Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Hilda Solis: Labor’s New Sheriff

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Hilda Solis is already an excellent Secretary of Labor, far above the odious Elaine Chao, who seemed actively to hate workers. Esther Kaplan in The Nation :

In 1984, on the Wasatch Plateau in southern Utah, the Wilberg coal mine, a property of Emery Mining, exploded into flames. Witnesses described plumes of dark gray smoke billowing up into the heavens. Twenty-seven coal miners were trapped inside. By the following night it was clear none of them would make it out alive. “If hell existed,” the Salt Lake Tribune reported, “it was down in the Wilberg mine.”

David Lauriski was Emery’s chief safety officer when Wilberg caught fire, an accident later attributed to numerous violations at the mine. The owners, it turned out, had been trying for a one-day production record. Seventeen years after the disaster, Lauriski became George W. Bush’s first mine safety chief, a perch from which he halted a dozen new safety regulations initiated under Clinton, advocating instead a more “collaborative” approach with industry. His successor was also from private industry; during a stint as a state regulator, his lax enforcement played a role in another mining disaster, this one at the Quecreek Mine in Pennsylvania.

Now, for the first time in its history, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), a division of the Department of Labor (DoL), is headed by a union man, Joe Main. Main began his working life as a teenager in 1967, doing the precarious work of sinking a coal mine shaft in West Virginia. By 19 he was a mine safety committeeman, later joining the United Mine Workers’ health and safety department, where he worked for decades. He was working for the union at the time of the Wilberg fire and rushed to the scene. He recalls spending four or five days there during the grueling rescue and recovery operation. “It took us a year to recover the last miner,” he recalls, “and I dealt with the families a lot during that time. It’s something that’s stayed with me my whole life.” Main was confirmed by the Senate in late October; six weeks later he launched a major national initiative to end black lung disease.

During the Bush years, the Department of Labor became a cautionary tale about what happens when foxes are asked to guard the henhouse. But since California Congresswoman Hilda Solis became labor secretary last winter, she has brought on board a team of lifelong advocates for working people–some of whom come from the ranks of organized labor–and has hired hundreds of new investigators and enforcers.

President Obama calls Solis part of his economic team, but the truth is she’s not part of the daily huddle at the White House with Summers and Geithner and Orszag. She’s tapped instead as a lead voice in the “jobs, jobs, jobs” choir, advocating for Obama’s latest stimulus package. She has tiptoed into the realm of financial regulation, organizing a joint hearing with the Securities and Exchange Commission on the abysmal performance of target date retirement funds during the market crash, and she doles out hundreds of millions of dollars in job training funds, a decent chunk of which she has used to shape policy by channeling it to green industries. But Solis understands that her real influence lies in her power to enforce the nation’s labor laws–the primary mission of the DoL. It’s a role she embraced with relish at her swearing-in, where she announced with a grin, “To those who have for too long abused workers, put them in harm’s way, denied them fair pay, let me be clear: there is a new sheriff in town.”

Indeed, Solis threw her weight around on Capitol Hill when one key deputy, Labor Solicitor Patricia Smith, faced stiff opposition from business lobbies and the GOP. One of Smith’s predecessors as labor solicitor–the nation’s top enforcer of labor laws–was Eugene Scalia, son of the Supreme Court justice. Scalia’s previous claim to fame was his successful campaign to block an ergonomics safety standard, using an industry-supported Astroturf group to question whether repetitive-motion injuries exist at all. As labor solicitor, he invoked the Taft-Hartley Act against West Coast longshoremen locked out by their employer (a former client) and made a habit of undermining his own agency, writing a brief supporting limits on whistleblower protections. After a one-year tour, he landed on the lush payroll of Gibson Dunn, a leading “union avoidance” firm, where he now serves as an expert on “downsizing” when not penning attacks on the Employee Free Choice Act for the Wall Street Journal.

Smith, on the other hand, has spent more than twenty years going to battle on behalf of vulnerable, low-wage workers, first at the New York State attorney general’s office and then as the state’s labor commissioner. “She turned it from a backwater agency to a national model in just three years,” says Andrew Stettner, deputy director of the National Employment Law Project. “In my career I’ve never seen an agency turned around so quickly.” What Smith did in New York, according to labor officials, community advocates and business leaders, was to take a targeted approach not just to rogue players but to rogue industries, such as retail, residential construction and restaurants, where minimum-wage and safety violations were rampant.

She did high-profile investigations and carefully orchestrated surprise inspections, conducted special outreach to immigrant workers, and used the full arsenal of penalties, including criminal charges, to send a message to employers. Deborah Axt, legal director of Make the Road, a New York City community organization, recalls Smith doing a sweep of retail outlets in Bushwick, where investigators uncovered $200,000 in back wages owed at nineteen businesses on a single commercial strip. According to Axt, Smith was a master at leveraging her limited resources for maximum impact; her department quickly became a national model for community partnerships. And she did all this while maintaining warm relations with New York’s business community. Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, a leading business association, was so impressed by Smith’s quick response to the tens of thousands of Wall Street layoffs in late 2008 that she wrote a letter to the Senate in support of Smith’s nomination.

After Senate Republican Mike Enzi put a hold on her nomination for months, Smith was finally confirmed on February 4.

Or take OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Bush’s final OSHA director was Edwin Foulke, a former partner at Jackson Lewis, another large unionbusting law firm, who was such a fan of voluntary compliance over enforcement that the New York Times called him an “antiregulatory ideologue.” Shortly after joining OSHA in 2005, he began delivering a PowerPoint lecture, …

Continue reading. There’s much more heartening news.

Written by Leisureguy

31 March 2010 at 10:16 am

One Response

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  1. LeisureGuy, I acknowledge the hope that you address here, and the possibility of renewed enforcement from Hilda A. Solice; But, people are still dying, and our livelihood is still being destroyed, and to us it’s like no progress at all. Please take a look at my petition for writ of mandamus, decided 5/18/10, and you’ll discover that the ARB’s egregious delay of motions and appeals are an invasion of 9th Amendment Rights, that this delay is prejudicial to the Employee, that the Eighth Circuit refused to acknowledge the 9th Amendment violation, the Eighth Circuit refuses to enter an opinion (as required by law), and that the Eighth Circuit is turning a blind eye, and allowing the DOL to violate our constitutional rights >>>> <<<<<



    20 May 2010 at 8:08 am

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