Labor’s Candidate is President this Workers Memorial Day

What a difference a year makes.

When unions observed Workers Memorial Day on April 28, 2008, one of the most anti-union presidents in history was in the White House.

As this Workers Memorial Day approaches, we have a new president who was elected with overwhelming union support.

Workers Memorial Day is a time when unions hold special services of remembrance for workers who lost their lives on the job. Unions recognize April 28 as Workers Memorial Day because the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration was born on that date in 1970.

Until Ronald Reagan was inaugurated president in 1981, OSHA did much to improve worker safety and health. OSHA was a watchdog for workers. But it was a lapdog for employers under Reagan and both Bushes.

“During the last eight years, tens of thousands of workers died or were injured on the job — a direct result of the failure of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to promulgate new standards and stringently enforce the law,” said a special edition of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health’s newsletter. Mike Hall quoted from it in an  online article posted on the AFL-CIO nowblog  (

President Barack Obama is putting OSHA back on the side of workers, starting with Jordan Barab. He is acting head of OSHA until Obama names a permanent head.

Barab was the OSHA official in the Clinton administration who help develop the ergonomics workplace safety and health standard that President George W. Bush and his Republican-run Congress repealed soon after they were in power.

Barab was also an AFL-CIO health and safety specialist and was in charge of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees’ safety and health program.

Barab steps to a different drummer than OSHA chiefs under Reagan and Bush I and II. Reagan named Thorne Auchter as his first OSHA head. A union buddy of mine suggested that was like paying a fox to guard the hen house.

The Auchter appointment typified the Reagan-Bush approach to all federal agencies that regulated business and industry: hire anti-regulation Republicans from business and industry to run the agencies.

Auchter had helped run his family’s construction company in Florida, where he also worked for the Reagan campaign. Like his candidate, Auchter was no fan of unions and OSHA rules. 

President Bill Clinton did what he could to return OSHA to its watchdog role. But Bush-the-Younger turned the clock at OSHA back to the era of Reagan and Bush-the-Elder when the regulated got to be the regulators and workers lost lives and limbs as a result.

OSHA is under the labor department. Like Reagan, the Bushes hired labor secretaries who shared their anti-labor views.

George W. Bush’s secretary of labor was Elaine Chao. She is married to Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whom Kentucky unions tried hard to beat last November.

Chao – dubbed “the anti-labor secretary of labor” — disdains unions as much as her spouse does. McConnell’s lifetime COPE rating is 11 percent.

On the other hand, Obama’s labor secretary is former U.S. Rep. Hilda Solis, a California Democrat. Her appointment was a “huge victory” for labor, said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. “Finally, Americans will have a secretary of labor who represents working people, not wealthy CEO’s.”

Solis’ COPE score was 97 percent “right.” That’s just a point lower than Obama’s tally during his tenure as an Illinois senator.

Hall’s post suggests an even better way to improve worker safety and health. “The first and foremost thing [workers]…can do…is… join a union,” he quoted Denis Hughes, president of the New York State AFL-CIO. “Without a union to protect them, rights to safe and healthful working conditions are a legal abstraction.”

Hughes expects employers to continue resisting union “demands for safer workplaces.” But he added, “Passage of the [Employee Free Choice Act]… and increasing our numbers is a necessary first step in the fight for safe and healthful workplaces.”

As president, Bush opposed the Employee Free Choice Act. Obama is for it. What a difference a year makes.

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About Berry Craig

Berry Craig is a native Kentuckian, a professor of history at the West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance journalist. He is a member of the American Federation of Teachers and the Kentucky Education Association/National Education Association. He is the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, which he describes as "a strictly non-partisan chronicle of our political past from Gov. Isaac Shelby to Gov. Ruby Laffoon."
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One Response to Labor’s Candidate is President this Workers Memorial Day

  1. Les Kafel says:

    By examining the numbers and rates of occupational fatalities from the Clinton and Bush eras provided by the BLS ( it looks like the “lapdogs” did not do such a bad job. Both the total number of fatalities and the fatality rates declined under the Bush Administration.

    Perhaps, instead of making everything that the Bush Administration did seem bad, we could take the good parts and improve upon them.

    When the safety and health of workers ceases to be a political issue or a union issue, it can be embraced as a human issue that can be solved with benefits at the personal and economic levels.