Secretary Elaine Chao

 
 
 

Will Obama's Labor Department Help or Hinder Recovery?

When President-elect Obama initially announced his economic team, one important player was conspicuously absent:  the U.S. Department of Labor.  Friday’s confirmation hearing for the Labor Secretary nominee focused a great deal on the economic problems our country is currently facing and demonstrated a vital fact:  America’s workforce is central to our economic recovery in the near-term and sustained prosperity in the long-term.  As is often reported, 70 percent of our economy is consumer-driven.  Most of that consumption depends on workers’ paychecks.

The Department of Labor has tremendous resources to help American workers be more competitive in the worldwide economy and thereby foster a climate of job creation.  Conversely, the Department has the power to harm American workers’ competitiveness through misguided regulations and punitive policies that would cause jobs to go overseas or disappear entirely.

Over the last eight years, the Department of Labor achieved record low workplace injury, illness and fatality rates and record back-wage recoveries for workers through preventative compliance assistance and targeted enforcement efforts.  Innovative workforce development programs were launched bringing employers, workers, unions and education providers together to help workers to succeed in an increasingly knowledge-based economy.  The Department also secured record monetary recoveries for workers’ pension plans and the first major update of union financial disclosure regulations for rank and file members in over 40 years.  In addition, white-collar overtime regulations were updated, which had been on the agenda of every Administration since 1977, and the Department updated Family and Medical Leave Act regulations and spearheaded the Pension Protection Act.  The Department has been pro-worker without strangling the workplaces that employ them.

During these challenging times, it’s reassuring to remember that America’s economic foundation is a workforce that works smarter and harder than any other and is unique in its flexibility.  For American workers to ride out these tough times and stay positioned for future growth, it is absolutely vital that the Department of Labor not promulgate workplace regulations that impede job growth.  Yet, special interest groups that purport to have workers interests at heart are agitating for more workplace mandates.  And there will be pressure on the Department to retreat from efforts to make federal job training programs actually prepare workers for real world jobs instead of funding duplicative bureaucracies.

One of these counterproductive special interest initiatives is so-called “card check” legislation, which would deprive them of the ability to vote privately in workplace unionization elections—a vital worker protection that dates back over 60 years to the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947.  There is a push in Congress to enact card check despite the fact that the vast majority of workers – including rank-and-file union members – want to keep the private ballot system in workplace unionization elections and do not want it replaced by a signature card process that will subject them to the pressures of solicitation and potential intimidation by union activists.  Ironically, to decertify a union, union leaders insist on holding private ballot elections to protect workers from employer intimidation.

Another destructive and undemocratic aspect of the card check bill is a provision for government-dictated labor contracts in newly unionized workplaces.  Under the card check bill, if an initial labor contract is not agreed to within a congressionally-dictated timetable, the federal government could designate an “arbitration board” to write a labor contract that employers and workers would be forced to live under for two years.  This is not just a problem for employers.  Workers would not have any right to ratify or reject the contract.

The Department of Labor has far-reaching impact on every worker and every workplace in America.  For the sake of all of America’s workers, special interest agenda items must be balanced with economic reality and the need to keep all these workplaces in America.