Will Safety Suffer From a Divided Labor Movement? Part 3: Will Cooperation Continue?

When it comes to improving workplace safety and health, labor unions have traditionally worked together, but the recent decision of several unions to disaffiliate from the AFL-CIO has led some to question whether this cooperation will continue.

In Part 3 of our series, labor's safety leaders vow to cooperate on safety. To find out what leaders in labor's safety and health community think will happen in the future, Occupationalhazards.com spoke with four of them: two 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);
  • Bill Borwegen, director of health and safety at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU);
  • Jackie Nowell, director of the occupational safety and health office at the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW).

Both the UFCW and the SEIU have left the AFL-CIO.

Seminario: I'm Very, Very Saddened By This

OH: How will the disaffiliation of several unions from the AFL-CIO affect the traditional cooperation of organized labor on safety and health issues?

Wright: We are going to try as hard as we can to keep the labor movement together on safety and health issues. One of the things the labor movement has done well is to form very effective teams on safety and health issues between different unions, so that there may be people from a lot of different unions working on a particular issue. The folks who in the past worked on infectious disease or hexavalent chromium may now include people both from unions that stayed in the federation and the ones that got out.

Even though there are now what appear to be two separate organizations at the top, we very much want there to be a combined labor movement at the level of the day-to-day work that the unions do together. And we're going to try very, very hard to build that.

Seminario: When I first came to the federation [28 years ago], I pointed out that the United Auto Workers, the Teamsters, the Mineworkers and others were not affiliated. At that point in time, we worked with all those unions and coordinated with them on issues of common concern. And I would expect we would be working and coordinating with the disaffiliated unions.

But the difference will be that we won't be servicing them; they are no longer members of the federation. In terms of internal strategic decisions, and that kind of close collaboration, that won't be happening, which is really very unfortunate.

I'm very, very saddened by this, because we think a stronger labor movement rather than a fractured labor movement is much more effective in representing the interest of working people. In the safety and health area, we have worked closely together for decades. And we are all close colleagues, there's a lot of respect for individuals. And that will continue.

The institutional arrangements will be made by other folks, but in the safety and health area we will have constructive relationships - whatever those can be.

Nowell: The Bigger Question Is What Will Happen at the Field Level

Nowell: Our work will continue. We have a legislative department that takes things to [Capital Hill]. We have a lot of work in the field. The bigger question is what will happen at the field level, at the state and municipal levels? Some of us are the biggest members of those federations out there. If they lose us, somebody's got to carry the water to state legislatures. Politically, I don't know how that's going to work.

I have concerns that disaffiliation will make it harder to do what Peg and her office did, coordinating all our efforts. I'm not worried that the health and safety people at the disaffiliated unions will not work with the AFL-CIO staff. We've always worked together.

Borwegen: We're going to continue to coordinate our activities with the AFL-CIO and we hope they share a willingness to work together, and don't plan on being vindictive.

The issues here are fundamental policy differences on how we grow the labor movement. A lot has been made of how we want to put all our money into organizing instead of politics. That's an over-simplification. It has more to do with our view that smaller international unions don't have the capacity to grow even if they want to. In order to be successful, you need to be big and focus on a handful of sectors. We're trying to restructure the labor movement to compete with global corporations. That's what this whole gamble [of disaffiliation] is all about.

Health and safety is kind of an after-thought in this whole discussion. That doesn't mean it's going to go away. It will be an integral part of what we do. We need to figure out we coordinate and support each other in this area.

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