By BOB BUSSEL, University of Oregon Labor Education and Research Center professor emeritus
In 2003, at the request of then labor commissioner Dan Gardner, I wrote a history of Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) to mark the agency’s 100th anniversary. During my research I came across an observation by Charles Gram, who served as labor commissioner from 1919 to 1943. Reflecting on his long career at the agency, Gram declared: “It is our experience that all the regulations possible will not make one go straight without continual watching, if he is not so inclined.”
I thought of Gram’s comment one recent morning as I read the New York Times. The U.S. Labor Department had fined a company $1.5 million for employing minors to clean meatpacking plants. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was seeking to restore limits on power plant mercury emissions that were relaxed during the Trump administration. And a railroad union official expressed concern after the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, that accidents have increased since rail companies started running longer and bigger trains without any additional safety protocols. All this before I finished my first cup of coffee!
Unions have long led the fight for strong regulations and vigorous enforcement to protect the safety and health of workers and their communities. However, in a political culture that worships free enterprise and views government intervention as akin to blasphemy, efforts to regulate business practices and promote safety often face stiff opposition. The language the political right and its allies use to express their disdain for regulation is revealing: “overreaching,” “burdensome,” “punishing,” “job-killing,” and “freedom limiting.” Acting on these sentiments, the Trump administration aggressively cut regulations and relaxed enforcement, determining that the cost of regulation almost always outweighed the benefits. Closer to home, timber interests in Oregon recently sought (unsuccessfully) to overturn new rules protecting workers from heat and smoke.
Yet as the Times revealed, deregulation has real consequences when it comes to personal health and public safety. In the meatpacking plants, children were exposed to hazardous chemicals, and several suffered chemical burns. Mercury emissions especially harm residents of communities of color who, as EPA administrator Michael Regan observed, often and unjustly live near power plants. Residents of East Palestine are experiencing headaches, rashes, and nausea and fear long-term effects from chemicals that fell off the derailed trains.
Management’s reaction at one of the meatpacking plants makes plain the need for strong regulation and enforcement. According to a Labor Department official, “when the wage and hour division arrived with warrants, the adults—who had recruited, hired, and supervised these children—tried to derail our efforts to investigate their employment practices.” The company was fined just over $15,000 for each of the 102 children illegally employed, an amount one advocate described as woefully insufficient to deter employer misconduct.
In this year’s session of the Oregon Legislature, we have a chance to strengthen regulations and enforcement. Lawmakers will consider increasing BOLI funding, and a bill (SB 592) to increase employer penalties for willful violations of safety standards.
We can anticipate resistance from the usual suspects, and it will take a strong coalition of advocates to achieve victory. Without enhanced resources, as Charles Gram explained, “our laws will become but promissory notes—impressive to be sure—of the good will of the people of Oregon, but of no avail until translated into reality by proper financial support.”