Newark Star-Ledger, Sept. 22, 2011
Corporate efforts to remove safeguards threaten health, safety, quality of life
By John Shinn
Do you trust Wall Street and corporate CEOs to protect our jobs, living standards and clean air and water — or do you think public oversight is needed?
That question is being debated in state capitals and in Congress, and all of us — not just corporate special interests — need to make ourselves heard.
Taking advantage of weakened oversight under the Clinton and Bush administrations, Wall Street destroyed millions of jobs through financial speculation and manipulation. Now, U.S. corporations are sitting on the largest profits and cash reserves in history. Yet they are lobbying to further weaken public safeguards and create even more special tax subsidies for themselves.
In New Jersey, for example, corporate interests are pushing legislation to roll back decades of progress in protecting community health, workplace safety and environmental quality. One bill, A2486, is designed to prevent the state from having safeguards that are stronger than federal standards.
What would such legislation mean in practice? New Jersey has the greatest population density of any state and a high concentration of hazardous industry. But instead of maintaining public safeguards crafted to meet local needs, the state would be at the mercy of decisions made by Congress to please corporate lobbyists and fit conditions in states like New Mexico or North Dakota. This backward step would threaten safeguards that currently protect police officers, firefighters, nurses, construction workers, chemical workers and schoolchildren.
The legislative sponsor conceded that the rollback would apply not only to new safeguards, but to long-established protections that would be subject to cancellation as they come up for periodic renewal and revision as required by state law. This includes current protections concerning disease control among livestock and poultry, lead poisoning of children, confidentiality of certain medical records and even evacuation procedures after a nuclear accident.
This attempt to reduce state safeguards to weaker federal levels comes as corporations are pressuring Congress to decimate federal standards themselves. The REINS Act, supported by the Republican leadership, provides that the details of public safeguards would no longer be developed by health and safety professionals and scientists based on factual evidence. Instead, the specifics would be determined by Congress itself, where corporate lobbyists dictate the outcome.
Removing proven safeguards not only threatens our health, safety and quality of life. It also would hurt every one of us economically.
Safeguards protect responsible corporations from being undercut. Responsible companies need to know they won’t lose business by respecting workers, consumers and the environment. Otherwise, competition becomes a race to the bottom, based not on creativity and efficiency but on cutting corners at the public’s expense.
Safeguards create millions of jobs. New jobs are being generated to produce cleaner energy, make buildings and homes more energy efficient, make industries more environmentally sustainable and clean up past sources of pollution. For example, proposed Clean Air Act safeguards will create 1.5 million jobs updating and upgrading power plants.
Safeguards keep corporations from shifting their own costs to innocent victims. Consider how workers, small businesses, home-
owners and other victims of last year’s BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico are paying the price for years of management shortcuts made possible by a lack of public oversight.
Safeguards control costs by emphasizing prevention. A report mandated by Congress found that the benefits of the Clean Air Act were worth $1.3 trillion in 2010, or 25 times the costs. The benefits included a major reduction in lost workdays and health care expenses as fewer people became sick from air pollution.
Safeguards are almost never the cause of job loss. In 2007, the Bush administration began asking corporations to report large-scale layoffs that, in management’s opinion, were caused by "government regulations/intervention." Even under this corporate-controlled reporting system, only three out of every thousand of these large layoffs were claimed to be due to regulation.
The bottom line is that our jobs, and our health and safety are too important to be entrusted to Wall Street and corporate CEOs. Our elected officials hear every day from corporate special interests. They need to hear from the rest of us that we want stronger safeguards, not weaker, to protect our families and our communities.
John Shinn is a sub-district director of the United Steelworkers union and a member of the board of directors of the New Jersey Work Environment Council, a coalition of unions and environmental organizations.