What do you do with a former Reagan administration figure that kept an illegal immigrant to do housework? If you’re George W. Bush, you appoint her to be secretary of labor. Granted, Bush didn’t know about Linda Chavez’s worker, but he might have been able to tell that she wasn’t a wise choice for secretary of labor from her opposition to raising the minimum wage. The secretary of labor is the head of the Dept. of Labor (DOL), which is supposed to enforce labor laws at home and abroad, such as illegal immigration. Thankfully, Chavez withdrew from the position, but Bush’s poor choice is another reason to be concerned about his politics. The DOL can be constructive or destructive in our lives and work, and is an intimate example of how politics touch us all.
The secretary of labor appoints the heads of divisions within this vital department, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The party in the White House decides if the DOL is constructive or destructive with regard to our work and well-being. In the mid 1990s, Business Week magazine printed a story about the Reagan-Bush years, when “U.S. industry [had] conducted one of the most successful anti-union wars ever.” Along with giving management free reign, Republicans weakened OSHA through the DOL. Even Business Week stated, “[OSHA] under Reagan and Bush was a hands-off agency.” During those poorly lit years, the average workdays lost to injury grew from 58 to 86 per 100 workers. A conservative DOL means weak unions, leading to fewer benefits, less job security, lower wages and what Business Week admits is “a widening gap between rich and poor, which has reached Depression-era dimensions.”
In sharp contrast, President Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires employers to give workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave to take care of their family members. West Coast spokesman for the U.S. Dept. of Labor, Tino Serrano, told me, “Workers and their families deserve fairer treatment from their employers, particularly low-wage workers,” and that the Family Act is one example of how the Democratic Dept. of Labor under Clinton has acted on that belief. However, even with this Democratic breakthrough, the leave U.S. parents get (including the more affluent ones) is far shorter and less beneficial than that of other industrialized democracies. After the Family Act, U.S. full-time workers got only 12 weeks of unpaid leave compared to, for instance, England, Japan and Sweden, which average 26 weeks of leave at 80 percent of their full pay.
The much-needed Family Act was passed over strong Republican opposition. The GOP called the act “yet another example of intrusive government.” Such a declaration shows just what their “family values” are made of. Based on his party’s past behavior, Bush’s DOL could jolt our government away from the healthy direction it was just beginning to move in. Far from defending our interests, the only requirement for Bush staffers is devotion to the corporate community. Case in point is attorney general nominee John Ashcroft.
In the last election, Ashcroft was rejected by the voters of his own state because of his right-wing, anti-choice and pro-gun stands. He is a member of the so-called Christian right, which recently waged a holy war against the heathen Teletubbies. The New York Times editorial board warns, “Mr. Ashcroft supports a constitutional amendment that would outlaw abortion even in cases of incest and rape and that would criminalize several commonly used forms of contraception.” Even more frightening than his stance on social issues is his bond with the corporate community.
For example, Ashcroft took $50,000 from Schering-Plough, the company that makes Claritin. Ashcroft took this legalized bribe as chairman of the Senate committee in charge of patents. Schering-Plough wanted a patent extension, which would slow and keep prices for prescription drugs unbearably high. As attorney general, the chief lawyer for our government, Ashcroft would be responsible for ensuring fair competition among corporations so that monopolies don’t develop. Accepting money from the Claritin manufacturer shows an inability to take a principled stand against monopolies. From labor to law to the environment, Bush’s nominations are a troubling reminder of the crucial differences between the two parties. Bush’s own record was our first warning sign.
In Texas, Bush appointed only businessmen to the three-man Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) – the state’s environmental agency. One was an agri-businessman, the second was an oil expert for a corporate law firm in Dallas and the third was a 30-year executive of Monsanto Chemical Corporation. Bush’s TNRCC claimed that they decreased pollution, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found the opposite. Bush’s nominations thus far have been consistent with his anti-environment record. For instance, take a look at his choice for EPA director, New Jersey Gov. Christine Whitman.
Whitman was praised by her state’s businesses for her “laissez-faire approach” to the environment. For me, the most disturbing part of Whitman’s record is her belief in “voluntary compliance,” which means letting big polluters decide whether or not they’d like to abide by environmental rules. The results are predictable, as Whitman’s New Jersey shows. The Washington Post notes Whitman’s Dept. of Environmental Protection “collected far fewer fines and filed far fewer lawsuits, relying heavily on the polluters themselves to monitor their own emissions, even approving a ‘grace period’ for businesses caught out of compliance.” Bush shares Whitman’s belief in voluntary compliance, along with his pick for secretary of the interior, Gail Norton, who said states “lost too much” when the South lost the Civil War.
Norton is a lobbyist for a major manufacturer of lead-based paints that is being sued in numerous lawsuits for toxic waste dumping. Like Norton, the rest of Bush’s cabinet will faithfully represent the corporate community. Campaign chair Don Evans is the chief executive of a Texas oil and gas company, Office of Management and Budget head Mitch Daniels is a senior VP of the drug giant Eli Lilly and Co., and National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice has a Chevron oil tanker named after her. But, like Eeyore says, there’s warm sun behind every cloud.
Bush’s staff will be gone in four years, and I’m content that a majority of Americans supported Al Gore. The more lasting problem with Bush will be his Supreme Court nominees, which we’ll live with for the rest of our adult lives. Because a majority of our country refused Bush, he can’t even whisper the word “mandate” honestly. If he respects the will of the people, Bush must begin to make more moderate decisions by the time a Supreme Court justice retires.
John Bennett is a senior English major and history major, a member of the Campus Democrats and a Nexus columnist.