Republicans Are About To Erase One Of Obama's Major Workplace Protections

The House has voted to undo a new rule that punishes federal contractors who cheat their workers. The Senate will probably follow suit.
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

WASHINGTON ― The casualties are beginning to mount among former President Barack Obama’s executive actions.

On Thursday, House Republicans moved to gut one of Obama’s signature labor reforms, a rule that would forbid contractors with a history of workplace violations from receiving new contracts. Lawmakers passed what’s known as a resolution of disapproval against the rule, with a party-line vote tally of 236 to 187.

The GOP-controlled Senate is expected to pass the measure as well, since Democrats can’t filibuster a resolution of disapproval. If that happens, the Labor Department will be forbidden from moving forward with Obama’s executive order, which is known as the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule.

Republicans used the same method this week to kill what’s known as the stream protection rule. That rule restricted coal companies from dumping mine refuse into waterways and required them to restore streams they’d damaged.

Labor groups and workplace watchdogs strongly encouraged the Obama administration to implement the labor rule, saying it would discourage wage theft and safety hazards among any firms that seek federal contracts. Business groups lobbied hard against it and dubbed it the “blacklisting” rule, since it punished companies with a record of labor violations.

Republicans in Congress have opposed the rule ever since Obama said he would pursue it. Backers of the regulation fully expected it would die after Donald Trump won the White House and Republicans retained control of both chambers of Congress.

The rule is currently tied up in court after business groups sued to stop it.

The idea behind Obama’s executive order was to give contracting preference to high-road employers who treat their workers decently. Studies have shown that a surprising number of contractors run afoul of workplace regulations while receiving federal money, and many continue to get new contracts even if they’ve cheated workers or exposed them to hazards. Democrats argue that taxpayer dollars should not be steered to firms that break the law.

Under the rule, companies bidding on contracts would have to disclose whether they had broken certain laws in the previous three years: those covering minimum wage and overtime, health and safety, collective bargaining and civil rights. Violations wouldn’t necessarily mean that a company doesn’t win a contract. Companies are encouraged to report mitigating circumstances and steps they’d taken to address any problems.

The Labor Department estimates that the rule would apply to roughly 14,000 contractors each year. “Only a small share of these companies is expected to have reportable violations, and even fewer are expected to have serious, repeated, willful, or pervasive violations to report,” the agency noted.

In a Huffington Post blog post, two former officials at Obama’s Labor Department urged Republicans not to kill the rule. In making the case for holding contractors to higher standards, Sharon Block and Chris Lu noted that Trump himself pressured Carrier not to lay off workers partly because they benefit from federal money.

“Trump implicitly threatened Carrier’s future as a government contractor because of corporate behavior that he perceived to be contrary to the best interests of its employees ― namely, by moving their jobs out of the country,” they wrote. “We challenge the new president to show us that he is committed to standing up to federal contractors to deliver lasting wins for American workers ― and not just looking for press-friendly sound bites.”

That argument apparently didn’t resonate with House Republicans, who claimed the rule violated due process for contractors and added unnecessary red tape.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), chairwoman of the House committee overseeing labor issues, put out a statement Thursday calling the rule “flawed and unnecessary” and “a solution in search of a problem.”

Foxx’s pursuit of repeal led low-wage federal contract workers to her congressional office on Thursday. Good Jobs Nation, a union-backed group representing workers at the U.S. Capitol, demanded to speak with Foxx so they could tell her why they felt the rule was important. Foxx ended up hightailing it out of her office in an effort to avoid the cooks and janitors.

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