I woke up this morning to the news that Senator Ted Kennedy had died during the night. Known as the “Lion of the Senate” for his long service and his bold championing of workers' rights, Kennedy leaves large shoes to fill. My hope is that other legislators will have the courage to take Kennedy's place as guardians of workplace health and safety.
Elected to the Senate at the age of 30 to fill his brother John's seat, riding into office on a wave of Kennedy cool and celebrity that trumped his lack of both life and legislative experience, perhaps no one but the people who voted for him held out much hope that Ted Kennedy could fill the shoes of his brother. Kennedy nonetheless became one of the longest-serving members of that legislative body and one of its most effective leaders.
Books have been and will be written about Ted Kennedy's colorful life and career, but I only want to talk about two things: education and worker safety.
First, working with Senator Claiborne Pell during the 1972 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, Kennedy supported the creation of the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant. This program, which later became known as the Pell Grant in 1980, drastically increased the availability of grant aid to disadvantaged students. Without Kennedy's efforts, I would not have been able to attend college and probably would not be sitting here writing about him.
The other cause near to my heart that was championed by Kennedy is worker safety and health. First introduced by Kennedy on April 28, 2004, Workers Memorial Day, the “Protecting America's Workers” Act was aimed at expanding the Occupational Safety and Health Act's coverage to 8.4 million of public- and private-sector workers not covered by the act. The bill also strengthened penalties for willful employer violations, expanded the public's right to know, protected whistle-blowers and required employers to provide safety equipment.
“We have a battle before us,” said Kennedy. “For as we know, too many companies are doing too little to deal with this crisis. They blatantly ignore the laws, but still they do not face jail time even when their actions or lack of action kills employees who work for them. Criminal penalties are so low that prosecutors are reluctant to pursue these cases.”
The act failed to secure the support it needed. Undaunted, Kennedy, despite an almost-certain veto by the Bush administration, reintroduced the Protecting America's Workers Act in the Senate in April 2007, while U.S. Reps. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., and Phil Hare, D-Ill., launched identical legislation in the House of Representatives. Again, the legislation went nowhere.
In what is perhaps the greatest tribute to Kennedy's tenacity, the legislation refuses to die. On April 23, 2009, the Protecting America's Workers Act again was reintroduced in the house.
In April, during one of his last appearances in the Senate at a hearing before the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee about OSHA reform, Kennedy said, “We have learned much in the 40 years since OSHA was enacted and it is long past time to use this knowledge to make significant reforms.”
Kennedy insisted that the cases of workers killed in the workplace through employer negligence be treated with the same gravity as murders committed on the street. He demanded that whistleblowers be protected for bringing safety problems to light. He urged increases in civil and criminal penalties for workplace safety violations.
I think it's shameful, in a country that prides itself on being progressive and democratic, that we continue to have to legislate worker safety and that many employers fail to recognize what should be a basic human right of safe work.
It is my hope that Ted Kennedy's efforts to protect America's working men and women will not go unrecognized, and that at some point, the things he fought for will come to pass.
It fell to Ted to eulogize Bobby Kennedy, saying, “My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”
I believe the same can be said of Ted Kennedy; that despite his flaws, he saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.
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