Labor-HHS spending bill would make terrible changes in labor law and regulation

Representative Denny Rehberg (R-MT), Chairman of the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee, recently launched a massive attack on the federal government’s efforts to improve the labor standards, job prospects, wages and bargaining rights of American workers. His numerous amendments to a major bill to fund the Labor Department and other agencies would block the government’s efforts to improve enforcement of wage laws, make construction work safer, protect the jobs of U.S. workers, reduce the levels of respirable coal dust that causes black lung disease, and give workers a fair chance to have a union if they want one. And where the law is already working to ensure contractors don’t compete for federal construction projects by driving down wages, Rehberg’s amendments would undermine the existing law.

Given that a decent job is the ticket to the middle class, Rehberg’s attack looks like the 1 percent trying to slam the door on the 99 percent.

Rehberg is going after important protections that don’t cost a lot of money. One of his targets is a Labor Department program – Bridge to Justice — that does nothing more than refer workers who’ve been cheated out of wages through the American Bar Association to attorneys with relevant experience. Obviously, Rehberg isn’t trying to save the taxpayers money, he’s simply trying to protect unscrupulous employers.

Rehberg’s legislation fits neatly into the business lobby’s campaign to weaken the National Labor Relations Board, the agency created to protect the right of workers to join unions and exercise their collective bargaining rights. His bill cuts NLRB funding by $49 million and targets rules that inform workers of their rights, enable workers to communicate with each other during union election campaigns, and ensure that union elections are conducted efficiently.

The employer campaign to prevent reforms at the NLRB depends upon misinformation and the fact that the public is largely unaware that union elections look more like those in a one-party state than in a true democracy. The last thing Rep. Rehberg’s corporate allies want is a system that gives full expression to employees’ desires to join together and improve their wages, job security, and working conditions.

Finally, the bill undoes recent rule changes from the Labor Department in the H-2A and H-2B programs that favor the hiring of U.S. workers at prevailing wages over foreign guestworkers for relatively low-skilled jobs as farmworkers, hotel maids, and landscapers. The bill would thus make it harder for U.S. workers to find jobs and would depress wages.

Every one of the two dozen or so labor-related provisions in the bill is bad policy, and one can only hope that Senate Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and his Senate colleagues reject them all.