Bush Considers Closing Women's Bureau Offices, Repeals Contractor Rules

Labor leaders are counting up recent moves by the Bush administration and it's not adding up to an easy ride for workers, they claim.

Labor leaders are counting up recent moves by the Bush administration and it''s not adding up to an easy ride for workers, they claim.

Labor leaders cite four specific actions taken by the Bush administration as anti-labor:

  • The recent announcement that the administration will probably close 10 regional offices of the Women''s Bureau of the DOL;
  • The repeal last week of the Clinton administration''s regulation preventing companies that break environmental or labor laws from being awarded government contracts;
  • The nomination of Eugene Scalia to the post of inspector general at the Department of Labor; and
  • The repeal last spring of an ergonomics standard promulgated during the Clinton administration.

"There''s been plenty of action. It''s been all negative," complained Karen Nussbaum of the AFL-CIO.

The talk of closing the regional offices of the Women''s Bureau is seen as a particular affront by labor. The bureau was created some 81 years ago as an advocacy office for women workers. Although a Labor Department spokesperson said that no decision has been made, the earlier closing of The White House Women''s Initiatives Office by Bush seems to be a preview of things to come.

In the bureau''s long history, it: pressed to establish the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938; eased the transition of women into the war industry during World War II; fought to establish the President''s Commission on the Status of Women and to pass the Equal Pay Act in 1963; advocated for opportunities in non-traditional occupations; and encouraged family friendly employer policies such as the Family and Medical Leave law in 1993.

When the Women''s Bureau was established in 1920, there were 8 million women workers, accounting for 20 percent of the workforce. Today, 65 million women are in the labor force or looking for work and nearly 50 percent of all workers are women.

According to AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney, the issues that working women care about today are similar to those they had 80 years ago. According to national surveys, working women identify paid sick and family leave, health insurance and control over work hours as important needs. And equal pay has been the top priority for women for more than a decade.

"If the Bush administration believes that the federal government no longer needs to play a role in improving the lives of working women and their families, then the president truly does not understand the exhausting challenges so many women face," Sweeney asserts.

Sweeney is also angry that President Bush revoked the Clinton administration''s contractor responsibility rule. The rule, which took effect in 2000, denied federal contracts to companies that routinely violated federal environmental, labor, civil rights and consumer protection laws, and had been suspended by the Bush administration last March, when it undertook a review of regulations passed during the final months of the Clinton administration.

Sweeney called the repeal of the rule an outrage, adding, "They were based on the simple, common sense proposition that the government should take a company''s track record of complying with the law into account before giving that company a federal contract worth millions of dollars."

In one year, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office, 261 federal contractors with a total of 5,121 violations of health and safety laws received $38 billion in federal contracts. An additional 80 companies received $23 billion in federal contracts, despite having broken federal labor laws.

On the other hand, business groups claim the rule was, effectively, legal blacklisting, lobbied heavily against it, and celebrated its demise.

"This rule gave government agents blanket discretion to blacklist federal contractors based on subjective and arbitrary notions of satisfactory compliance with any federal, state, or even foreign law," said Randel Johnson, U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president for labor and employee benefits. "Mere allegations of wrong-doing could prevent a business from winning a federal contract."

According to Johnson, the rule required federal contracting officers to consider anything they thought credible in evaluating a company''s record, including unproved, pending or alleged violations in administrative complaints or civil cases.

"Government agents could have wielded virtually unlimited power under this rule," Johnson said. "The number of laws, pages of regulations and court cases coming within this regulation was countless; and government contracting would have become even more complex, cumbersome and protracted than it already is."

Another move by the Bush administration that concerns labor leaders is the president''s threat to appoint conservative labor attorney Eugene Scalia to the post of inspector general during Congress'' recess. Scalia fought against the ergonomics regulation promulgated by the Clinton administration, saying the rule was based on "junk science" and calling it "quackery."

If Bush appoints the controversial Scalia during the recess without Senate confirmation, he will be able to serve until next January.

by Sandy Smith (ssmith@penton.com)

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