"Barely a month into his presidency, Barack Obama has made it clear that the labor movement is back in vogue in Washington.
"I do not view the labor movement as part of the problem; to me, it's part of the solution," the president said at a recent White House event.
Seeing the writing on the wall, business groups fear that Obama and the Democratic-led Congress want to bring back costly new ergonomics rules. They would force companies to take steps to protect their workers from injuries caused by such things as heavy lifting and repetitive stress.
Those fears may be well-founded.
While the White House has yet to announce such a plan, Obama's choice for the nation's next workplace sheriff is Hilda Solis, a Los Angeles Democrat who joined the House in 2001 and who wasted no time in making ergonomics a priority.
"In my district," Solis said in one of her first speeches on the House floor, "we have many constituents who work in a hard and unsafe manner, many of them working in sweat shops, many of them work for big garment factories; they work 10 and 12 hours sewing materials, barely being able to lift up their heads. The least that we can do is provide them with better protections in the workplace."
Solis, the daughter of immigrants and union workers, was angry that Republicans wanted to make ergonomic rules voluntary, leaving it to individual businesses to decide what to do – if anything – to protect their workers. Ultimately, Republicans were successful in overturning the Clinton-era rules, and at the time she offered her thoughts: "It is shameful."
California is the only state that forces employers to take action, and there's already talk of using the state's ergonomics rules as a national model.
But in its official list of policy priorities for 2009, the Washington-based U.S. Chamber of Commerce says it will oppose any attempt to revive the ergonomics rules. Chamber officials regard an ergonomics rule as "the mother of all regulations," one that would easily cost businesses millions of dollars.
Before Obama and his new labor chief can move on the issue, Solis must be confirmed by the Senate. That vote could come as soon as today, and both of California's Democratic senators are backing the nomination.
Solis, who has long ties to labor groups, is among the last Cabinet nominees awaiting a vote, but the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has recommended her approval. Her nomination hit a bump in the committee, which temporarily delayed a vote after reports surfaced that her husband had been late in resolving a business tax lien.
Democratic Rep. Doris Matsui of Sacramento called Solis a leader for labor rights and said it's important for Congress to move quickly on ergonomics rules, especially with health care costs on the rise and workplace hazards continuing "to take a serious toll on a stable work force."
"The first act of the Bush administration in 2001 was to revoke (the) ergonomic standard, which led to a record of neglect," Matsui said.
No one cheered louder that year than the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The group had urged Congress to overturn the rules, arguing that they were too expensive and that it would be impossible to determine whether employees sustained their injuries at work.
Businesses still fear they'd be legally liable for employee injuries not of their making.
"Let's face it: We all go through things in our lives as simple as bad sleeping habits or exercise or recreational activities that would cause our bodies to feel discomfort," said Marc Freedman, director of labor law policy for the chamber.
The rules that were overturned in 2001 would have forced companies to redesign workplaces and employee tasks to avoid such things as musculoskeletal injuries and carpal-tunnel syndrome.
Freedman said that most employers recognize that it's a good business practice to provide a safe and healthy workplace. He said that since 2001 most employers have moved voluntarily to find ways to increase the comfort of employees.
"And that's really the key word here," Freedman said. "It's all about comfort."
He said a new rule is not needed because workplace injuries have declined, adding: "It's no longer talked about like some type of epidemic."
Obama left little doubt where he stands on the issue during the presidential campaign.
In a written response to questions from the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer last year, Obama said that workers, including poultry workers, "are particularly susceptible to debilitating musculoskeletal injuries."
He said the Occupational Safety and Health Administration "must attack this problem with all of the tools at its disposal – regulations, enforcement, training and compliance assistance."
And in the first week of his presidency, without specifically mentioning ergonomics rules, Obama said he wanted to reverse "many of the policies toward organized labor that we've seen these last eight years, policies with which I've sharply disagreed."
Solis said nothing about the issue during her confirmation hearings, but in 2001 she said it was clear the nation needed ergonomics rules. "We studied this thing to death," she said.
With the exception of California, states have largely shied away from the idea of imposing their own rules. Labor officials are trying to make Michigan the second state with ergonomics rules, but business groups are urging its defeat, arguing the economy is too weak to impose new regulations on companies." (Continued via Sacramento Bee, Rob Hotakainen) [Ergonomics Resources]