Posted with permission from Confined Space, a newsletter of workplace safety and labor issues.
A recent study by Harvard University professor Michael Zaroob showed that unionization saves lives. That’s the good news. But it doesn’t happen automatically when you sign the union card. The beneficial effect of unions on worker safety is the result of action by educated union members supported by union staff. Unfortunately, the Service Employees International Union, the nation’s largest labor union, doesn’t seem to have learned that lesson. As of July 1, the two-million member union will no longer have a health and safety program as it lays off its last health and safety staffer, Mark Catlin, who has been SEIU’s lone health and safety staffer for many months.
As former SEIU health and safety director Bill Borwegen said, “‘Healthcare for All’ is a meaningless jingoistic slogan if unions aren’t willing to fund even the most meager of efforts to reduce workplace hazards that lead to preventable injuries, illnesses and deaths. And with the release of the most recent troubling latest BLS statistics demonstrating how – if anything- unions need to be redoubling their efforts at this time. Wow. Tragically this is a symptom of what happens when union leadership becomes thoroughly and utterly disengaged from the day to day workplace realities of those they get the privilege to serve.”
From the early 1980s into the 2000s, SEIU built one of the labor movement’s largest and most dynamic health and safety departments. Working together with other health care unions such as AFSCME and AFT, labor forced OSHA to issue its Bloodborne Pathogens standard in the 1990s, and a later OSHA sharp safety rule would never have happened without SEIU’s dogged work. Protections for workers against workplace violence, back injuries and other hazards plaguing our nation’s frontline health care workers are only being addressed because of pressure from workers through their unions.
OSHA is currently working on standards to protect health care workers against communicable diseases and workplace violence. Based on my many years at OSHA and in the labor movement, I know that the chance of those standards ever seeing the light of day — even in a Democratic administration — are much smaller without the strong voice of SEIU in Washington and across the country.
Unfortunately, SEIU is not alone. Last year, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) also dissolved its health and safety department when long-time director Darryl Alexander retired. (AFT has a large and active health care component.) The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) is now the only labor union representing large numbers of health care workers that has full time paid health and safety staff in their national office (and several of their councils.) National Nurses United also maintains a significant presence in nurse safety issues.
In 2005, when the AFL-CIO folded its Health and Safety department into its Government Affairs department, I wrote an open letter to then AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. Some of the thoughts I expressed then are still relevant. Rather than re-invent the wheel, I’ll repeat some of that letter below. You can read the entire letter here.
Working conditions, and workplace health and safety concerns can play an important role in almost every organizing campaign and can play a prominent role in political mobilization as well. There is little doubt (and numerous polls have confirmed this) that working conditions – particularly safety and health conditions – are an area of high concern for American workers and one that they look to labor unions to protect. For many members, union resources that are used to train rank and file activists in how to investigate and organize around health and safety issues is a service well worth paying some dues money for. A larger safety and health department could assist affiliates to develop strategic organizing programs focusing on health and safety issues.
Perhaps the most important function of health and safety departments – either at the AFL-CIO or at the affiliates – is to provide the knowledge, tools and organization that workers can use to defend their rights, their health and their lives when they go to work every day. This support takes a variety of forms that are crucial to maintaining and expanding union membership. The ability to translate local health and safety issues into a larger political context is also important in political mobilization.
It is well known fact that workers are the proverbial canaries in the coal mines: Almost every major workplace health problem was initially discovered by workers (by their illness and death) and their unions, and then brought to the researchers and government regulators.
Look back at the proud history of the American labor movement and everywhere you look, you’ll find workplace safety and health concerns. In fact, there is probably no issue more central to the founding of the labor movement in this country than the issue of safety on the job.The history of the Mineworkers, the Steelworkers, the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers and many other unions is also the story of workplace safety. Karen Silkwood died defending the health and safety of her members. The 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike was sparked by two workplace fatalities. This is not just dead history, but an indication of how health and safety issues can be used to build a new labor movement. What message are we sending to American workers (and the enemies of American workers) if we devalue the importance of the issue upon which the labor movement was founded?