Confined Space
News and Commentary on Workplace Health & Safety, Labor and Politics

Thursday, August 28, 2003


Union Health and Safety Programs: Organize and Die?

Last April, in one of my first postings, I opened a debate about whether the almost exclusive focus of several AFL-CIO unions on organizing was a threat to union health and safety programs.

The March 9 New York Times quote by John Wilhelm, president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (a union that has chosen not to have a health and safety program), sent shivers up the spines of union health and safety activists:
"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 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?

Harold Meyerson has written an excellent article in the American Prospect entitled "Organize or Die" about the struggle within the AFL-CIO over organizing strategies. He highlights the labor movement's left wing organizing "stars:" SEIU's Andy Stern, Hotel & Restaurant Workers' John Wilhelm, and UNITE's Bruce Raynor, and also discusses the efforts of Carpenter's President (and AFL-CIO dropout) Doug McCarron and Laborers' President Terry O'Sullivan. Stern, Raynor and Wilhelm rose through the union ranks on their organizing successes and continue to show how to build a union even in these tough political and economic times:
SEIU under Stern has grown by a stunning 535,000 new members so that it is now, at 1.5 million members, the largest union in the federation. The SEIU has had notable successes organizing home-care, nursing-home and hospital workers, and has continued to organize the janitors who clean America's office buildings.
Meyerson discusses the debates within the federation about how best to organize (focusing on sectors as HERE and SEIU are doing, using students and outsiders as SEIU tends to do, or rank and file union members as CWA favors), the idea of complimentary unions working together (e.g. janitors and hotel workers) instead of fighting over the same territory (e.g. public employees), the success or failure of John Sweeney, etc . While health and safety issues are not mentioned in the text of the article, the debate over the role of labor health and safety programs in an "organize or die" environment can be read between the lines:
Just as notable as the SEIU's success is the way it's been achieved. At Stern's prodding, the union now devotes about half its budget to organizing. The SEIU has hired hundreds of young people off college campuses or from community organizing groups to staff its campaigns. As existing staffers have been reassigned to organizing, locals have often had to train members to do the work of servicing their fellow members that the paid staff had previously performed.

***

Indeed, no two presidents have more radically restructured their unions than Stern and McCarron. Both have reduced the percentage of resources spent on servicing existing members to free more resources for organizing new ones. Both have reshaped locals -- over considerable opposition, in McCarron's case -- into larger units more capable of organizing. Both are apostles of organizing to drive up market shares, and disdainful of organizing that doesn't accomplish that end.
Labor health and safety activists remember well that when Andy Stern took over SEIU he decimated one of the labor movement’s largest and most active health and safety programs, leaving only one Washington representative to address the giant union’s abundance of health and safety issues.

As mentioned above, Wilhelm has been quoted as advocating elimination of the AFL-CIO's health and safety department. At a 2001 AFL-CIO Executive Council Meeting,
Wilhelm suggested reallocating federation resources to address the problem: 75 percent of the AFL-CIO's budget should be split equally between politics and organizing, with the remaining 25 percent allocated to other programs that contributed to those goals.

The suggestion went nowhere, but it was indicative of the strategic approach of Wilhelm's group. "Many of us feel that the AFL-CIO provides too many services that international unions should provide themselves and doesn't have enough focus to help unions with their strategic growth and politics," Stern says.
(Transferring services from the AFL-CIO to the individual unions is a rather ironic statement considering the cuts that Stern has made in SEIU's program and that Wilhelm has no health and safety program. Both unions rely on the AFL-CIO health and safety department for health and safety assistance.)

In addition to sowing fear into the hearts of those who have dedicated their careers to developing labor health and safety programs, this debate has forced to address one basic question: Why do unions need health and safety programs? Are they necessary for a vibrant labor movement or are they a remnant of the old “servicing model” of unions?

Aside from the obvious issue of saving lives and preventing injuries and illnesses, building the union and organizing new members is a pretty good reason to have a health and safety program. PACE activist Diane Stein discussed this issue on winning NYCOSH’s Silwood award,
People join unions because they need better work lives. Safety and health is a huge part of that struggle…. 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.
As one health and safety activist pointed out to me, fabled organizer Mother Jones’ famous line, “Mourn for the Dead, Fight like hell for the living” was all about workplace safety.

In other words, potential union members need a reason to join a union. Respect and better pay and benefits certainly lead the list of reasons in most cases, but saving lives and preventing injuries and illnesses are compelling reasons to to join a union in workplaces where health and safety problems exist.

Most health and safety staffers are anxious to get involved in organizing campaigns, but complain that it’s often difficult to convince the organizers that health and safety is a good organizing issue and to involve health and safety issues in the initial conceptualization of organizing campaigns.

On the other hand, some of the fault may lie within. When I first engaged in this debate last April, one long-time union health and safety activist responded that “Workers have always organized unions for better working conditions. This is not a diversion from organizing; it is its essence.” But she went on to criticize her (former) self and other health and safety “nuts” who had gotten so immersed in health and safety issues that they had “ gotten fat and lazy and forgot to organize.” These are problems
that we have failed to acknowledge and address. How are the structures we are building around health and safety building our unions? What role are the leaders who are first organized around health and safety issues taking in building bigger and stronger unions? What changes do we need to make to tie health and safety issues more closely to organizing a big, powerful and progressive Labor Movement?
Others are critical of many unions’ dependence on government grants which prohibit health and safety trainers from getting involved in organizing campaigns and tend to skew health and safety activities toward grant targets which may or may not be in tune with the union’s organizing targets. Although without the grant programs, many union health and safety programs would practically cease to exist.

Some unions have gotten the idea. AFSCME’s health and safety manual takes an organizing focus. Chapter 1, “ORGANIZING FOR A SAFE AND HEALTHY WORKPLACE” starts with the factors that make health and safety a good organizing issue:

· Health and safety affects all workers.
· Health and safety issues can be won.
· Health and safety concerns can move workers to take action.

Throughout the handbook, basic organizing principles are applied to health and safety problems.

UNITE’s organizing drive at Cintas is one of the few that integrates health and safety issues into the campaign. Unfortunately, campaigns like Cintas are more the exception than the rule, despite the efforts of union health and safety to integrate health and safety into organizing.

Aside from building the union and assisting in organizing campaigns, there are a few other reasons why unions need health and safety programs:

1. Health and safety programs save lives, prevent injuries and illnesses. If unions can’t save your life, what good are they? And when it comes to protecting workers’ safety and health, a knowledgeable, well-organized local union is better than all the regulations in the world. It’s hard to count workers who don’t die or who don’t get hurt or sick. But they exist.

While union activists may see unions as an inherently good things, most workers want some good, concrete reasons to organize and pay their dues to unions. For many union 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. And some health and safety problems – fatality or health hazard investigations need the expertise provided by experts in a national union program. The “servicing model” of many unions may ultimately be a dead end, but that doesn’t mean that in some cases, workers don’t need services that only professional union staff can offer. (For information on how unions help to protect workers health and safety check out Hazards.)

2. Health and safety programs provide organizing and health and safety skills to rank and file activists. Local rank and file activists may run organizing campaigns and health and safety programs better than union staff, but many of the skills and much of the knowledge need by health and safety activists can be intimidating for newbies without training sponsored and conducted by union health and safety professionals.

3. Need for coordination between workplace conditions and local/national political battles. Forcing OSHA to issue health and safety standards or to enforce the law is no longer a simple administrative process. To be successful, unions need to organize massive grassroots political action campaigns. It takes coordination from the AFL-CIO and national unions, it involves organizing the victims of health and safety problems on the local and national level and it takes political action in Washington and in the states.

It took over a decade of nationwide organizing to get OSHA to issue its ergonomics standard in 2000, yet in a matter of hours, the labor movement was out-organized by the business community in Congress and the ergonomics standard was lost. To achieve future gains and to prevent future losses, health and safety issues have to be integrated with organizing and political action programs.

4. Union Health and safety programs stimulate and support research into illnesses and injuries caused by work. It is well known that workers are the proverbial canaries in the coal mines: Almost every major workplace health problem was initially discovered by workers and their unions, and then brought to the researchers and government regulators. The state of health and safety research in this country may not be as popular or well funded as we might wish, but imagine what it would be like without unions to detect the problems and provide the populations to study.

++++

These are not easy issues, but they need to be addressed by health and safety activists. Within a couple of years, the AFL-CIO may elect a new president. If it’s one of the organizing "stars," what will become of the AFL-CIO’s health and safety department, and departments in the individual unions? Can the case be made that health and safety programs are an integral part of organizing, rather than a costly distraction?

These are my thoughts. I encourage you to support or slam them. E-Mail me. Let me know if I can post your thoughts, and whether or not you want to remain anonymous if I decide to publish them.

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