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Report from Worker-Oriented Health & Safety Projects
by New Haven Occupational Health and Safety Collective, Judy Day, & Joel Swartz
I. New Haven
Introduction—The Need for Action
The New Haven Occupational Health and Safety Project is a collective of professionals and students who have been working around issues of workers’ health in southern Connecticut since 1972. In this article we have discussed our approach, stressing one role highly skilled people can play in the fight for worker control of the workplace.
Each day working people in this country enter unsafe and unhealthful workplaces, risking a myriad of occupational diseases as well as disabling accidents. Each year 15,000 people are killed on the job while two million are permanently disabled. Studies of workers exposed to asbestos, vinyl chloride and coal demonstrate that we know very little about the debilitating often fatal diseases which develop years after initial exposure to dangerous substances. Half the workers in the United States are exposed to known toxic substances while new, untested compounds are being introduced into the workplace at the rate of one every twenty minutes.
We have experienced popular movements around the war in Viet Nam and the general state of the environment while death, disease, and pollution at the nation’s jobsites have been virtually ignored. Although middle-class people are not free from exposure to occupational hazards, they have not been forced to endure the most severe hardships. The war was brought into our living rooms via TV, but conditions in industry and the lives of many working people remain distant from us. Class separation in our society directly prevents students and professionals from developing the personal relationships that lead to an appreciation of working people’s experiences on the job.
What part can progressive professionals and students take in promoting substantive change? The answer depends on one’s analysis of conditions and one’s concept of potential relationships between professional and worker, as well as one’s definition of workers’ health. In the pages that follow we shall discuss our views and our experiences in the New Haven Occupational Health and Safety Project, a collective which has been working in southern Connecticut for the last three years.
Occupational Health and Safety in a Socio-Economic Context
Occupational health amid safety is not an isolated issue, it is intimately related to our society’s level of technology and to the nature of the socio-economic system. The health of American workers is an example of the basic contradictions of our society, elucidating the power of corporations, the subsidiary and permissive role of government, and the lack of workers’ control over their own lives. While it is important to management that the worker be ambulatory, sober, and productive, worker health and comfort is clearly not a priority.
Approaches to occupational-health problems usually emphasize medical and scientific aspects of the issue, calling for more epidemiologic and chemical research. While there is a great need for further investigations, research alone will not effect change.
The standards set for hazards in this country are often inconsistent with research data. For example, in 1968, under the Johnson Administration, the Labor Department recommended that the allowable noise level for an eight-hour day be lowered from 90 decibels to 85 decibels (since decibels are logarithmic this actually is a factor of three), the latter being more consistent with scientific findings on noise levels which do not lead to loss of hearing. The Nixon Administration yielded to corporate pressure and blocked an attempt to raise the standard. We see that research alone is a weak weapon against government and big business.
Our approach to health is directed at the crucial struggle to eliminate the proven causes of chronic injury, disease and early death currently found in the workplace. This will only be achieved by investing the energy and resources necessary to prevent hazards and redefining priorities to build a safe, healthful and. dignified environment where workers determine the policies which affect their health. Organizing around health issues can provide a pivotal focus for workers, students and professionals to accomplish workers’ control of their jobs.
Options for Involvement by Professionals and Students
Three major options are open to radical professionals and students. We can decide that the most positive contribution would be to provide the results of scientific research. This would provide resources necessary for worker organizations in their negotiations with management and their struggle to gain more control over the factors affecting their health. A second alternative is to use research findings to pressure for legislative action to improve conditions. This is the approach taken by many professionals, including the Nader groups. Questionably, it assumes that a few well meaning professionals can tackle situations which are considered bad as a result of mere neglect rather than as the outcome of a general anti-worker policy. The third alternative calls for direct alliances with working people and participation in their political structures. We believe a strong movement of working people is a source of change. But management will ignore weak pleas of scientific facts not to their advantage. An alliance with working people offers the single opportunity for our collective and other people with advanced skills to affect meaningful changes in the area of occupational health.
Formation, Membership and Structure of the New Haven Collective
Our collective was formed in 1972, evolving as a group of people with experience in the Medical Committee for Human Rights and other projects involved with occupational health in the region. Then, as now, the membership consisted primarily of students and professionals in medicine, public health, law and the social sciences. The issues of structure and strategy confronted the group from the outset. Considering structure, some members favored a Naderlike approach which would utilize a full-time paid staff. Such a group, it was felt, could effectively research technical questions, initiate and maintain worker contacts, and provide medical and legal assistance, while a larger group could serve as a funding conduit and advisory body. The implicit philosophy of this structure, that change could result from stepped-up services to workers, was not shared by other members who felt that a basis of collective work would be a better way to work in occupational health. Eventually we concluded that the occupational-health collective must participate in a movement for worker control over the work environment in order to be productive. An integrated group committed to collective efforts with working people m New Haven was the structure most consistent with our political aims.
Affiliation With Central Labor Council—An Inadequate Approach
The New Haven Occupational Health and Safety Project (NHOHSP) recognized that contact with local unions provided an efficient route to involvement with health issues at the workplace. Initial contacts with the labor community brought open encouragement which resulted in the group’s forming a formal affiliation with the Central Labor Council of the AFL-CIO of Greater New Haven. This recognition stimulated many requests for help. In some cases NHOHSP provided straightforward legal, medical or technical information or assisted people in obtaining some enforcement of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act as a remedy to obvious and uncomplicated problems. It soon became clear that this type of activity was inadequate if the group was to establish ongoing relationships with unions to tackle serious health and political problems. Our contact with the local painters union provided an opportunity to move in a new direction.
A New Direction—Contact With Union Members
For several years, the painters had been plagued by jobs requiring the application of epoxy~based paints and the dangerous solvents necessary to mix them. Rising unemployment in the building trades forced increasing numbers of the union membership to take epoxy jobs, often in poorly ventilated spaces. They suffered from skin rashes nausea vomitting, respiratory difficulties as well as the realization that they would have to exchange inevitable sick days for a few days’ wages. The law, with no standards for the compounds in question, and ineffectual inspectors who only cited trivial sanitary violations on the job sites during inspections, provided no remedy. In an attempt to improve the situation a safety committee of union leadership, rank-and-file union members and several members of NHOHSP was formed. Over the course of a year this committee worked to mobilize the anger of the membership into strategies for action. Direct bargaining with architects and contractors, new clauses in the union contract and job actions were considered as possible tactics. Unfortunately, many of these ambitious tactics were incompatible with the deepening recession and the waning political and economic strength of the union. As the momentum in organizing around epoxy toxicity was fading, a drastic reduction in production of epoxy-based paints was forced on the industry by the oil embargo. But even though resolution of the problem came from outside the work of the safety committee, members of the painters union and NHOHSP alike felt that new strength and political education had been gained by the struggle.
Experience With Local 1199
Our experience with Local 1199, the hospital workers, serves as another illustration of our work. The union leadership contacted us to help evaluate a heat problem in a hospital’s kitchens. The temperature level was causing frequent fainting and generally uncomfortable and unsafe conditions during summer months. NHOHSP urged that the union form a health and safety committee to focus complaints, research the problem and devise workable tactics. This committee was organized and proceeded to educate the membership on general issues as well as stop-gap measures for dealing with the heat. Members of 1199 and NHOHSP monitored worksites and prepared a detailed grievance calling for better ventilation and improved safe work practices. (While air conditioning could provide a total answer to the heat problem, the union felt it was not a feasible demand.) The grievance resulted in some improvements in the conditions in the kitchens. More importantly, the educational process and the mobilization to confront the hospital management on health and safety issues established the union as an effective bargaining agent and placed it in a stronger position to deal with management.
Recent Activities—Effects of the Depression
Much of NHOHSP’s recent activity has centered on educational projects with working people which include the biological, legal and political aspects of occupational health and safety. We offered an eighteen-hour course which attracted thirty trade unionists from ten New Haven locals. The course stressed self-education and transfer of information and strategies among members of different organizations tions as well as the training of. this small group to work with others around health and safety issues.
In the last twelve months many of the intensive projects with local unions have slackened as unions retrench to fight for bread and butter issues. NHOHSP has found itself in the difficult position of contacting locals, urging them to take a strong stand against growing governmental and corporate efforts to reverse recent gains in the area of workers’ health. We have stepped up our educational work and continue to provide specific services to area locals. Funding from a local church group with a strong interest in the area of workers’ health and safety has enabled our group to open an office, acquire testing equipment and enlarge its library and files.
Summary and Self-Criticism
Insofar as any political approach to occupational health demands a link with the labor community, our initial activities have been relatively successful. While the work of the group has been useful and important to the development of union and NHOHSP members, personal and class barriers between group people and unionists have not been adequately attacked. Nor have we ever used occupational health as a direct organizing vehicle. The group has become critical of the crisis-oriented basis of its work with unions and is putting greater emphasis on strong on-going ties.
A group that desires a stable existence needs firm local roots, a meaningful ideological base and a viable methodology. It is probable that NHOHSP will continue to attract people from the “Vietnamized” radical professional ranks with limited tenure in New Haven and heavy time commitments elseWhere. While the group can continue to do broad-based educational work, it lacks the resources for many organizing efforts. It seems preferable to build local contacts by concentrating on organizing politically sensitive workplaces where actions will be economically important and widely noticed, and where they can serve as models of fights for worker control in New Haven. It is important that the group learn to balance this type of work with general education and time spent in internal group processes. The realization that NHOHSP has something to share and much to learn has been exhilarating, but the group has learned that educational approaches alone serve to intensify class differences between workers and. professionals. In contrast, concrete problem solving and political successes have unified and energized the group.
Occupational health work must be seen as part of an overall workers’ strategy in which radical professionals (such as the members of the New Haven Occupational Health and Safety Project) realize that progress is in the hands of working people and choose to use their time and skills accordingly. Workers’ health, a vast problem in this industrialized country, has been ignored by corporations, government, and the scientific community. It has been difficult for progressive professionals, separated by class differences and sheltered from the reality of the situation, to work productively in this area. NHOHSP tries to develop strategies based on the understanding that change will result from a political rather than a purely technological solution. In practice, the group aims to facilitate and strengthen workers’ efforts to gain control over their own lives.
New Haven Occupational Health and Safety Collective
II. St. Louis
On Mayday of last year, I started to work as the only full-time staff person for the Workers’ Health and Safety Project1 in St. Louis. WHASP carne into being after months of hard work and planning by a handful of people who saw that blue-collar workers play a crucial role in society but have very little power over how that role is performed. Those who conceived the project became aware of occupational health and safety as an emerging issue of great concern to working people. Health and safety conditions, in their present horrendous state, are in the control of bosses. Fighting to improve these conditions means challenging the way bosses run the workplace, which is a pretty basic challenge. Winning such a fight is a concrete step towards the control of the work environment by the workers.
Ideally, WHASP saw its role in these fights as supportive rather than initiating. WHASP was to be a resource center providing medical, scientific and legal information and assistance to rank-and-file workers struggling to improve health and safety conditions on the job. I say “ideally” because such a role assumes contact with groups of rank-and-file workers who are engaged in such struggles and who want the support of an outside resource. The reality on May 1st, 1974 was that I had just been hired to develop our resources and, most importantly, to fmd people who wanted to use them.
There are things to be learned from the WHASP experience of one year. This article will describe some of the problems we’ve had in our efforts to bring resources to rank-and-file workers (called “outreach”), and how our own organization has developed.
During the first year of WHASP’s existence, our major problem was defining “Who are we?”. WHASP had come into being through the combined efforts of many people, but the key figures were four movement activists. I was aware of the project but had had no active input before being hired as the only full-time staff person. When I started, a Task Force was formed made up of a few scientific and medical volunteers and people mostly concerned with outreach. The core group was myself and the four people who had written the original proposal, plus three other activists. One volunteer had previous technical experience with occupational health, while two of us had worked with unions or had contact with rank-and-file workers.
In presenting ourselves to the outside world, we faced problems. For example, in drawing up a brochure describing the project, I set up an “us-them” dichotomy between the project and the workers we hoped to reach. This dichotomy was disturbing to one other Task Force member, who felt the brochure should refer to “us” as workers, so that workers might identify the project as their own, as an entity in their control.
Our credibility among workers and unions was another problem related to the “who are we?” question. People wanted to know who we were and why we were doing this. My explanation was usually accepted by unionists: we are a service group that is part of the American Friends Service Committee, the “social service” branch of the Quaker religion. The missionaryism of that reply was not to my liking, but the fact is that in that first year we did not really try to devise a means for workers to become active members of our project. It really was “us” and “them”.
Some other health and safety projects around the country, notably the various “ACOSHes”2, are organizations which include workers. They were started partly through union locals which were progressive enough to work actively in health and safety, recognizing it as an issue of control of the workplace. This course was rejected by the people who conceived WHASP, primarily because they wanted it to be a rank-and-file project, and they feared that in St. Louis3 a close identification with unions would keep away workers who were alienated by their unions’ conservatism. On the other hand, rank-and-file workers were not included by the organizers of WHASP because they felt that workers’ time could better be spent organizing in the workplace than in meetings outside the workplace.
So WHASP has not been an organization with g.eat worker participation. Of course, whenever we dealt with workers it was they, the workers, that determined what action would be taken in their situation; but that’s not the same as having rank-and-file participation in WHASP decision making. I think that this kind of organization, without a worker constituency, is legitimate and can fill a need, but it should not confuse its identity. It exists for the rank-and-file, but is not of the rank-and-file.
Outreach—The “Union” Approach
During the early months of WHASP’s existence, I spent most of my time contacting everyone I knew or knew of in the St. Louis labor union scene. This included both union officials and rank-and-file workers, though it was mostly the former. My approach was to describe some critical occupational health hazards and to contrast the features and failings of the “establishment” OSHA’s with the services we had to offer and listen to their specific situations. I then tried to go beyond these initial contacts, making follow-up telephone calls and visits and offering to come to a meeting and talk further. The people and situations I dealt with were extremely varied, and so were the responses. The following is a chronicle of some of WHASP’s frustrations in pursuing this “union” approach:
The St. Louis Labor Council (AFL-CIO) allowed me to speak to its Executive Board, but I never heard from them afterward, in spite of the fact that I asked them to make decisions on some specific requests. The State Labor Council kept me waiting to speak to the state convention for four hours, then ran out of time before it was my tum. They also took 900 WHASP brochures, but failed to distribute them. Teamsters Local 688 agreed to let us conduct workshops with their members, but then cancelled a scheduled weekend-long session with shop stewards, ostensibly because they needed to direct total energy to protecting jobs of their members working in a declining industry. The UAW let me speak to one meeting of 300 people on strike, but continued access to other rank-and-filers was made very difficult by the lack of understanding and/or interest on the part of some of the union bureaucrats. The Executive Board of an Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers local across the Mississippi River in Illinois met with me once and considered accepting our services for a specific plant, but decided that their own union resources were adequate and that working with us would be a duplication of effort. The Amalgamated Clothing Workers expressed interest but somehow nothing ever happened. Our proposal to teach a course in the Labor Studies Program of a community college was rejected by a small committee made up of union reps (including individuals from the UAW and Teamsters Local 688), and we learned that their discussion about us included the statement that WHASP may be a “challenge to union leadership” and that we were viewed with suspicion because we were a source of support to workers that was outside the union structure. Rejection of our course was also based on lack of interest in health and safety, according to a questionnaire circulated among students in the program (most of whom are rank-and-file unionists).
The setbacks were many, but the “union” approach has yielded some fruit. Articles in the Missouri Teamster (possible because of a sympathetic editor) have led to a few meetings. A number of unionists have expressed interest in participating in a conference on health and safety. And two union contacts generated work with specific plant situations.
Some Practical Experience
In late June of 1974, I got in touch with Gene Appelbaum, the International Rep for Region 5 of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union. He told me of an NL Industries pigment-manufacturing plant with 140 workers whom he represented. Some of the men there (no women were employed in the plant) thought they had a problem with lead poisoning, and some preliminary blood tests conducted by the International Union had confirmed this. Gene was obviously concerned and well-informed, and he was glad to have an offer of help in their struggle. But he emphasized that it was hard to motivate the workers at NL to be interested: before the union blood tests, he had walked through the plant and personally talked to every worker, yet only twenty-eight had participated in the tests.
One of the WHASP volunteers was Don Selig, a biochemist who had worked on occupational health and safety with Nader’s Health Research Group in Washington. Don’s forte is lead poisoning, so we had excellent expertise to deal with this local’s major health problem.
When we started working on the situation the local was on strike, for the first time in over forty years. On July 3, Don and I met with Gene, the local union officers and the rest of the negotiating committee (all but Gene were rank-and-file workers). Don showed them some reports he had done for other unions when he was with HRG, and the workers talked about conditions in the plant. Our meeting was cordial and enthusiastic, and it seemed that good rapport had been established. Gene had entered several bargaining demands around health and safety; Don suggested some improvements in these, and we agreed to work together.
Negotiations ended that day, with the health-and-safety clauses diluted to tokenism. We attended the contract-ratification meeting on July 5, where 67 of the 104 workers present volunteered for blood-lead tests (we ran out of tubes before they ran out of volunteers). Don spoke to the meeting as we drew blood, and an active question-and-answer exchange took place. Again, our rapport seemed to be good.
For the next five months we worked on the NL situation. During the strike a few WHASP people had talked to workers on the picket line who told them of the hazards inside the plant. We attended several union meetings, gathering information, presenting information and answering questions. We examined records from an OSHA inspection two-and-a-half years before.4 We obtained signatures of twenty-eight workers on letters to the company doctor, requesting that he turn over their medical records (including blood-lead levels) to a doctor volunteering with WHASP. (He never did.)
Signs of trouble first showed at the August union meeting. I was there with only about a dozen workers. I was told that this small number was typical of the state of apathy or alienation within the local. One older worker launched a salty verbal attack on me, to the effect that they didn’t have any lead-poisoning problem and even if they did, it was none of my business. My rebuttal was honest and firm, from my point of view; much later someone told me it had sounded “militant”. I said that everything I had seen and heard about their situation—much of it from themselves—convinced me they did have a problem, and I was involved in it only because they wanted me to be.
At the September meeting it was heavier. Don accompanied me, and we were confronted with a charge of communist ties on the basis of our affiliation with the American Friends Service Committee. Both of us denied this charge. The young worker who queried us about our motivation for doing this work was, by vote, unsupported by the others; but according to reports from other workers, he continued his campaign against us inside the plant.
I had individual contact occasionally with several different workers, but I was in touch regularly with only one, the president of the local, who continued to be open and friendly. We planned to run a second series of blood tests in December, to compare results after five months of work with our earlier results after five weeks on strike. The December meeting had been chosen because a union dues increase and new officers were to be voted on, and a larger than usual attendance was expected. We sent individual letters to each of the 67 original blood test participants urging them to appear for retesting.
Our five-month-long campaign came to an anticlimactic end in December. Only about 25 members came to the meeting; 15 of them gave us their blood, 11 of whom had participated in the first test in July. We had prepared a written report to the local and had planned a discussion o tactics to try to get changes in the plant, but were quickly shuttled off the agenda and passed by. The older worke who had first attacked me in August was a dominant figur in the scene. (The young red-baiter of September was neve seen by us again.)
A week after this disappointing December meeting, Gene told me the Executive Board of the local had voted to discontinue working with us, because NL had laid off a few workers and the men were panicked about losing their jobs. He also said that they didn’t believe they really had a lead problem—in spite of our proof5 and their earlier belief to the contrary—because they couldn’t see its effects.
The outcome of our work with this local was pretty depressing, although it gave us good practical experience in marshalling resources and in dealing with OSHA, unions, and companies. Our initial good start was made possible by Tony Mazzocchi of the International Union, who referred me to Gene. Gene’s [own] concern and willingness to work on the issue, the optimistic atmosphere of the strike and Don’s expertise all contributed to the success we experienced in the early stages of the project. Our downfall came from the hostility of the older worker, who had longstanding power among some of the others, the red-baiting, the conservative nature of much of the workforce (mostly whites from the country towns outside St. Louis), strong company opposition, hard times, layoffs, threats of more layoffs, and a local union that was, like so many, lacking a strong collective participation among the workers.
Some More Practical Experience
The second union plant that we worked with was a very different situation but the outcome was not any better. I spoke to a Textile Workers Union of America meeting of rank-and-file workers representing about eight different small locals. After the meeting, as I walked around passing out literature, a woman in the back row began talking to me about her plant’s problem – a sickening smell that came from the injection molding manufacture of small plastic magnets. She fea~ed that it was the recently publicized carcinogen, vinyl chloride (VC). Furtively, she gave me a medicine bottle filled with a dark gray powder which was the suspect agent, and I took her name and phone number.
When I called her the next day, she explained the situation in full. The plant was a small, family-owned business in a distant suburb of St. Louis, essentially still the “country”. About 60 people work there, but only 40 of them. (all women) were in the year-old union local, and only eight to ten were employed in the Molding Room. The management was very paternalistic and oppressive, the wages were very low, and the union apparently weak. She said that the workers had complained about health and safety to the union from the time they had organized, but that the business agent had only “looked away and walked away”. Everyone in the Molding Room was very concerned about the possible danger.
I met with the Executive Committee of the local. They all strongly agreed to “contract” with WHASP to investigate the situation, and they each took one of our Workplace Questionnaires to make a survey of plant health and safety hazards – for it appeared that they faced multiple problems, as do most workers. We also agreed that I would, by phone call or letter, inform both the business agent and the International Union that WHASP was involved.
The response of the International’s Research Department indicated an interest and a willingness to help. The business agent, however, was irate and obstinate. Throughout our association he maintained that a few troublemakers were agitating for their own petty purposes in the plant, that conditions in this plant were good, compared to others and that the “girls” should be happy they had jobs at all.
OSHA found airborne lead in concentrations from three to fifteen times over the federal standard; levied a penalty of $90.00 for this “nonserious” violation; and gave the company nearly a full year to come into compliance with the standard. We accompanied Gene and the local union president to the OSHA office to ask if they had ever re-inspected, and were told that OSHA “usually takes the word of the company” about correction of violations.
We determined that the substance was a compound of 16% polyvinyl chloride. Under union aegis, we took a chemical engineer into the plant and sampled for VC with a Universal Tester, which indicated the presence of no VC above ten parts per million, the limits of that instrument. We extracted from management an agreement to have its insurance company do more sophisticated tests for VC in the near future. We made up educational materials and took them to union meetings which were attended by about half the membership, many of whom were concerned and willing to confront the business agent’s negativism. We wrote a report, based on our own research and the information we got from the workers via the questionnaires, about the many hazards in the plant and what they might do about them.
The company countered early in the fight by forcing the women to wear hated respirators and by tightening rules and supervision. Then, one surprising day, OSHA inspectors showed up at the plant answering an anonymous employee complaint about the respirators. The workers had not yet decided as a group to call OSHA; no one ever determined just who it was who “bolted”. Many people suspected management did it.
Management’s response to OSHA’s visit was to close the plant! The owner, a “self-made-man”, said that the plant was closed pending results of OSHA’s VC test, which would be two weeks. He further said that if he was issued a penalty he would remain closed permanently.
OSHA found 0.2 parts per million VC, a level well below the government standard. The plant was re-opened, but the method of recalling workers placed in jeopardy many people’s seniority and hence protection. The whole event so frightened people and diverted attention from health and safety that WHASP was unable to go any further with this local. beyond maintaining sporadic contact with a few individuals. Those workers who were most active in the struggle were faced with increased harrassment by management.
Common to our aborted experiences with both the OCAW local and the TWUA local were two significant problems: a group of workers that was less than united in a commitment to struggle for workplace control, and economic layoffs. The latter is bound to be a continuing problem. But WHASP theoretically has more control over the former problem, by choosing more carefully which groups of workers we direct energy towards. I say “theoretically” because: (1) there seem to be very few groups of workers that are together, and (2) as a little-known organization coming apparently from nowhere, we are not in a strong position to be choosey. Nevertheless, our experiences gave us an increased awareness of the limits of working with people who do not function as part of a strong plant organization. But limits do not mean that nothing can be done. I think that in both of the experiences recounted in the previous pages, WHASP positively affected people and their situations.
Outreach—The “Rank-and-File” Approach
The other main method6 we have used to reach rank-and-file workers has been to go straight to workers, without going through unions. This approach is generally limited to those people we know or know of. We’ve only recently begun to put much energy into this approach, and it’s slow going.
We’ve been in touch with rank-and-file groups at about five or six shops, most of them large industrial plants. These groups of rebellious union members are small, and layoffs have hurt them, but a few show some promise. One group borrowed our noise meter and hopes to use results of their clandestine tests to rouse interest among other workers.
Several of the groups put out newsletters in which they’re beginning to educate around health and safety. We’ve contributed articles to two such newsletters, as well as to a citywide rank-and-file newspaper. We plan soon to publish our own newsletter to be circulated among these groups and other rank-and-filers we know, raising the issues and helping to overcome people’s isolation by spreading the word of each other’s activities. Other plans include coordination of health and safety workshops among workers within particular industries, and leafletting at plant gates.
We’re also in contact with a number of individuals who aren’t part of organized, active rank-and-file caucuses but who have a concern with their health and safety conditions. The possibility of action on the part of such individuals is remote, especially in these economic times. However, keeping contact with them is important because of the chance that they may be able to develop groups. Information we can give them may be helpful in their efforts to do this.
Approaches to Outreach: Conflict and Resolution
In making our services available to people, two approaches, dubbed “union” and “rank-and-file”, have been tried during the first year. Within WHASP, there has been considerable conflict over which is more desirable and hence deserves priority.
The argument for the “union” approach is that unions can’t be ignored; they do have power and can be instruments of pressure against a company; they possess valuable resources, most often at the international level; some unions, as institutions, are concerned about health and safety, and even within those that are not, there are individuals who are; and working through unions enables us to reach people that we don’t know, not normally accessible to us except perhaps through our general publicity.
Those most supportive of the “rank-and-file” approach emphasize several points; most unions are controlled by self-concerned men removed from the rank-and-file; unions traditionally concentrate on bread-and-butter issues and are not willing to struggle around control of the workplace; relating to rank-and-file workers through their unions will identify us, in the eyes of those workers who are most likely to take risks for the sake of change, with the unions from which they feel alienated; the only workers we’ll reach through unions. are those who have a union onentation, i.e. in St. Louis a conservative orientation; spending energy on dealing with union bureaucrats takes energy from building relationships with rank-and-file. WHASP should seek out those groups of rank-and-file workers who are actively engaged in struggles for workplace control, and support them.
Much of this conflict between approaches emerged out of a proposal I made to co-sponsor a health and safety conference with several unions and environmental or medical groups. Based on the experience of health and safety projects elsewhere, I reasoned that such a conference would give interested unionists ideas about how to work on health and safety; it would bring medical/scientific people together with workers; it would increase our credibility in establishment union circles; it would provide us with contact with many workers we might not otherwise reach, and give them contact with each other; it would probably generate further activity. A few people on the Task Force agreed with my proposal, but a few others were opposed. Opposition was based primarily on unwillingness to align ourselves with union bureaucrats because of the fear that truly militant workers would then not trust us. The counter-proposal was to develop rank-and-file contacts at a grass-roots level first, securing relationships with rank-and-file caucuses, and then, at some future time, to hold a conference which might aid our relationships with union bureaucrats. During the discussions about what course to pursue, the dualism between “union” and “rank-and-file” approaches became clear, if somewhat exaggerated.
As of this writing (April 1975), resolution of this conflict has been to suspend the conference and concentrate most energy on “rank-and-file” organizing, with the intention of re-evaluating our position in a few months. The “rank-and-file” approach has been slow because it—has been difficult to set up meetings with groups, many of which have been more concerned about layoffs than health and safety. Because it is slow, I’ve had time to pursue some “union” channels as well.
Our experience so far has shown the superiority of neither approach. My overall sense is that both approaches should be implemented, that no doors should be unnecessarily closed on the basis of rigid definitions of WHASP. Yet certain principles ought to be observed, two of which are: (1) it’s worth reaching workers at many different levels of consciousness, not only those who are most militant, and (2) those workers who are most militant deserve support. Reconciliation of these two principles can sometimes be difficult, but it’s worth hassling about.
Ultimate resolution of the conflict between approaches will come out of WHASP’s continuing practice, as three questions are answered:
- Will both paths be possible, in terms of time and human resources?
- Will both paths be possible, in terms of WHASP being accepted by both unions and rank-and-file groups?
- Will both paths be possible, in terms of WHASP’s conscience and principles, as the project is confronted by situations in which unions may take more conservative positions than their members?
After one year WHASP has assumed the beginnings of self-definition as a project controlled by a very small group of concerned activists and independent of any union or rank-and-file group. This definition has arisen out of the reality of our experience and the judgments of the people involved and should be seen as being open to change as new experiences and people contribute new knowledge.
III. San Francisco Bay Area
BACOSH is an organization composed of working people, students and professionals which has been working on health and safety issues for about two years. The primary effort thus far has been to provide information and support to workers who are trying to deal with on-the-job health and safety conditions.
Our first project was a five-week course on occupational health, covering such topics as dusts and chemicals, physical hazards, emotional stress, legal resources and techniques for shopfloor organizing. At each session, which generally attracted thirty to forty people, there were both “experts” (professionals and students who had researched a topic), and workers who spoke about their experiences in meeting and dealing with problems. The course served a good educational purpose, but no long-term projects resulted from it.
Since this course, BACOSH has been involved in several activities. Presentations were made to union meetings about particular hazards, organizing techniques and legal methods for change. Fact sheets on various hazards (including asbestos, beryllium, degreasing solvents, welding, noise) were written and distributed to workplaces, where workers found them useful in organizing to form health-and-safety committees which could confront management. These fact sheets were different from government literature in that they frequently criticized the recommended standard and discussed possible long-term hazards.
A second course was given about a year after the first one. The format was generally similar, although it was expanded to cover such topics as California OSHA (the California Safety and Health Act, as well as the organization charged with enforcing that law), a critique of workers’ compensation, collective bargaining strategies, and problems particular to office workers and health workers. The health-workers’ session was especially well attended, but we were disappointed that the course as a whole attracted only about as many people as the first one. We decided that more people could be reached, for instance, by short presentations at union meetings.
One of our recent projects has been working with longshoremen on the carbon-monoxide health hazard. We have provided information and showed workers how to use a universal gas detector to make readings on the docks, where some excessive carbon-monoxide levels were found. A presentation made to a stewards’ meeting was received with enthusiasm, resulting in the union asking for a report on carbon monoxide for their newspaper and purchasing three gas detectors. This project has expanded to include other groups of workers having problems with carbon monoxide. So far, our activities with these workers, who include warehouse people, workers in an airport parking facility, and highway-maintenance people, have been largely educational. We hope, however, to be able to bring the diverse groups together for one focused political activity in the future.
Other projects being seriously considered at this time are a study of California OSHA, including collecting complaints and gathering support for demands to make OSHA function properly; working with the California Homemakers Association (a union of domestics, household workers and attendant-care workers), and a project to combat unsafe working conditions at an Oakland shipyard.
Initially, one problem we encountered was tension between the “professional” people in the group (doctors, lawyers, etc.), the rank-and-file workers, and persons who held some higher positions in the labor movement. This was partly relieved when the first course went well and it became clear that the professionals could demystify their area of competence and work as comrades rather than as “experts”. Important lessons were learned on how to use technical skills and information in political activities, and about the need to struggle against bureaucratic manipulation.
We are currently trying to deal with the problems of meetings being long and boring, which is especially discouraging to people with limited time who are trying to do serious work on health and safety.
We have also been struggling over the issue of whether BACOSH should function primarily as a service organization, or concentrate mainly on political discussion and activity. The emerging viewpoint is somewhere in between, i.e., that BACOSH should provide relatively simple services (e.g., lending monitoring instruments, performing simple medical tests, doing reports on hazards, giving legal advice) which are directly useful to people doing organizing. Our development must go through several stages, and much of our activity at the present stage may not afford an opportunity to inject a high level of political content. We feel that it is of primary importance for working people to have confidence in the organization, and this will initially be gained by what we do, not by what we say.
We have high hopes for our project around California OSHA. It could turn out to be a real focus for BACOSH, as well as the start of a political activity that could attract broad popular support. We will try to bring out who the state government serves, and the conflict between industry’s desire for profits ana the needs of working people, as well as trying to stimulate significant improvements in health and safety.
I have tried to highlight briefly the successes and the problems which BACOSH has had. The questions touched on are important ones for SftP folks interested in serious political work. I have tried to be as accurate as possible in reporting BACOSH activities, debates and problems. The analysis and suggestions of where to go represent my opinions only.
The fact sheets mentioned in the article (five cents per sheet) and other information can be obtained by writing to
Oakland, Ca. 94623
(At present, due to finances, we have neither an office nor any paid staff.)
After this article was written we learned that BACOSH had adopted a set of principles of action. We have decided to include them as an addendum to the article since we believe that they help clarify the present emphasis and strategy of the organization.
SUGGESTED PRINCIPLES OF ACTION FOR BACOSH
- The services provided by BACOSH should be aimed at aiding workplace activists in improving health and safety conditions. We cannot and should not try to provide a whole range of free services to large numbers of people. However, certain services (e.g. research on a hazard, legal advice, presentations) can be very valuable to people working in this area, and we should try to provide these.
- For complex services that involve a lot of labor, we should try to find “honest” institutions which are sympathetic to our aims, to provide these at reasonable costs. We also should, where this is reasonable, encourage workers groups to pay BACOSH for certain services. Finally, we should make a principle of trying to force the state and Federal Governments to provide some of these services, realizing that we cannot rely on this happening.
- Our strategy should be, as much as possible, to provide working people with the relevant information and tools, so they can actively use them to bring about change. We should try to demystify all the skills and concepts involved in our work. We should not be a group that simply acts in behalf of working people, nor should it be our strategy to bring about change by wheeling and dealing with bureaucrats.
- Our projects and the people working on them should have accountability to the organization. We should not be in the business of simply referring people to experts over whom we have no control (although we might provide this service in some cases). Similarly, people who are invited to be BACOSH speakers should have accountability to the group when acting in this capacity.
- However, in any project involving an activity at a particular workplace, the people at that workplace must make all the decisions that immediately affect them. BACOSH may offer advice, but it should certainly not presume to tell people what to do in these cases.
- We should have a set of priorities for choosing projects, and people in the group should make some commitment to work on projects chosen by the group. There should be a range of projects to suit many people, and people should be encouraged to create new ones. However, there must be some collective decisions made as to what projects to work on, or there is no point in having an organization in the first place.
- Criteria for choosing projects should include: how useful we can be, the availability of alternative help or services (e.g. from the union involved), degree of ability to work with the rank-and-file, potential for some political action to develop out of the project, timeliness of working with a certain group).
- We should carry out internal education so that members have an opportunity to gain competence in many areas involved with health and safety.
- We should structure BACOSH in such a way as to make it possible for large numbers of people from different backgrounds to participate. Different people will be able to participate with different levels of commitment and time, and we should make it possible for people with small amounts of each to participate. We should actively make efforts to encourage new people to participate.
- BACOSH should primarily be an activist organization, and the coordinating committee should make every effort to link up people with activities they can work on. It is important that we discuss what we do, but BACOSH is definitely not a debating society.
- BACOSH should take on a project around Cal OSHA as a priority for the near future. The project can unite various groups, provide some political expression and redress for the problems which people find, and also can provide some continuous activity for a large number of people. This project can complement the work people do in other projects.
- Where possible we should try to coordinate activities with community groups that have similar interests, e.g. fighting pollution from a factory where there is workplace pollution.
- We should try to involve unorganized as well as organized workers in our activities.
- The Workers Health and Safety Project is a program of the American Friends Service Committee.
- ACOSH is Area Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, such as CACOSH in Chicago, PACOSH in Pittsburgh, etc.
- Most unions in St. Louis are very conservative. Only a few—Teamsters Local 688, the UAW, and Amalgamated Clothing Workers—have liberal reputations.
- OSHA found airborne lead in concentrations from three to fifteen times over the federal standard; levied a penalty of $90.00 for this “nonserious” violation; and gave the company nearly a full year to come into compliance with the standard. We accompanied Gene and the local union president to the OSHA office to ask if they had ever re-inspected, and were told that OSHA “usually takes the word of the company” about correction of violations.
- For the 11 workers participating in both tests, results were as follows: Blood Lead Over 40 µg% = 54% and 72% of July and December, respectively; Blood Lead Over 50µg% = 18% (July) and 45% (December). Blood leads increased an average of 23% ± 4% (S.D.) per person between July and December, after five months of work. Hematocrit values dropped an average of 9% ± 1% and hemoglobin values dropped an average of 7% ± 1%. Blood-lead values greater than 50 µg% are unhealthy (H.A.Waldron, Ach. Env. Health, 29, 271-273 (1974 ). (µg% means micrograms per 100 milliliters.)
- A third method of reaching people has been publicity through various media.