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Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) was named top Democrat on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions' Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety Jan. 28. A two-term senator, Franken has positioned himself as a strong supporter of unions and workplace protections.
Franken made his first significant worker safety policy stand in April, when he introduced the Protecting America's Workers Act (S. 1112). The bill would extend the coverage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act to federal, state and local public employees, and raise the minimum penalty for a willful or repeat violation from $5,000 to $50,000, and the maximum penalty from $70,000 to $120,000. Franken has pitched the measure as an income inequality leveler, saying on the Senate floor, “I believe that our country can't afford the economic and emotional costs incurred on middle-class families when workers lose their lives or their livelihoods on the job”.
In a June 18 interview with Bloomberg BNA, Franken shared his views on the need to protect workers in dangerous industries, the way forward for Occupational Safety and Health Administration reform and the moral consequences of the ongoing budget wars.
You’ve just introduced the Protecting America’s Workers Act, which has been brought forward at least six times before and has never even come up for a vote. What will be your strategy to move it forward? Would you consider breaking the bill up into pieces and trying to pass those?
We all rely on American workers who are employed in difficult, and often dangerous, industries. Construction, manufacturing, natural gas production, agriculture—we depend on workers in these industries to help build and heat our homes and put food on the table. But Americans who work in those fields shouldn’t have to choose between their health and safety and providing for their family. And we can do something about that.
The Protecting America’s Workers Act will expand the number of workers in safe workplaces and make it harder to violate workplace safety laws. It will also protect whistle-blowers who bravely speak out about unsafe work conditions for themselves, their coworkers and their families. My bill protects the public’s right to know about safety violations and about OSHA investigations, and it will help us track and respond to workplace safety issues by requiring tracking of worker injuries.
I’m the top Democratic senator on the Employment and Workplace Safety Subcommittee, and this is the subcommittee’s signature bill. I believe it is the best and most fair way to update outdated OSHA laws. I’m willing to work with any member interested in moving this bill in any way we can. In the last Congress, there were bipartisan efforts to incorporate provisions from the bill into other legislation, and I’m more than happy to build upon that work and help continue those negotiations.
Congress seems unable to deal with many of the problems it is asked to deal with—such as, in the case of worker safety, OSHA’s argument that its budget is too small, and that it can’t assess meaningful penalties against companies that break the law. How optimistic are you that Democrats and Republicans will be able to find common ground on these issues?
There are both moral and economic consequences of allowing the sequester to continue. Playing politics with OSHA’s budget and possibly reducing the agency’s ability to enforce workplace safety laws and offer compliance assistance to businesses is bad for workers and business.
When penalties for breaking the law are considered by some to be the cost of doing business, the system isn’t working. I think we can all agree that no business that provides a safe workplace and follows the law should be at a competitive disadvantage to those that cut corners at the expense of worker safety. I’m optimistic that, despite any differences we may have, both Republican and Democratic senators want to help good businesses who follow the law.
As ranking member on the HELP Employment and Workplace Safety Subcommittee, you are now the champion of workers who are hurt and killed on the job. What are some of your specific priorities in that role? Are there any issues that you’re particularly anxious to act on?
For one, President Obama’s Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order. Taxpayer dollars should not be awarded to companies that break the law, endanger worker safety or pay substandard wages. The federal government should be a model employer, and so should anybody it does business with.
I’m also very interested in the safety of those working in our health-care industry. I am working to reintroduce a version of my Nurse and Health Care Worker Protection Act.
(Editor's note: Executive Order 13,673 instructs contracting officers throughout the federal government to consider labor law violations committed within the previous three years when making contracting decisions on projects worth more than $500,000. The Nurse and Health Care Worker Protection Act (S. 1788), introduced in 2009, would require OSHA to implement a safe patient handling and mobility standard that would eliminate manual lifting of patients by health-care workers.)
Union membership in the private sector is at an all-time low. As a lawmaker, do you feel that a stronger union movement in this country would help push your colleagues toward the kind of legislative changes you have in mind?
As a member of three unions myself, I am a strong supporter of workers' right to collectively bargain. Working men and women have a right to a voice in their workplace, to work in a safe work environment and to fight for fair family supporting wages without retaliation. I believe the collective bargaining process is the best way to do that.
I remember being struck by your tough questioning of a BP executive in a 2010 hearing after an explosion at a BP refinery in Texas killed several workers. You said you didn’t understand BP’s “lack of remorse, or the way it expresses it.” Have you come to any general conclusions about corporate America’s general attitude toward its workers?
The entire oil and gas industry needs to step up and take responsibility for improvements in overall safety, and until they do, we will continue to introduce legislation and enforce rules to protect workers and those who work and live around dangerous industries.
Republicans constantly talk about the need to ease regulations on business. I know you take the opposite view. Yet Republicans keep pushing their regulatory reform bills forward, which suggests they have support for what they are doing. Can you outline for me your general view of the need for tough regulatory protections?
Comprehensive regulatory reform is long overdue in this country, especially in the oil, gas and chemical industries, because we need to improve protections for workers. As long as businesses that operate in dangerous industries insist that voluntary protection standards are the answer to a safer workplace, then strong federal enforcement is necessary to both address bad actors and protect businesses that follow the law.
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The Protecting America's Workers Act (S. 1112) is available at https://www.congress.gov/114/bills/s1112/BILLS-114s1112is.pdf.
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