Oct 14, 2009

The "dread possibility of a Labor Department that actually works"


Thomas Frank writes in today's Wall Street Journal of the held-up confirmation of M. Patricia Smith to the position of solicitor of the U.S. Department of Labor. Because of a hold placed on Smith's nomination by Sen. Enzi of Wyoming, she will now need 60 votes to be confirmed.

So why the controversy? What horrible skeletons does Smith have dangling in her closet? It appears Smith's sin is...being effective. Our lawmakers fear, in Frank's words, "the dread possibility of a Labor Department that actually works." Frank points out that:
Ms. Smith has "created some of the best outreach and enforcement programs in the nation," says Kim Bobo, head of the advocacy group Interfaith Worker Justice and a critic of the Bush-era Labor Department.

Outreach is just what understaffed labor agencies need. Governments ought to enlist private citizens and community groups to help people "come forward if they have complaints and problems. That's exactly the kind of thing we need to extend capacity," Ms. Bobo told me.

UFCW members in New York know how effective the Smith and the Wage Watchers program have been. Just earlier this year, then-State Labor Commissioner Smith announced the findings of an investigation into wage practices at several grocery stores in New York City and surrounding communities. Because of the investigation, 550 workers will receive nearly 1.5 million, primarily in unpaid overtime wages. As Smith said at the time:
It's unfathomable to think that in this day and age - in these frightening economic times - an employer would actually believe it could get away with cheating workers out such an exorbitant amount of their hard earned money. This case is a prime example of collaboration, good detective work and, as always, strong labor law enforcement.
Lawmakers like Enzi don't seem to like this "strong labor law" approach, and obviously see nothing wrong with the way we've been doing things the last eight years. Or, rather, not doing them. Frank on the Labor Department's fundamental broken-ness under the Bush administration:
The late Bush administration practiced regulatory euthanasia all across Washington, and the consequences have been felt in every corner of the economy.

The Labor Department was hit worst of all, a bureaucracy that was run in reverse until the motor seized up and the wheels came off. This past March the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on the department's Wage and Hour Division that reads like one of the pranks Spy magazine pulled off in its heyday. It seems that over the preceding nine months, a group of GAO investigators filed 10 made-up complaints with the Wage and Hour Division to see how it would respond. One of them alleged that kids were working "on heavy machinery" in a meatpacking plant during school hours. Wage and Hour simply blew that one off. As the report concludes in its inimitable government style, the Labor Department "successfully investigated 1 of our 10 fictitious cases."
You can read the full GAO report here, entitled "Wage and Hour Division’s Complaint Intake and Investigative Processes Leave Low Wage Workers Vulnerable to Wage Theft."

So a functioning Labor Department is Big Business's nightmare. But Big Business and its closest allies in Congress surely must be dreaming if they think the Obama administration and Sec. Hilda Solis will allow the status quo to stand at the DOL. Smith's nomination must go through--not just because she's a qualified, capable candidate--but because it sends a strong message to Enzi and others like him: this Labor Department is going to start working for workers.

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