Much has been made of the pro-business attitude of the incoming Ronald Reagan administration. Though its legions have not yet taken over, there is already speculation that they plan a frontal attack on those citadels of overregulation threatening the corporate colossus.
Offending regulatory agencies have been judged guilty of petty harrassment and misguided enforcement of strict standards to achieve social ends. These nasty nitpickers, armed with airbags and calipers, have undermined the foundations of free enterprise, laissez-faire and cut-throat competition, it is argued.
Onto this battlefield strides an old warrior, Alan F. Westin, long associated with civil libertarianism. Westin, professor of public law and government at Columbia University, is editor of a new tome in praise of the corporate whistle-blower, a genus which in the past has been a footsoldier at the front for the proregulation forces.
"Whistle-Blowing! Loyalty and Dissent in the Corporation" is a compendium of 10 first-person accounts of corporate wrongdoing.
The stories, dating back over a decade, concern issues ranging from airplane safety to sexual harrassment, from dangerous drugs to illegal campaign contributions. Seven of the 10 were not reinstated or vindicated. Reading their tales of idealism and frustration is like gorging oneself on a month of "60 Minutes" reruns minus the spice of hidden microphones and correspondents' accusatory probing.
Westin notes the seemingly paradoxical fact that whistle-blowing increased during the 1970s when laws defining and forbidding corporate misconduct also increased. The explanation, he says, lies not in a failure to their jobs on the part of agencies like OSHA, EPA and NHTSA born during that era but because many corporations still were operating under paternalistic rules and because "legal-appeals mechanisms outside the corporate walls had not yet taken hold."
In a lengthy conclusion, the author methodically builds his case for increased protection of whistle-blowers in the 1980s.
One suggestion involves the handling of an employe's complaint by an independent executive agency, modeled on the National Labor Relations Board, which would have the power to order the worker reinstated and assess actual and/or punitive damages against the company, should it find for the employe.
The second proposal is the enactment of federal or state law forbidding "unjust dismissals" by putting the burder on the employer to show the firing was justified.
Is the notion of more government intervention in business a realistic one in the Reagan era?
"Reagan won't gut OSHA," he said. "He won't cut back on antireprisal regulations [against whistle-blowers], because those regulations say that the way to avoid hordes of inspectors in your plants and corporate fines for not enforcing the law is to see that employes know what's going on and to be able to use internal methods to protect them."
"Of course," he conceded, "another possibility is that the Reagan administration won't support either [inspectors or whistle-blowers]."