Saturday, February 20, 2010

I was a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union for about seven years. In high school and graduate school, and for a couple of years thereafter, I loaded trucks, moved pallets and honed the fine art of rapidly throwing cans into paper bags.

So, when I suggest that the U.S. Department of Labor should be abolished, I do not do so with the airiness of an ideological theoretician. Working for hours in icy freezer-lockers, on the one hand, and on sweltering loading docks, on the other, tends to temper uninformed zeal.

First things first: The existence of the Labor Department has no basis in the Constitution. The Founders never envisioned a federal agency that “fosters and promotes the welfare of the job seekers, wage earners, and retirees of the United States by improving their working conditions, advancing their opportunities for profitable employment, protecting their retirement and health care benefits, helping employers find workers, strengthening free collective bargaining, and tracking changes in employment, prices, and other national economic measurements.”

Got that? It’s Labor’s formal mission statement. It means that Uncle Sam is going to intrude endlessly into every facet of American private enterprise. And while some of Labor’s purposes are noble ones, they (a) lack constitutional support and (b) are better done at the state and local level.

This, fundamentally, is a point of departure between left and right: Liberals believe that the federal government should superimpose itself on American society at large, and conservatives don’t. The latter, of whom I am one, believe that the Founders were right in their argument that the functions of the federal government should be few and targeted. A gigantic, controlling and threatening federal employment bureaucracy was not one of them.

Second, state governments actually do serve a purpose. That’s a shocking assertion to my friends on the left, certainly, but James Madison - aka the “Father of the Constitution” - was characteristically correct when, in 1794, he said, “The government of the United States is a definite government, confined to specified objects. It is not like the state governments, whose powers are more general.”

States have the authority to enact minimum wages, to subsidize private industry and regulate its behaviors, to hear complaints by employees against employers and ensure workplace safety. The federal government, constitutionally, does not. And it should not: It’s too big and cannot do these kinds of things with particular efficiency or without arrogantly disturbing myriad local and regional entrepreneurial efforts and regulations.

There are 54 departments of labor (or the equivalents thereof) in our states and territories and the District of Columbia. Are they so incompetent, so heartless and so simply stupid that they cannot address issues of employee health, racial or religious discrimination, medical insurance, etc.? This is, evidently, the underlying if unspoken presumption of the governing elite within the Capital Beltway.

Third, consider some basic issues of efficiency:

c Why does Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs (backwardly acronymed ILAB) have a human-trafficking division when such a division already exists within the State Department? For that matter, why does the United States have an ILAB to begin with? Aren’t Iceland and Ireland and Angola and Andorra capable of working with their own work forces?

c Why not consolidate Labor’s Wages and Hours Division and Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs? Are the functions of these and other duplicative bureaus, agencies and offices really so profoundly distinct that they justify separate fiefdoms?

c Why do we need a Small Business Administration and a Labor Department Office of Small Business Programs? Can’t states handle their own small-business matters? And, for the sake of argument, if we grant that Uncle Sam needs his own small-business agency, why have two of them?

c Do we really need 13 distinct training programs within the Department of Labor? Why does Labor have a National Veterans Training Institute - don’t we already have a Department of Veterans Affairs?

Inefficiency goes beyond programmatic repetition. The Los Angeles Times reports that the Department of Energy asked the Department of Labor to calculate what a prevailing wage for weatherization work is “in every single one of the more than 3,000 counties” in the United States. Labor has worked on this vital project for roughly a year.

Why? Because one of Big Labor’s favorite regulatory clubs is the Davis-Bacon Act, which mandates determinations of “prevailing wages” in local areas. As a result of this yearlong tie-up, just 9,100 homes of an eligible 593,000 have thus far been weatherized under the Obama administration’s stimulus plan.

The Department Labor performs some important functions - for example, collating data on labor statistics and evaluating them to determine the nature and needs of the American work force, of benefit to employers, training institutions and workers. But this could be done by the private sector, by state governments - or, if we deem this role so essential, we could amend the Constitution to allow a federal bureau to do it.

In tandem with this, small business is the engine of the economy: Large corporations, from high-tech firms such as Microsoft Corp. to industrial giants such as the Boeing Co., rely on thousands of small contracting firms. Data from the Small Business Administration shows that small companies created up to 80 percent of the new jobs in the past decade. Big Labor - the notion that hard-working men and wo- men need to clumsy arm of unionization draped over their shoulders - is increasingly irrelevant simply by virtue of the nature of small-business employment.

Finally, consider the long legacy of corruption in the unions that now have such great influence in the Labor Department. As documented in the Weekly Standard, current Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis “was a board member of a pro-union organization, American Rights at Work, that has been lobbying Congress” on legislation that Mrs. Solis herself co-sponsored (“The Nominee Who Lobbied Herself,” Feb. 2, 2009).

T. Michael Kerr, formerly a top-level official at what arguably is the most corrupt union in the nation, the Service Employees International Union, is now a Labor assistant secretary. His former boss, the dubious Andy Stern, spent $60 million of SEIU’s money to help elect Barack Obama and boasts of visiting the White House once a week.

America’s working men and women are not well-served by an unconstitutional, inefficient, duplicative and Big Union-influenced federal mammoth. That is why Labor’s strident defenders on the left like it so much: The department fosters a spirit of labor-management tension and “nanny state” dependence at the heart of liberalism.

Unlike in my union days, I now sit in an air-conditioned office high above the streets of Washington. But I will never forget my years of manual labor or the weary satisfaction of knowing I had done my physically demanding job well. Nor will I forget my friends, all unionized and mostly Democratic, who worked so hard along with me. They, and laborers across the country, deserve better than the money pit that is the Department of Labor.

Rob Schwarzwalder, senior vice president of the Family Research Council, has been chief of staff to two members of Congress and served in the George W. Bush administration.

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