Why More Government is Not the Answer: Chill the Champagne

Frank Kollman
Frank Kollman

Today’s Wall Street Journal has an opinion piece by Bill Nojay, a New York Assemblyman who last year was the chief operating officer of the Detroit Department of Transportation.  As a labor and employment lawyer who “dabbles” in OSHA, I found the piece depressingly familiar.  Nojay, who stated that he was “a manager with virtually no authority over personnel,” talked about how union and civil service rules made it impossible to discipline anyone, which obviously contributed to the decline of services in Detroit.

My favorite paragraph read:

“When the federal government got involved, it only made things worse.  A federal lawsuit charging that the DDOT did not fully comply with the law in accommodating disabled riders had dragged on for years because of idealistic but painfully naïve Justice Department attorneys seeking regulatory perfection.  I felt like a guy in the boiler room at the Titanic, desperately bailing to keep the ship afloat for a few more hours while the DOJ attorneys complained from their first-class cabin that their champagne wasn’t properly chilled.”

So often, government regulators lose sight of the goal of employers:  to make their businesses successful and to find employees who can make that happen.  It does not matter to the government that frivolous regulations make it impossible to get things done.  The government only cares about compliance with its regulations, and with nearly unlimited resources, can put a company out of business enforcing them.

For example, I represent many clients in the construction industry who are extremely safe.  Yet, they are constantly getting OSHA citations for nitpicking items, such as whether a copy of the hazard communication program is in the foreman’s truck.  If OSHA cared about safety, it would assist employers to comply with safety regulations, not beat them to death through enforcement proceedings.  People are hoping that the new Secretary of Labor, Thomas Perez, changes the culture of enforcement at his agency, but Perez comes from the Department of Justice, and he knows how to chill champagne on a sinking ship.

Other government agencies, such as the EEOC and the EPA, never really worry about the big picture.  A successful business is in a position to hire more minorities, to pay for new and cleaner equipment, and to provide benefits for its employees.  But if a company is constantly defending itself over a valid termination decisions, failure to have the proper paperwork as defined by the government, and other ridiculous laws and regulations, the chance of that company succeeding goes down greatly.

Successful businesses, not successful unions and plaintiff’s lawyers, are the key to the country’s success.  Until the government realizes this, pieces like the one I read this morning in the Wall Street Journal will continue to be written.  But not, unfortunately, in the New York Times.

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