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President Bush has been focusing more attention on labor issues of late, much to the chagrin of major union officials. Bush has repealed a Clinton-era rule favored by unions that prevents the government from awarding contracts to businesses that have broken environmental, labor, tax or other federal laws. He also has threatened a recess appointment of conservative labor lawyer Eugene Scalia, son of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, to inspector general at the Labor Department. The Bush administration also is considering eliminating the 10 regional offices of the Women’s Bureau of the Labor Department and has failed to deal with workplace safety after Congress repealed ergonomics regulations last spring. Since the administration turned to labor issues, said the AFL-CIO’s Karen Nussbaum, “There’s been plenty of action. It’s been all negative.” President Clinton signed the lawbreaking contractor rule in 2000, a few months after a computer analysis by The Associated Press found hundreds of contractors remained eligible for new federal business despite convictions or lawsuits for defrauding the government. The Bush administration had suspended enforcement of the rule in March and repealed it for good last week. Business groups praised repeal, contending the regulation went too far and unfairly blacklisted companies that had minor infractions or had not been proven guilty. “This rule gave government agents blanket discretion to blacklist federal contractors based on subjective and arbitrary notions of satisfactory compliance with any federal, state or even foreign law,” said Randy Johnson, U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president for labor and employee benefits. “Mere allegations of wrongdoing could prevent a business from winning a federal contract.” The chamber organized the National Alliance Against Blacklisting and lobbied Congress with other business groups. Union officials retorted that a violator of labor, employment, environmental, civil rights or other federal laws cannot be trusted to receive government contracts. “To ordinary citizens who play by the rules every day, the Bush administration has said that it’s OK for corporations that violate the law to be rewarded with millions of taxpayer dollars,” the AFL-CIO said. Unions also are bracing for a Bush recess appointment of Scalia, which means he could serve without Senate confirmation until next January. The Senate went on its holiday break without taking up the nomination. Scalia refused to discuss his nomination Wednesday. Organized labor opposes the appointment because of Scalia’s opposition to a Clinton-era ergonomics regulation, killed by Congress last spring, which was aimed at reducing workplace injuries. Scalia criticized the rule as “quackery” based on “junk science.” Ergonomics deals with human characteristics to be considered in the design and arrangement of things to prevent injury to people who use them. Unions also are awaiting a decision by Labor Secretary Elaine Chao about how the agency will handle workplace safety, with new regulations or voluntary guidelines. Congress repealed Clinton-era regulations last year after a big legislative fight that pitted business against labor unions. The regulations mandated that employers make changes to reduce the incidence of worker injuries related to ergonomics. After the repeal, Chao promised a “comprehensive plan” by her agency to reduce such injuries. Occupational Safety and Health Administration spokeswoman Bonnie Friedman said Thursday the announcement could come “very soon.” “Instead of taking an opportunity to build on progress made during the Clinton administration, the Department of Labor under President Bush and Secretary Chao seems intent on unraveling those gains,” AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said. The Bush administration also is considering elimination of 10 regional offices of the Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau, but Labor spokeswoman Sue Hensley said no decision has been made. The White House Women’s Initiatives Office already has been shut down. A bipartisan group of 69 House members sent a letter to Chao on Thursday, urging her to keep the offices open. “We are particularly concerned that the elimination of the Women’s Bureau Regional Offices … is sending an unfortunate signal that the administration is placing a low priority on the concerns of working women,” the letter said. Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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