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OSHA activities and timing are suspect

Rep. Martha Roby

Republicans in Congress must remain on the lookout for suspicious and overreaching activity within federal agencies, especially those that threaten jobs in this difficult economy. That’s why I’ve recently raised questions about the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA’s) involvement with labor unions and its efforts to target the southeastern auto industry.

Recently OSHA launched a Regional Emphasis Program targeting auto parts manufacturers in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi for special inspections. Federal inspectors have not announced any similar programs in other regions, even though the automotive sector has many manufacturing facilities throughout the United States.

OSHA has sweeping authority to inspect and fine private businesses. When such a powerful arm of the federal government treats similar classes of businesses differently, it bears a responsibility to justify such action with a compelling reason. Yet, OSHA did not provide this justification upfront, and getting straight answers from the Department of Labor has been difficult.

Recently, I asked Labor Secretary Thomas Perez at a Congressional hearing what reason his OSHA division would have to selectively target the southeastern automotive industry. The best numbers the Secretary could provide in an attempt to show a “problem” with workplace safety at Alabama auto parts makers were from 2010.

But, if injury rates from 2010 produced so much concern that federal authorities must launch a targeted inspection campaign against southern auto part manufacturers, why did they wait four years? Newer data for the broader transportation manufacturing industry actually shows Alabama with a lower rate of injury than the national average.

So, without recent data to show an actual problem, why would the Labor Department and OSHA target the auto industry in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi relative to the rest of the country? It’s largely non-union. Workers at auto facilities in our region have repeatedly resisted attempts by organized labor to unionize their plants. Most recently, workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., made international news when they rejected an aggressive attempt to unionize.

What makes the timing of these events more concerning are recent reports revealing that union representatives have been accompanying OSHA inspectors into non-union facilities against the will of the business owner. This development came after the Labor Department approved a request from one of the country’s largest labor unions to gain access to OSHA inspections.

The Labor Department claims approving this request simply restates long-standing policy. The evidence points to the contrary, unless one believes that union reps have been going on OSHA inspections of non-union facilities for decades and nobody noticed.

I asked Secretary Perez whether southern automotive plants should expect federal OSHA inspectors to escort union reps into private, non-union businesses as part of this “Regional Emphasis Program.” I’m disappointed he wouldn’t answer my question, but that won’t stop me from getting to the bottom of it.

We all believe in workplace safety, and there are times when dangerous practices must be corrected. That is true across all industrial sectors and in all parts of the country. And, if workers wish to unionize, they have a right to do so. They also have a right not to be coerced into unionizing with assistance from a powerful arm of the Obama administration.

OSHA’s collaboration with unions while planning to single out the southern auto industry without cause reeks of liberal activism. The more time and resources OSHA spends advancing a pro-union agenda, the less they devote to actually ensuring worker safety.

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