Will Safety Suffer From a Divided Labor Movement?

Two recent decisions taken by the leaders of organized labor that have rocked the occupational health and safety community are almost certain to affect the way unions address workplace safety but how?

First, the AFL-CIO eliminated its safety and health department along with two of the department's four professional positions. More recently, several unions, including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), voted to disaffiliate from the AFL-CIO and to support instead the rival Change to Win Coalition (CWC).

To find out what leaders of labor's safety and health community think of these changes and how it will affect the future of workplace safety, Occupational Hazards.com spoke with five of them: three who remain inside the AFL-CIO, and two who belong to organizations that have left:

  • Peg Seminario, director of safety and health at the AFL-CIO;
  • Michael Wright, director of health, safety and environment for the United Steelworkers of America (USWA), a union still loyal to the AFL-CIO;
  • Eric Frumin, director of the occupational health and safety dept. of UNITE HERE, an organization that, for now, appears to be on the fence, as it remains inside the AFL-CIO but also belongs to CWC;
  • Jackie Nowell, director of the occupational safety and health office at the UFCW; and
  • Bill Borwegen, director of health and safety at SEIU.

Part One: AFL-CIO Eliminates Safety and Health Department

The representatives were unanimous and ardent in their praise for the work of the department and its director, Peg Seminario. They agreed as well that the decision to eliminate the department and two of its positions is a huge mistake that will hurt workplace safety and health. The AFL-CIO was also criticized for failing to consult member unions on these cuts and, according to Borwegen, for using a "meat-axe, not a scalpel."

The cuts mean, among other things, labor is no longer monitoring state workers' compensation programs a loss several representatives singled out as a profound one.

These leaders had different perspectives, however, on such issues as why the decision was taken and how seriously it will hurt workers' safety and health.

"A Lot Of Us Think That's Just Wrong"

OH: Why did the AFL-CIO eliminate the safety and health department? To appease the CWC dissidents, who wanted more emphasis placed on organizing, or was it strictly a cost-cutting move?

Borwegen: I think they were responding to some of our coalition's recommendations, but our recommendations had more to do with how they allocated the money already being spent on organizing. We didn't get into the specifics of eliminating this or that department. Less than 1 percent of the overall budget of the AFL-CIO was devoted to safety and health. Those people had an incredible value, when you consider there were only four of them. What they did is take a meat axe instead of scalpel to their staff and the allocation of resources.

Nowell: In terms of Peg's office, I've always had the absolute highest praise for that department. I was very strongly advocating for that department with our president and he said that he felt the same way. As far as he was concerned they were never an issue. They just decided, I guess, that they could appease everybody by making cuts everywhere. It's a shame that in the course of making decisions they took a "slash-and-burn" approach as opposed to looking at what are the things that function and what are the things that aren't.

Wright: In the past, some leaders of the unions that got out had been talking about eliminating the safety and health function altogether, but the decision to eliminate the department was done as a cost-cutting measure. Disaffiliation wasn't driving the decision. Nobody denied the federation had to make large cutbacks. The way they chose to do it is what the debate is about. For example, the federation now has considerably more people working on public relations than they do on safety and health. A lot of us think that's just wrong.

Seminario: The reorganization took place prior to the disaffiliation in order to focus the federation's energies in two areas, primarily: One is organizing and the other is politics and legislation, broadly defined.

Frumin: I can't answer that.

"To Completely Do Away With Workers' Comp Is Outrageous"

OH: How will the elimination of the two positions and the department itself affect labor's workplace safety and health efforts?

Borwegen: I'm more concerned about the functions than the department. The AFL-CIO will continue to monitor safety and health at the federal level and this new coalition [CWC] will also eventually be monitoring the situation.

Seminario: We're essentially going back to the capacity we had some numbers of years ago when I started, when there was a director of safety and health and a technical support person. The immediate impact is that workers' compensation is not going to be an area where we can provide support to the state federations. Debra Weinstock occupied the other eliminated position and she was basically a support person to me in terms of doing the legislative work; she was also a liaison to some other safety and health groups. We'll have to do some reorganization of our work now that we're in the broader legislative department.

Nowell: Oh my God, yes, losing that department absolutely will hurt the safety and health effort. As it was they had so little staff. To completely do away with workers' comp is outrageous. There's no one union that tracks the 50 state workers' comp programs. That's gone and there's no way they can pick that from with just her [Seminario] and Bill [Kajola.]

Now all of us will have to kind of wing it to coordinate our efforts. The AFL served that function. It remains to be seen what we in CWC will do about it I have no idea.

Wright: All of us who do safety and health work in the unions are sorry the AFL-CIO took the step of eliminating the department. It's important to note, though, that they did not eliminate the function, they combined the functions of several departments into a single department. And safety and health work will continue to be done.

Frumin: The real question is what is the direction of the AFL-CIO regarding the attention paid to worker health and safety issues as part of a larger and more aggressive sense of workers' rights and effort to organize new members. Neither two nor four people can take the safety and health message out to communities in all 50 states. That requires a strategic focus that I think our leaders would say was lacking and is still lacking at the AFL-CIO. Having said that, it's not the fault of the people in that department. They have for decades made important efforts to mobilize workers and communities aggressively.

Here's what I mean by a strategic focus: I mean moving an aggressive program to the doorstep of anti-union and anti-worker employers. If the AFL-CIO had launched an aggressive program to organize Wal-Mart 5 years ago, you can be sure that health and safety would have been a visible part of it.

In Part Two: Several union representatives placed the cutbacks to the AFL-CIO's health and safety department in the context of the current political climate in Washington, especially OSHA's current direction, and discussed how these cuts could affect the federation's traditional role of monitoring and pressing OSHA on labor issues.

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