Vice President Gore today pledged a White House veto if Congress approved either of the bills proposed by the Republican congressional leadership that would sharply curtail the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's oversight of workplace safety.
Gore made the pledge at a closed-door meeting of the AFL-CIO Executive Council. At a news conference after the meeting, Gore said he told the labor leaders President Clinton would veto any OSHA proposal that closely resembled the bills put forward by GOP leadership in the House and the Senate.
The OSHA legislation under attack by labor and the White House would shift much of the focus of the federal safety program from enforcement to a consulting role for most businesses. The bills are sponsored by Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.) and Rep. Cass Ballenger (R-N.C.). The two bills differ somewhat, although the Ballenger bill is seen by its critics as the more extreme of the two proposals.
Both bills would exempt many businesses from routine inspections and the Ballenger bill would end the ability of employees to go directly to the Labor Department to report a health or safety violation. The Ballenger proposal would require employees to first go to their employer and report any safety infraction, a requirement the unions argue would keep most employees from reporting any problem out of fear it might cost them their jobs.
Business supporters of the bills argue they would provide an incentive for businesses to have good safety records because the exemptions from inspection would be based on those records.
Labor sources at the meeting said the AFL-CIO had to work hard to get the White House to agree to the public veto threat. Both bills are being considered in congressional committees and their fate was uncertain even before the veto threat.
Immediately after announcing the president would veto the bills, Gore praised labor's political support in the recent election of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) in the special election to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Bob Packwood. He said both he and Clinton wanted to continue their relationship with labor in this upcoming election campaign. The AFL-CIO is expected to endorse Clinton and Gore for reelection in a special Washington meeting late next month.
It was just a year ago that Gore came to this same resort to tell labor's leadership that Clinton would sign a presidential executive order banning the use of striker replacement workers by federal contractors. That order is now being challenged in the courts by the business community.
Gore said the president would also veto the Team Act, the business-backed bill being pushed by Republicans in Congress that would allow cooperative teams in the workplace. Many labor-management teams being used by businesses are illegal under the National Labor Relations Act because they violate the prohibition against "sham unions."
But Gore ducked answering a question today when asked whether the White House endorsed a proposal being floated by Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich and Democratic congressional leaders that would provide special tax breaks to companies that meet certain standards for dealing with their employees in today's era of downsizing. Gore simply deflected the issue and talked of other things the White House was doing in support of workers.
Earlier in the day, the AFL-CIO leadership formally approved a massive new organizing campaign aimed at recruiting women, minorities and low-wage workers. "We cannot bargain decent contracts unless we can build a substantially larger labor movement," said AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney in announcing the new program.
Union membership as a percentage of the nation's work force is at its lowest level since the 1930s. Union members comprise 14.9 percent of the overall work force, but only 10.4 percent of the private-sector work force.
Union leaders would not say how much the AFL-CIO planned to spend on the new organizing campaign, but Sweeney has called for a minimum of $20 million a year in addition to asking each of the federation's 78 member unions to spend at least a third of their budget on organizing efforts.
The new organizing program will be patterned after the militant, in-your-face Justice For Janitors campaign being waged by the Service Employees International Union, a campaign that was started by Sweeney when he was president of the SEIU. It was the SEIU that staged the rush-hour blockade of the Roosevelt Bridge last year to highlight the janitors' concerns.
As part of the effort to attract new members, the AFL-CIO announced the creation of a Working Women's Department, to be headed by Karen Nussbaum, who is leaving the Labor Department as director of the Women's Bureau. Nussbaum is founder of 9 to 5, the National Association of Working Women.
Women's issues, from sexual harassment to flexible hours and family medical leave, have become major factors in employment policy today and union leaders said they believe they can build new organizing campaigns around such issues. Nussbaum will be involved in federation policy at all levels of the AFL-CIO, according to Sweeney.