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By Ben Penn
Businesses and unions are plotting a joint lobbying mission to rescue a small Labor Department agency from a White House proposal to eliminate most of its budget.
During the Capitol Hill recess, meetings are taking place to urge Senate appropriators to fully fund the DOL’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs, advocates for corporations and labor told Bloomberg BNA. The White House and a House appropriations panel support eliminating a grant program designed to eradicate labor abuses overseas. Those grants account for about three-quarters of annual ILAB spending.
The union umbrella organization AFL-CIO and coalitions of multinational apparel and food companies—including Under Armour, Gap, Nestle, and Pepsi—are targeting the Senate in search of a bipartisan group of lawmakers willing to champion ILAB’s mission.
“There have been lots of meetings, and there will be more,” Stephen Lamar, executive vice president of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, told Bloomberg BNA. “Whenever you’ve got the business community and the labor community coming together, that’s kind of a sit-up-and-take-notice concept.”
ILAB works to ensure global workplaces don’t rely on child labor, forced labor, or human trafficking. The bureau’s four offices research trade issues, participate in trade negotiations, and work directly on enforcement efforts overseas.
President Donald Trump’s budget request for fiscal year 2018 proposed slashing some $67 million from ILAB’s budget, leaving about $19 million that would be dedicated to ensuring trade deals are fair for U.S. workers.
Businesses relying on global supply chains want the bureau to retain resources to combat violations of foreign workers’ rights. The AAFA and the U.S. Council for International Business argue ILAB’s global presence serves to level the playing field for U.S. businesses and employees. That’s one of the few areas in which corporations align with the AFL-CIO, forming a partnership that the groups hope is persuasive enough in the Senate to restore the bureau’s funding.
For lawmakers who “might tend to reject something just because it came from labor—and there are those—then to see business is on this, then it really merits, I think, for that community a second look,” Celeste Drake, a trade and globalization policy specialist at the AFL-CIO, told Bloomberg BNA. “So you’re judging the issue rather than the messenger.”
Advocates declined to say whether they are targeting specific senators to take the lead on the issue when the spending negotiations resume after Congress’ summer recess. Legislation currently funding the federal government is set to expire at the end of September.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the Senate labor appropriations subcommittee, told Bloomberg BNA she will be committed to preserving ILAB funding.
“President Trump’s proposal to gut investments that help level the playing field for our workers by enforcing fair labor practices internationally is yet another way his budget breaks his promises to workers,” Murray said in an email statement. “I hope my Republican colleagues join me in once again rejecting his harmful budget and instead, continuing to invest in strong enforcement of workers’ rights and training programs and protections for all workers.”
Stephen Worley, a spokesman for the appropriations subcommittee’s GOP office, was noncommittal when asked about ILAB. “The subcommittee will carefully consider its options as it writes a FY2018 bill,” Worley told Bloomberg BNA in an email.
The unified advocacy front from labor and business isn’t a new phenomenon when it comes to prioritizing ILAB.
In anticipation of the White House budget release earlier this year, the heads of the AFL-CIO and USCIB co-wrote a letter March 8 to Murray and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who chairs the appropriations subcommittee.
“Any reduction in funding would force U.S. companies to expend more resources on private compliance efforts, which would be rendered less effective without the capacity-building or compliance incentives for national governments provided by” ILAB, the two leaders wrote.
Businesses have been signing on to letters since then to make similar requests to the Senate.
“I think that type of outreach can only help bring attention, with leading U.S. business speaking up and engaging directly, it can only help,” Gabriella Herzog, USCIB’s vice president for labor affairs, told Bloomberg BNA. “USCIB will continue to speak out on this matter and seek ways to bring attention to this.”
Nonprofit human rights organizations, such as the Solidarity Center, have also been involved.
Further, the CEO of USCIB met with Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta earlier this year about the importance of a fully funded ILAB. Herzog declined to discuss Acosta’s reaction to this pitch, saying she wasn’t in the meeting.
The administration suggested eliminating the bureau’s grants program as part of a widespread attempt to curb domestic spending to afford Trump’s defense and security initiatives.
Andrew Samet, who headed ILAB during the Clinton administration, said the White House call to shut down the grants entirely is a major concern but one that can lead to productive discussions.
“Obviously, the administration’s position is very clear and that’s problematic,” Samet, who now lobbies for Sorini Samet & Associates, told Bloomberg BNA. “But to overcome that, I think it’s important to have to frame ideas about how the” bureau “needs to be focused, what its priorities should be, and how to best invest its resources going forward.”
A Labor Department spokesman referred Bloomberg BNA to the administration’s budget request.
Within the DOL’s congressional budget justification, the agency states that ILAB “reduction reflects the workload decrease associated with the elimination of new grants program as well as ILAB’s shift to focus its efforts and resources on ensuring that U.S. trade agreements are fair for U.S. workers by monitoring and enforcing the labor provisions of Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) and trade preference programs.”
“ILAB will no longer deploy new technical assistance programs or labor attachés; will reduce its research and reporting; and will be more strategic in its representation of U.S. labor and employment priorities at the ILO, G20, and bilateral engagement,” the budget document adds.
To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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