Bush Aims to Change Labor Landscape Before Leaving

    The sun is setting on President George W. Bush’s second term in office, but that hasn’t deterred the administration from pushing initiatives that would severely affect working families in Colorado and across the nation.In the past two months, the administration has proposed measures that would eliminate job training programs and make it harder for workers to take unpaid leave in the event of family and medical emergencies.

    The president’s budget office has also proposed defunding the federal Labor Department by millions, all while the commander-in-chief is trying to garner support for legislation that seeks to expand the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) model to other countries.

    Budget Cuts

    As economists continue to predict a U.S. recession, the president’s 2009 budget — a plan that was released in February and sets the tone for lawmakers to debate the national budget and come to a consensus — called for cutting more than $234 million from job training programs at the federal Labor Department, with a total of $888 million set to be cut from the government agency.

    The plan would terminate the federal Work Incentive Grant Program, which provides grants to state job training services.In 2006, the Colorado Workforce Development Council in Denver, a state employment initiative, was awarded $1 million from the program.

    The Labor Department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy would be slashed in half, by $15 million, while the Migrant and Seasonal Farmworkers Training Program, an initiative that has been used in Colorado and other states since the 1960s to assist migrant workers to become economically self-sufficient, is also set to be terminated.

    While the Bush Administration has argued that such cuts are being used to save more than $1 billion in a time of an enlarging federal deficit, there is little doubt that the cuts would affect states like Colorado, which rely on federal funds to provide employment services.

    In 2007, the Labor Department provided more than $42 million for job training programs in Colorado. The state contributed about $6 million, according to budget documents.

    Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, called the move a step in the wrong direction.

    Reforming Family and Medical Leave

    Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao, the only Cabinet member who has remained since Bush was first inaugurated, came under fire in February over proposed department changes to the Family and Medical Leave Act.

    The act, which was enacted in 1993, allows employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year in the event of serious medical conditions or pregnancy, or to care for sick family members.

    The provisions proposed by the agency would make it harder for workers to take leave for a serious health condition, which is currently defined as when an employee is incapacitated for more than three days with two or more treatments by a health care provider or a regimen of continuing treatment. The reforms would restrict the period in which the two aforementioned treatments can occur. Rather than have an indefinite timeline, employees would have 30 days to obtain the treatments from a health care specialist.

    Another change would require workers to visit a care provider at least twice a year in order to be seen as having a chronic condition, even for health problems such as asthma or carpal tunnel syndrome that wouldn’t necessarily require consistent medical attention.

    Proposed changes to the act motivated the Senate Children and Families Subcommittee to hold a hearing on the matter, where subcommittee chairman and sponsor to the original act, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., criticized the new provisions as discouraging employees from applying for leave, saying, “First we have to protect the gains we’ve made.”

    Victoria Lipnic, assistant secretary for the Labor Department, said that a variety of court decisions on the law and other problems found by employers, workers, and health care specialists made the changes necessary. 

    Exporting NAFTA

    The administration won a decisive victory in November when Congress passed the Peru Free Trade Agreement, a measure that is similar to NAFTA.  Critics of that trade agreement say it has led to massive outsourcing in the manufacturing sector.  Labor organizations and other advocacy groups decry what they call a lack of protection for the environment and workers’ rights.

    Since the Peru victory, the president’s office has been working to push three more free trade agreements: with Panama, South Korea, and the most controversial of all, Colombia. The actions are seen as a major campaign of sorts, considering that just over 10 such agreements have been enacted since 1985.

    Last week Bush visited the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to voice support for the Colombia agreement, saying that the deal was pivotal to America’s national security and economic interests. The proposal is set to be released on a “fast-track” process soon, according to administration officials.  That track allows members of Congress only the opportunity to vote on the legislation and does not allow them to make any changes.

    Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi released a statement last week on the Colombia legislation, accusing the administration of subverting the established protocol for negotiating trade deals with members of Congress. 

    Meanwhile, trade groups have voiced concern regarding the violence in Colombia that is directed toward union organizers and workers.  Members of Congress released data last week showing that 11 Colombian union supporters have been assassinated in 2008 alone, amounting to more than one union killing a week. On top of that, fewer than 3 percent of the thousands of union assassinations have been successfully prosecuted to date. 

    Free trade agreements like NAFTA have had an impact in Colorado, particularly for ranchers, as was reported in a story on the Peru legislation by Colorado Confidential:

    “It’s just a mystery,” says Reed Kelly, a cattle rancher near Meeker, Colorado, in reference to the House of Representatives’ vote on the Peru [agreement].

    Kelly says he’s personally experienced the effects of the government’s free-trade agreements on the ranching industry, where cheaper beef imports have marginalized beef producers on the Western Slope.

    “There are a lot less of us in business,” Kelly says, claiming that it’s getting harder to afford hay costs for ranching because of the lowered prices for beef that have occurred under the agreements. Particularly, Kelly is concerned that with the passage of the Peru FTA, Brazil, a prominent beef producer, will be able to flood the market through Peru, due to inadequate rules on labeling a product’s country of origin.

    Andrew Gussert, director of the Citizen Trade Campaign, a national coalition that has been opposing free trade legislation since the NAFTA debate, says the tide is turning when it comes to addressing problems with the agreements.

    “It took up 15 minutes of the conversation in Ohio at the debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama,” Gussert says, noting that the next day it was the first issue that Republican candidate John McCain talked about in his speech. “Trade has not become any issue in the election, it has become one of the issues in the election.”

    Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature. Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state. Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters. She can be reached at erosa@www.coloradoindependent.com.

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