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Another Voice: Pushback needed to safeguard workers' rights

By Germain Harnden and David Oddo

Labor Day weekend offers us a moment to reflect on the contributions of workers, who make up the heart and engine of our nation’s economy. But this Labor Day, our country’s workers have found themselves in the crosshairs of a federal government hellbent on rolling back protections and basic rights crucial to our faith in the American dream.

These federal policies are having real consequences here in New York. But Buffalo’s working men and women have been fighting back, by pushing for local and state reforms to expand labor protections. In the years ahead, it is imperative that Buffalo stand as a bulwark against attacks on workers that threaten our community’s well-being.

Most recently, the Supreme Court’s Janus decision will likely make it more difficult for public sector unions to organize and fight for better outcomes on behalf of their members. Recently, the court escalated its crusade against workers’ rights by ruling in the Epic Systems case. The court held that employers can include arbitration clauses in employment contracts that ban class action lawsuits, one of the few remaining mechanisms through which workers can hold their employers accountable for illegal activity.

With the federal government striking down labor protections one after the next, it is becoming increasingly important that we protect our rights here in New York.

In particular, construction workers are being injured on the job in record numbers, while the federal government has cut down on the number of work site inspections through OSHA. In the current political climate, and with construction fatalities on the rise, the Scaffold Safety Law is more important than ever.

This disregard for workers’ safety, as well as OSHA’s failures, have greatly impacted workers here in Buffalo. For example, a recent report published by WNYCOSH found that a major regional employer has systemically placed its workers in dangerous and life-threatening situations.

Unfortunately, OSHA lacks the teeth to deter employers from cutting corners, and, along with the state Department of Labor, is drastically understaffed both in Buffalo and across the state. As a result, employers must be held accountable through all means possible including the civil justice system, a key priority of NYSTLA and its members.

This Labor Day, while we acknowledge and applaud the incredible sacrifices, history and efforts of our nation’s workers, we must also remember that there are obstacles ahead. We call upon our local community leaders and legislators to redouble their efforts to protect hardworking New Yorkers.

Germain Harnden is executive director of the WNY Council on Occupational Safety and Health. David Oddo is president of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association.

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