Health and Safety Programs May Be on the AFL-CIO Chopping Block

What do the coming changes in the AFL-CIO mean for the health and safety of workers?

It’s unclear what will happen with different union leaders’ proposals as the July AFL-CIO Convention approaches. The proposals of both the AFL-CIO’s John Sweeney and SEIU’s Andy Stern will result in significant changes in the budget of the AFL-CIO—for Stern a reduction of the entire budget, for Sweeney, significant cuts in the non-political parts of the budget.

Which brings us to a key point: If the AFL-CIO’s budget is to be cut significantly, and more focus is to be put on politics and legislative activities, what becomes of the Health and Safety Department? The rumor is that the Health and Safety Department would be abolished and the staff (those who aren’t laid off) would be merged into the Legislative Department.

In March 2003, UNITE HERE Hospitality President John Wilhelm (then president of HERE) stated that the AFL-CIO was “spread too thin.” Wilhelm said he would consider ideas like eliminating the federation’s Health and Safety Department to channel more money into organizing.

“My view is that if we don’t devote the largest possible amount of money to organizing and to political action that relates to organizing, we will go out of business,” said Wilhelm. “And if we go out of business, we can’t help anybody’s health and safety.”


What does this mean for workers— not just those relative few who still belong to unions, but to the many who do not?

Most workers, of course, won’t be directly affected by the disappearance of the AFL-CIO’s Health and Safety Department. Those who still belong to large unions may continue to have health and safety departments to rely on to educate their activists and defend their rights in the workplace and in Washington, but those without union representation will be left with no one defending their right to a safe workplace.

And will individual unions continue to support health and safety programs? Health and safety activists remember well that when Andy Stern took over the Service Employees he decimated one of the labor movement’s largest and most active health and safety programs, leaving only one Washington representative to address the giant union’s abundance of health and safety issues.

The state of most unions’ health and safety departments is not good. Many of the smaller unions don’t have any health and safety staff and depend on the federation for information, resources, and technical assistance. Even in the larger unions, most staff is funded by government grants.

These grants tend to skew health and safety activities toward grant targets that may or may not be in tune with the union’s organizing targets, although without the grant programs, many union health and safety programs would practically cease to exist.

And, of course, dependence on government grants in this period of overwhelming hostility toward labor is not a secure place to be. Bush has tried unsuccessfully every year of his presidency to reduce OSHA’s small $10 million grant program by 60 percent, and this year he’s trying to eliminate the entire program.



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Most health and safety staffers are anxious to get involved in organizing campaigns, but complain that it’s often difficult to convince the organizers that health and safety is a good organizing issue and to involve health and safety issues early in strategizing a campaign.


To understand why it’s critical to support the AFL-CIO Health and Safety Department, it’s necessary to know who the department is and what it does. Its staff consists of only four professionals, led by veteran Peg Seminario, one of the most respected health and safety—and labor—leaders in the country. One staff position is fully dedicated to workers compensation issues.

The department plays a crucial strategic coordinating role with the Federation’s various unions, particularly focused on legislation, standards, and enforcement activities. Depending on the political environment, their activities may be more defensive than offensive.

Forcing OSHA to issue health and safety standards or to enforce the law is no longer a simple administrative process. To be successful, unions need to organize massive grassroots political action campaigns. It takes coordination from the AFL-CIO and national unions, organizing the victims of health and safety problems on the local and national levels, and political action in Washington and in the states.


This role was most apparent during the 10-year ergonomics fight that finally resulted in an OSHA standard (before it was repealed). This was a battle fought by many unions on multiple fronts: political, scientific, workplace, regulatory, legal, and congressional, all coordinated by the AFL-CIO health and safety staff.

The AFL-CIO is practically the only player holding down the fort against asbestos compensation legislation that threatens to undermine the rights and compensation of thousands of victims of the asbestos industry.

And let’s not forget symbolism. There is probably no issue more central to the founding of the U.S. labor movement than safety on the job. Look back at any of the early stories of the founding of the American labor movement and you’ll find workplace safety and health concerns.

The history of the Mineworkers, the Steelworkers, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, and many other early unions is also the story of workplace safety. The 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike was sparked by two workplace fatalities. So what message are we sending if we devalue the importance of the issue upon which the labor movement was founded? It’s hard, as the old saying goes, to “mourn for the dead, fight like hell for the living” from the legislative department.

Finally, how can working people and unions working individually be any match for the well-funded combined power of the Chamber of Commerce, NAM, NFIB and individual industry associations who have the ability to hire high-priced attorneys, scientists—and legislators?

I certainly don’t have the answers to all of these questions. These are not easy issues. Change is needed and it’s coming. But will these changes be good for the safety and health of American workers?

[Jordan Barab has worked in the field of workplace safety and health for over 20 years. A longer version of this article appeared on his weblog, “Confined Space,” which may be viewed at]