The Republican War Against Workers

Date: 29 Aug 1995 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

The Republican War Against Workers

by David Morris

August 29, 1995

If ever the American worker needed the helping hand of government it is now. Yet the new Republican Congressional majority seems intent on giving workers, the majority of the population, the back of its hand. This Labor Day offers us the opportunity to confront the Republicans’ war on labor.

The deteriorating state of the American worker is a fact. A key reason is that workers no longer are sharing in the fruits of their labor. This is a dramatic change from the past. Between 1909 and 1950 labor productivity tripled and real earnings more than doubled. The length of the workweek declined by 30 percent. Social benefits expanded.

But since 1973 manufacturing productivity has increased by more than 50 percent while real wages have fallen by 15 percent. The workweek has lengthened by 10 percent. Social benefits, like pensions and health insurance have been slashed.

If workers aren’t benefiting from their improved productivity, who is? From 1980 to 1994 corporate profits more than doubled. Executive compensation almost quadrupled. In 1979 CEOs made 29 times more than the average manufacturing worker. By 1988 CEOs made a remarkable 93 times more. The 1 percent of the nation that owns the vast majority of our stocks and bonds has done very, very well.

Jobs have become more insecure. By the year 2000 some believe that almost half of all workers will be temporaries, part timers or contract workers hired just to complete specific projects.

In the last 60 years two agents have helped the individual worker improve his or her lot: unions and government. Republicans have targeted both for extinction.

When Ronald Reagan fired all striking air traffic controllers in 1981 and refused to allow them to apply for a job even after the strike was broken and the union destroyed, he sent a clear signal to the private sector that Washington was no longer a friend of labor. Corporations got the message. It is now commonplace for employers to hire permanent replacement workers for strikers.

Union membership has plummeted as well. Organizing in the workplace is becoming as dangerous in 1995 as it was in 1925. In the late 1960s employers illegally fired one out of every 209 union supporters during organizing drives. By the late 1980s they were firing five times as many. Unlawful firings occurred in one third of all union representation elections, up from 8 percent in the late 1960s.

As Gordon H. Brehm, executive assistant to the United Paperworkers International Union says, “We don’t have collective bargaining in America today. We have collective begging.”

The government agency established in the 1930s to ensure that corporations allow workers to organize and bargain with them fairly is the National Labor Relations Board(NLRB). Under Reagan and Bush the NLRB abandoned its mandate. Since Bill Clinton came to office the NLRB has begun doing its job. That infuriates Republicans. Republicans would cut NLRB’s already meager budget by 30 percent and hobble its enforcement powers.

The other key federal agency created to protect the American worker is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration(OSHA). Under Republican Presidents OSHA languished. Of the 70,000 hazardous chemicals used by industry, the agency set standards for only 25. A typical company in North Carolina was inspected once every 7 years.

When OSHA is allowed to act the record shows that it saves lives. There have been 58 percent fewer deaths in grain handing and 35 percent fewer deaths in trench cave-ins since OSHA cracked down. The number of textile workers suffering from brown lung fell from 20 percent of the industry work force in l978 when OSHA set limits on worker exposure to cotton dust to l percent seven years later.

Under Bill Clinton OSHA again began to attend to its duties. The Republicans are retaliating by decimating the agency. OSHA’s enforcement budget will be cut by a third. OSHA will be virtually stopped from developing any new safety standards. Meanwhile Republicans will prohibit OSHA from intervening to protect workers unless it first develops a standard. The icing on the cake is the bill’s provision that industries regulated by OSHA are exempted from federal rules that are “potentially in conflict”. Which means that the looming paralysis of OSHA may exempt major industries from many other federal regulations. And to add insult to injury, Republicans will prevent states from exceeding OSHA workplace safety standards.

The iron and steel lobby got the Republicans to stop OSHA from requiring employers to keep records for work related illnesses such as hearing losses if they do not require medical treatment or lost time. OSHA uses such logs to identify problem areas. OSHA is in the process of tightening its noise standards. Apparently for Republicans, so long as you can show up for work, there’s no cause for government action. Even if the job makes you deaf.

How many voters thought about the future of labor last November? What can they be thinking now?

Avatar photo
Follow David Morris:
David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.