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Workplace Safety


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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  • Rob in CT

    I wonder. You’d think that the insurers who write the work comp policies for the various oil companies would have an interest in this too.

    It may even be that there are potentially useful reports that have been written by said insurers…

    I’ve seen such reports, though not in the work comp context (rather, general liability). Insurers are sensitive to this stuff. It’s their $ on the line (even if there is some self-insurance, there is often a point at which the insurer starts paying).

    • Barry_D

      “I wonder. You’d think that the insurers who write the work comp policies for the various oil companies would have an interest in this too.”

      No more than a function of the premiums, likelihood/severity of accidents and likelihood/amount that the workman’s comp actually has to pay out.

      Given fat profits from unsafe activities + comp system which f*cks the injured and dead over, the cost of unsafe conditions could be very, very low (to all except the workers).

  • CatoUticensis

    I think it’s really important to note that the oil companies are pushing for the right to burn their workers to death in unsafe refineries all in the name of higher profits.

  • tsam

    A lot of people don’t realize that union driven safety efforts have affected non-union trades…just like it did with compensation and limits to work hours.

    It makes me profoundly sad to watch unionism fading away. Watching members vote for Republicans over dumb shit like abortion and guns is just disgusting. Watching unions turn into a political pariah, and watching cops, firefighters, teachers and public employees get trashed by politicians and the media hasn’t been much fun.

    • Murc

      … cops and firefighters get trashed by politicians? Since when?

      Trashing the cops is a death knell to most politicians careers and trashing firefighters is a death knell to all politicians careers. The last year has seen a huge spate of high-profile police murders, many captured on film or other records, and most politicians can hardly begin to even admonish the cops, much less trash them.

      • tsam

        You’re right–unionized public sector employees is what I should have said.

    • Steve LaBonne

      Divide et impera. Not being in an optimistic mood today, I will say: It will never stop working unless Homo sapiens (yeah, right) is replaced by a more intelligent species (or much more likely, humans simply go extinct).

    • advocatethis

      I hear at least weekly from people where I work that all the union does is protect bad employees from getting fired. When I have the time and the inclination I remind them that their wages and benefits, permanent status and layoff protections, safety and other conditions of work are mostly due to the efforts of the unions, either through collective bargaining or lobbying the state legislature. It almost always fails to resonate; those things count for nothing as compared to their perception that some worker isn’t getting fired because of excessive due process rights.

      • tsam

        It’s strange, though–if you were to ask them if they would want to be arbitrarily fired because their supervisor didn’t like them, or they were accused of some misdeed and there were no procedures for proving the offense occured…I’m guessing that to a man/woman, they’d all want those protections.

        Yes, unions do make it difficult to fire someone without cause. But that’s a good thing for everyone who isn’t an asshole that wants to fire somebody for no cause. Having a procedure and standard of evidence in place also protects employers from lawsuits since they have to prove they’ve followed those procedures.

  • Murc

    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.

    Worth mentioning, Erik; in the past, unions have actually voluntarily offered to work for less (and not under pressure, either!) in exchange for defined-benefit pension plans and health care.

    That really gives the lie to “they only care about sucking the company dry” right there. No. They didn’t. They cared about being able to retire and live with dignity and not have to impose on their offspring or the state. In exchange for knowing they’d be able to draw enough money to live on until they died, be it five years twenty-five after retirement, they voluntarily accepted lower lifetime earnings.

    (And then got stabbed in the back on that, of course, but that’s a different thing.)

    • Brett

      It’s dangerous to be dependent on a company for compensation that far off. If the company goes bankrupt, you’re partially or totally fucked. That basically happened to my dad (a retiree teamster mechanic) – the fund that was paying out his health insurance and pension used to have a couple of companies paying into it, but all but his went bankrupt. They ended up having to completely cut the health insurance for retirees IIRC (he’s not old enough for Medicare yet).

      It’s only gotten worse in this economy, too.

  • Rob in CT


    Did you see this?


    Specifically the bit about the TPP?

    Like much of the rest of the article, he makes a harm reduction argument.

    And my argument is two-fold. Number one: precisely because that horse [my edit: globalization being the horse] is out of the barn, the issue we’re trying to deal with right now is, can we make for a higher bar on labor, on environmental standards, et cetera, in that region and write a set of rules where it’s fairer, because right now it’s not fair, and if you want to improve it, that means we need a new trading regime. We can’t just rely on the old one because the old one isn’t working for us.

    But the second reason it’s important is because the countries we’re negotiating with are the same countries that China is trying to negotiate with. And if we don’t write the rules out there, China’s going to write the rules. And the geopolitical implications of China writing the rules for trade or maritime law or any kind of commercial activity almost inevitably means that we will be cut out or we will be deeply disadvantaged. Our businesses will be disadvantaged, our workers will be disadvantaged. So when I hear, when I talk to labor organizations, I say, right now, we’ve been hugely disadvantaged. Why would we want to maintain the status quo? If we can organize a new trade deal in which a country like Vietnam for the first time recognizes labor rights and those are enforceable, that’s a big deal. It doesn’t mean that we’re still not going to see wage differentials between us and them, but they’re already selling here for the most part. And what we have the opportunity to do is to set long-term trends that keep us in the game in a place that we’ve got to be.

    Do you think this is a huge steaming pile of bull, or perhaps there’s something to it?

    • I am extremely skeptical. With a capital S. It is theoretically possible that an international trade system with enforceable standards could exist. But in an age where corporations are throwing off their regulatory burdens and buying off politicians, what do you think the chances are that corporations will be held accountable?

      • Rob in CT

        Fair ‘nough. I guess we’ll see.

      • tsam

        I share the skepticism. One idea I like is forcing American companies to meet US environmental and labor standards wherever they do business, and that means with contracted sovereign companies (like Foxconn, for example). I’m not sure how it could be enforced, and I’m not sure if it would actually work, but it would be a big step forward.

        • It’s what I openly advocate in Out of Sight, but I don’t see anything in the TPP that is going to require anything that looks like that.

          As far as enforcement goes, one way is to give foreign workers the right to sue in U.S. courts for enforcement and compensation when it is not.

    • Rob in CT

      By the way, no matter what you make of the TPP bit, I cannot fathom how anyone can read the full (2-part) interview and not be impressed by the level of thoughfulness on display.

  • Hob

    My only nitpick is that, in place of the blanket statement that “no one cares about workplace safety more than unions”, I would say that’s how it should be, and is a good litmus test for whether any given union is really in touch with its membership and understands the nature and conditions of their jobs. It is sometimes the case that the stereotype of it being all about money does hold true, but if so, that’s likely a sign of bad leadership.

    This is specifically from my own frustrating experience of having been in a local that had been merged into an overly broad unit of SEIU, where it seemed to me that in contract talks the union was focusing way too much on salary/benefits and way too little on workplace conditions (and tended to be dismissive of members who kept raising concerns about the latter; “why are you complaining, look how much money we’re getting you” was the general attitude), and I think that was partly because they just weren’t all that familiar with what we were doing (due to the aforementioned lumping-together of too many loosely-related locals), and were also unfortunately distracted by a tedious turf war with another union. In hindsight, of course that would’ve been a great reason for me to get more involved…

    • Certainly that can happen, yes, and I think at times the SEIU model does lend itself to the erasure of what motivates particular workplaces.

  • Marek

    Harrumph. Great post. Another good example of this is the push by RN unions in several states for safer workplace conditions.

  • Coastsider

    I’ve been reading a book called the Power of Habit and there’s an interesting section on what the author calls ‘keystone habits’ that he illustrates with a story about the time that Paul O’Neil was hired as CEO at Alcoa. He started his first shareholder meeting by stating that his goal was to go for zero injuries and make Alcoa that safest company in America. Shareholders obviously freaked out, but the book goes through why safety was so important to improving the company and within a year of his remarks on safety Alcoa had record profits.
    There’s a lot of generalization and pseudo-science in the book, but this section on Alcoa is fascinating and it’s great proof that safety can be better for a company’s bottom line because employees are safe and happy. If anyone’s interested, here’s an excerpt of this section of the book: Safety as a ‘keystone habit’

    • Bruce Vail

      I heard a similar talk by the CEO of CSX Corp. (railroads) a couple of years back. It was all couched in the language ‘better safety means better profits.’

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