Will Safety Suffer From a Divided Labor Movement? Part Two: Monitoring OSHA

For the second installment of this series, three health and safety union leaders spoke with Occupational Hazards.com about how the changes at the AFL-CIO will affect labor's clout inside OSHA.

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).

Ever since the revocation of the ergonomics standard soon after the Bush administration took office, union officials have complained bitterly about the direction OSHA has taken. With Republicans now in control of both the House and the Senate, labor has few allies on Capitol Hill with the power to perform OSHA oversight or pressure the agency.

Occupational Hazards.com spoke with:

  • Peg Seminario, director of the safety and health at the AFL-CIO;
  • Jackie Nowell, director the occupational safety and health office at the UFCW;
  • Bill Borwegen, director of health and safety at SEIU.

While these leaders agree that relations between organized labor and OSHA have never been worse, they disagree on some other issues, such as whether OSHA is still relevant to working people and how staffing cuts at the federation will affect union monitoring of the agency.

Seminario: "That's Still One of Our Jobs"

OH: One of the roles of the AFL-CIO's safety and health department has been to monitor OSHA and press the agency on issues of concern to union members, such as rulemaking and enforcement. Will the staff reductions and the reorganization of the health and safety department hurt the federation's ability to do this?

Borwegen: The staffing level will negatively impact the AFL's ability to monitor what OSHA is doing, or not doing. The large unions do it some, but historically it's been Peg and her handful of staff that does this.

Seminario: No, I wouldn't necessarily say that. I think we'll be focusing on those areas where we think we can make a difference. That's still one of our jobs, but there's nothing going on at that agency and there's not going to be anything going on at that agency anytime soon. People are not going to put a lot of time and energy into an agency where there's nothing happening and where there's no likelihood of anything happening. Everyone here was spending much less time on OSHA [before the staff reductions].

Nowell: That was my exact stand when it came to how do we feel about the AFL. I said a strong safety and health department was important to every union because no single union can do this work. When the AFL decided on their own to wipe out the department, it removed one reason for staying with them.

"We've Been Losing the Battle at OSHA"

OH: What's your outlook for influencing OSHA on labor issues, given the current political climate in Washington, a divided labor movement and a reduced staff at the AFL-CIO?

Borwegen: We've been losing the battle at OSHA, anyway. Every day I come to work OSHA becomes more irrelevant to my members. What have they done to impact health and safety for the largest sectors of the economy? After eliminating the ergonomics standard, their four-pronged enforcement has done nothing, and they watered down the nursing home guidelines. They have no standards to deal with 99 percent of the illnesses that show up on the OSHA log.

Nowell: We haven't been very good at influencing OSHA. But OSHA is not irrelevant they're the only agency out there charged with protecting workers. This administration is treating workers as if they were irrelevant. I continue to have little problem in the field with actual inspections: they certainly are responsive and want to do the right thing, although without a national effort on ergonomics or on heat [stress], you end up having to have fistfights out there. They're just not doing any inspections on ergonomics.

As for the national office in Washington, the senior leaders at OSHA are more concerned with kowtowing to the administration than in the mission of protecting workers. As far as we can see, they intend not to put out any standards. Shame on them for not at least looking like they're trying to do something!

Seminario: We get involved where we think we can make the biggest difference for the most number of people. So when you look at that in the safety and health area, that is generally through changes in the law: rulemaking, legislation and budgetary issues, and also at the state level. But I would say the industry opposition to doing anything on the regulatory front is at such a level right now that moving in those areas is very, very hard.

In terms of voluntary efforts, those efforts generally involve particular employers, and we don't represent employers, so we don't have those relationships. And OSHA has not been particularly interested in doing things jointly between unions and employers.

We don't have a confirmed assistant secretary [for OSHA]; we don't even have a nominee. So our job here is trying to raise some of the major issues, and we are engaged on those issues where there is some [rulemaking] activity, such as hexavalent chromium and silica. We continue to be very involved in maintaining this agency's budget. We're trying to maintain the basic integrity of the program, so at some point in time when there's an administration that cares about workers, and is committed to safety and health, there's that opportunity. I think that position is shared by our affiliates as well.

Relations with OSHA have never been like this before, because with previous administrations [Democratic and Republican], there were always things to engage on. I wouldn't say we have negative relations: relations are pretty much non-existent.

In Part Three: Will the disaffiliation of several unions from the AFL-CIO threaten the traditional cooperation among labor unions on workplace safety and health issues?

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