Every year, an estimated 600,000 American workers suffer some form of serious ailment as a result of performing the same workplace tasks over and over again. Painful, possibly disabling injuries strike nurses, hospital orderlies, typists, assembly line workers, and couriers.
Winning some federal job safety protection for these workers was one of organized labor's most hard-fought battles during the Clinton years. Last month, moments before the final whistle blew, unions succeeded in putting the ball across the line when new ergonomics rules were put into effect on January 16.
Most labor organizations hailed the new rules as a landmark achievement (some didn't; in a compromise, Clinton agreed not to extend the new rules to cover construction workers). Moreover, just one day after the rules took effect, the largest scientific study to date of musculoskeletal injuries confirmed the significance of the problem and the need to address it.
"Scientific evidence and industry data strongly indicate that properly implemented strategies to reduce the incidence, severity, and consequences of work-related musculoskeletal disorders can be effective," stated the neutral National Academy of Sciences.
Despite this finding, the rules were still vigorously denounced by pro-employer groups as costly and unnecessary. Many employer organizations labeled scrapping the ergonomics rules their number-one priority and have asked the Bush administration to dump the rules or push Congress to overturn them.
That's not quite so easy, however. Because they were already in effect when the Bush administration took office, the ergonomics regulations appear to have been unaffected by President Bush's 60-day freeze on regulations. In the meantime, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration can continue to provide employers with information and ready itself for enforcement, which begins this fall. The rules are expected to be the subject of a bitter congressional battle.
"There's nothing that prevents Republicans from amending the budget right now and passing a rider that blocks [the rules]," said Jonathan Bennett of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. "But I would imagine they will wait until this summer when Congress will be working on the fiscal budget beginning October 1."
That timetable would correspond to the point when OSHA can begin citing employers who fail to correct or note workplace hazards.
Lefty Teamsters Battle
The left wing of the Teamsters union in New York City is small enough to meet in a corner booth at a Queens diner; the number of leftists supporting national union president James P. Hoffa is smaller yet. But true to the tradition of left factionalism, the union is currently witness to a bitter dispute between two of its most liberal local officials.
On January 9, national Teamsters representative Dan Kane Sr.Hoffa's key local appointeewalked into a small Teamsters local on West 44th Street that represents some 1150 mostly white-collar members and placed it under trusteeship.
The move came after the union's court-appointed outside monitors, the Independent Review Board, cited the local for poor accounting practices and insufficient membership meetings.
On one level, these are serious problems. But they fell far short of the corruption, embezzlement, and mob fraternization that led to some two dozen past trusteeships in the city. Locals with problems such as 840's are usually allowed to recuperate with aid from the parent union. Members of the local, including those at one of its largest units, the New School, have written Hoffa denouncing the takeover.
The move was even more puzzling because Kane is one of the most liberal local Teamsters. The head of another small local, he was an early and ardent Hoffa supporter. So was Joel LeFevre, chief officer of Local 840. LeFevre was the handpicked successor to the late William Nuchow, Local 840's progressive former leader. (How progressive? At Nuchow's memorial service, speakers addressed the audience as "comrades.") LeFevre undertook several organizing campaigns, including an (unsuccessful) effort to sign up the city's bicycle messengers.
But despite ideological similarities between LeFevre and Kane, they have been at odds since Hoffa took office. Much of the fighting has taken place at Joint Council 16, the deeply divided ruling body for 25,000 Teamsters in the metropolitan area.
New elections for officers of the Joint Council will be held this month, and Kane and LeFevre are supporting opposing slates. Before the trusteeship, which rendered him ineligible, LeFevre was a candidate on a slate with the council's incumbent president, Anthony Rumore. Kane is backing a rival slate, on which his son, Dan Kane Jr., is a candidate. The council's 34 locals get seven votes apiece (regardless of size), but Local 840's delegates won't be allowed to vote because of the trusteeship.
LeFevre acknowledged internal management problems at the local, but insisted that the bottom line is politics. "It is apparent that the absence of 840's seven votes gives a significant help to Mr. Kane's slate in a close election," said LeFevre.
Kane Sr. did not return calls, but allies scoffed at the notion. "Right, we timed the whole thing with the Independent Review Board," said one Kane supporter sarcastically.
Team Rudy's Decrees
Former deputy mayor Randy Mastro headed Mayor Giuliani's task force on bilingual education last year, but when the panel announced in December that it didn't want to completely dismantle the bilingual system, Mastro voiced vigorous disagreement.
The city should challenge the court consent decree under which the city is mandated to provide bilingual classes, said an agitated Mastro.
Then, as quoted by the Daily News' Juan Gonzalez, the former prosecutor went a step further. "Government by consent decree is a generally bad model," said Mastro.
Over at City Hall, Mayor Giuliani echoed that thought, taking it up a few notches as usual: "I think consent decrees are a terrible mistake," said the mayor.
The statements made some Teamsters do double takes. Back in 1988, when Giuliani was U.S. attorney in Manhattan and Mastro a top assistant, the two men put together the massive federal civil racketeering lawsuit against the Teamsters union, alleging that the union was under the mob's thumb.
The case never went to court, however, because in 1989, Mastro (Giuliani left the office a few weeks earlier) agreed to settle it with a . . . consent decree.
The court-supervised agreement has endured ever since, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars to the powerful union. Some members liked it; some hated it, claiming to this day that it put the government in the middle of the labor movement, where it didn't belong.
But like it or not, it was a major instance of government by consent decree.
Asked recently if he wasn't being contradictory, Mastro didn't miss a beat.
"Totally different issue," said the attorney. "I meant government by consent decree in the context of bilingual education. There, you have a governmental function that needs to be performed and a court in essence takes that over. That's a very different issue than using the remedial aspects of the law against racketeering."
But didn't the courts and government substitute their judgment for that of the members in the Teamsters case?
Mastro quickly switched tracks. "Look," he said, "we made tremendous strides and gave the union back to its members, who get to elect their leaders. I can't imagine there are too many Teamsters out there who don't appreciate that."
True. Just as thousands of non-English-speaking New Yorkers have been thankful that a deal cut in court gave them the right to rely on their native tongue as they learned the English language.
Research: James Wong
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.