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Overview of the AFL-CIO’s Decision to Eliminate its Safety & Health Department

By Jolinda Cappello

In response to numerous member inquiries, the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) compiled this article from several online news sources to provide members with a factual overview of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization’s (AFL-CIO) recent decision to lay off 167 employees and to eliminate its own safety and health department.

The ASSE takes no position on the AFL-CIO’s decision.

On May 17, 2005, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO) laid off 167 employees, or one third of its workforce, and eliminated its safety and health department. Two of the four-member safety and health department staff, Director Peg Seminario and Bill Kojola, will remain, but they will be absorbed into a new government affairs department. Overall, 106 positions have been removed, and 61 new positions will be created.

The AFL-CIO claims that this reorganization will increase the labor movement’s impact, productivity and membership and will better serve the needs of U.S. workers in the long term. It also asserts that the change is not indicative of the organization’s budget. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney plans to use this change to allocate more resources to organizing and politics.

However, union representatives and proponents of workers’ rights believe that by eliminating the safety and health department, the AFL-CIO has shown that it no longer supports workers’ safety and health. Safety on the job remains a primary concern of U.S. workers, and the AFL-CIO’s safety and health department has always spoken on behalf of organized labor when addressing national safety and health issues. Opponents of the AFL-CIO’s reorganization argue that without the safety and health department, workers will have no central voice in Washington to defend them.

Rob McGarrah, an AFL-CIO safety and health department employee who lost his job during the reorganization, specializes in workers’ compensation. McGarrah believes that the cutbacks within the AFL-CIO will hinder workers’ ability to be compensated fairly if they are injured at work. He feels that without the proper resources and expertise of the AFL-CIO safety and health department, unions will be unable to fight the insurance industry at the political level.

Peg Seminario understands that the reorganization will force affiliated unions to bear more when working for safety and health issues at the local, state and national levels. And although the AFL-CIO and unions will remain committed to workplace safety, Seminario says that some issues will falter because of the lack of resources.

This reorganization comes at a time when the strength of the AFL-CIO appears to be in decline. Only 12.5% of the entire U.S. workforce belongs to unions, and union membership continues to decrease since labor industries do not employ as many workers as they did in the past.

Sweeney and his allies plan to increase spending for political mobilization and for organizing new members. His challengers, however, ask that the AFL-CIO:

  1. Oversee the activities of member unions.
  2. Return $44 million in annual dues to unions that have strong organizing programs.
  3. Merge unions that work within the same industry.

Other challengers suggest that unions must try to stimulate recruitment again, which they believe can be more effectively accomplished under new leadership. But no matter who is chosen the next AFL-CIO president this July, many feel that the AFL-CIO should be more involved in membership drives to influence public policy and to intensify the labor movement.

Workers’ rights advocates propose that the AFL-CIO safety and health department be reinstated and expanded, which could help affiliates to develop programs that concentrate on safety and health concerns. Advocates also suggest that:

  1. Unions organize grassroots political action campaigns.
  2. AFL-CIO leadership and unions should allocate the appropriate resources for these campaigns.
  3. AFL-CIO affiliates’ dues should be reduced if they agree to donate part of their budget to organizing.
  4. Unions membership should be made more significant to workers.

The AFL-CIO’s decision is met with mixed reaction in the safety, health and environmental (SH&E) community. Some contest that this reflects a negative shift in priorities—one that will compromise future working conditions.

Jordan Barab, a former Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) official who also spent 18 years working on safety and health issues within the labor movement, feels that the AFL-CIO’s decision contradicts its mission to provide safe and healthy working conditions for workers. “Working conditions, particularly safety and health conditions, are major reasons why workers join unions,” says Barab. “It seems contradictory for a labor movement that wants to grow to devalue a major organizing issue,” he adds.

The message that the AFL-CIO’s decision sends to union workers and governmental agencies is of particular concern to Gene Barfield, president of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE). “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,” Barfield asserts.

Jim Johnson, a retired safety manager and editor of the ASSE’s construction practice specialty newsletter Blueprints, also feels that the decision goes against the principles for which the AFL-CIO has always stood. “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,” notes Johnson.

Michael Dougherty, a Canadian Registered Safety Professional (CSRP) and compliance training manager, believes that the AFL-CIO has made a serious mistake. “How can they claim to represent the best interests of their members when they have no professional representation on these critical issues?” he asks.

Yet other SH&E professionals contend that worker safety and health will not suffer under the restructured AFL-CIO and that these changes will instead strengthen the labor movement.

Jeff Camplin, president of Camplin Environmental Services, Inc. and ASSE Environmental Practice Specialty Administrator, believes that the impact of the AFL-CIO’s decision “may be more of a public relations fiasco rather than a blow to worker safety and health.” “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,” says Camplin.

“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,” he adds.

Jim Lapping, a 40-year union member and 25-year employee of the AFL-CIO, explains that the AFL-CIO “is an association of unions that represents the affiliated international unions and not the shop floor rank and file members.”

According to Lapping, “The changes at the AFL-CIO do not indicate a reduction in union efforts to improve worker safety. 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 effectiveness of safety programs depends on the commitment and support of the leadership. Do not place too much importance on what happens at the AFL-CIO. The very talented and committed senior staff is still in place, and the unions that are 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.”

No one can predict exactly how the AFL-CIO’s decision will affect U.S. workers and unions. However, workers are still entitled to a safe and healthy workplace, and they depend on labor unions to protect this right. Despite the elimination of the AFL-CIO’s safety and health department, it is hoped that unions, and ultimately workers, will continue to receive fair representation at the national level.

Works Consulted

“Ax Falls on AFL-CIO Safety and Health Department.” Industrial Safety and Hygiene News Online, 6 May 2005: Industry News.

Barab, Jordan. “An Open Letter to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney on the Elimination of the AFL-CIO Safety and Health Department,” Confined Space, http://spewingforth.blogspot.com/, 11 May 2005.

Coyne, Brendan. “Labor Federation Cuts Jobs, Shifts Priorities, Raises Hopes, Concerns.” The NewStandard, 17 May 2005.

Edsall, Thomas B. “Dissident Unions Propose AFL-CIO Reorganization.” The Washington Post, 17 May 2005: E02.

Gerstein, Josh. “AFL-CIO Workers Find They Are Not Immune to Pink Slips.” The New York Sun, 4 May 2005: National Section, 6.

Tasani, Jonathan. Working Life, http://workinglife.typepad.com.