How Organized Labor Leads the Fight for Safer Workplaces

Jonah here. This is an important article by Tom Conway of the Steelworkers about the role of unions and organized labor in enforcing workplace safety standards. In light of Amazon’s dismal history of creating unsafe work environments, and their resistance to the current unionization dive, it’s a crucial argument about the benefits of organizing for employees.

By Tom Conway, the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW). Produced by the Independent Media Institute

A worker at the International Paper mill in Prattville, Alabama, was performing routine maintenance on a paper-making machine in mid-June when he discovered liquid in a place it didn’t belong.

He stopped work and reported the hazard, triggering an inspection that revealed a punctured condensate line leaking water that was hotter than 140 degrees and would have scalded the worker or fellow members of the United Steelworkers (USW). Instead of causing a serious health and safety risk, the leak was repaired without incident.

“We fixed the issue,” recalled Chad Baker, a USW Local 1458 trustee and safety representative. “It took about 30 minutes, and we continued on with our work, and nobody got hurt.”

Unions empower workers to help build safer workplaces and ensure they have the freedom to act without fear of reprisal.

No one knows the dangers of a job better than the people facing them every day. That’s why the USW’s contract with International Paper gives workers “stop-work authority”—the power to halt a job when they identify a threat and resume work after their concerns have been adequately addressed.

“We find smaller issues like that a lot,” Baker said, referring to the leaky condensate line. “Most of the time, they’re handled in a very efficient manner.”

Workers forming unions at Amazon and Starbucks, among other companies, want better wages and benefits. But they’re also fighting for the workplace protections union workers enjoy every day.

Amazon’s production quotas resulted in a shocking injury rate of 6.8 per 100 warehouse workers in 2021. That was more than double the overall warehouse industry rate and 20 percent higher than Amazon’s 2020 record, according to an analysis of data the company provided to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Driving for Amazon is also perilous. About 20 percent of drivers suffered injuries last year, up 40 percent from 2020, with many of these workers reporting that they felt pressured to take unnecessary risks, like forgoing seat belts and skipping breaks, to meet the company’s relentless delivery schedules.

Unions fight against all of this. They enable workers to hold employers accountable. That’s why Amazon and other companies pull every trick in the book to try to keep workers from organizing.

“We talk. We come up with solutions,” Baker said of Local 1458 members. “It’s kind of hard for the company to disagree with us when we’re all saying the same thing. That commands respect. One of the biggest pluses we have is not being able to be run over.”

Baker is one of seven USW members serving as full-time, company-paid safety representatives at the mill, positions that are shared by Local 1458, which represents maintenance workers, and by Locals 462 and 1978, which represent workers in other jobs.

They make the rounds of the complex every day to look for hazards, communicate with members and address safety issues, noted Local 1458 President Chad Manning.

“You can actually solve the problem when you have the right people involved, who are the people doing the work,” he explained.

After workers expressed concern about shoulder injuries, for example, the union persuaded International Paper to replace the manually operated elevator doors with automatic doors.

Some workers wear heavy insulated suits to protect them from fire, chemical exposure and other dangers. After union members cited mobility constraints in the bulky suits assigned to them, they worked with the manufacturer, who sent representatives to the mill, to design a better version that International Paper ultimately purchased.

With the union’s help, workers also successfully fought for handrails, better lighting and other measures that contribute to a safer workplace and environment.

When incidents occur, unions play a major role in investigations that uncover the root causes and work toward eliminating and controlling the hazards.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota studied data on more than 70,000 workplaces and found that the unionized locations were 30 percent more likely to have experienced state or federal inspections for safety violations. That’s because unions help members understand their rights and protect them from retaliation.

“At the end of the day, it’s the voice. You have one,” Manning observed. “In non-union shops, you don’t have that. You have a good opportunity of being fired if you voice your opinion.”

Unions continually seek new approaches for enhancing health, safety and environment.

Later this year, the USW will hold a series of trainings to bring additional protections to the growing number of members working in hospitals, nursing homes and other health care settings.

These sessions will focus on developing solidarity around safety as well as on hazard identification, incident investigation and holding employers accountable. Then these workers will go back to their workplaces, advocate for their coworkers and encourage them to do the same.

“Everybody has something to bring to the table,” explained Melissa Borgia, a member of USW Local 7600, which represents thousands of workers at Kaiser Permanente facilities in southern California.

Borgia, who works in membership administration at Kaiser, volunteered to help implement the program because of the pandemic, assaults on health care workers and other dangers her coworkers face.

“There is no better time than now,” she said. “This is where the spotlight is.”

In Prattville, soaring summer temperatures in the last week of June exacerbated the threat of heat stress at the paper mill.

Baker collaborated with the company to purchase tens of thousands of dollars in cooling fans, and now, union safety representatives will continue to monitor conditions and keep workers safe.

“We try to work together,” Baker said of management. “Everyone wins when we’re safer.”

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  1. jackiebass63

    For years there has been a campaign to demonize unions. Some of the criticism is warranted. Most of it isn’t. If you compiled a list of pros and cons, the pros would far outweigh the cons. I shudder to think about how the work place would be without unions. Keep in mind a union is only as good as its members want it to be. I worked for 35 years in a union job. Without the union, I probably would have found a different job. The union was the driver to make my workplace a better place for all. Keep I mind that the effort to demonize unions is only because they give workers a better deal. When fellow workers complained about our union, my response was for them to run for a leadership position and work to make the union a better organization. One only has to look at low skilled non union jobs to see how most employers would treat workers without a union.

    1. John Zelnicker

      jackie – I don’t have the evidence, but I suspect most of the cons about unions would be related to the union leadership, not the rank and file members.

      I see many articles from WSWS about union leadership betraying their members when negotiating with employers. There are many cases where the leaders seem to be on the side of the employer rather than the workers.

      1. Big River Bandido

        This certainly true of my union, the American Federation of Teachers. The national president, Randi Weingarten, is not a teacher but an attorney. She is paid $350,000 a year — over ten times that of an adjunct faculty member at a typical northeastern college — and spent the pre-pandemic year flying around the country tamping down teachers strikes. We’ll hold them accountable in November, she always says.

        Accountability is a joke when union “leaders” are not even accountable to not close to their own members. In all my years in the AFT, I have *never* had an opportunity to vote for or against any of the national “leaders”.

  2. Michael Fiorillo

    Unions improve wages and working conditions for everybody, members and non-members alike. Industry pay scales are roughly set by union standards, and non-union employers are often forced to pay wages approaching those of peer union workers (though they usually provide inferior or no benefits). Many years ago, when I worked for Local 802 of the musicians union in NYC, even non-union jobs paid “scale wages.” You didn’t need an accounting degree to understand that they really didn’t, but even the scummiest bandleaders (and there were a lot of them) still had to pay nominal scale wages, which had been negotiated by the union with unionized employers. When the union won wage increases, the non-union employers would grudgingly follow suit. Likewise, when I became a teacher, non-union charter schools set their salaries roughly in (almost always lower) line with those of the public schools. Most of them are still sweatshops (and for the kids, as well, or especially), but the teacher salaries generally reflect union pay scales, at least early in the teacher’s career (and since charters have 75% to 100% teacher turnover, there are only young/new teachers).

    It’s the “Invisible Hand” of labor economics, that union wages tend to set and raise the standard for everyone in an industry, with economic conditions and the balance of power between workers and employers at any given moment affecting trends.

    Funny how this Invisible Hand is never or rarely taught in economics departments or written about in corporate media. Perhaps it’s because it’s part of their unspoken obligation to stifle worker power and organizing.

    1. flora

      Neoliberals talk constantly about breaking through an economic ‘ceiling.’ See Hill’s and her ‘glass ceiling’ talks.

      Neoliberal talk never, ever talk about how unions put a ‘floor’ in place for wages, as in creating a lower bound below which wages cannot fall. Neoliberals don’t care about the ‘floor’, it’s unimportant to them. Unions do care about the ‘floor.’ That’s important in a modern economy if you want to maintain a middle class country, imo.

      1. Big River Bandido

        I agree, flora, except with the word “economic”. When Hillary talks about “glass ceilings”, it’s not about economics at all. It’s only about power for a select few — the handful of worthy white women like Herself who can only be wronged and who deserve corner suites.

  3. Questa Nota

    Unions provide so many valuable services to their workers, the company, the community and society at large, but don’t get the credit that they deserve. Some ongoing public service announcement process, or similar, would help educate people about parts of their world that are under-appreciated. Make them positive, with tangible results, with qualitative differences.

    I had a union job and liked how there were people supporting and looking out for each other. That sure beat being an isolated anonymous box on a chart that could be erased at whim.

    1. John Zelnicker

      Questa – Agreed.

      I’d really like to see us bring back the old union songs of the 20’s and 30’s, such as those by Pete Seeger, Joe Hill, Woodie Guthrie, and so many others.

      Their songs were both inspiring and educational. A lot of them tell the story of the fights, many of them bloody, between the bosses and the workers. And, in spite of being out-gunned most of the time, the workers did win some of the battles, and at the time, I’d say they won the war.

      Sadly, that win has not survived the past 50 years of attacks on unions.

      Joe Hill by Phil Ochs (9:32)

  4. cnchal

    Amazon’s production quotas resulted in a shocking injury rate of 6.8 per 100 warehouse workers in 2021. That was more than double the overall warehouse industry rate and 20 percent higher than Amazon’s 2020 record . . .

    Driving for Amazon is also perilous . . .

    Unions fight against all of this. They enable workers to hold employers accountable. That’s why Amazon . . . pull(s) every trick in the book to try to keep workers from organizing.

    Amazon would not be viable were the pace of work set to humane. That’s why Amazon pulls every trick it can. A nice trick, pleasing to whip cracking sadists, is the one tenth of a trillion $+ spend to retain current whip cracking sadists and induce new ones, branded as Prime, to join in the whip cracking fun.

    Didn’t Amazon have a sniff of Grubhub the other day? How soon before it becomes a fart?

    1. Earthling

      “Amazon would not be viable were the pace of work set to humane. ”

      I don’t know. That’s just the party line we’ve all been fed for a couple of generations, ‘have to be lean and mean or we’ll go bankrupt’. I don’t think so. Amazon dominates market share in many of the pies it has its thumb in. If it slowed down the warehouses to level ‘humane’, it would certainly chip into the enormous warchests it piles up in order to run around building more giant warehouses and buying up other enterprises and sticking its thumb in more pies. Does it buy back stock as well? I don’t know. Just pretty sure there is plenty of slack in the equation for fair labor practices.

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