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Capitol Hill Shop Steward

A Lesson in Politics & the Media
(the Home Office Police?!)

As featured in
Labor Party Press

OSHA police?
Once in awhile we have to give the Republicans and their Big Business promoters a little credit for a job well done. Sometimes they pull one off and deserve a little recognition.

The winner for "First Big Anti-Labor Attack of the New Millennium" has to be the blockbuster corporate punch that landed simultaneously on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and our invisible Secretary of Labor, Alexis Herman, regarding "home office inspections."

You probably saw it in your local newspaper, or you may have heard it on one of the dozen or so national daily coast-to-coast anti-labor, pro-Republican talk radio shows. Word was out: OSHA inspectors were storming the suburbs, headed for your front door right now, ready to close down your little home office set-up because the government has nothing better to do. Beware the Home Office Police!


The Republicans and Big Business had their attack all figured out. First, grab an issue that might affect a lot of people, like home offices. Second, pick a slow news day, in this case about 72 hours after all New Year’s celebrating was done and everyone was back at work. Third, get ready to lie and exaggerate. Fourth, line up thousands of lobbyists and bosses to call Congress, the White House, and the news media, complaining about the dreaded (if fictional) Home Office Police. Finally, hope that your already weak opponent falls down after the first punch.

Sad to say, that’s just about how the first anti-labor attack of the New Year came off, practically without a hitch.

The Home Office Police story hit the newspapers on January 4. And just 48 hours later, I picked up the Washington Post to see banner front- page headlines: "Labor Chief Retreats on Home Offices — OSHA Position Drew Criticism." It seems that Secretary of Labor Herman spent an entire day on the telephone with the White House trying to "clarify" the situation. By the end of the day an anonymous White House source was quoted as saying, "They realized there was no clarifying this, so they yanked it." That was it. Less than two days after getting hit with a full-blast campaign of lies and exaggeration, the White House and Secretary of Labor Herman had instructed OSHA to run up the white flag. "Retreat" was not really the right word. The headline should have read "surrender."


This entire fiasco stemmed from an "advisory letter" that was posted on a Labor Department website back in November. It counseled a Texas company that if it was going to allow — or force — employees to work out of their homes, the company would have to take some basic precautions to make sure that these "home offices" were not dangerous. If the company did not take a little care, the company could be liable if a home worker was injured or killed while at work. That was it.

And to add insult to injury, the Clinton administration was surrendering on an issue it wasn’t even doing much about. There are no Home Office Police and there were never any plans to create any. It’s all just a case of some poor OSHA staffers trying to enforce the law who went berserk and asked a Texas company to keep the health and safety of their telecommuters in mind or else risk getting sued.


In fact, we really should keep our telecommuting friends and relatives in mind. A safety consultant for a Fortune 500 company recently conducted low-level safety checks of their 250 telecommuters and found some to be working in less than ideal conditions. In his opinion, some of the home offices were "grossly unsafe," complete with massive fire, ventilation, and ergonomic hazards.

So the Home Office Police fiasco goes into the anti-labor history books. But as sadly comical as this episode has been, let’s learn a lesson. This was a fine example of the greedy intentions and devious, unscrupulous tactics of Big Business. It was a fine example of the role played by Republicans as the anti-labor shock troops of Corporate America, in this case fronting for the expanding legion of high-tech companies who want nothing to stand in the way of their growing "work at home" empires. And to top it all off, this was but the latest embarrassing spectacle of the White House — and our Secretary of Labor — giving in to pressure from the bosses literally overnight. Big Business would like to make millions more working people work out of their homes, all scattered conveniently where health and safety — and unions — aren’t much of an issue. Far be it from the Clinton administration to stand in their way with some archaic ideas about protecting workers.


Sound a little hard on the Clinton crowd? How else can you describe it when a White House spokesperson goes on record with the Washington Post expressing "surprise and shock" that OSHA might want home offices to be clean and safe? Or when the Secretary of Labor tells the newspaper that she had never reviewed the letter to the Texas company but that she was giving in because the letter had spawned "widespread confusion and unintended consequences?"

Let’s be honest. The only "widespread confusion" here is in the minds of people in this administration who think that all health and safety laws have to be enforced by cooperation rather than confrontation, and that the best response to an employer challenge is to run away. And the only "unintended consequence" that I detected here was the unintended provocation of Big Business by a Democratic regime that worries more about what corporations think of them than about the health and safety of working people.

For all the money, legwork, and votes that organized labor shovels into the Democratic Party, you would think that we would fare a little better than this. Unfortunately, no.

So stop what you are doing and sit down for a minute in your home office. Pick up the phone and call someone you know, and ask them to join the Labor Party. Don’t worry — the Home Office Police won’t get you. (We know for sure now because the Labor Department just announced that home offices are now exempt from OSHA coverage. From beginning to end, it took the Clinton administration just 23 days to officially give in to Big Business.)

Update: You might remember my mention of Democratic fundraiser extraordinaire Beth Dozoretz earlier this year (Capitol Hill Shop Steward, July 1999). It seems that this billionaire’s wife-turned-fundraiser resigned her post at the Democratic National Committee right around the time Al Gore was packing up to move his campaign out to Tennessee. It appears that the scheme to have Beth call other billionaires and millionaires just wasn’t panning out. DNC fundraising was down about $8 million when compared to the last presidential election cycle.

Chris Townsend is political action director of the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE).

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