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Workplace Safety

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One of things that drives me really crazy is when people talk about unions only in terms of financial gain. While workers (or anyone) will never turn down more money, unions are not primarily about money. They are about dignity on the job and worker power to have a say in their work life. To achieve that dignity and that voice, workers may very well want higher wages. But they may also want shorter hours, better equipment, a break for lunch, not to have to provide their own clothing or safety equipment, and an end to arbitrary firings, just to name a few of the issues workers have fought for in the past and/or fight for in the present.

Central to these demands is workplace safety. The United Steelworkers went on strike last week against the oil industry, in large part over workplace safety issues. Steelworkers president Leo Gerard:

In Anacortes, Wash., last week, approximately 200 Tesoro workers began picketing the oil refinery where an explosion incinerated seven of their co-workers five years earlier.

Butch Cleve walks that picket line, serving now as strike captain for the USW local union at Tesoro. On the day of the catastrophe in 2010, Cleve walked the coroner to the shrouded bodies of three of his friends.

Steve Garey, who helped make the decision to strike as a member of the USW’s oil bargaining policy committee, wept repeatedly that April day five years ago as he told the relatives of his dead friends that their loved ones would never come home.

Kim Nibarger, a USW health and safety specialist, suffered flashbacks of an earlier blast as he investigated the one at Tesoro. He was an operator in 1998 at the refinery adjacent to Tesoro in Anacortes when a massive detonation instantly cremated six of his co-workers.

The Tesoro strikers are among more than 5,000 USW members nationwide on unfair labor practice strikes demanding corporations respect their bargaining rights and the rights of workers and communities to safety.

Over the past two negotiation cycles, the USW’s 30,000 refinery and chemical workers struggled to persuade their highly profitable employers to include strong safety language in the collective bargaining agreements. The deaths at Tesoro, as well as fatalities, injuries, explosions, fires and toxic releases at other plants nationwide since then, demonstrate that the measures didn’t go far enough. Now refinery and chemical workers are trying to increase the odds that they aren’t killed at work and that their communities aren’t engulfed in flames or fumes.

No one cares more about workplace safety than unions. Sometimes, unions care more about workplace safety than the workers themselves, as at times work cultures develop that connect masculinity, tradition, and workplace danger in what can be a toxic combination that creates tensions between union safety officers and the rank and file. When unions and workers are on the same page though, it can create a powerful motivation for workplace action, including strikes. With the oil industry so dangerous, the need for action is very real. Hopefully, this strike and the bad publicity the oil industry so wants to avoid will force the companies to make concessions that make work safe.

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