Wednesday, March 02, 2005

The New AFL-CIO: Wither Safety & Health?

While the legions of John Sweeney and Andy Stern assemble to do battle in the far-away magical kingdom of Las Vegas, it might be a good time for those of us left at home to discuss what really matters: what do the coming changes in the AFL-CIO mean for workplace health and safety?

For those of you who have been napping through the past year, there is a debate raging in the halls of the AFL-CIO about what can be done to reverse labor's declining membership. SEIU President Andy Stern is leading the charge with several "suggestions" and is threatening to take his ball and go home if there is no agreement. On the other hand, other unions, such as the Machinists, are threatening to take their ball and go home if Stern's proposals are accepted.

In all seriousness, the problems are extremely critical, even life threatening. Unions today account for 7.9 percent of the nation's private workforce and 12.5 percent of all workers. In the 1950s, one-third of all workers belonged to a union. One thing that everyone agrees on is that it's the right time to have this debate.

To make a long story short (if you want the long version, David Moberg, writing for The Nation, will accommodate you here), Stern and his allies (including the Teamsters and UNITE-HERE) have several proposals, most of which I'm not going to discuss here. (All of the unions' proposals can be found here.) The three proposals that have garnered the most attention are:

  1. Cut up to 50% of affiliates' AFL-CIO dues if they promise to dedicate 10% of their budget to organizing. A smaller AFL-CIO would then reduce its staff and responsibilities, and focus more on politics and legislative issues.

  2. Force (or strongly encourage) the 58 existing unions (some of which are very small and unable to organize effectively) to merge into 20 large unions. Currently forty AFL-CIO unions have fewer than 100,000 members.

  3. Restructure the jurisdiction of those larger unions so that they cover entire industry sectors. In other words, instead of having a dozen large, medium and small unions that represent health care workers, you'll have only one big union with enhanced power and leverage.
It's unclear what will happen with most of these proposals either during the current AFL-CIO Executive Board meeting or running up to the AFL-CIO Convention in July. But there does seem to be an agreement emerging on one proposal: rebating the dues that affiliates pay to the federation in return for devoting more resources to organizing. According to news reports, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney has given his support to cutting a portion of unions' contributions to the federation and refocusing the Federation's remaining resources toward legislation and politics. Cynical observers might not be too surprised that the one proposal almost everyone could agree to involves cutting dues (who wouldn't want to vote themselves a dues decrease?)

And skeptics might wonder if this plan will really contribute significantly to solving the AFL-CIO's problems. Is lack of money the main reasons that unions have failed to organize successfully or is it just that many unions don't know how (or don't really want) to organize? Or might it have something to do with the political atmosphere, unsupportive laws and a changing national and global economic structure?

Unions currently contribute only 1% of their percapita income to the AFL-CIO. Will rebating 1/3 or 1/2 of that amount make the difference between a faltering and thriving labor movement? And can these decisions be made successfully without first having a debate on what the Federation's role should be?

Which brings us to the main points: If the Federation's budget is to be cut significantly, and more focus is to be put on politics and legislative activities, what becomes of the Health and Safety Department? And what exactly is the role of workplace health and safety in the labor movement?

The Role of Health And Safety in Labor

The role of health and safety in the labor movement and in organizing was one of the first topics I addressed in this blog and through the miracle of the internet, you an go back and read those articles.

That first discussion was initiated by a statement made by then Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees President John Wilhelm's in March 2003:

"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."

In April 2003, I reprinted a speech by Diane Stein, Executive Board Member of PACE Local 1-149, in which she defended the mission of workplace safety in the labor movement:

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.


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.
And in August 2003 I wrote a longer piece entitled "Union Health and Safety Programs: Organize and Die?" in which I examined in great depth whether organizing and union health and safety programs are conflicting or complimentary and whether there was a role for a workplace health and safety programs in a union -- or a labor movement -- that decides to redirect a substantial percentage of its resources to organizing.

In brief, the conclusion of that article was that health & safety programs are important to workers and unions because they save lives, contribute to organizing campaigns and they're important to legislative and regulatory fights that affect workers' lives. Finally, almost every major workplace health problem was initially discovered by workers and their unions, and then brought to the researchers and government regulators. (For information on how unions help to protect workers health and safety check out Hazards.)

Since those articles were written, UNITE has merged with HERE and Wilhelm is now the co-president of the merged union. Ironically, UNITE-HERE is probably the union that most effectively uses health and safety issues in its organizing campaigns. Meanwhile, Wilhelm is often named as a possible challenger to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney who has said he would run for re-election next July.


So we're left with a many questions, a few of which I've asked below:

  1. Why is it important for the AFL-CIO to have a health and safety department?

  2. What effect would the demise of the AFL-CIO's health and safety program have on the programs of individual unions?

  3. What effect would the demise of the AFL-CIO's health and safety program have on workers -- those in unions and those outside of unions.

  4. Assuming it is important to preserve the AFL-CIO's Health and Safety Department, how can rank-and-file activists, union staff, academics and other health and safety activists organize to convince the powers-that-be to preserve the department?
I don't have the answers to these questions, but I volunteer to begin the discussion.

The AFL-CIO Health and Safety Department: RIP?

So what’s going to happen if there are significant cutbacks in the AFL-CIO budget, and the remaining budget is increasingly dedicated to legislation and politics? The rumor is that the Health and Safety Department would be abolished and the staff (those who aren’t laid off) would be merged into the legislative department.

Why do we care?

What does the AFL-CIO health and safety department do? The staff consists of only four professionals, led by veteran Peg Seminario, one of the most respected health and safety -- and labor -- leaders in the country. One staff position is fully dedicated to workers comp issues (and is the only labor person in the country who addresses workers compensation issues from a national perspective.) The department plays a crucial strategic coordinating role with the various union, particularly focused on legislation, standards, and enforcement activities. Depending on the political environment, their activities may be more defensive than offensive.

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.

This role was most apparent during the 10-year long ergonomic fight that finally resulted in a standard (before it was revoked). This was a battle fought by many unions on multiple fronts: political, scientific, workplace, regulatory, legal and congressional, all coordinated by the AFL-CIO health and safety staff. The AFL-CIO is practically the only player holding down the fort against asbestos compensation legislation that threatens to undermine the rights and compensation for thousands of victims of the asbestos industry. In my 23 years in the labor movement and government, working in the workplace safety and health area, I’ve never ceased to be amazed at how the energy and organization of that department has challenged – and generally beaten – the combined forces of corporate America in legislative, legal and regulatory battles.

And lets not forget symbolism. 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. Look back at any of the early stories of the founding of the American labor movement and you'll find workplace safety and health concerns. The history of the Mineworkers, the Steelworkers, the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers and many other early unions is also the story of workplace safety. The 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike was sparked by two workplace fatalities. So 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. It's hard to "Mourn for the Dead, Fight like hell for the living" from the perspective of the legislative department.

Finally, and perhaps most important, how can working people and individual unions working alone and individually be any match for the well funded combined power of the Chamber of Commerce, NAM, NFIB and individual industry associations who have the ability to hire high-priced attorneys, scientists – and legislators.

Workers RIP?

And what do these changes mean for workers, not just those relative few who still belong to unions, but to the many who do not.

Most workers, of course, won't be directly affected by the disappearance of the AFL-CIO's health and safety department, but where will they be without a central force in Washington defending their right to a safe workplace against the powerful corporate-Republican juggernaut doing everything it can to to destroy the labor movement and to destroy the workplace protections that American workers have only enjoyed for the past 35 years.

Those who still belong to unions may continue to have health and safety departments to rely on to educate their activists and defend their rights in the workplace and in Washington D.C., but those without union representation will be left with nothing.

And will individual unions continue to support health and safety programs? 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.

And the state of most individual union health and safety departments is not good. Many of the smaller unions don't have any health and safety staff and depend on the Federation for information, resources and technical assistance. Even in the larger unions, most staff is funded by government grants. This means that in an era where the labor movement is attempting to shift more and more of its resources to organizing and politics, most health and safety staff is forbidden to participate in organizing or politics. In addition, the grants 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.

And, of course, dependence on government grants in this period of overwhelming hostility toward labor and toward workplace safety issues is not a secure place to be. Bush has tried unsuccessfully every year to reduce OSHA’s $10 million grant program by 60%, and this year he's trying to eliminate the entire program. Its fate rests, as it has in previous years, on Republican Senator Arlen Specter, whose health is not good.

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. Some have just about given up.

I certainly don't have the answers to all of these questions. These are not easy issues, but they need to be addressed by health and safety activists. Change is needed and it's coming. But will these changes be good for workers' safety and health?

These are my thoughts. I encourage you to support or blast them. Use the comment box below (which will limit those of you who tend to be wordy), or E-Mail me and I'll print or summarize your thoughts. Let me know if I can post your thoughts, and whether or not you want to remain anonymous if I decide to publish them.

P.S. You can also leave your vision of the union movement on the AFL-CIO website here and on SEIU's blog here.

Related Stories

The Great Debate I: Union Health and Safety Programs vs. Organizing, April 7, 2003
Union Health and Safety Programs: Organize and Die, August 29, 2003