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Labor Dept. Accused of Straying From Enforcement
Those problems extend to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which oversees most workplace safety. It has seen its budget shrink each year Bush has been in office when inflation is taken into account, according to an analysis by the watchdog group OMB Watch. And while the overall budget fell by 5 percent, the enforcement budget is down 8 percent for Bush's tenure.
That decline continued a trend that saw the rate of OSHA workplace inspections reduced by nearly two-thirds between 1980 and 2005. Department officials have defended their emphasis, saying voluntary compliance has led to steady reductions in on-the-job injuries.
One area where the department became a more rigorous enforcer was in the oversight of labor unions, critics say. New rules required more rigorous financial reports from about 20,000 union locals.
The Bush administration said the reporting requirements better informed workers how unions spent their money. Critics differed. The administration "used that as a tool to weaken and discredit organized labor," Lilly said.
During the campaign, Obama promised to be supportive of organized labor and to step up enforcement of workplace safety regulations. He also said he would work to expand the reach of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows workers to take time off to care for relatives. He also has voiced support for the rights of workers to strike without having to worry about being permanently replaced.
"The Bush administration had abdicated its responsibility to protect workers," said Thea Lee, policy director of the AFL-CIO. "We have high hopes that we will see a dramatic change of direction under the Obama administration."
Moreover, union officials said they are hoping the agency -- which has been a backwater in some administrations -- will have a strong voice in the administration's economic policy, speaking up for the workers in a fast-shifting economy.
"It is time for this country to come to grips with the fact that this is not our grandfather and father's economy," said Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union. "How do you deal with the fact that my son will have nine jobs between the age of 22 and 35, and pensions and health care are built around the idea of somebody having one job? The Labor Department has to find new policies and new ways to think about work."