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The American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) recently wrote a factual overview of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization’s (AFL-CIO) decision to lay off 167 employees and to eliminate its own safety and health department. ASSE members’ views on the AFL-CIO’s decision are listed below.
“This is indeed sad since good safety programs improve a company’s bottom line. We as safety professionals need to work more on the dollar-safety relationship in the way we present safety issues. Every safety presentation, program or idea should be coupled with a financial metric and cost benefit. Without this metric, safety programs appear to be expensive and burdensome, and in effect, an easy (if foolish) target for a cut.
The AFL-CIO is no different from any other business except that one of the founding principles of organized labor was to provide a safe environment for the worker. Reforms in the meatpacking and mining industries were all great accomplishments for organized labor. Unfortunately, as unions became stronger, they started to use the threat of strikes and work stoppages to create untenable compensation packages for their members to the determent of the host company. As these compensation packages increased, safety became a secondary issue for the unions. As the economy changed and the United States became less of a manufacturing giant, less people were engaged in manufacturing or labor unions. Couple this with an increasing influx of immigrant laborers who are reluctant to join unions, and you see a dramatic decrease in organized labor membership. In addition, organized labor built itself a bureaucracy that was sustainable—provided that membership was strong. Such is not the case today, and as a result, organized labor has had to yield on many issues.
The AFL-CIO needs to go back to its original foundation—a safe environment for the worker.”
“Working conditions, particularly safety and health conditions, are major reasons why workers join unions. It seems contradictory for a labor movement that wants to grow to devalue a major organizing issue.”
—Jordan Barab, former Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) official
“I am concerned about the message that has been portrayed to union workers and to governmental agencies. Many local unions relied on the AFL-CIO’s safety and health department staff to provide guidance on current and pending regulations. The staff members were also subject matter experts (SMEs), and the local unions consulted them when working with complicated occupational hazard exposure issues. These cutbacks in safety, health and environmental (SH&E) practices seem to indicate that worker safety is not a priority of the AFL-CIO.”
—Gene Barfield, President of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE)
“Initially, I was disturbed to hear of the AFL-CIO’s decision to eliminate their safety and health department. The loss of any entity dedicated to worker safety and health is not a positive influence on our profession. Upon closer look, it appears that the union safety department was not totally eliminated but reconstituted. The safety function of the union had some significant personnel cuts and was absorbed into another department. The impact of this move may be more of a public relations fiasco rather than a blow to worker safety and health. Time will tell.
The unions have played a major role in establishing awareness of worker safety and health issues. Great gains have also occurred in workplace safety and health through many other entities, including the ASSE. Outreach to employers by the ASSE, other safety, health and environmental (SH&E) associations, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the insurance/risk management industry and the legal profession have had more of an impact on safety awareness than ever before. The thought that a shrinking union workforce will be more endangered to workplace safety and health issues because of the layoff and consolidation of a few safety positions seems a little reactionary. It may not be a good public relations move by the unions, but I do not believe that they are abandoning worker safety. I view this shift in priorities by the unions as an outcome of the evolution and influence of the SH&E profession.
A more subtle but uplifting message has been communicated to the SH&E community by this recent union move. The unions are more aware of the efforts of those in the safety community to improve workplace safety and health. I cannot imagine that the leadership of the unions sees this move as a blow to frontline worker safety and health issues. They understand that we SH&E professionals have their backs. The hard and successful work over the last few decades by those in the safety profession has created an environment in which unions feel comfortable focusing more of their energies on other urgent issues. Consolidating safety into more of a political/legislative department is a compliment to those of us who chose safety as a profession and work each day to make a difference.
This move by the unions should not be viewed as negative. It clearly demonstrates the influence and effectiveness of the SH&E community on workplace safety and health. The unions now recognize that they can spend their resources on affecting legislation and on protecting a dwindling base. The unions have recognized the growth and maturity of the SH&E profession as an effective leader and strong advocate for workplace safety. The unions have delegated back the full responsibility of worker safety and health to those who should have had this responsibility all along—the employers, employees and SH&E professionals.”
—Jeff Camplin, president of Camplin Environmental Services, Inc. and ASSE Environmental Practice Specialty Administrator
“I recall a national poll taken a few years ago. Safety in the workplace ranked second to job security in this poll. I wonder if the AFL-CIO is aware of this?”
“I believe that the AFL-CIO has made a serious error. How can they claim to represent the best interests of their members when they have no professional representation on these critical issues?
Members pay fees in return for services and information not available to them through their employer. In a time of budget cutbacks in many employer groups, the application of programs and standards more suited to the bottom line than to employee security is a major step backward for the labor movement.
Many employers are doing the right thing, but many are taking short cuts. I am not a union member or supporter, but regretfully, experience has shown that without a strong advocate for employees, things slip by, and the person hurt is the working stiff.
I am at a loss as to why the AFL-CIO would make such an irresponsible move.”
—Michael Dougherty, Canadian Registered Safety Professional (CSRP) and compliance training manager
“Unfortunately, the move does not surprise me. In many situations, I have had to deal with unions on safety issues. Any attempt to implement a disciplinary program to correct unsafe behaviors was always shot down without discussion. I applaud the unions for trying to get as much compensation and benefits for its members, but unsafe working conditions is one of the platforms upon which unions were founded, and they seem to have lost sight of this. There are still many employers who close their eyes to safety—we need the additional pressure of unions to keep employers honest.”
—Thomas Genin, Certified Safety Professional
“The AFL-CIO’s concern for safety, albeit a significant motivator of safer workplaces in its early days, has taken a back seat to the concern of securing the job for workers in spite of their individual disregard for safety. The AFL-CIO’s agenda was made clear when they stated that they were going to focus efforts and finances toward increasing membership. The question is at what cost to those employees who need the AFL-CIO to champion their cause for safety?”
—Rod Gonzalez, Safety Manager
“The labor movement got OSHA passed. If they do not even care anymore, it is a sad day for safety and health. I think this is just a further degradation of our profession into a pass through collateral duty.”
“Leadership in safety issues starts at the top, and when it comes to pushing OSHA initiatives, it is more effective coming from the AFL-CIO than from a bunch of local unions.”
“This most unfortunate and shortsighted decision made by the leaders in employee rights protection—the labor organizations—represents a serious weakening, if not capitulation, of the supposed power (and quality) of the organizations represented through the AFL-CIO. Historically, the AFL-CIO was a leading advocate of the formation of OSHA as well as other federal- and state-mandated employee safety agencies. By abandoning their position, this means that the organization values cost-cutting over safety and health—something that they have often charged industry with having committed.”
—Jim Johnson, retired safety manager and editor of the ASSE’s construction practice specialty newsletter Blueprints
“Local unions do pay into the AFL-CIO, and it does not send a good message that at the national level—the major voice for union safety—cuts have been made.”
—Jeffrey Keller, Safety Coordinator
“The AFL-CIO is an association of unions and represents the affiliated international unions—not the shop floor rank and file member.
Local unions represent individual members and international unions represent the local unions. Union members pay their dues to the local unions and expect the local union elected officers to represent their
interests through the international union.
Each local union works to provide safety on the jobsite. International unions negotiate with national corporations for improved safety and lobby legislatures at the state and local government level for improved laws.
The changes at the AFL-CIO do not indicate a reduction in union efforts to improve safety for workers. The international unions perform the major share of lobbying and services for their members while the AFL-CIO provides the means to coordinate policy and to speak on issues in which the international unions approve the AFL-CIO to become involved.
The change from four to two staff at the Washington, DC office will not make a real difference when you consider that there was only one AFL-CIO safety person when OSHA was passed, and most of the standards were adopted.
Yes, an increase in staff and funding by the AFL-CIO would have been better, but each of the affiliated international unions have more staff than the AFL-CIO, and they do an excellent job of pushing safety and representing their members.
Like all organizations, the effectiveness of the safety program is dependent on the commitment and support of the leadership. There has never been a higher degree of emphasis on safety by the local union and international union elected officers than now exists at every level of organized labor.
In the construction industry, the expansion of cooperative safety programs between unions and contractors and the efforts of contractor associations have dramatically increased the resources and accomplishments in safety.
In sum, do not place too much importance on what happens at the AFL-CIO. The very talented and committed senior staff are still in place. The unions pushing for change are the same ones that have also
been the strongest advocates for safety.
If the AFL-CIO and the union movement are strengthened by the changes, then safety will increase throughout the nation.”
—Jim Lapping, 40-year union member and 25-year employee of the AFL-CIO
“I find the elimination of the AFL-CIO safety and health department troubling. It is my hope that this was driven by economics and that it is not a reflection of a change in direction for labor and its need to help protect the safety and health of its members. If economics has required this reduction of support
workers across the board, then I understand and wish the organization well. I hope its issues are soon resolved so that they can again couple safety professionals with others who support the needs of its membership.”
—Randy McBurnett, Safety Professional
“I am dismayed. I find that there is a great need for a safety network for the rank and file. I hope they reconsider.”
—Bob Mullins, Certified Safety Professional, ASSE Member
“I believe that in both the long- and short-term, this decision will place either an unfair burden on employees for ‘transient’ workers who work out of the halls. It is very challenging to track and to ensure that all ‘temporary’ or ‘transient’ workers receive required OSHA training, especially for employees who may only work several days per month or year.
This will add additional risk and loss exposure to these affected employers.
In the printing and publishing industry, we have workers who may work four or five days per year, and it is a difficult task to ensure that we know when and where these employees work as they are hired through the union board and not by the company themselves.
Industry-wide, this has the potential to increase the responsibility of all employers within certain industries to hold roundtables with other companies within a given industry to share training records or other tracking of safety, health and environmental issues that may become a difficult and largely unfair burden.”