Hopey-Changey at the Department of Labor

During the Bush administration, when I encountered those who wondered whether a particular Democrat (say, John Kerry) was progressive enough, I would often make the point that at that moment, there were literally thousands of people in positions of power in the federal government who went to work every day attempting to undermine everything those progressives believed in. As we've gotten so focused on big legislative issues like health-care reform, we shouldn't forget that there is a lot of activity going on in federal agencies that normally escapes notice. And progressives ought to be pretty pleased about it.

Over at The Nation, Esther Kaplan profiles Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and finds that she has done a pretty remarkable job returning the Labor Department to -- get this -- advancing the interests of working people. It's in large part a product of personnel. For instance, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is now not headed by a former mining-company executive whose goal is to free mining companies from safety regulations, as is usually the case during Republican administrations. Solis has put in place a cadre of tough, experienced advocates for worker safety, fair pay practices, and real enforcement of labor laws. But it's also a matter of how aggressive you're willing to be. And it seems that Solis is working overtime (!) to undo what George W. Bush's administration wrought:

Facing badly depleted enforcement ranks, Solis hired 710 additional enforcement staff, including 130 at OSHA and 250 for the crucial wage-and-hour division, upping inspectors by more than a third. Another hundred will come on next year to staff a crackdown on the misclassification of millions of employees as "independent contractors" -- a dodge to avoid paying taxes and benefits -- a move that has set off enormous buzz on business blogs. Her team took a plunger to the stagnant regulatory pipeline, moving forward new rules on coal mine dust, silica, and cranes and derricks. She restored prevailing wages for agricultural guest workers and is poised to restore reporting rules on ergonomic injuries. She revoked [Bush Labor Secretary Elaine] Chao's union reporting requirements and countered with a proposed rule that employers who hire union avoidance firms must publicly report it, the sort of sunshine that could easily act as a deterrent. This latter measure hints at the sort of creative tactics being explored at the DoL, even as prounion legislation is stymied in Congress.

This is what happens when the labor secretary is actually committed to supporting labor. The approach in Republican administrations -- where the department is staffed by people with backgrounds in union-busting and corporate avoidance of labor laws -- is akin to appointing the entire membership of Code Pink to influential positions in the Defense Department.

The work done in the various agencies of the federal government doesn't get the attention of something like health-care reform, but it will be a huge part of the legacy of the Obama administration. Sarah Palin is encouraging her supporters to accost anyone they see with an Obama bumper sticker and demand, "How's that hopey changey thing workin' out for ya?" Just something else to think about when you're considering your answer.

-- Paul Waldman

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