- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 7, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

“There’s a new sheriff in town.” That is the mantra Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis has repeated in dozens of speeches as a way of contrasting herself with her predecessor, President George W. Bush’s long-serving Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. It was Mrs. Solis’ way of announcing that the Labor Department will get serious and really crack down on infractions of labor law.

Last year, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), an arm of the Labor Department, leveled what Workforce Management magazine called a “historic” fine against oil refiner BP. The $87.4 million fine for workplace safety violations was four times higher than the $21 million the company was forced to pay following a fatal explosion in a Texas refinery in 2005.

The fine came at the end of an intensive six-month investigation by OSHA and clearly was intended to send a message. “Let me be clear: The administration will not tolerate disregard for our laws,” Mrs. Solis said in a teleconference - in case we missed the point. “Employers have a legal and moral responsibility to protect their workers, who, ultimately, are America’s most important asset.”

It’s hard to argue with that. Workers’ safety is important - but so are workers’ jobs. That’s especially true in this time of 10 percent unemployment. How the Labor Department chooses to enforce the law can have real effects on employment.

The Chao Labor Department understood that labor laws can be burdensome and unworkable, so it fined companies for violations but tried to work with them to improve workplace safety. Many companies preferred the carrot to the stick.

By contrast, the Solis Labor Department is scaling back compliance programs and has instructed its regulators to fine, fine, fine and show no leniency. It hired 250 new inspectors in the Wage and Hour Division alone. In fact, some of the companies that are being targeted, perversely, are those with the best safety records. The assumption is that they must be covering up something.

However, at the same time that Sheriff Solis is coming down hard on companies for any violations of labor law, she also is proving remarkably lenient on the abuses of organized labor.

Under Mrs. Chao, unions had to file a form called an LM-2, itemizing their major expenses, which then were posted online. Mrs. Chao’s Office of Labor Management Standards (OLMS), usually acting on the complaints of rank-and-file union workers who could read its Web site, was able to obtain more than 900 convictions and $91.5 million in restitution of union dues from 2001 to 2008.

Union bosses hated the disclosure requirements and painted Mrs. Chao as “anti-worker.” But the Labor Department worked with unions to help make reporting easier, and the focus of OLMS was more on restitution than convictions. The point was to make sure that money that was wrongly taken from workers was paid back.

You might think a new labor secretary who referred to herself as a “sheriff” would appreciate the justice of that approach, but that is not the case. Mrs. Solis immediately watered down LM-2 reporting requirements and is trying to water them down further.

Mrs. Solis is adding employees in the Labor Department everywhere she can, save one. Democrats in Congress in 2006 and 2008 cut back the budget of OLMS, the one division that actually prosecutes union abuses. This is one area where the new sheriff isn’t calling for backup.

Terrence Scanlon is president of Capital Research Center. He served as chairman of the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission during President Reagan’s second term.

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