The Journal of History     Winter 2003     TABLE OF CONTENTS

Anyone who has worked for some years on typewriters or computer keyboards is well aware of the hazards. Repetitive stress syndrome is a painful complex of diseases that come from using the hands and arms to do the same motions over and over again. Workers in industries that require tedious, detailed, repetitive work--like typing, sewing, chopping up chickens or assembling computer parts--have a high incidence of carpal tunnel syndrome and related ergonomic illnesses, which can lead to permanent disability.

Most of these jobs are performed by women, who, although less than half the work force, account for 64 percent of the 1.8 million repetitive motion injuries that occur in this country each year.

How appropriate, then, that President George W. Bush chose March--which is generally considered International Women's Month--to curry favor with big business and launch an attack on government regulations that would have protected workers from these hazards. Bush put his weight behind a law before Congress that would roll back regulations of the Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) meant to reduce repetitive stress syndrome. The regulations had only recently been approved by former President Bill Clinton.

OSHA said the repetitive-motion rules would have covered 102 million workers at 6.1 million work sites. The agency estimated that the rules would have prevented 4.6 million musculo-skeletal disorders, and predicted that they would save businesses $9.1 billion annually over the first 10 years in health coverage and lost time.

But capitalists don't like to be told that a measure is economical over the long run. It is built into the very essence of the system that what counts is the bottom line NOW. Are they making profits or not? And the regulations would have required changes in equipment and the workplace environment.

With Bush's pledge to immediately sign the repeal measure into law, it passed the Senate 56 to 44 on March 6, 2001. In a Senate that is evenly split 50-50, six Democrats crossed over and voted with the Republicans. It is expected that the House will quickly pass a similar bill overturning the health and safety regulations.

"In essence, the confrontation over repeal was between those siding with business and those siding with workers," admitted the New York Times on March 7. Repeal of the regulation was a top priority for lobbyists with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The unions, on the other hand, had been pressing to keep the regulations.

Union leaders complained that the move was a betrayal of Republican promises of bipartisanship. After Democratic Party leaders caved in to Bush over the results of the Florida vote, despite much proof that Al Gore had in fact won the state and therefore the presidential election, the word was that Bush, in a weakened position, would have to compromise with the Democrats. But this expected bipartisanship has not materialized insofar as workers' interests are concerned.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said the Senate vote was "a naked payoff to big business contributors who have opposed every effort to enact a standard protecting workers.'' Presumably, the payoff was from Democrats as well as Republicans.

For years, the union movement focused on electing Democrats rather than on direct organizing to hold back the anti-worker offensive of big business. The result was a series of successful union-busting attacks and a shrinking union population. Finally, when Sweeney replaced the more conservative Lane Kirkland, the new AFL-CIO leadership began a vigorous organizing effort, especially among the most oppressed workers.

That's what is needed now to fight for workplace safety for all workers. Those in Congress who have just voted to maim and disable millions of workers must feel the wrath of the working people wherever they go.

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The Journal of History - Winter 2003 Copyright © 2003 by News Source, Inc.