By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer
WASHINGTON (PAI)—Blithely dismissing opposition from Senate Democrats and union leaders, Senate Republicans voted on March 6 to permanently kill yet another pro-worker Labor Department rule, the one that orders federal contractors to disclose their worker rights records and have them reviewed before contractors get new taxpayer dollars.
The 49-48 completely party-line vote – three Senate Republicans were absent – sends the measure killing the rule to Republican President Donald Trump, who plans to sign it.
The rule, instituted last year by the Democratic Obama administration, following the president’s Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces executive order, affects businesses that employ almost one in every five U.S. workers. That’s because those firms – everyone from Boeing Aircraft to a dry cleaners near a national park lodge – receive federal contracts.
And the rule said that, starting this year, before they qualified for future such pacts, firms had to show they obeyed labor laws, family and medical leave laws, other worker laws, civil rights laws and tax laws, among others. Otherwise, federal contract officers could work with those firms to bring them into compliance – and maybe bounce them if they refused.
But right-wing House Republicans pushed through a joint resolution that not only kills the Obama rule, but bars the Labor Department from ever considering the issue again.
“This is overkill,” AFL-CIO Legislative Director Bill Samuel told senators before the vote. “The executive order and implementing regulations establish a process for reviewing the records of companies bidding for federal business and ensuring that companies that receive this business comply with the law and respect workers’ rights,” he said in a letter to lawmakers.
Citing past studies, Samuel told senators “the current procurement system does an inadequate job screening prospective contractors and their compliance -- or non-compliance -- with the law...Contracts have been awarded to companies with significant records of violating wage and hour, health and safety, and other worker protection laws.”
Senate Democrats also protested the GOP’s scheme. No Republicans spoke up to defend their decision to dump the Labor Department’s fair play and safe workplaces rules.
“This is not about exclusion or about blackballing,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “It is about including and working with companies to bring them into compliance so they obey the law, knowing what the rules are, and wanting everybody to play by the same rules, not having an unfair advantage.”
It’s also about going after really bad actors, added Sens. Al Franken, DFL-Minn., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
Both cited a recent story about a major Navy shipbuilder, VT Halter, with a “deeply concerning safety track record,” as Franken put it.
“In 2009, two workers were killed and five others injured, some severely, when an explosion occurred at a VT Halter shipyard. A month later, they (VT Halter) received an $87 million contract. About six months after the explosion, VT Halter settled charges relating to the explosion, admitting they willfully violated at least 12 Occupational Safety and Health Administration workplace safety rules to prevent incidents like this from occurring.
“That explosion wasn’t VT Halter’s only incident. In 2009, a worker fell to his death at another VT Halter shipyard where there were no handrails or fall protections. In 2012, the company was fined by OSHA after a worker at a VT Halter shipyard was killed when the lid on a pressurized pot exploded. They were fined again in 2014 for violating crane safety rules after two cranes tipped over, injuring five workers, including one 63-year-old worker who now has the mental capacity of a child," Franken said.
Sen. Warren said VT Halter’s contracts total $680 million, despite the deaths and injuries, especially the horrific last one. Concluded Franken: “It doesn’t make sense to keep rewarding companies like this with lucrative contracts when they repeatedly -- and, again, willfully – disregard basic safety protections.”