Sunday, June 13, 2004

Selling Workers on Bush Policies Is Hard Job

Selling Workers on Bush Policies Is Hard Job

WASHINGTON — Osvaldo Millet makes a good living — $43 an hour plus overtime — as a hospital pharmacist in Miami. The overtime pays for vacations and other extras for his family of five, but that money might disappear under a Bush administration initiative.

Jeff Deckard is a member of the National Rifle Assn. who voted for Ronald Reagan and isn't fond of the Democratic Party's more liberal views. But the Reynoldsburg, Ohio, electrician has soured on President Bush. Deckard is out of work and his unemployment checks will soon end if the Republican-led Congress doesn't extend benefits.

The worries of Millet and Deckard reflect a political challenge for Bush as he increasingly pins his reelection hopes on the fruits of a recovering economy that has posted nine consecutive months of job gains.

Bush is an unabashedly pro-business president. But he is also working to forge an image as a friend of the American worker, part of his effort to win such battleground states as Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

However, some of his policies — including new overtime regulations and his push to eliminate rules designed to reduce repetitive-stress injuries — carry a risk of alienating voters who otherwise would lean toward supporting him.

"It doesn't seem to me that he looks out for the working person," said Millet, 43, a Cuban-born Republican who has never voted for a Democratic candidate for president but is now considering doing so.

And Deckard already has begun voting for Democratic candidates because he is unhappy with how GOP workplace policies are affecting him.

On the campaign trail, the president has cited recent job gains, tax cuts and his support for worker retraining programs. Administration officials have said that workers are safer and more financially secure than before Bush took office, with workplace injuries at an all-time low and back wages collected on behalf of workers at an 11-year high.

But even some supporters of the administration said that Bush has often favored the interests of business over those of labor — a fact that they like.

"When it comes to business-versus-labor issues," said Stephen Moore of the Club for Growth, an advocacy group that favors low taxes and limited government, "Bush has been down the line pro-business in a way that we think is praiseworthy."

Bush's workplace policies have drawn criticism almost from the beginning of his administration, when he took aim at one of worker advocates' most treasured achievements: sweeping new ergonomics rules.

The regulations, which had been under development for years, were issued in the Clinton administration's final days; Bush backed a measure in Congress to repeal them.

The rules required businesses to adopt new equipment and training to help workers avoid repetitive stress and related conditions that are common in industrial plants and white-collar offices alike.

The vote to repeal them ran largely along partisan lines, with Republicans and the White House heeding warnings from business groups that the rules would cost at least $7 billion in the first year alone. When the repeal became law, a National Assn. of Manufacturers spokesman called it a "high-water mark" of its lobbying efforts.

Bush has proposed new immigration laws, new overtime rules and new ways for employers to offer medical benefits that critics say would erode the clout and security of workers. They also say that the White House has failed to use its muscle in Congress to raise the minimum wage or to renew a program that gave benefits to the long-term unemployed.

"The issue is not their stand on any one topic at any one point in time, because there are always pros and cons," said Rebecca M. Blank, dean of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan who was a member of President Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers. "The issue is that on a whole series of policy decisions, the administration has consistently come down on one side as opposed to the other."

Often, there is disagreement on what the impact of the decisions will be.

The administration's proposed guest worker program for undocumented immigrants, for example, was hailed by the White House as a boost for undocumented workers who are forced to toil in secret. But some labor activists said they feared that an influx of guest workers would flood the labor market, stripping many workers of the power to obtain pay raises.

New overtime policies would make more people eligible to receive overtime pay, according to Bush administration labor officials. But unions said that the new rules would allow businesses to reclassify millions of other workers into job categories that are ineligible. The new rules take effect in August unless Congress overturns them.

And the administration said workers would benefit under its proposal for "health savings accounts," whereas labor activists said they saw the plan as an incentive for employers to scale back health benefits and shift costs to employees.

The accounts, which Bush signed into law last year, allow workers to save money tax-free to spend on medical expenses. To qualify, workers or their employers must buy low-cost, high-deductible health insurance, intended to cover catastrophic medical expenses. The result, the administration said, would be that more businesses offer health insurance.

But labor unions and some economists have argued that the accounts will prompt businesses to eliminate traditional health plans and offer only policies that cover catastrophic expenses. To pay for routine expenses that insurers now cover, critics fear, employers will tell workers to open health savings accounts and pay the costs themselves.

Though none of these issues on its own carries the political heft of the war in Iraq or the rise or fall in unemployment, Democrats said they add up to an effective narrative that can help them portray the president as out of touch with workers' needs.

One AFL-CIO ad currently airing in 13 battleground states contrasts video of Bush proposing manned missions to the moon and Mars with images of parents holding babies and seniors worrying about medical care and benefits. "Tell President Bush our priorities are a lot closer to home," says a narrator as a baby coos in the background.

Recent surveys suggested the image problem is persistent.

A survey conducted last month by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that just one in three registered voters believed Bush "cares about people like me." Just 38% said Bush would do better at improving economic conditions than his presumed Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.

Administration officials and Bush campaign aides said the president gets a bum rap from unions, and both have started a push of their own to offer an alternative view.

Labor Department officials said their watchdog agency for workers, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, had maintained an assertive posture, conducting more inspections under the Bush administration than under Clinton's.

To showcase their aggressiveness, officials point to OSHA's 2002 settlement with Arkansas-based Beverly Enterprises Inc., a major nursing home operator. The company agreed to provide training and equipment to help employees avoid back injuries.

Later that year, the Labor Department announced that Perdue Farms Inc. of Pennsylvania would pay $10 million in back wages to poultry plant workers for the time they spent donning and removing gear required for their jobs. A similar lawsuit was filed against Tyson Foods Inc. of Arkansas.

"These are two of the largest wage-and-hour cases in the department's history, ground-breaking cases on behalf of low-wage workers," said Deputy Labor Secretary Steven J. Law.

Bush campaign strategists have launched an initiative to sign up 10,000 union members to help make a case in union halls for backing Bush. Aides said workers should be enticed by the tax cuts, but also noted that Bush would benefit from a culturally conservative philosophy that predominates in many industrial unions.

An estimated 40% of union members backed Bush in 2000, and strategists think they can match or beat that this year.

"Rank-and-file union members support the war on terror, and President Bush shares their values as well," said campaign spokesman Scott Stanzel. "Union members care about the sanctity of marriage, many care about their 2nd Amendment right to bear arms."

Deckard, the Ohio electrician, said his family of four would soon feel the consequences of the lawmakers' decision not to renew a benefits program for the long-term unemployed. The program gave workers three months of federal jobless benefits after their state benefits ran out, typically after 26 weeks.

The federal program had been paying out nearly $1 billion a month before it expired in December. Many Republicans say renewing it would violate a budget deal.

Millet, the Miami pharmacist, said the new overtime rules were a big topic of conversation around his office. He is paid an hourly wage, but worries that the new rules would allow his boss to ask for overtime work without offering overtime pay.

In Millet's case, that could mean a lost vote for Bush.

"The main salary is to cover the basics — food, clothing, school and the homestead, and now for gasoline," he said. "To lose the overtime, that'd definitely be a big deal."


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