The Old Insult to Injury

AUSTIN -- This poignant Labor Day, when the numbers are bad, the policies are worse and the jobs are disappearing, it's not so much the economy that riles me as the disrespect and the gratuitous contempt with which this administration treats working Americans. The old insult to injury.

If we've had an administration so blinkered by class blinders before, it is not within my memory. What these people know about working-class Americans would fit in a gnat's eye. In the summer of 2002, when Ted Kennedy and the late Paul Wellstone were working to get an emergency extension on unemployment benefits -- something that has been largely pro forma under earlier administrations -- Majority Whip Tom DeLay protested that Democrats want "unlimited unemployment so people could stay out of work for the rest of their lives." Actually, one million unemployed workers had already exhausted their benefits before the House finally acted in January 2003, and were simply left in the streets with nothing under the too-little, too-late Bush bill.

The idea that workers lead the life of Riley on unemployment compensation and want to "stay out of work for the rest of the lives" is so blatantly untrue it would be comical, if one could dredge up a laugh. Anyone who has been through the mill of unemployment, with the endless rounds of appointments, waiting, applications, interviews, taking the bus to the job training program and finally walking when you can't afford a bus, knows precisely how insulting this hooey is.

In February 2003, one of the most extraordinary sessions ever recorded between labor and a sitting labor secretary took place. Secretary Elaine Chao, whose chief qualification for the job seems to be that she is the wife of right-wing Sen. Mitch McConnell, met with the AFL-CIO's executive council. "Participants said Chao shocked the group by opposing any increase in the minimum wage, showing no sympathy for retired steelworkers who lost pension benefits, and reciting a list of legal actions her department has taken against unions and their leaders," reported The Washington Post. "We had a pretty unbelievable session," said John J. Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO. "She was angry at points, insulting at points. I said that in all my years in labor, I've never seen a secretary so anti-labor.

"There was a lot of shock and amazement in the room," said Leo Gerard, president of the Steelworkers. "We were made to feel we were the enemy." Fortunately, Chao's condescending, insulting and hostile performance has united labor, including the building trades and the teamsters, against the Bush administration. Nothing like a little old-fashioned solidarity.

Another insulting episode came when Bush named Eugene Scalia, son of the Supreme Court justice, to be solicitor of the Department of Labor, apparently as a cruel joke. Scalia's specialty as a K Street lobbyist was fighting ergonomic regulations. For years he attacked and mocked the very idea of repetitive stress injuries, calling them "junk science," "exotic and absurd, like a trip through Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean." "Work less, and you'll feel better! Why I've experienced the same thing myself!" He has written that heavy lifting does not cause back strain and reported increases in repetitive stress injuries are caused by "feeding frenzies." Try doing the same thing hundreds and hundreds of times an hour, hour after hour, day after day, week after week. Neither Mr. Scalia nor President Bush has ever held a job that involved physical labor.

One of this administration's first actions was to repeal the ergonomic regulations that prevent repetitive stress. Two years later, the administration solved the entire problem with characteristic brilliance -- it revoked the provision requiring employers to report such injuries! This was almost as good as the time the administration solved global warming by simply editing it out of an environmental report. Just the other day, Bush said he had been elected to "solve problems" and, boy, howdy, does he. Even better, he's solving the entire problem of workplace injuries and deaths by trying to weaken OSHA! A new House bill would reduce penalties and weaken OSHA's enforcement powers to correct safety and health standards. About six million American workers are injured on the job every year, and more die in workplace accidents annually than were killed during the Sept. 11 attacks. Ha, ha, ha, how funny, let's just have companies stop reporting these things.

I know as well as you do that many companies make a terrific effort on worker safety: Bush's first Treasury secretary, Paul O'Neill, was justly proud of the record at Alcoa (he's the one they fired, of course). Perhaps there are a few people on worker's comp who seem to have no trouble lifting their bass boats off the trailer. But I happen not to find thousands of dead and millions of injured workers annually funny. No one doubts that this administration will continue to screw the workers of America -- but I'd appreciate it if they'd can the sarcasm in the meantime.

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