Wednesday, May 11, 2005

An Open Letter To AFL-CIO President John Sweeney On The Elimination of The AFL-CIO Safety and Health Department

As I reported last week, the AFL-CIO has announced the elimination of its safety and health department, the layoff of half of its professional staff, with the rest being folded into the new Government Affairs department.

Now, I’m just a guy with a blog, but I’m also a proud member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981, so I thought AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and UAW President Ron Gettelfinger should know how I feel. I don’t know how many of you who are union members are communicating your feelings to your union leadership, but it probably wouldn’t hurt for them to hear the opinions of a few (thousand) of you. Feel free to plagiarize my letter or anything else you find in Confined Space, but for those of you outside of Washington who are facing real health and safety struggles, your own stories are probably most effective. (Also, I tend to run on a bit; if you're inclined to write, feel free to be shorter.)

John Sweeney
815 16th St. N.W.
Washington D.C. 20006

Dear President Sweeney:

I am a member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981. I have worked for the past 22 years in occupational safety and health – 16 of which were spent running AFSCME's health and safety program, as well as two years as a consultant and temporary employee in the AFL-CIO Safety and Health Department. I have also spent five years in government, including three as OSHA’s national labor liaison during the Clinton Administration. In my spare time, I write a weblog devoted primarily to workplace safety and labor issues. (Confined Space:, if you’re interested.)

I was very disappointed to hear about the elimination of the AFL-CIO's Safety and Health Department last week, coming just a month after the tragedy at the BP Amoco refinery in Texas City, Texas that killed 15 workers, and only a week after Workers Memorial Day.

I am not writing to ask you to reinstate the AFL-CIO’s Department of Occupational Health and Safety and its full staff. Given the serious problems facing the labor movement today, I am writing to request that you reinstate and expand the department.

First, I completely agree that the first priority of the labor movement must be organizing. In fact, health and safety issues are major reasons that workers join unions. As you have said, one of the biggest challenges facing the labor movement today is making unions relevant to workers -- both to activate current members and, most important, to organize new members who are looking for some good, concrete reasons why they'll be better off if they organize a union and pay dues.

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.

Unfortunately, folding what’s left of the safety and health department into Government Affairs leaves the impression that health and safety is just about lobbying Congress, writing testimony and commenting on regulations. While these are certainly important functions for the AFL-CIO (as shown most recently by the current activities around asbestos compensation legislation), they are far from the only function of the AFL-CIO’s safety and health department.

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. Again, the AFL-CIO has played a crucial role in this process – and more than ever needs the resources to continue to play that role in the future.

I write every day about the health and safety of American workers, how they get hurt, how they die, and what they're doing to fight back. I see them not only dealing with “traditional” workplace safety and health issues (hazardous unregulated chemicals, falls from scaffolding, communicable diseases, trench collapses, amputations, etc.) but they’re also facing growing threats in areas that haven’t been adequately addressed by oversight agencies or by researchers: stress, workplace violence, ergonomics, increased workloads, fewer employees and faster production rates, excessive overtime, short staffing and the exploitation of immigrants.

The “good news” is that the lack of attention to these issues makes them ripe for mobilizing and organizing workers – if the AFL-CIO puts adequate resources into using these issues for organizing and political mobilization.

In addition, the AFL-CIO Safety and Health Department has been the only worker organization in the country addressing workers compensation problems from a national angle, identifying trends, developing effective strategies to fight off attacks and communicating important information to affiliates and state federations. The national fight against the cruel mistreatment of injured workers by failing workers compensation systems has now also fallen victim to this reorganization.

On the national political front, my years at OSHA proved to me that there will never be any movement on a political or regulatory front – even in a Democratic administration -- without constant pressure from labor. Convincing OSHA to issue effective health and safety standards or to enforce the law is no longer a simple process of writing testimony or lobbying Congress or administration officials. To be successful, unions need to organize massive grassroots political action campaigns. It takes coordination from the AFL-CIO and national unions, it involves identifying and 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. And clearly, this requires adequate staff and resources in Washington to coordinate these activities. Otherwise, how can working people and individual unions working alone be any match for the well funded power of the Chamber of Commerce, NAM, NFIB and other industry associations who have an almost unlimited ability to hire high-priced attorneys, scientists, public relations experts – and legislators. Now, at the time when our members need help the most, we seem to be taking health and safety out of the game, leaving the playing field our enemies.

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?

My great fear is that eliminating the AFL-CIO Department of Health and Safety will send the wrong message -- both to American workers and American corporations. Workers will assume that the labor movement no longer cares about their health and safety on the job while the corporate community will assume that we’ve given up the battle. By eliminating the health and safety department and downsizing its staff, it appears as if unions care more about the health of unions than the health of the workers they represent. Both are clearly important, but workers appear to have gotten the short end of this reorganization.

As a long-time union activist, I fully understand that our backs are up against the wall, and I applaud the efforts you are making to turn things around. Health and safety issues can play an important role in this effort, but in order to effectively use health and safety issues to build the labor movement, we need not only strategic leadership and coordination from the AFL-CIO and national unions, but also the capacity and resources to plan and implement these campaigns. The small staff of the AFL-CIO’s Department of Safety and Health have done amazing work over the past decades. Now is the time to expand those activities, not cut them back. To do less than this would be a serious disservice both to workers’ health and safety to our hopes for a stronger labor movement, and to the progress our members have fought and died for.

In solidarity,

Jordan Barab

cc: Ron Gettelfinger, President, UAW
Gerard Colby, President, National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981

Related Stories