Bush vs. Gore: The Future of Occupational Safety

Tired of campaign platitudes? OH examines what the two major candidates have done, and what they will do, about occupational safety and health.

As the year 2000 draws to a close, the nation's top job safety agency has reached a fork in the road. Will OSHA continue along the same path? Or will the agency strike out in a new direction, pursuing programs and policies long favored by business groups?

Answers to these questions will largely be determined by who wins the presidential election.

If Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic candidate, wins in November, most Washington insiders foresee few major changes in critical areas of OSHA: rulemaking enforcement and budget priorities.

A Republican takeover of the White House by Texas Gov. George W. Bush, however, will probably affect everything from the future of the ergonomics standard to the amount of money OSHA spends on voluntary compliance programs.

As in previous presidential election campaigns, neither major party candidate is making occupational health and safety a high-profile issue. A good sense of where Bush and Gore would take OSHA in the future emerges from examining what each has done in the past.

Interviews with labor and industry leaders are also revealing, because whoever takes over the White House will owe major debts to interest groups that helped put him there.

Using these sources, as well as others, it is possible to dig beneath the campaign rhetoric and uncover where the two candidates stand on occupational safety.

Ergonomics

The single biggest difference between the candidates is that Gore supports an ergonomics standard and Bush does not.

"Gov. Bush believes government should provide workers and business with information about ergonomic-related injuries but not issue federal mandates that are not scientifically grounded," said a spokesperson in the Bush campaign.

It is a measure of how large this battle has become that an occupational health issue has found its way onto both party platforms.

Peg Seminario, director of the AFL-CIO's occupational safety and health department, rarely agrees with Randel Johnson, vice president for labor policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Yet, Seminario and Johnson have the same prediction about what Bush would do with the ergonomics rule if it is not issued before he becomes president.

"If you ended up with a Bush as president," Seminario said, "clearly you would see them stopping an ergonomics standard -- without any question."

This is perhaps the main reason why OSHA is so intent upon issuing a final rule before the end of the year.

If the Clinton administration succeeds in promulgating the rule, most observers say it would be enforced, no matter who is in the White House next year.

A new administration would have to jump through all of the same hoops to undo the rule that the previous administration jumped through to issue it, according to Pat Cleary, vice president for human resources at the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), a leading opponent of the proposed standard.

"You can't just wink at the labor secretary and say, 'How about you just don't enforce this?'" Cleary said. "Because Peg Seminario is going to be in court tomorrow to require them to enforce it, and she's going to win."

However, how Bush or Gore would enforce an ergonomics rule -- not to mention all of the other federal regulations on the books -- gets at another fundamental difference between the two candidates.

"Raining Carol Browners"

"I think a Bush administration would do its level best to get OSHA away from the 'gotcha' mindset into one of compliance assistance," Cleary said.

Republican members of Congress have long favored placing more emphasis on funding voluntary compliance programs to help employers comply with the law. Most Washington insiders believe Bush would move in this direction.

"The executive branch must enforce the law," Johnson said, "but they do have a great deal of discretion about how to enforce regulations."

Gore's approach to regulation not only sets him apart from his Republican opponent, it could turn out to be one of the few differences between a Gore and a Clinton administration.

Johnson and Cleary believe that Gore is somewhat more beholden to organized labor than Clinton, because the vice president might not have won the presidential primaries without the support of the unions.

Partly as a result of his labor ties and partly because of Gore's history, industry groups fear his administration could show more regulatory zeal than Clinton's.

"Clinton has sort of a mishmash of people in his cabinet, but if Gore wins, it will be raining Carol Browners," said Cleary, in a reference to the EPA administrator known for her robust approach to regulatory enforcement.

Seminario was more circumspect about possible differences between Clinton and Gore, but she noted the vice president has a long history of interest in workers' health and safety.

Seminario noted her first recollection of Gore dates from 20 years ago, when he was the chair of a House subcommittee in the Science and Technology Committee.

"He was very involved as chair of the committee on key oversight investigations on issues of formaldehyde and cotton dust," she said. "He provided very important leadership in defending those protections for workers." Since that time, she added, Gore as vice president has been a strong supporter of worker protections and the enforcement of regulations.

Bush's Texas Record

What Bush and Gore have done so far with the powers of office reveal profound differences in how the two candidates approach occupational safety and health.

Gore has been an activist with respect to governmental regulation of workplace safety, building a record that is friendly to labor unions and others who believe government action can make a difference in this area.

In his five years as governor of Texas, local observers say Bush has taken a laissez-faire approach toward occupational health and safety, a policy that pleases business and antagonizes organized labor.

"Occupational safety and health haven't been on his radar screen," said Harold Freeman, associate director of legislative affairs for the Texas Medical Association (TMA). "If it were, I think I would know."

Even if had he wished to, Bush would have had a tough time pushing an aggressive occupational safety agenda. Texas is covered by the federal OSHA system, and it has a "weak governor" system that gives the state's chief executive few powers to affect legislation.

The most important piece of new legislation affecting occupational health to arise on Bush's watch was a bill that would have denied workers in the workers' compensation system the right to choose their doctor.

TMA opposed the measure, and Freeman said Bush took no position on the proposal. It died in committee last year.

The bill arose in part because workers' compensation medical costs in Texas are among the highest in the nation and rising fast, according to a recent study by the Workers Compensation Research Institute in Cambridge, Mass.

Bush vs. AFL-CIO

With respect to worker safety, perhaps the most striking event of Bush's term in office was a lawsuit brought against him by the Texas AFL-CIO because of the governor's initial refusal to appoint an employee representative to chair the Texas Workers' Compensation Commission (TWCC).

The six-member commission oversees the workers' compensation system in Texas and is composed of three employee and three employer representatives, all of whom are appointed by the governor. The governor also appoints the chair of TWCC, and Texas law requires that the powerful position rotate every two years between employer and employee representatives. The chair of TWCC determines the agenda for meetings.

When it was an employee's turn to be chair in 1997, Bush initially balked at appointing an employee representative to the post.

Rick Levy, legal director of the AFL-CIO, handled the case against Bush. "We filed the lawsuit and engaged in discussions with the governor's office," Levy said. The suit was dropped after the governor backed down and appointed employee representative Jack Abla.

Repeated efforts to reach the Bush campaign for comment on the matter were not successful.

"We have a weak governor system here, so his ability to affect the workers' compensation system is directly related to the people he appoints," said Eric Glenn, governmental affairs manager for the Texas Association of Business and Chambers of Commerce.

Glenn praised Bush's three employee appointments to the commission. "We don't always agree with them, but the people he has selected are very knowledgeable," Glenn said.

That's not how Emmett Sheppard, secretary-treasurer of the Texas AFL-CIO, sees it.

"We've got no safety in this state," Sheppard said. "And I think our problem stems from the workers' compensation system." Sheppard attacked the Texas system itself as well as the commissioners Bush has appointed to oversee it.

Sheppard charged that Texas is one of the most dangerous states in the nation to work in, but recent figures do not support him.

Even though AFL-CIO fought to have Abla appointed chair of TWCC, the union believes that, like the other employee representatives appointed by Bush, Abla is more concerned about saving money than protecting workers. Part of the problem, they say, is that Abla is more of a manager than an employee because he works as a safety director in a nonunion trucking company. Although his term as chair of TWCC expired last year, he is to remain on the commission until 2001.

Abla's positions on the issues are at odds with organized labor, and they may reveal something about Bush's approach toward occupational safety and health.

Though he declined to take a position on whether employees should have the right to choose their doctors, Abla said it could save the Texas workers' compensation system millions of dollars if employers selected the doctor.

Abla does not support requiring employers to carry workers' compensation insurance. "I think the voluntary system is working well for the state of Texas," he said.

Texas is unique because it is the only state in which workers' compensation insurance is truly voluntary. TWCC says that approximately 40 percent of employers and 20 percent of employees in Texas are not in the state system.

One of the most obvious problems with a voluntary system is that an injured employee may not receive any benefits from the employer. The only remedy in such situations would be for the worker to file a lawsuit -- not always a feasible option.

Many employers who do not subscribe to the Texas workers' compensation system, however, offer good benefits to their employees, according to Steve Bent, executive director of the Texas Association of Responsible Non-subscribers. Bent cited an independent study which found that, by a slim margin, Texas workers in companies outside the state system were more satisfied with their benefits than workers whose employers had state-approved compensation insurance.

Gore in Washington

The power of the vice president to affect policy is somewhat harder to discern than that of a governor, even if it is a weak-governor state like Texas. Yet, it is clear that, while a member of Congress and as vice president, Gore has been a strong supporter of OSHA, a believer that robust rulemaking and enforcement policies improve occupational safety.

As a member of Congress, Gore opposed legislation that would have eliminated certain mandatory minimum penalties for violations of the OSH Act. His investigations into occupational hazards as chair of a subcommittee in the Science and Technology Committee have been mentioned.

As vice president, Gore took the lead in the administration's effort to "reinvent government," an initiative that was supposed to reduce government regulation and make federal agencies more "customer friendly."

Far from winning friends in the business community, however, Gore's work here seems only to have increased mistrust between industry and government.

The U.S. Chamber's Johnson noted that part of the reinvention plan was to give businesses a chance to comply with regulations before being cited so that the money they would have paid in fines could be used to comply with the law.

"This is an example of Gore's early rhetoric on 'reinventing government,'" Johnson said. "It just fell off the table because the AFL-CIO opposed it." Nor does Johnson believe Gore would re-visit the proposal if he were elected president, because organized labor is still against it.

Gore's presidential campaign Web site touts the administration's support for increased funding for OSHA, in opposition to Republican attempts to "slash" the agency's budget in 1995. This year the administration has proposed an increase of $44 million for OSHA.

Clinton-Gore also supported the Comprehensive Occupational Safety and Health Reform Act, sponsored by Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., a bill that, among other things, would have required employers to establish safety and health programs, a standard that OSHA has pushed to the back burner because of its effort to finish ergonomics.

Yet, for most of its time in office, the Clinton-Gore team has been playing defense with respect to OSHA, fighting off Republican legislative attempts to reduce the agency's budget and its enforcement powers. Labor leaders complain there has been little in the way of new standards.

One of the big questions of a Gore administration is whether he would be more successful than his boss at issuing the regulations they both say they support.

OSHA or Oshkosh?

The seemingly cerebral vice president has vowed to be a "fighter," and while Bush has cast himself as a moderate "consensus builder," OSHA policies have traditionally provoked strife between labor and industry.

All signs point to a continuation of this conflict no matter who wins the election.

Whatever questions there are about Gore's commitment or ability to complete new OSHA standards, it is clear that he favors a far more active role for the agency than does his opponent. While Republicans may argue that support for OSHA is not the same thing as support for occupational safety and health, the records of the two candidates suggest that Gore is more concerned with the issue than Bush.

On this point, there is an additional piece of Information Age evidence. A search under "OSHA" produced two entries on Gore's campaign Web site, containing detailed explanations of the vice president's support for a number of safety and health initiatives.

The same search on Bush's Web site produced a single result: an announcement of the campaign's organizing activity in the state of Wisconsin. The closest thing to a mention of OSHA here is Mitch Schierland, the Bush for President Winnebago County chair.

Schierland lives in Oshkosh.

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