Efforts to Improve Working Conditions ‘Hit a Plateau,’ Labor Advocates Report

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By Stephen Lee  

June 30 — Worker advocates have “hit a plateau” in their attempts to improve working conditions and must now refocus their efforts, according to a June 26 report from the Center for Progressive Reform.

The 88-page report, framed as a policy playbook for workers' rights activists, lays out a series of reform suggestions in three broad categories: empowering workers, making sure crime doesn't pay and strengthening institutions that enforce worker safety standards.

The report also acknowledges that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is, “largely for political reasons,” unable to begin and finish even one new standard within a single presidential administration.

Political Roadblocks

To fill the void, advocates must push for change at the state and local level, wrote the CPR researchers, noting recent gains in California, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Washington.

“In doing so, [advocates] may provide the momentum that is needed to push Congress and others to establish better protections for all workers,” the report concludes.

The report doesn't, however, address organizing or political strategies. “Local conditions dictate how best to achieve campaign goals,” it said

Among the recommendations is a call for legislation that lets workers refuse dangerous work until the hazards have been fixed.

The biggest snag for such laws is a mechanism for defining when a worker may refuse work, the CPR wrote.

“If the language is too broad, then it will encounter vigorous opposition from business groups who will complain that the law could be too easily abused by workers making false or weak claims,” the report said. “If the language is too narrow, then it may be too difficult for workers to exercise their right to refuse and the law would not provide any meaningful protections.”

‘Good Faith' Standard to Refuse Work

The best workaround is a “good faith” standard that requires workers to sincerely believe that their work violates a law, standard or regulation, or otherwise amounts to a criminal act, according to the report.

The CPR also suggested that advocates push for mandatory joint labor-management health and safety committees, possibly with size triggers that determine when a committee is required based on how many workers are employed. Committees should also have the power to issue recommendations to the employer on ways to correct hazards, the CPR wrote.

Other recommendations include:

  •  state legislation to allow workers to file lawsuits demanding compliance with worker safety laws,
  •  requiring employers to fix serious hazards by the deadline set in an abatement order, regardless of whether or not they appeal the citation and
  •  raising penalties for violating safety laws to a level high enough “so that employers cannot simply absorb them as if they were merely a cost of doing business.” 
  • Manslaughter Laws, ‘Shaming Campaigns.'

    The report further calls on activists to work toward corporate manslaughter laws that would hold corporations criminally liable for worker deaths.

    Worker advocates should also enhance their “shaming campaign” efforts by accessing freely available government databases, the CPR advised. Spreading such information “can help advocates pressure employers to improve, and can strengthen campaigns for stronger worker protection laws,” the report concluded.

    The CPR further called for efforts to ensure that police and prosecutors prioritize workplace safety. One step toward that goal, the paper said, would be new state laws to require government safety inspectors to immediately notify local prosecutors whenever they learn of a workplace death or serious injury. A more ambitious reform would be an occupational health and safety directorate within the state prosecutor's office, “similar to the ‘environmental crimes' sections found in many jurisdictions,” the CPR wrote.

    Local Approach Tried Before

    The strategy of pushing workers' rights reforms down to the state level has been an ongoing theme during the Obama administration, especially after Republicans gained control of the House in 2011 and began blocking the president's regulatory agenda.

    But labor leaders at the federal level have also expressed doubt about the piecemeal approach, arguing that only changes made at the federal level can bring about meaningful improvements for a large number of workers.

    To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at stephenlee@bna.com

    To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jim Stimson at jstimson@bna.com

    The CPR report “Winning Safer Workplaces: A Manual for State and Local Policy Reform” is available at http://www.progressivereform.org/articles/Winning_Safer_Workplaces_CPRsm_1404.pdf.