Health and Safety Matters

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Okay, more links to the New York Times—because really, who reads that little rag anyway? Arlen Specter goes op-ed style bashing the Republican opposition to his proposed asbestos fund that would have companies set aside $140 billion to compensate asbestos victims. In particular, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey has run ads around the country spreading lies and falsehoods about the new bill in order to defeat it. And as you might guess, Armey’s lobbying firm has received serious money from insurance companies who would like to defeat the bill.

But it’s not quite as simple as blaming Armey and other bought-and-paid-for Republicans, although that’s a big part of it. Jordan Barab of Labor Blog noted a month ago that a wide variety of groups are still wrangling over the provisions. The AFL-CIO has charged that the bill eliminated compensation for a number of lung cancer victims, and contains a whole bunch of clauses that may prevent many workers harmed by asbestos from receiving compensation. Trial lawyers want bigger fees. Senate Republicans are opposed to the measure. There’s still a question over whether workers could return to court if and when the fund runs out. It’s not at all clear that the final legislation will be anything approaching fair for workers.

Meanwhile, there’s a related issue here that Jordan’s been working on for some time: Namely, the fact that the AFL-CIO is now dismantling its Health and Safety Department. Lobbying and testifying on the asbestos bill was the sort of thing the department was highly useful for, although Jordan also notes that it’s most important function was to: “provide the knowledge, tools and organization that workers can use to defend their rights, their health and their lives when they go to work every day.” In an era where the administration in power is assaulting worker safety regulations each and every day—and, as the asbestos flap proves, key Republican lobbyists are pouring millions into defeating compensation for harmed workers—union solidarity against this assault has become all the more important, and the death of the department is extremely troubling.

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