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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Selling Workers on Bush Policies Is Hard Job

Slow recovery in key states, and pro-business stands on overtime and jobless benefits, alienate some otherwise friendly voters he's targeting.

June 13, 2004|Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writer

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.

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