COSH Around the Country: Organizing for Job Safety

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COSH Around the Country: Organizing for Job Safety

by Dan Berman

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 12, No. 4, July-August 1980, p. 11-15

This article is an updated version of an article which first appeared in C/O-Journal of Alternative Human Services, Winter 1979-80. Dan Berman works as Occupational Health Coordinator for the Oil. Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union. As director of the Occupational Health Project of the Medical Committee for Human Rights, he helped organize grassroots committees for occupational safety and health in a number of U.S. cities. He has written several pamphlets(” A Job Health and Safety Program on a Limited Budget” and “A Guide to Worker-Oriented Sources in Occupational Safety and Health”) as well as a recent book, Death on the Job, available from Monthly Review Press, 62 W. 14th St., NY, NY 10011 (reviewed in SftP, May/June 1980). 

What Is a COSH Group? 

A COSH group is a “committee on occupational safety and health.” It’s a regional coalition of workers, trade unions, and health and legal specialists. The first one was started in Chicago in January 1972 and is still thriving. At one time or another there have been over two dozen COSH groups: San Diego, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Pittsburgh, Ashland (Kentucky), New Haven (Connecticut), St. Louis, Houston and other places. Currently the most active groups are in Chicago, New York, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The Brown Lung Associations in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia are similar to COSH groups in many ways, though they have concentrated on getting workers’ compensation benefits for (mostly) non-union workers who suffer from byssinosis or “brown lung” disease, which workers acquire by breathing cotton dust. 

How Are COSH Groups Formed? 

CACOSH, the Chicago Area Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, was initiated by a few people working with the Chicago Chapter of the Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR). The national chairperson of MCHR was Dr. Quentin Young, the personal physician to many of the reform-minded labor leaders in Chicago. He introduced a young doctor, Don Whorton, to some of these leaders, and Don and others went on to organize a conference on occupational safety and health co-sponsored by a number of union locals, the University of Illinois School of Medicine, some regional union leaders, and the Chicago chapter of MCHR. The conference was held on a Friday night and Saturday, so that working people could attend. About 180 people showed up at the conference, where a “continuation committee” was chosen which ultimately became CACOSH. 

In Philadelphia there had been attempts to form a group to act on occupational safety and health since the early 1970s, when the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) came into effect. The efforts centered around the local MCHR chapter, but none were successful until Rick Engler came to town. He had worked closely with Tony Mazzochi, a leader of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers (OCAW), on building public support for the 1974 Shell strike, in which one of the principal issues was occupational health. Engler was  also writing a pamphlet on the hazards of petroleum refining when he moved to Philadelphia with the intention of getting an industrial job. But after 40 or 50 job rejections he decided to work full-time on health and safety organizing for as long as his money held out. His apartment soon became the center of such activity in the city. 

During the spring and summer of 1975, Engler and some of the earlier MCHR group held educational meetings primarily for health-technical people, in order to identify a support cadre for the proposed group. In the autumn of 1975 the new group, now called PhilaPOSH, the Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety and Health, held a nine-session health and safety course designed primarily for industrial workers. Thirty workers from over 20 local unions attended these sessions. Attendance was high partly because PhilaPOSH was able to borrow the mailing list of a local labor-university extension school, and the group took off from there. 

MassCOSH, the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, was the outgrowth of the Job Safety and Health Project of Urban Planning Aid (UPA), a federally-funded think tank and organizing group left over from President Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” UPA had managed to slip health and safety into its program, and in 1969 a couple of people from UPA helped form a safety committee at a General Electric plant near Boston organized by the International Electrical Workers Local 201, the biggest union shop in Massachusetts. UPA helped set up an accident reporting system and gave educational sessions on particular hazards, and soon spread its program to other unions. They were the chief force behind the rejection of Massachusetts’ takeover of federal OSHA enforcement. (Although the OSHA law provides for optional state takeover of enforcement, almost without exception state enforcement is weaker than federal enforcement, and so the labor movement has fought state takeover.) UPA also started an excellent newsletter, Survival Kit, and wrote a number of illustrated pamphlets on health and safety. By the middle ’70s it became clear that the federal government might cut off funds for UPA, so the safety and health group decided to try to create an independent state-wide coalition on safety and health. Almost 300 people participated in the founding convention of MassCOSH in the spring of 1976, and the group has had an active if precarious existence ever since. 

Why Are COSH Groups Necessary? 

If anything is to improve occupational health and safety it will happen at the point of production. Regional committees on safety and health are necessary because they support struggles on the shop floor. Some unions have been reluctant to train rank-and-file workers in health and safety, and the COSH groups fill the  gap. Even unions which teach annual or semi-annual training sessions find it difficult to arrange local technical and political support on a daily or weekly basis, or to accurately monitor OSHA enforcement by the local government bureaucracies. The COSH groups have been able to provide volunteer technical support from physicians, industrial hygenists, engineers, noise experts, and lawyers to the daily health and safety struggles on the shop floor. COSH groups have also been very successful in building mass media interest and public support for stricter enforcement of the OSHA law. For instance, the Cement, Line, and Gypsum Workers, with only 60,000 members nationally, has only one part-time health and safety specialist. He can’t possibly cover all the cases where help may be needed, and routinely advises member’s to contact a COSH group whenever possible. 

Industry has the National Safety Council and professional societies for its health and safety technicians which are organized by chapters in the major industrial centers. It seems only logical that workers and unions should have their own local health and safety institutions. The enthusiastic response by local unionists to COSH groups shows that there is a real demand for local support. Though national unions were initially ambivalent about the COSH groups, there is an increasing awareness of their usefulness, and an increasing respect for their capacity to help in health and safety struggles. The COSH groups are part of a national effort to create a grass-roots movement around the issue of job health and safety. 

What Do COSH Groups Actually Do? 

One of the most important COSH actiVIties is to hold courses and sponsor conventions, either for a group of workers in a particular industry, or for individual union locals. For example, in late 1972 CACOSH held a five-session course on health and safety for District 7 of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW). Typically, such courses will begin with a discussion of the different routes by which toxins can enter the body. Often there will be an explanation of lung function and the causes of the most deadly occupational respiratory diseases such as black lung and asbestosis. Frequently, there will be a discussion of stress and its relationahip to speed-up, authoritarian management styles, and workers’ lack of control over worker conditions. Instead of shaming “careless” or “stupid” workers for accidents or occupational diseases, COSH groups generally focus on management’s responsibility for creating the conditions which cause mishaps. At such courses, workers and lawyers discuss their experiences with the OSHA law and how it can be used to their best advantage. Recently (March 1980), the Women’s Committee of MassCOSH sponsored a conference entitled “Women’s Work, Women’s Health,” at which over 300 workers and health/technical personnel shared their experiences and information. 

The COSH groups also lobby for a variety of goals. In the state of Illinois CACOSH led a campaign to get workers’ compensation payments for partial hearing loss, and also helped defeat the Illinois state plan to pre-empt federal enforcement of the OSHA law. PhilaPOSH has started a nation-wide “right-to-know” campaign which has been supported by all the COSH groups and many of the local and regional and national unions. The “right-to-know” forces are pressuring the OSHA administration to pass a regulation which gurantees to workers the right to know the chemical names and hazards associated with all substances used in the workplace. This is the first issue in which there has been national cooperation between the different COSH groups. Dr. Eula Bingham, the head of OSHA, has promised to pass such a regulation as quickly as possible. The COSH groups have naturally been in the forefront of the battle against Senator Schweiker’s “Occupational Safety and Health Improvement Act of 1979”, a misnamed bill (reflecting today’s 1984-style newspeak) which would, if passed, make it impossible for workers to call in government inspectors. They have sponsored rallies, pickets, and newspaper ads and the chances of defeating the Schweiker bill seem good. 

Within the workplace, the COSH groups have helped form local union safety committees and given them orientation and advice on specific problems, often when no one else was willing or able to help. Typically, one member of the health-technical committee becomes the liaison to a particular union local, after appropriate orientation by more experienced COSH participants. The COSH groups see the workplace safety committees as the basic unit of struggle over working conditions. 

Who Belongs to COSH Groups? 

COSH groups have followed one of two membership strategies. Most groups provide for both individual and union memberships. For example, individuals can belong to PhilaPOSH for $6 a year, while unions can become sponsors of the organization by contributing 10 cents per member per year, with a minimum of $50 and a maximum of $200 per local. Sponsors get special rates for services and training programs. CACOSH has a comparable dues structure. Sponsorship by local unions makes the COSH group a part of the union scene, and forces COSH activists to justify requests for funds before local union executive boards. In contrast, BACOSH (in the San Francisco Bay area) never made a provision for sponsorship by union locals, and individual dues rose to $12 a year. 

How Do COSH Groups Relate to Unions? 

Successful COSH groups have made it a point to work closely with unions, since unions are the only organized groups capable of dealing with health and safety issues. A principle reason for the failure of COSH groups has been their inability to establish working relationships with unions. The fault, however, has been mutual. 

On the one hand, some of the middle class health-technical people who have been active in starting COSH groups learned their politics in the 60s and 70s. They have had little interest in or understanding of how unions work. Some COSH groups have tried to by-pass official union structures and work directly with so-called rank-and-file groups: they believed that unions are so corrupt and closely tied to the bosses that dealing with them is a waste of time. But none of these “anti-structure” COSH groups has survived. 

Consciously by-passing elected union officials is tantamount to dual unionism. In 1975, COSH organizing in St. Louis failed because the group was split between those who refused to work with union leadership and others who believed that working with unions was the only possible way to go. Distrust of the unions by the original BACOSH, symbolized by their unwillingness to provide for local union membership, was a major factor in that group’s demise. Out of the 300 or so local unions in a city like San Francisco, only 5 or 10 have viable rank-and-file movements at any one time: such movements are so pressed for mere survival that they have little time for health and safety, unless that issue created the movement in the first place. 

The quickest way to destroy a COSH group is for it to denounce all union leadership in the name of a self-appointed “rank-and-file.” This gives the union leadership, usually reluctant to act on health and safety, the perfect excuse to denounce the COSH group. As a practical matter, COSH groups usually give aid to any workers asking for help on health and safety, but COSH groups should concentrate on health and safety issues and not meddle in internal union affairs. 

On the other hand, business unionism is notoriously impervious to new ideas which might agitate the rank-and-file. It has been difficult to form COSH groups in many cities because they lack industrial unions with a recent tradition of rank-and-file democracy. In Pittsburgh. headquarters of the United Steelworkers of America, the international union in 1972-73 saw PACOSH (Pittsburgh Area Committee for Occupational Safety and Health) as a potentially disruptive force which they might be unable to control: they discouraged Steelworker locals from giving PACOSH organizers the support they sought. As a result many PACOSH organizers became discouraged and quit the organization to work on reforming their own unions. Perhaps it has been easier to form COSH groups in Chicago and Philadelphia because they are large cities with strong union movements and a high concentration of dangerous industrial plants. 

Many COSH Groups have established good working relationships with unions. The boards of directors of the COSH groups in Chicago, Massachusetts, and Philadelphia are dominated by local union leaders or members. As COSH groups have matured and as more unions have become concerned about health and safety issues, relationships between many COSH groups and unions have been strengthened. The national Steelworkers health and safety staff has begun to emphasize the importance of rank-and-file education in health and safety, a primary COSH strategy. During the last year or so the international has worked cooperatively with CACOSH in Chicago. In St. Louis a new COSH organizing effort is beginning with union collaboration and a new BACOSH is forming in the San Francisco Bay area. 

What Is The Basic Constituency For These COSH Groups?

 If new ways of thinking and acting are to spread, people have to meet others with the same interests and problems. National union staffs can rarely provide this sense of solidarity in struggle. For some unionists, COSH groups are the only place they can meet and work together with rank-and-file leaders from other unions, or deal with professionals and intellectuals on a cooperative basis. COSH groups can overcome the tremendous isolation of people who are interested in health and safety on the workplace floor. In addition, for rank-and-file workers, health and safety is one of the few areas where they can legitimately struggle for new power over the company and develop leadership experience. 

Theoretically local unions and local safety committee members are the backbones of COSH groups. But it turns out that most of the organizational shitwork is done by members of the health-technical committee. For the health-technical people, the COSH group is their primary organization: for the workers their own union comes first. If a mailing has to go out, the health-technical people — often students or professionals — see that it gets done. 

Rank-and-file union activists are usually extremely busy. In addition to working at least 40 hours a week for the company, they have to spend time on union business and with their families. To commit extra hours every week to building a COSH group isn’t easy. Unless there is a specific problem in health and safety or they are from a large local which can afford to maintain them full-time, activists from the unions can best help a COSH group by teaching the health-technical people about the realities of industrial work, by encouraging their local unions to pay COSH dues, or by serving on the COSH group’s Board of Directors. For many health-technical people — nurses, MDs, industrial hygienists, lawyers — the major political activity has been with the COSH groups. Such people have been happy to find a way to put their professional skills to work in a progressive context which helps workers fight back. Without their donated skills, the COSH groups couldn’t exist. They are as essential as union support. A COSH group which hires two staffers should make sure that one can mobilize the unions and the other the health-technical people. 

How Have These COSH Groups Been Financed? 

Money has always been a problem. CACOSH in Chicago has gotten most of its money the hard way and the best way, through local union membership dues and from sympathetic professionals. Though it has been impossible to support full-time staff on the money brought in from this fundraising, many people active in the organization oppose a search for foundation money, which would tend to make CACOSH too independent of its natural constituency in the unions. Through tacit understandings, students and staff of the University of Illinois School of Public Health have been able to devote substantial time to CACOSH. 

PhilaPOSH has raised most of its money from local foundations and church groups. This income has made it possible to pay staff salaries commensurate with wages from unionized industrial work. A financial summary of the year 1976 shows that of a total PhilaPOSH income of $19,000, 63 percent came from foundations or churches. In 1977, 82% of a total income of $43,000 came from comparable sources. PhilaPOSH now employs three full-time staffers: Rick Engler; Jim Moran, a former UAW shop steward who was fired illegally from his job because of vigorous health and safety activity; and Mary Aull, a former organizer for a hospital workers’ union. Without the foundation grants it would have been impossible to pay Jim Moran a living salary, since he has a family which depends on his income. Jim’s experience of over 20 years as an industrial worker, including many years as a shop steward, has been invaluable in the recent development of PhilaPOSH. He was responsible for the group’s expansion across the river to New Jersey, and he effectively counterbalances the hasty anxiety of some of the younger members of the organization. There are advantages to having a large income, at least in the short run. With full-time staff it is much easier to create new programs and carry them out. One of the problems with getting grants from foundations and churches is that they require a great deal of paperwork and a tremendous amount of time “selling” the program to funding sources, which drains away time from the real work of the COSH groups. 

Since 1978, several COSH groups have gotten substantial grants from the OSHA administration under Eula Bingham’s much praised “New Directions” program. So far these grants, designed to run for 5 years, have enabled the recipient groups to greatly expand their activities without toning down their fighting spirit. But unless new funding sources are developed which are independent of government, much of the COSH movement’s activities will self-destruct like the “War on Poverty” programs of the late ’60s when the easy government money runs out. The COSH movement must constantly build its base among the unions and the rankand-file. 

How Have The COSH Groups Dealt With Unorganized Workers? 

The Electronics Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (ECOSH) has raised the issue of health and safety among the tens of thousands of unorganized electronics workers, mostly minority and immigrant women, in the Santa Clara Valley down the peninsula from San Francisco. They have fielded hundreds of information requests, published hazard sheets, done seminars, and received some good press coverage. The long-term plan is to create a consciousness about work hazards and the need for a unionized workforce. 

Since ECOSH is not a union, government health and safety agencies have refused to consider it the official bargaining agent and thus won’t allow it to file complaints on behalf of electronics workers. Some unionists argue that to support health and safety struggles among non-unionized workers fosters dangerous illusions in the working class about government. A successful inspection (which results in the removal of hazards) conveys to unorganized workers the message that the government will solve their problems and that a union is superfluous. An unsuccessful inspection — the most common kind — often leads to the firing of activists and creates a sense of helplessness about the possibilities of change. Unfortunately, health and safety is only one of many issues, and usually not the only one, which can trigger a successful organizing drive. Clearly the issues of health and safety cannot be separated from the other issues which affect the working class. 

What Is The Future Of The COSH Groups? 

I think they will be around and fighting for a long time.

The addresses of most of the COSH groups were listed in the resources section of the March/April issue of SftP. Some additional groups are listed below. 

Brown Lung Association-Greenville Chapter
P.O. Box 334
Greenville, South Carolina 29604
(803) 235-2886 

Maryland Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (MaryCOSH)
P.O. Box 3825
Baltimore. Maryland 21217
(George Vlasits at (301) 467-2606 (evenings) edits the newsletter) 

Santa Clara County Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (SantaCOSH) (which includes the Electronics Committee for Occupational Safety and Health-ECOSH)
655 Castro St.
Mountain View, CA 94041
(415) 969-7233 

Tennessee Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (TENNCOSH)
c/o Center for Health Services
Station B
Vanderbilt Medical School
Nashville, Tenn. 37235
(615) 322-4773 


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