Repetitively Straining Workers
Just two months after taking over the White House, President George W.
Bush acted on one of the top priorities of big business -- a repeal of
a new workplace ergonomics standard enacted at the end of the Clinton
administration. The new ergonomics standard was designed to reduce the
estimated 1.8 million repetitive stress workplace injuries -- ranging
from neck sprains to carpal tunnel to more serious musculoskeletal disorder
injuries -- occurring annually in U.S. workplaces. It would have protected
102 million workers at six million workplaces.
On the day he signed the repeal into law, Bush said in a statement that
"there needs to be a balance between an understanding of the costs and
benefits associated with federal regulations. The ergonomics rule would
have cost both large and small employers billions of dollars and presented
employers with overwhelming compliance challenges."
Balance, however, has not exactly been the administration's watchword
when it comes to workplace safety regulations. Instead, the Bush administration
approach has pretty much been all management, all the time.
"This administration absolutely has the worst record when it comes to
workplace safety," says Margaret Seminario, director of occupational health
and safety for the AFL-CIO. "They are the only administration that has
issued no new rules. They just don't believe in the role of government
regulation. They are just opposed to mandatory requirements. They are
very much of the view that voluntary efforts by industry are sufficient,
and that's the approach that they've taken."
"Our emphasis is on partnerships and alliances with trade associations,"
explains Al Belsky, a spokesperson for the Department of Labor. "We are
trying to get whole industries to cultivate a culture of safety rather
than just doing it through enforcement, enforcement, enforcement."
Enforcement actually seems to factor very little into the Bush administration
strategy. A year after repealing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration
(OSHA) workplace safety rule, the administration issued a new workplace
safety policy that consisted entirely of voluntary rules. Big business
lobbyists cheered the lack of mandatory requirements, which they claimed
would have cost companies more than $100 billion (Clinton administration
estimates put the cost of compliance at closer to $4.5 billion). And in
2003, the Bush administration revoked a requirement that forced employers
to even keep track of carpal tunnel syndrome in the first place.
The ergonomics rule isn't the only major rule that has been scuttled
by this administration.
For example, last May, the administration dropped a rule that would have
required hospitals, prisons and other high-risk facilities to do a better
job of protecting workers against tuberculosis. Though the rule had undergone
10 years of careful development, the Bush administration simply asserted
that the threat of TB was no longer serious.
Meanwhile, this March, the Bush administration EPA proposed exempting
industrial laundries from hazardous and solid waste regulations, even
though production workers and drivers have reported illnesses from exposure
to towels soaked in toxic solvents. These solvents have also been linked
to cancer and reproductive disorders.
The administration has also refused to strengthen the rules to prevent
chemical explosions, even though at least 167 workers have been killed
during the past 20 years due to explosions caused by reactive chemicals
and hundreds of millions of dollars in property have been destroyed. In
February, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (which
includes three Bush appointees on its four-member board) called OSHA's
action "unacceptable." Earlier, the Board had found that reactive chemicals
posed a "significant safety problem."
That is not all. The administration has ignored National Institute of
Occupational Safety and Health recommendations to toughen limits on silica
dust, which has killed thousands of miners and construction workers, and
it has ignored recommendations by the OSHA Metalworking Fluids Standards
Advisory Committee to protect workers who handle metalworking fluids,
which contain a complex mixture of oils, detergents, lubricants and other
potentially toxic fluids that have been linked to both cancer, skin diseases
and respiratory diseases. "[This administration] is hostile to any kind
of government intervention in the workplace," says Seminario. "They are
very hostile to workers and unions and very pro-business. When you put
this all together, you have an administration whose method of operating
is to work very closely with business. Ö Whatever management determines
they want to do, that's what the Labor Department will support."
One indication of the pro-business bent of the administration when it
comes to workplace safety came in 2002. The administration broke with
32 years of precedent, placing seven management representatives and only
two union representatives on OSHA's workplace safety advisory committee.
The administration did this by dropping five current members, including
representatives from the AFL-CIO and Steelworkers Union. This marked the
first time the advisory committee did not contain a balance of union and
Meanwhile, every year of its tenure, the Bush administration has proposed
cuts in OSHA's funding, particularly in regard to standards and enforcement.
The administration also continues to recommend major reductions in worker
training (from $11 million to $4 million) while proposing big increases
for compliance assistance, which union representatives say essentially
gives employers more control over workplace safety design without consulting
workers. Congress has rejected these cuts and generally maintained OSHA's
funding at current levels, however.
The administration says its real focus is on results, setting a goal
of a 15 percent drop in fatality rates and a 20 percent drop in injury
and illness rates by 2008 in its 2003 Five-Year Strategic Plan.
"Our 5-year management plan will focus on achieving cultural changes
that value safety and health as opposed to just racking up violations
and penalties," Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and
Health John L. Henshaw said in a speech announcing the new plan.
But results -- at least health and safety improvements -- have not been
Nor are they likely to be, say worker representatives. "History has shown
that voluntary efforts are not sufficient," notes Seminario. "The bottom
line is that there needs to be minimum standards. Look at what brings
about change in the workplace. It is setting those standards for the performance
that is expected and demanded of employees. We need to do this on a broad
-- Lee Drutman
for Corporate Trade Pacts
President Bush came into office intent on pushing a straightforward trade
agenda that would benefit his corporate backers. His plan: Kickstart the
stalled World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations that had broken down
after the demonstrations in Seattle in 1999 and expand the even more pro-business
North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) throughout the Americas. Three
years later, these two broad trade agenda items are no closer to completion
than they were in the Clinton administration.
In the United States, the political will for free trade deals withered
during the Bush administration as nearly 3 million manufacturing jobs
evaporated and high tech jobs were outsourced. Internationally, the will
for NAFTA and WTO expansion was equally lacking. The September 2003 Cancun
WTO Ministerial collapsed after industrialized nations refused to address
the concerns of the developing world that the WTO disproportionately benefited
rich countries and harmed poorer ones.
The next month, talks in Miami significantly scaled back the scope of
the negotiations for the Free Trade Area of the Americas, a U.S.-led initiative
effectively to expand NAFTA to the entire hemisphere, minus Cuba. Instead
of continuing the negotiations of the entire agreement as a single undertaking,
the negotiators agreed to an ý la carte approach (with countries agreeing
only to different parts of the trade treaty) that mired the negotiations.
This April, an emergency meeting to resuscitate FTAA negotiations failed
to produce a breakthrough.
While the U.S. continues to pursue a new round of WTO negotiations and
enactment of NAFTA expansion through the FTAA, it is working on many parallel
tracks to use bilateral and mini-regional free trade agreements (FTAs)
to advance the WTO and FTAA agendas.
"Step by step, country by country, region by region, the United States
is opening markets with top-notch, comprehensive FTAs that set the standard,"
explained U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Robert Zoellick in December
of last year.
Under the Bush administration, the United States has entered into trade
agreements with Chile and Singapore, and commenced or completed negotiations
for FTAs with the Central American countries and the Dominican Republic,
Australia, Bahrain, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Morocco, Panama and Thailand.
Regardless of the scope (global, hemispheric, regional or bilateral),
the goal of all of the trade agreements is to establish trade pacts that
guarantee multinational corporate interests will be protected. Intellectual
property rights of pharmaceutical companies are advanced while the ability
for developing countries to ensure access to generic medicines is compromised.
The agreements deem many national and local environmental regulations
to be illegitimate expropriations of profit. Copyright and trademark protections
are enforced with trade sanctions, but violations of labor and environmental
law are at best subject to fines and more frequently are totally ignored.
The Bush administration's focus on smaller trade measures has a two-fold
purpose: to isolate some countries who were skeptical of the U.S. trade
agenda at the WTO and the FTAA; and to set markers for future trade deals
based on what countries acquiesced to in bilateral agreements.
The United States is using FTAs to isolate FTAA critics and loosen the
Brazil, Venezuela and Argentina are resisting the U.S. agenda for the
completion of the FTAA. They object to U.S. demands over services liberalization
(that foreign companies should be able to compete for service provision
-- everything from telecommunications to package delivery to electricity
-- on equal footing with national companies), procurement rules (prohibiting
governments from favoring national suppliers), investment measures (defining
some environmental and other regulations that harm company profits as
indirect expropriations requiring compensation) and agricultural tariffs
and quotas (maintaining protections and subsidies for U.S. farmers, especially
But the United States has already reached or started negotiations for
trade deals with a dozen Latin American countries. Indeed, when announcing
the proposed U.S.-Panama FTA negotiations, USTR noted that "high-quality
agreements that promote regional economic integration (Chile, CAFTA) with
like-minded, ambitious trading partners complement and provide impetus
for the FTAA negotiations." Such deals disadvantage FTAA critics, because
their neighbors are already entering into agreements with the United States
that lower tariffs on their exports to the United States.
The smaller FTAs also set the standard for future agreements. For example,
the Singapore FTA rolled back modest advances made by the Clinton administration
on labor and the environment in the Jordan FTA. The Jordan FTA contained
the strongest measures to date on enforcing domestic labor and environmental
laws. These provisions were absent from the Singapore FTA and signaled
that the Bush administration would remove any remotely effective labor
and environmental provisions from future trade deals.
The inclusion of broader services agendas in the FTAs makes it more difficult
to resist the stalled U.S. services market liberalization agenda in the
FTAA or the WTO. The president of the Coalition of Service Industries,
Robert Vastine, endorsed the Singapore FTA because "the agreement provides
commercially meaningful market access for services" and continues the
"negative list" approach to services negotiations. The negative list requires
countries to open all of their services markets unless they specifically
opt out of specific services liberalizations.
The Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) also includes the investor-to-state
provisions of NAFTA that allow companies, instead of governments, to challenge
domestic safeguards as illegitimate barriers to profits and trade, imperiling
environmental and labor laws which restrict profiting from pollution and
labor exploitation. "Since multinational companies could challenge environmental
and public interest protections before international tribunals, demanding
tens of millions in compensation, how many Central American countries
will still take action to safeguard their citizens and the environment?"
asks Friends of the Earth (U.S.) President Brent Blackwelder.
CAFTA also expands patent monopolies for U.S. pharmaceutical companies
in Central America, effectively limiting affordable access to generic
medicines to treat HIV/AIDS and other diseases. This intellectual property
provision runs counter to promises made at the WTO negotiations in Doha
in 2001 to respect countries' right to take measures to ensure "medicines
"The issues that have [the WTO] hung-up, and that created a stalemate
in FTAA, like investment, procurement, rules on competition and trade
facilitation, are the issues Zoellick and his negotiators can get more
easily on a one-on-one basis," concludes the Washington, D.C.-based Global
Trade Watch's Chris Slevin.
Whether this is an effective strategy for advancing corporate interests
is controversial in the business community. Many corporate representatives
say USTR is distracted by the numerous negotiations with small market
countries and has lost sight of the big picture.
What is clear is that, unless citizen movements in the United States
can defeat them in Congress, a legacy of the Bush administration will
be a series of trade agreements that establish a wide array of special
protections for corporations in many small and vulnerable economies around
-- Patrick Woodall
Latest Gains From Trade"
For a presidential administration that prides itself on discipline, this
year has been unusual for its string of White House message gaffes. One
of the first mishaps came in February, when Gregory Mankiw, chair of the
White House Council of Economic Advisers, appeared to give White House
support to the outsourcing of skilled jobs as he told reporters that the
"offshoring" of service jobs is "the latest manifestation of the gains
from trade that economists have talked about" for centuries.
Not surprisingly, the Democratic opposition pounced quickly. "These people,
what planet do they live on?" then-presidential candidate Senator John
Edwards asked. "They are so out of touch."
Senator John Kerry, at the time trying to develop some populist chops
as he assailed "Benedict Arnold corporations" for offshoring jobs and
dodging tax payments, echoed Edwards: "Three million jobs destroyed on
their watch, and now they want to export more of our jobs overseas. What
in the world are they thinking?" Even a few Republicans called for Mankiw's
As the heated reactions to Mankiw's statement reveal, the offshoring
of service jobs has already become one of the most emotional issues of
this political year. With millions of jobs lost on the Bush administration's
watch and the economy stuck in a "jobless recovery," job anxiety is shaping
up as a top voter election concern. The specter of even the best-paid
jobs fleeing overseas deepens those worries. This means offshoring is
poised to be a make-or-break issue for any candidate this year.
In a sense, the White House's Mankiw was right: Offshoring is nothing
new, but rather just a fresh twist on the endemic "free trade" problem
whereby jobs move from high-wage countries to low-wage ones. It's deju
vu all over again. In the 1970s, U.S. corporations started shipping manufacturing
jobs to low wage countries such as Mexico, Korea and Indonesia in an effort
to cut labor costs. Now, that same drive to reduce labor costs is beginning
to hit more highly skilled workers in the United States, as service jobs
go to well-educated workers in New Delhi and Prague and Singapore. The
logic of cost cutting doesn't distinguish between blue and white collars.
The trend is very likely to speed up. A widely quoted November 2002 study
by the consulting firm Forrester Research estimates that over the next
15 years some 3.3 million U.S. service sector jobs will be sent abroad.
A more recent report by economists at the University of California-Berkeley
says as many as 14 million programming, accounting, paralegal and other
service jobs are at risk of being off-shored.
By cutting white-collar positions, U.S. businesses are sowing the seeds
of a populist backlash. To appreciate how deep the brewing resentment
runs, check out the postings on the Outsourced Worker page of Meetup.com,
where 33 "meetups" were scheduled across the United States for May. Or
tune in to Lou Dobb's "Tonight" on CNN to hear the newly minted pinstriped
populist rail against the "Exporting of America" and blackball hundreds
of companies -- from Aalfs Manufacturing to Zenith -- that are guilty
of "hollowing out" the United States.
In recent months, a slew of proposals has been offered to staunch the
hemorrhage of jobs, or at least ease the pain.
Sarah Anderson and John Cavanagh of the Institute for Policy Studies
say the best strategy for reducing the incentives for off-shoring is to
close the wage gap between rich and poor countries, and that the way to
do this is by reforming financial and trade agreements and via "debt reduction
where appropriate, or aid that benefits the poorest."
Senator Kerry advocates eliminating tax breaks for companies that outsource,
while providing tax credits to firms that do not. Kerry is also calling
for banning foreign outsourcing of government contract work, a demand
that's being echoed in statehouses across the country.
Others, noting the rapidly growing U.S. trade deficit, have started to
make the case for re-imposing tariffs, a strategy that would address manufacturing
more than service outsourcing.
Some observers believe that outsourcing is a done deal -- that there
is no way to challenge the imperatives of the global economy -- and so
recommend policies to ameliorate workers' suffering. For example, former
Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich is urging policy makers to put more
money into education programs to give U.S. workers the ability to fill
even higher-skilled jobs than the ones they are losing.
The Bush White House's approach is, basically, to call for more of the
same. The administration remains staunchly committed to the "free trade"
status quo. At the same time, the U.S. Trade Representative's office is
aggressively pushing other nations to move forward with the liberalization
of trade in services.
But critics say that if U.S. service sector firms are provided new opportunities
to expand abroad, it will likely give companies more chances and greater
incentives to shift skilled positions to other countries.
As White House spokesperson Scott McClellan said about six weeks after
the Mankiw dust-up: "One important way to continue to strengthen our economy
even more is to continue opening markets. Ö Free trade is vital to continuing
our economic growth."
Expect the downsizing to keep climbing up the corporate ladder.
-- Jason Mark