Years ago, I watched a televised debate of Protestant and Catholic leaders in Northern Ireland. To say the dialogue fell apart quickly is an understatement; there was no dialogue at all. The two sides couldn´t even agree on the name of the town they were in. The Catholics called it Derry; the Protestants called it Londonderry.
I haven´t been reminded of that broadcast in a long time, until the recent debates over the now freshly dead OSHA ergonomics rule. Throughout the debate, industry said Derry, labor said Londonderry, and the impression was of two groups talking past each other.
The rubber industry and its allies made a case for the unworkability and ruinous cost of the rule as written. Their claim it would cost nearly $70,000 per worker just to retrofit a tire press is enough to make even the bleedingest-hearted liberal take notice.
Labor and its allies chose not to engage the debate on this level. Their arguments were emotional: citing statistics that one U.S. worker is injured on the job every 12 seconds, sending injured workers to Capitol Hill to lobby on behalf of the ergonomics standard, but never trying to show why this particular rule was the best option.
Labor spokesmen ignored and disbelieved industry´s claim it didn´t object to an ergonomics rule per se. Their stand was that killing the Clinton administration´s ergonomics standard was to kill future hope of a standard.
So the GOP-industry victory on the ergonomics question now places the ball in the Bush administration´s court. If it wants a reasonable assurance of labor peace over the next few years, the administration needs to proceed as quickly as possible with new ergonomics rulemaking.
Industry must also present its own ideas on what is workable in that field. The Rubber Manufacturers Association and its members place a high priority on workplace safety, and could play a prominent role in the rulemaking process.
Writing a new ergonomics rule can´t be a rush to judgment, but it also can´t be delayed. Otherwise, expect a lot of Derry vs. Londonderry in the next round of contract talks.
Moore is RPN´s Washington reporter.