The big mine disaster is over, at least on TV. The last bodies of the 29 miners killed in last week’s mine explosion in West Virginia have been recovered, their families interviewed ad infinitum, and investigations have been ordered by the state’s governor as well as the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. But in many ways, the story has just begun.
Throughout, the faces of the crisis have largely been male: President Obama, MSHA director Joe Main, and Don Blankenship, the powerful owner of Massey Energy, the company that operates the Upper Big Branch South Mine. But when it came to ensuring greater accountability in the mining industry and greater safety for miners–and all workers–the first person the president turned to was was Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis.
Secretary Solis, 53, seen above addressing a 2009 workplace safety conference in San Antonio, is the daughter of two Teamsters. Years before Obama tapped her to lead the long-moribund Department of Labor, her background was reflected in her legislative record, starting with a successful 1996 push in the California Senate for an increase in the state’s minimum wage. In the speech above, Solis tells the audience about the hundreds of new inspectors being hired by Labor so that hard-fought safety regulations would actually be enforced.
Without such inspections, knowledge of violations by employers who cut corners depends on complaints filed from inside the company. And we know from last week’s disaster that many are afraid to complain, or even to operate strictly within safety rules, for fear of losing their jobs in today’s fragile economy. “I knew one manager who wanted to go by the book,” one mine employee told Slate. “He was fired.”
In Houston last week, Solis asked for a moment of silence for the Long Branch miners before emphasizing that the problem goes far beyond a single incident. “We know it’s not just mine workers that need protection,” she said. ” It’s housekeepers, car wash workers, meatpackers, construction workers, farm workers and janitors. In other words, it’s all workers.” Solis has increased the number of Labor Department inspectors by more than a third, hiring 710 additional staff for its enforcement division, 130 at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and 250 for the wage-and-hour division.
While these new hires reflect increased funding for Solis’s department, the additional resources are still a small fraction of those at the disposal of employers who detest such regulations (including Massey Energy, which has routinely challenged every notice-of-violation in court). But Solis has spent nearly two years now rebuilding the government’s capacity to “look out for [workers'] safety,” and has put together a top team that includes many high-profile women.
Those women include chief aide Mary Beth Maxwell, former head of American Rights at Work, and Sara Manzano-Diaz, head of the department’s Women’s Bureau. Deborah Berkowitz, former health and safety director for the United Food and Commercial Workers, is now chief of staff at OSHA; she’s been talking to meatpackers, agricultural workers, and other “stakeholders” under the agency’s “OSHA Listens!” campaign.
Labor Solicitor M. Patricia Smith, who survived a bruising confirmation battle last year, is in many ways the muscle behind Solis’s push for worker safety. Smith started closing down sweatshops in the 1990s as head of the Labor Division in the office of U.S. attorney Robert Morgenthau. She went on to reignite the New York State Department of Labor. There, according to labor officials and activists interviewed by The Nation, she took “a targeted approach not just to rogue players but to rogue industries, such as retail, residential construction and restaurants, where minimum-wage and safety violations were rampant.”
More recently, Smith has been in the headlines over her efforts to crack down on employers who use interns in place of employees, or who call workers “independent contractors” to avoid paying benefits and disability insurance. And her office hasn’t been shy in going after the kind of shops you’d never think of as violators. One example: the Utah market-research company that recently paid a half-million-dollar fine “for the company’s employment of 1,482 minors contrary to the FLSA’s child labor hours and time standards. ” Those violations included employment of “minors were 14 and 15 years of age” with “the exception of three 13-year-olds,” who worked interviewers at the company’s phone centers in Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Idaho. Also involved in that action was yet another power woman: Cynthia Watson, regional administrator for the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division.
There’s no room here to describe everything the women of Labor are doing to make workplaces safer and more fair to women workers, including Manzano-Diaz’s nursing initiative and the national campaign to help Spanish-speaking workers fight wage theft. There’s also no room here to discuss the political minefields accompanying all of the above. I have little doubt that the political figures who tried to stop Solis’s and Smith’s confirmations last year are likely to keep it up for the foreseeable future.
For now, Solis appears to have her hands full with worker safety. After President Obama issued his call for additional oversight, Solis followed with a statement that sounded like a promise. “While this investigation is underway,” she said, “we will look to strengthen enforcement of our existing laws and close loopholes that allow companies to avoid their responsibilities. I gave the president my word that this will happen. I am telling the families the same thing.”