Monday, April 07, 2003

The Great Debate I: Union Health and Safety Programs vs. Organizing

On March 9, 2003, John Wilhelm, president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees, was quoted in the New York Times as saying that "the A.F.L.-C.I.O. was spread too thin and should devote more of its money and energy to organizing. Mr. Wilhelm said he would even consider ideas like eliminating the federation's respected health and safety department to channel more money into organizing. 'My view is that if we don't devote the largest possible amount of money to organizing and to political action that relates to organizing, we will go out of business," he said. "And if we go out of business, we can't help anybody's health and safety.'"

This statement has caused quite a bit of discussion and some concern among union health and safety staff, as well as rank and file activists about the role of health and safety programs in unions, especially in the context of the obvious need to increase resources dedicated to organizing. Is there, or should there be a conflict between health and safety programs and organizing? Is it a zero-sum game? It may be true that if unions go out of existence, they can't help anyone's health and safety. On the other hand, don't many workers join unions because they see the labor movement in general, and their local union in particular, as their only ally in the fight for safe working conditions?

I'd like to make this the beginning of a continuing on-line discussion. I would be happy to reprint anyone's thoughts (attributed or anonymously) or excerpts of relevant articles.

To kick off the discussion, I'm reprinting below excerpts from a speech by Diane Stein, Executive Board Member, Local 1-149, Paper, Allied-Industrial Chemical and Energy Workers (PACE) and Outreach Coordinator, World Trade Center Worker & Volunteer Medical Screening Program, on receiving the Karen Silkwood award from NYCOSH.

In 1974, Karen Silkwood led a fight in her nuclear plant to expose safety hazards that could potential cause a great deal of harm both to the plant workers and to the environment. Later that year she was killed while on her way to bring documents about the plant to a New York Times reporter.

Most people in this room know that story, but what you may not know is that Karen was doing this work not just for the safety issues involved, but because there was a union decertification drive going on in her plant. She understood that in order to achieve any measure of safety and respect on the job, her job was to make sure that it stayed unionized.

I know that there is debate in the labor movement right now about whether we can afford to continue working on safety and health when we need so many resources devoted to organizing. While none of us would argue against organizing, I would argue that we can't afford to do away with what some may consider to be "special projects" and that includes safety and health.

People join unions because they need better work lives. Safety and health is a huge part of that struggle.

The TWU knows this. They are actively engaged in a struggle to make work safer for track workers, following the four tragic deaths of track workers over the past several months.

People concerned about ergonomics know this. The only sector that has gotten any significant measure of protection from OSHA on ergonomic issues are the unionized sectors (meat packing and nursing homes).

Chemical workers know this. The original process safety management standard, which is designed to reduce the risk of explosions and fires, is a direct result of union action. And the expansion that we currently seek to make these rules stronger is a multi-union effort, with support from our friends in the environmental community.

Without unions actively working on these issues, we would be failing the people we represent.

People join unions because they know that unions are the only institution who really put forward their agenda. We cannot abandon that agenda because we need resources for organizing. It simply doesn't make sense.

Unions have a huge task. We need to do our share to ensure that workplaces are safe, that our communities have clean air and water, that adequate health care is available to all.

We can not separate these issues and we cannot choose among them. We must be an advocate for social justice wherever and whenever we can if unions are to have a meaningful place in people's lives.

But we can't do this alone. The only way to achieve these goals is by working in coalition with others who share our vision of social justice. Environmentalists, public health advocates, women's and civil rights organizations must all be our partners in the struggle for a better world.