The struggle for a healthy and safe workplace is fundamental to the labor movement. It was one of our earliest major demands alongside higher pay and a shorter work week. It is every union’s obligation to encourage and, if necessary, force the boss to correct dangerous situations. But workplace safety cannot be solved through militancy alone.
Prior to the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) in 1970, those lacking a union contract containing strong health and safety language had little to no protection. OSHA was a great step forward, but left out many workers, including independent contractors and public-sector employees on the state and local level. While some states have adopted safety and health legislation to cover their public employees, many states have adopted no protections at all and others have very little enforcement of their own rules. This results in situations where public-sector workers have been severely injured or even died on the job with no penalties faced by their employers. In addition, the Act remains broken and underfunded, with infrequent inspections and nominal fines.
Today most workers and most UE members no longer work on a factory floor. Workers in the service industry have workplace safety issues which are not heavily regulated by OSHA, even if the workers themselves are nominally covered. Office workers often suffer from repetitive stress injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome, yet there are no ergonomics standards established by the federal government. Workers in retail, education, health care, and social services often have to deal with customers, students, or patients who threaten their physical safety, yet OSHA has largely been silent on establishing best-practice procedures to deal with these hazards. Female workers, workers of color, LGBTQ+ workers, and differently-abled workers all have different needs which should be addressed to ensure equity in workplace safety.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made issues of workplace health and safety take on an even-greater importance for UE members. UE has relatively few members who were laid off long-term during the pandemic, and almost as few in occupations which have allowed them to work from home. Instead the vast majority of our membership are in what became termed “essential work” — those who go to work in person no matter how prevalent COVID was in their local community. With the Trump Administration’s dogged refusal to set any sort of enforceable OSHA COVID standards, it was up to workers to act collectively to ensure their own health and safety. UE members negotiated — and continue to negotiate — over many practices over the course of the pandemic, including distribution of PPE, social distancing within the workplace, staggered shift schedules, and perhaps most importantly, changes to attendance and paid leave policies to allow workers who believe they had been exposed to isolate without fear of repercussion. Although President Biden promised to release COVID emergency temporary standards for all OSHA-covered workers soon after inauguration, the Administration backtracked this summer, and only released standards covering workers in healthcare settings — a betrayal of the many working people who supported his election.
While only some of the jobs our members perform are recognized as being dangerous, all of us can be exposed to situations which threaten our safety and impact our health. Our obligation is to look after the health and well-being of our fellow workers through the collective action of our union. But we also must force legislators to adequately protect working people through a strengthening of our nation's health and safety laws.
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED THAT THIS 77th UE CONVENTION:
- Calls on locals to:
- Make health and safety a top priority both during and outside of contract negotiations;
- Set up strong independent health and safety committees;
- Exercise their right to accompany OSHA inspectors on workplace visits;
- Contact the national union before becoming involved with Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP);
- Engage the membership in aggressive struggle to address hazards in the workplace;
- Support local labor-initiated Committees on Occupational Safety and Health (COSH) groups;
- Demand their employers provide access to paid time off for all COVID testing and for quarantine as advised by their physician or employer;
- Demands Congress expand OSHA to include:
- Coverage for all workers, including those in the public sector and federal contractors;
- Significant rulemaking regarding safe working procedures when dealing with risk of attack from patients, students, customers, or other individuals;
- A better funded inspection process, which includes unauthorized and unrestricted inspections;
- Sharply increased penalties on employers, including punitive damages and blacklisting from government contracting opportunities;
- Prosecution of bosses for conditions which lead to death or severe injury on the job.
- Supports strengthening workers’ compensation laws in all states, with improved provisions on injuries sustained from physical attacks in the workplace;
- Opposes any attempt to further restrict the rights of workers to sue their employers over job-related injuries, and unsafe conditions;
- Demands the Biden Administration develop an OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) on COVID-19 which includes all OSHA-covered workers, and a permanent OSHA standard related to contagious diseases.