workers safety and health 

When it comes to health and safety 
your life should be in union hands

By Rory O’Neill

There is no more natural union function that defending the health and safety of members. It is a reason people join unions and a reason people stay in unions. And it has always been so.

Herbert Abrams’ writes, "It is important to recognize that throughout the often tragic history of worker health and disease, the workers played a primary role as the basis of every significant improvement in legislation, factory inspection, compensation, correction and prevention."

"Labor unrest, protests, strikes, lawsuits, and catastrophes were vital catalysts in obtaining action. Organized labor has been the essential factor central to most workplace health and safety improvements, from the industrial revolution to the present."

When it comes to challenging workplace harm only workers with collective power have much chance of doing anything about it. And there is no shortage of up-to-the-minute evidence illustrating this "union safety effect".

A study done for the Canadian Ministries of Labor concludes that union-supported health and safety committees have a significant "impact in reducing injury rates".

Adam Litwin, then with the London School of Economics, concluded in a review last year of health and safety in UK workplaces that unions dramatically improve safety in even the most hazardous workplaces.

A non-union office worker was, by Litwin’s calculations, thirteen times more likely to suffer an injury than was a union worker on an industrial assembly line.

The true extent of the union protective effect was evaluated in a 1995 study of UK unions. It found that in workplaces with a union contract and a joint management-union safety committee, serious accident rates were less than half those at firms with no union and no joint committee.

As Owen Tudor, health and safety officer with the UK Trades Union Congress (similar to AFL-CIO), put it: "Join a union or your employer will break your legs!"

Even in the US with a relatively low unionization level of 13%, the effect can be seen. A 1991 study concluded that unions dramatically increased enforcement of the 

Occupational Safety and Health Act in the manufacturing sector. Unionized firms had a higher probability of having a health and safety inspection, and their inspections tended to be more probing, as employees exercised their "walk around rights" – the right to accompany a government inspector during a workplace tour.

Even the World Bank agrees that unions play a lifesaving role at work. A 1995 World Bank report noted:

"Trade unions can play an important role in enforcing health and safety standards. Individual workers may find it too costly to obtain information on health and safety risks on their own, and they usually want to avoid antagonizing their employers by insisting that standards be respected.

"A union can spread the cost of obtaining information on health and safety issues among all workers, bargain with employers on the level of standards to be observed, and monitor their enforcement without putting any individual worker at risk of losing his or her job."

Workers outside of rich industrialized nations are part of the same world of work, and what happens to them impacts on the working conditions of every worker, everywhere.

Hazards magazine reported in 2000, "The effects of globalization are hurting everywhere, with companies unaccountable to national governments on labor and safety standards. Multinationals pocket the profits in one country, and leave a trail of workplace abuse and disease in another."

Wherever people live and work, it is clear that what is good for business isn’t necessarily good for workers.

Unions have fought for and won safety laws and employment protection, but the union safety effect evident worldwide, shows that it is the presence of informed and active unions that give the laws meaning.

There’s no single right way to do it. To secure improvements, unions have used methods from dialogue to strike action, ethical trading initiatives to alliance with environmental and human rights groups.

Unions are of necessity becoming more creative and more inclusive in their organizing methods, finding better ways to do their traditional organizing role, supplemented by lessons learned from environmental, anti-globalization and other emerging movements.

In a modern union world, blinkered self-interest amounts to a slow industrial suicide. Action at the workplace, national, and international levels is the only thing that will work for the workers.

There’s a new union survival plan. Forget Think Global, Act Local. Act now, act everywhere.

Rory O’Neill is editor of Hazards magazine published in London.


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