It's easy to remember the big ways George W. Bush failed the country. Abandoning Afghanistan to pursue a pipe dream, invading Iraq for no rational reason, driving the nation deep into the red, ignoring the gathering indicators of financial doom, condoning the torture of human beings, etc.
The man was a world historical fuck up, everyone knows this. But it’s easier to forget the smaller things he fucked up, things that may not have made headlines but still deeply affected the lives of millions of people for the worse. Things like the Department of Labor (DoL), an agency he staffed with corporate cronies who had no interest in pursuing the institution’s core mission: protecting American workers.
On Bush's watch the DoL operated as a bizarro version of itself. The departmental budget was eviscerated, with funding stripped from every enforcement operation: Workplace health and safety, minimum wage, fair hours, and even child labor laws. To be fair, Bush didn’t completely neglect the agency’s intended purpose. Only the DoL’s principal objective—penalizing abusive employers—was abandoned and all its attentions focused on organized labor, as the funding for investigations against unions rose exponentially.
The result? By the end of Bush’s term one study found that 68 percent of low-wage workers interviewed had suffered a wage-related violation in the previous week. Employers had gone hog wild, ignoring federal laws on everything from overtime pay to mine safety (miners particularly suffered as a result of the Bush-era DoL's relentlessly pro-company policies).
When Barack Obama was elected labor advocates breathed a sigh of relief. Democrats have a good track-record of staffing the DoL with pro-worker, pro-union administrators who try to ensure that everyone gets a fair shake, not just management. Obama followed through, appointing a worker-friendly labor secretary, Hilda Solis, and staffing the rest of the top positions with people who actually knew what they were doing (a novel concept!).
But Republicans couldn’t leave it at that.
As I’ve noted in other instances, arcane Senate procedure was used to block the confirmation of nominees who were deemed too labor friendly. In my new article in The American Prospect this week I take a look at the impact this stalling has had on the agency's mission. In short, Republican obstructionism has left the vital Wage and Hour division without a leader (and until recently the whole DoL without their chief in-house lawyer, hampering first year investigations). As a result the serious enforcement overhaul that is so badly needed after the Bush years still hasn't been implemented. To use a favorite D.C. saying, it takes a long time to turn around a huge freighter (read: government bureaucracy), but it takes a hell of a lot longer without a captain.
This isn't to say that Obama's DoL hasn't achieved anything. To name just a few accomplishments, new investigators have been hired to root out employer transgressions, new standards to protect workers from industrial dust explosions have been proposed, and the biggest fine in departmental history has been leveled against BP for worker safety violations that have gone unaddressed for five years. In her one year as Secretary of Labor Solis has done more for workers than her Bush's appointees did in their entire eight year tenure. That's change we can believe in.