benefits. They believed that workers in risky occupations should be paid more, rather than have a safer workplace. Senior staff members at AFL-CIO headquarters, on the other hand, were interested in better working conditions and fought hard to make the issue a priority among union leaders. They had little trouble winning support from the rank-and-file, who were increasingly motivated to strike over working conditions. These union activists forged alliances with public health specialists within the national bureaucracy to make the case for greater government involvement.
Labor’s interest in workplace safety coincided with the Democratic party’s search for new issues that would enhance their electoral prospects. The general emphasis on social regulation appealed to educated middle- and upper-middle class voters who were motivated as much by social issues as economic issues. In the wake of increased spending for social programs and the war in Vietnam, social regulation appeared to be a relatively cheap tool of reform at a time when Congress was becoming more cost-conscious. Moreover, the OSH Act strengthened ties to organized labor, which increasingly felt that Democrats were devoting too much attention to racial minorities. Noble portrays Johnson’s involvement as decisive. In a curious reversal, it was Johnson who lobbied union leaders to make workplace safety a priority. And it was Johnson’s Bureau of the Budget (BOB) that led the way in drafting a bill in 1966 and 1967. 28
One justification for any new legislation was that states’ worker compensation programs and workplace regulations had done too little to prevent accident rates from rising. As with disability insurance, national officials faced at least two main alternatives: try to reform existing state laws or design a new national program. Reform of states’ compensation laws was considered early in the process of crafting the OSH Act, but dismissed for political reasons.
The administration ... decided against reforming the workers’ compensation system, although that program’s manifest failures made reform logical. Organized labor considered this as important, if not more important, than a federal regulatory program, and Johnson’s own advisers were attracted to the idea of rehabilitating the system to provide economic incentives to employers to improve working conditions. But [Labor Secretary] Wirtz met with insurance industry representatives to test the waters and returned to recommend two very limited reforms: a grants-in-aid program to improve state research and administration, and a congressionally appointed National Commission on Workmen’s Compensation.
Johnson’s advisers clearly understood the economic and political interests at stake and the problems they faced if they chose to tackle workers’ compensation directly. After reviewing the history of the program, both the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) and BOB concluded that comprehensive changes were unlikely to succeed in Congress. Gardner Ackley, chair of the CEA, wrote [Joseph] Califano [Johnson’s top domestic policy advisor] that “even innocuous government efforts to