Over the weekend, laid-off workers from the Chicago-based factory Republic Windows and Doors began what they call a “peaceful occupation,” refusing to leave the shuttered business due to claims that they are “owed vacation and severance pay and were not given the 60 days of notice generally required by federal law when companies make layoffs.” The workers, members of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, said that they were given only three days notice that the factory was closing.
During a press conference yesterday, President-elect Barack Obama offered his support to the protesting workers, saying, “The workers who are asking for the benefits and payments that they have earned, I think they’re absolutely right.”
As Matthew Yglesias noted, “How nice it is to have a pro-labor president.” Indeed, by bringing a pro-worker perspective to the White House, Obama has the opportunity to reform a Department of Labor (DOL) that under President Bush has been “widely criticized for walking away from its regulatory function across a range of issues, including wage and hour law and workplace safety.”
In a report released today by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, David Madland and Karla Walter examine the negative effect that current “lax enforcement by DOL” has on “workers, taxpayers, and law-abiding businesses”:
Every year, workers lose $19 billion in wages and benefits through illegal practices, nearly 6,000 American workers die on the job, and at least 50,000 workers die due to occupational disease. Taxpayers are cheated out of $2.7 billion to $4.3 billion each year in Social Security, unemployment, and income taxes from just one type of workplace fraud that misclassifies employees as independent contractors. Employers who play by the rules have trouble competing with irresponsible firms that keep labor costs illegally low.
In July, Obama sent a letter to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao expressing “serious concern” that the agency “was not fulfilling its enforcement mission.” To correct this, Madland and Walter note that Obama’s DOL can use already-existing penalties to create a “culture of accountability“:
The Obama administration must use penalties forcefully, especially in cases of willful, repeated, or high-hazard violations. It should also work with Congress to increase maximum allowable fines, and it must promote a depoliticized agenda where DOL is again seen as the top labor cop.
As the AFL-CIO pointed out, “Chao’s Labor Department has been consistently anti-worker…[and] Bush appointees in the Labor Department have been handsomely rewarded for their lack of concern for workers’ rights, getting cushy jobs at union-busting law firms and corporate lobbying groups.” Obama has a chance to reverse these practices, and make Labor a department that American workers can trust.