Leveling the Labor Playing Field

Feb. 1, 2001
ORGANIZED labor officials are trying to put on a good face, but the plain truth is that they will have significantly less clout with the new Republican

ORGANIZED labor officials are trying to put on a good face, but the plain truth is that they will have significantly less clout with the new Republican Administration in Washington DC. That should be good news for the businesses that transport, ship, and store liquid and dry bulk products.

It's hard to say at this time what sort of labor agenda is being contemplated by President George W Bush and his administration. Senate confirmation hearings for Labor Secretary Elaine Chao shed little light on the subject. It may be months before anything definite emerges.

At the least, we hope that the playing field will be more level with respect to labor-related regulatory issues. During the Clinton/Gore Administration's eight-year reign, the Department of Labor became little more than a wholly owned subsidiary of the AFL-CIO.

Ergonomics is a hot-button issue that could pop up on the Bush Administration's radar screen fairly soon. Controversial ergonomics rules were forced through in the waning days of the Clinton/Gore Administration, and a number of court fights are looming.

Implemented on January 16, the new rules will have a wide-ranging impact on industry in general. In terms of cost, estimates range as high as $100 billion annually for all US industries when reengineering expenses are factored in, including the cost of automation. The American Trucking Associations estimates the cost at $6.5 billion for trucking alone.

The rules are tough and punitive for the trucking industry. Injuries addressed in the rule are those associated with the risk factors of repetition, force, awkward postures, contact stress, and vibration. The vibration aspect certainly applies to truck drivers, and lifting is involved even for those who work around tank trucks.

Between now and October 14, employers are supposed to identify risks in the workplace and set up ergonomic programs. If problems cannot be eliminated within 90 days, employers must conduct a full ergonomics program, which may lead to reengineering of the workplace. Those that fail to take action face stiff fines.

The final rules were published even though there is scant scientific evidence to support them. Critics continue to contend that no direct link has been shown between jobs and repetitive stress injuries, and that government intervention is not needed in the private workplace.

It's hard to say what the Bush Administration can or will do about the ergonomics rules. Options are relatively limited. The best hope for industry is a favorable decision in one or more of the court cases that are pending.

The Bush Administration will have more of a say on hours-of-service revisions. Last year, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration unveiled a nightmarish proposal that would have put Big Brother in the truck cab and significantly cut driver productivity. That was followed with a grassroots effort by just about everyone in the trucking industry to block the proposal. Then came legislation in Congress to block implementation for at least 12 months.

It is doubtful that any further action on hours-of-service reform will take place until sometime in 2002, but FMCSA is allowed to continue work on the proposal. The trucking industry and drivers should fare much better in the next round, which could very well start over from scratch.

Department of Transportation (DOT) jurisdiction over workers is an area that we hope will get Bush Administration attention. Over the past four years, Clinton/Gore officials at DOT systematically handed over jurisdiction for worker issues to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). It's time to reverse that trend.

DOT has a well-documented history of expertise on transportation-related worker issues, such as hazardous materials proximity and exposure. In addition, DOT has worked responsibly in resolving issues with the trucking industry.

OSHA, on the other hand, has no transportation background and is hostile to just about any type of business. OSHA has a reputation for being extremely punitive in regulatory enforcement. There is a definite bias toward labor, especially the unions.

Moving beyond workplace issues, the Bush Administration may take a more lenient position on foreign workers with the H-1B classification. It's time to include truck drivers in the H-1B program. This could be crucial in helping the trucking industry address continuing shortages in truck drivers.

All in all, the next four years may bring a more level playing field on the labor front. As National Tank Truck Carriers' Cliff Harvison says: It's difficult to find a truly level playing field in Washington. We'd just like to improve the grading a bit.

About the Author

Charles Wilson

Charles E. Wilson has spent 20 years covering the tank truck, tank container, and storage terminal industries throughout North, South, and Central America. He has been editor of Bulk Transporter since 1989. Prior to that, Wilson was managing editor of Bulk Transporter and Refrigerated Transporter and associate editor of Trailer/Body Builders. Before joining the three publications in Houston TX, he wrote for various food industry trade publications in other parts of the country. Wilson has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and served three years in the U.S. Army.