Hard labor, soft laborers

Posted: Aug 31, 2001 12:00 AM
The first newspaper job I ever had was a very brief summer stint as a press inserter. You stand in front of a mammoth piece of machinery along with a dozen or so other workers. Grab a pair of earplugs and haul a 25-pound stack of advertising supplements over to your station. Bend down, pick up a parcel of ads, and insert it into one of countless newspapers whirring toward you on a conveyor belt and into the inserter machine. Repeat for up to eight hours, with a few 15-minute breaks. At the end of a shift, your calves ache. Your back muscles burn. Your head throbs. It's strenuous, physical work -- and I'm grateful to all of you who do hard labor of any kind so that we soft laborers can sit and yak and ruminate at our desks for a living. Whenever I read about some fellow office dweller complaining about how painful it is to click a computer mouse or sit in a padded chair for more than an hour, I think about the inserters I worked with many years ago. They didn't complain. They didn't sue. They didn't ask their supervisors for aromatherapy breaks. Since then, technological innovation has dramatically improved the quality of life for workers in every workplace, including newspaper production plants. And yet we remain a slackening nation of work-avoidance wimps and moaning mollycoddles. Once upon a time, "workplace hazard" meant getting a limb caught on an assembly line or falling down a coal mine shaft. Today's young workers grumble about having to walk down the air-conditioned hallway for a cup of coffee. Aging labor unions have now cast themselves as guardians against every last little ache and pain that comes with the modern workplace. Witness the AFL-CIO's renewed call for federal regulations to protect pampered workers from their computer keyboards. The union's nationwide campaign is called "Stop The Pain." Its Web site informs Internet surfers: "From the time President Bush killed the ergonomics standard, to the second you loaded this Web page, 780,039 workplace ergonomic injuries occurred." (Indeed, the AFL-CIO Web master is probably filing his Social Security disability check this very moment!) Never mind that overall workplace mortality and occupational injuries have plunged over the past two decades, thanks largely to private efforts. The AFL-CIO wants to force all businesses to pay at least $4.5 billion a year for costly and dubious ergonomic programs to prevent everything from wrist pain to depression supposedly caused or aggravated by "repetitive stress." The union makes a nod to factory workers, but the real target audience is white-collar. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney bemoans the plight of Heidi Eberhardt, a young international trade specialist, who worked "40 hours per week at a dot-com electronic publishing company" (awww!) and now can't "get ice cubes out of a tray" because she "was injured at her job from working on a computer" and didn't know to ask for medical help. Another "victim," New York writer Maria Olivas, compared her repetitive stress injuries to "being sunburned to blisters for the entire length of your limb, then having your skin stripped away with a vegetable peeler from the tip of your index finger to the collarbone, around your wrist and around your elbow -- every movement creates the sensation that a Brillo pad soaked in lemon juice is being scrubbed over the raw, pus-oozing flesh by Arnold Schwarzenegger." At least she didn't lose her touch for melodrama. Don't get me wrong. I know many colleagues who have serious problems with carpal-tunnel syndrome and tendonitis. But the AFL-CIO has gone completely bonkers with this lobbying jihad. The way the AFL-CIO portrays it, President Bush has thrown defenseless computer users to the wolves. Yet, 21st-century workers are practically bubble-wrapped in health and safety protections -- from state workers' compensation laws to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, not to mention private programs run by businesses who have the strongest economic incentives to shield their employees from harm. The AFL-CIO's support for federal ergonomics regulations is less about worker protection than union self-preservation. Big Labor needs a new constituency. They've found it in a growing class of workplace whiners who run to the government for every stubbed toe and strained pinky and life-threatening paper cut.