"I can''t think of an issue that will be more important for working families in this Congress than this issue," said Bill Samuel, director of the AFL-CIO legislative department.
Samuel spoke at a special March 2 news briefing at the union''s Washington, D.C., headquarters, and the issue he was talking about is the effort being mounted by business groups to kill OSHA''s ergonomics rule in Congress. Congressional sources and Samuel said the Senate could take up the matter as early as Wednesday.
Labor is clearly worried the Republican-controlled Congress could, with one vote, destroy the 10-year effort to make the OSHA ergonomics standard the law of the land.
Samuel said the union is "mounting a major grass roots effort as well as one on Capitol Hill" to save the ergonomics standard, which became effective in the final days of the Clinton Administration.
According to the Congressional Review Act (CRA), if Congress passes a "joint resolution of disapproval" and the president signs it, the ergonomics standard is nullified.
In addition, OSHA would be forever barred from issuing an ergonomics standard that is "substantially the same."
As labor opponents were at pains to point out, the CRA allows Congress to act quickly through by-passing the usual time-consuming legislative procedures, such as committee hearings and filibusters. The Senate must vote on the resolution after 10 hours of debate.
"Think about it," Peg Seminario, director of the AFL-CIO''s safety and health department, told the collection of national news reporters at the briefing. "After 10 years of work and 10 weeks of public hearings --10 hours of debate."
Except for its brevity -- and the lack of witnesses paid by the federal government -- the union''s news briefing resembled the public hearings on ergonomics held by OSHA last year.
There was a medical doctor to defend the science of the ergonomics rule as well as three workers with first-hand experience about repetitive motion illnesses.
Ursula Stafford fought back tears as she explained the permanent injuries she suffered as a special education teacher in New York City, when she had to lift a 250-pound student onto a toilet.
Heidi Eberhardt said that as a result of carpal tunnel syndrome she developed as a computer worker, she still cannot perform most routine household tasks without pain.
Ken Demeray, a meat-processing worker at Excel Corp. in Friona, Texas, recounted the joint efforts of his union and his company to establish an effective ergonomics program.
Despite the fact that the CRA cannot succeed without President Bush''s signature, Samuel said the AFL-CIO has not had any conversations with the new administration about where it stands on the effort to kill ergonomics.
Not talking to President Bush about ergonomics is one of the few things the union has in common with the industry group spear-heading the campaign to kill the ergonomics standard: the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM).
During the presidential campaign, Bush said he opposed federal ergonomics regulations, but the big question nobody seems to be asking is whether he would support the CRA.
Samuel said his current focus is swaying votes in the House and Senate.
On this score, there is one other point of agreement uniting Samuel and his adversary at the NAM, Vice President for Human Resources Policy Pat Cleary.
Both are predicting a very close vote.
Today, the AFL-CIO continues to mobilize against those trying to kill the ergonomics standard.
Injured union workers will spend the day on Capital Hill telling senators to oppose repeal of the ergonomics standard.
Likewise, the labor organization sent blast faxes to its members yesterday urging them to e-mail and call their senators to tell them to "keep their hands off the ergo standard."
by James Nash