Trumka: White House review of government regulations a ‘distraction’

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said the White House’s planned government-wide review of regulations could end up being a “distraction” for agencies already dealing with scarce resources.

“To the extent that analysis draws them away from enforcing the regulations and protecting the health and safety of workers, we think it’s a distraction,” Trumka said. “We think we would have rather not seen it.”

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Trumka, a key Democratic ally, said the White House informed him of the regulatory strategy before it was announced.

The labor leader said there are parts of the plan that his labor federation agrees with — such as opening up the regulatory process by making enforcement data readily available online — and argued that the review could make regulations more effective at protecting workers. 

“It could be very much about protecting workers. You can’t pre-judge the review,” Trumka said. 

“We think we need to have more enforcement because we went eight years under [President George W.] Bush with no enforcement. You saw the deaths that occurred. You saw the injuries that occurred,” Trumka said. 

One union-backed regulation has already been put on hold. On Wednesday, one day after the White House announced its review of regulations, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced that it was withdrawing a proposal that would toughen standards on noise in the workplace.

Business groups, including the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), opposed the proposal, saying it could place substantial costs on companies in order to comply with the reinterpreted rule. 

“This was a flawed process from the very beginning and there was little to no attention on how this would affect business,” said Joe Trauger, NAM’s vice president of human resources policy. “Clearly, them walking back this proposal shows that they have heard our message and will start taking our concerns more seriously.”

Labor groups like the AFL-CIO supported OSHA’s proposed reinterpretation of its noise standard, but the agency was facing pressure from Congress to reconsider it. OSHA head David Michaels met with Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) earlier this month.

In a statement, Michaels said that “hearing loss caused by excessive noise levels remains a serious occupational health problem in this country.” But he added that “it is clear from the concerns raised about this proposal that addressing this problem requires much more public outreach and many more resources than we had originally anticipated” and his agency is “sensitive to the possible costs” from the reinterpretation. 

Trumka appeared at the National Press Club on Wednesday to make the case that Washington needs to focus on investing in the country rather than cutting spending. He said lawmakers in both parties are too often “governing from fear, not from confidence” and argued that slashing spending will not help Americans get back on their feet. 

“Too many of our politicians are doing the opposite of what works: destroying our public institutions, crushing working people’s rights and living standards, failing to invest in education. We know this model, and we know where it leads — it leads to catastrophe,” Trumka said. 

The labor leader said too many people still remain out of work even as businesses sit on their profits instead of creating jobs. He said the labor movement is ready to heed President Obama’s call last Labor Day for “a serious and sustained public investment in infrastructure now.”

“We need to invest trillions more to build the 21st-century infrastructure necessary for our nation’s and our planet’s future — high-speed mass transit, smart utilities and universal high-speed broadband,” Trumka said. “And yet we can’t seem to fund simple infrastructure maintenance like the Surface Transportation Act Reauthorization, a bill with the support of business and labor and Democrats and Republicans.”

In recent months, labor has found itself opposing many of Obama’s actions as he begins a renewed outreach to business in the run-up to his bid for reelection. 

Many unions were not pleased with the administration’s renegotiation of the U.S.-South Korea trade deal, for instance, or the hiring of Bill Daley as White House chief of staff. In turn, business groups, which have been harsh critics of Obama’s policies, have softened their tone and praised the president. 

Trumka said the Obama administration’s business outreach effort could lead to more U.S. jobs. 

“Well, first of all, part of the president’s job is to try to help us export more products. And if that is what he is doing in these meetings, I would say that’s not a bad thing but a good thing because all of us could win from that,” Trumka told reporters. “It’s not like he only talks to CEOs. We talk to him all the time.”