VDT Law Fails

Processed World on the overturning of a San Francisco ordinance brought in to protect VDT workers.

Submitted by ludd on December 21, 2010

A San Francisco judge recently overturned the controversial VDT ordinance after it had been in effect for only three weeks. According to Michael Rubin, attorney for Service Employees International Union (SEIU — which helped draft the law): "Judge Lucy McCabe said CAL-OSHA expressly pre-empted San Francisco's VDT ordinance, and that no other entity has the power to regulate the workplace. She relied on language of the CAL-OSHA Act for her decision." The ruling essentially bans occupational legislation at the municipal level.

Supporters of the ordinance intend to appeal quickly, but expect that it will be at least another year before the issue is resolved.

"I'm confident it will be back in effect, unless we're able to get state legislation first," said Rubin. "It's Part of a coordinated effort involving collective bar gaining and attempts to pass statewide legislation."

The lawsuit overturning the ordinance was secretly subsidized by IBM, and looks to have been a good investment for the giant computer company. IBM, along with several other companies, financed two tiny plaintiffs in their quest to outlaw the few concessionr granted VDT workers. Neither the plaintiffs nor IBM would name other corporate backers, but did confirm their existence.

An IBM spokesman said that the company's backing does not mean it is opposing SFs law. "What we're interested in is having federal standards instead oflocal ones," he said, revealing a typical strategy of multinationals. In another recent case, not directly related to this one but similar in that it relies on an argument that a higher jurisdiction takes precedence over local efforts to regulate public policy, an arbitration panel of GATT (the Ceneral Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) ruled that U.S. attempts to require dolphin-safe tuna fishing violated international free trade agreements. SF's VDT ordinance would have required, over the next four years, that employers in SF provide VDT workers with adjustable chairs, desks and computers in order to reduce the incidence of repetitive strain injuries, and the installation of non-glare lighting to avoid vision problems. However, measures to reduce potential health injuries from the electromagnetic fields emanating from computers were thrown out in the negotiating process.

In exchange for accepting such a negotiating process, which included representatives of the Chamber of Commerce, the City and SEIU, the ordinance was supposed to be lawsuitproof.

"We always knew there was a possibility that a renegade employer group might challenge it, but we were disappointed and upset that litigation was conducted in such a secretive manner, said Rubin of SEIU. "I don't know why corporations are hiding behind the screen of two tiny companies set up as a front." While the amount IBM spends on lawyers' fees pales next to the company's $2.8 billion loss last year, siding with the forces of regression shows the company has little acumen for the current technology industry. VDT industry watchers, such as Louis Slesin, editor of the New York-based VDT News, say they find IBM's position baffling when IBM could easily be making its products more ergonomically safe for users and marketing its low electromagnetic emission VDTs-resulting in more sales.

Although this is the first major lawsuit over a protective ordinance, at least 19 lawsuits representing hundreds of millions of dollars have been filed against computer companies over repetitive strain injuries in the past few years, according to Slesin. Apparently, IBM and others fail to see the logic in supporting protective legislation so workers don't get hurt and sue the hell out of them in the future.

"One wonders why IBM is going against what must be the recommetldations of their own ergonomists," said Slesin.

Slesin and others supporting protective legislation make the economic argument that Processed World readers love to hate: a protected VDT worker is a productive VDT worker.

"Major employers know there's no doubt that they get an investment in ergonomic equipment back in productivity gains," Slesin said.

Employees, on the other hand, are mostly interested in avoiding debilitating and disabling injuries. Some VDT workers have taken the stormy and faltering path of the protective legislation as a sign of things to come. "First they say the city can't regulate it; then they'll say the state can't regulate it, and we'll have to wait for the Fed to regulate it-and look at their record on worker protection," said a disgruntled office worker. "Maybe we need some direct action. A substandard VDT, once disabled, can't be