September 23, 2005

For Long-Lasting Reform...

Nathan Newman has a long list of pro-labor measures Bill Clinton enacted when he was in office. The man sometimes doesn't get enough credit here. The depressing part, though, is that most of those measures were executive orders or changes to federal regulation—precisely the sort of thing that a subsequent president can easily undo. As, you know, proved to be the case. Clinton set up workplace regulations to prevent repetitive stress injuries; Bush repealed 'em. Clinton drew up rules banning union-busters from federal contracting work; Bush repealed 'em. Clinton stocked the NLRB with labor-friendly members; Bush... well, you get the idea. The principle failure of the Clinton administration was that a conservative president hostile to labor could almost entirely undo eight years worth of progress with a flash of the pen.

One solution to this problem, from a labor standpoint, is to ensure that presidents hostile to labor stop getting elected. But that doesn't always work, obviously—in the two-party system we have Republicans will inevitably win the presidency about half the time. The only lasting solution is to make sure that conservative presidents can't gut vital workplace protections quickly and easily. In theory, liberals shouldn't have such a tough time of this. A Roper Center poll in 1997 found that nine out of ten Americans supported "enforcing workplace safety and healthy regulations." You can't get 90 percent of Americans to agree on anything, but they agreed on this.

So how did Bush and the congressional GOP get away with repealing, for instance, OSHA's ergonomic regulations in 2000, almost as soon as they came to power? Simply put, most Americans don't have the first clue as to what OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) is or does—unless they happen to read Jordan Barab's excellent blog, which they should—let alone know what "ergonomics" regulations entail. The people who cared deeply and passionately about dismantling OSHA all headed major corporations, and donated heaps of money to political races. Pro-labor Democrats in Congress just couldn't muster the popular support or the lobbying pressure necessary to stop them. I've discussed elsewhere the relatively paltry lobbying operation the AFL-CIO has in Washington, but it's really hard to understate this fact: In 2000, labor was 13th in total lobbyist spending, vastly, vastly outmatched by agribusiness, the communications industry, finance, "misc. business," etc. etc.

The moral here, of course, is that without a pervasively strong labor movement, any pro-worker rules or regulations or legislation that get passed by a liberal president or Congress can easily be repealed by the next conservative president. A strong labor movement, on the other hand, can rile up popular awareness and prevent people like Bush from thrusting unpopular workplace measures into law, under the radar. A strong labor movement can make sure that Democrats don't just shrink away when the battle gets extra-fierce, as they did during the fight over the overtime rules. A strong labor movement can bring the proper lobbying resources to bear. That's just life. Mickey Kaus says that sometimes the labor stranglehold on the Democratic Party can get in the way of good liberal policy. Yes, it can—no interest group is unselfish. But without a strong labor movement, good liberal policy often survives only as long as the good liberal president who enacted it. That, more than anything else, should be the overriding lesson of Clinton's policy successes: not that they were wonkish and good, but that they didn't last.
-- Brad Plumer 8:36 PM || ||