

Karla Walter

Senior Fellow, Inclusive Economy