The workplace safety movement lost two of its heroes over in March — one fairly well known (enough to get an article in the NY Times) and one not so well known except to the people he worked with and the workers he worked for.
Samuel Epstein (1926-2018):
Sam Epstein was warmly remembered by those of us who got into this field in the late 1970s and 1980s. Epstein died of cardiac arrest on March 18 in Chicago at the age of 92. The New York Times calls him the “Cassandra of Cancer Prevention.” (Cassandra was “given the gift of prophecy, but was also cursed by the god Apollo so that her accurate prophecies would not be believed.”)
Epstein was best known and admired by environmentalists, consumer groups and organized labor for his 1978 book, “The Politics of Cancer.” The was embraced by but derided by the chemical industry and some fellow scientists. One expert called the book an “indictment of industry malfeasance, research impotence and regulatory incompetence.” Needless to say, the chemical industry was not so enthused. Epstein was known for blaming
greedy manufacturers, lax regulators, misguided researchers and complicit charitable groups for what he saw as a coming cancer epidemic. A widely read author and widely heard lecturer, Dr. Epstein was venerated by some as an environmental prophet and reviled by others as an overzealous toxin avenger. He outlived many of his critics, perhaps because he had practiced what he preached about prevention in his own life.
Epstein helped draft the federal Toxic Substances Control Act and the Resource Conservation Recovery Act in the mid-1970s; was president of the Rachel Carson Trust for the Living Environment and he was a consultant for the AFL-CIO, Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) and Textile Workers Union. He also was a founding member of the Society for Occupational and Environmental Health (SOEH) and wrote numerous blog posts for the Huffington Post.
You can check him out here describing the “Precautionary Principle,” toxics use reduction and transparent decision making about carcinogens.
John Mehring (1953-2018)
Unlike Sam Epstein, most people have never heard of John, but millions of health care workers owe their working conditions and safety to the work that John did. I had the honor and pleasure of working with John for many years, starting with the early struggles to protect workers from contracting HIV or hepatitis B in the workplace in the 1980s. The early days of the AIDS epidemic were highly scary and stressful times, especially for health care workers and their representatives, as Linda Delp, Director of the UCLA Labor Occupational Safety & Health Program remembers:
John was HIV positive (and made no secret of it) in the early ‘80s. This was a frightening time, when the origins and transmission pathways of the virus were still under investigation. He understood that his union (and the labor movement) needed to confront AIDS, an issue that could be deeply divisive. Union members contracted AIDS – and union members refused to work with or serve clients and patients they suspected of having AIDS. They feared that touching a person, or even an object that person had touched, could transmit the virus to them. How was a union to represent members with such diverse perspectives?
Seeing no action from the hospitals where they worked, a core group of SEIU Local 250 members decided they had to respond. They formed the local union AIDS Education Committee, developed education materials which the union printed, held a Train the Trainer course for health care stewards and together educated members with accurate information about HIV transmission and protection from the virus – at work and in their personal lives. The message was compelling as Mary and Peggy, nurses who contracted HIV through needle punctures, joined the movement to pressure hospitals to enact sharps protection policies. Mary, one of those nurses, gave a moving tribute to John on Monday – sharing how his fierce determination motivated her to move from paralysis to action. The group compiled stories and survey results to demonstrate the need for safer needle disposal and other sharps protection and to ensure other health care workers could safely care for their patients without fear of contracting AIDS or Hep B.
Newly elected to the local union executive board, John and others presented a Compassionate Care resolution at the 1984 SEIU convention, unsure of the outcome. It passed – and laid the foundation for education and worker health and safety advocacy for health care workers nationwide and for Cal/OSHA and OSHA policy change to protect all health care workers. Thus, the amazing grassroots efforts of a dedicated group of union members laid the foundation for critical policy changes to advance worker health and safety protections that enabled healthcare workers to care for those with AIDS – and that educated union members about AIDS and the need to embrace and support their coworkers and others who had contracted the virus.
John was a leader – and he would be the first to say the changes he inspired were only possible through collective action and coalitions. Collaboration with labor and worker health and safety activists across unions, with university-based programs, researchers, patient groups, gay rights groups, employers….all are critical. John was dedicated and principled – and he reached out and worked with many
SEIU health and Safety Director Mark Catlin recalls that John was also active in the community and the union:
He became a founding member of the Harvey Milk Gay Democratic Club’s AIDS Education and information Committee, and worked with a small group of writers, editors and illustrators to produce the safe-sex brochure “Can We Talk?,” which was mass-distributed beginning in June 1983. In July of 1983, John organized the SEIU Local 250 Hospital Workers Union’s AIDS Education Committee to produce the brochure “AIDS and the Health Care Worker,” which was mass-distributed beginning in May 1984. John worked as a psychiatric technician at Presbyterian Hospital (now California Pacific Medical Center) in San Francisco, from 1980 to 1990, including service as a union shop steward and activist. He participated in the summer 1988 strike as a strike captain and union bargaining committee member.
John worked as a health and safety organizer for Service Employees International Union (SEIU) from 1989 to 2006. He helped organize workers to win three Cal-OSHA healthcare worker health and safety standards, the blood-borne pathogens standard, the California needle-safety law and standard, and the aerosol transmissible diseases (ATD) standard, in 2009.
John worked as an elementary school teacher for the San Francisco Unified School District, 2006-2014. He finished his education career as a full-time reading tutor in Minneapolis, 2015-2018. He had just retired in early 2018.
John was the best example of an educated union member working with his union to change the world for the better. John would be glad if his story inspires other union members today.
Personally, I worked closely with John for many years when I was engaged in many of the same political struggles at AFSCME. In those days (like now) workers’ concerns were often ignored — because the experts and world-famous doctors knew best what was good for worker protection. John was having none of it. He knew first hand what workers were going through and what needed to be done. But he did the serious work with a generous portion of determination, good humor and optimism.
John died on March 30, 2018 of brain cancer, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Mark Catlin has provided this short snippet of John’s work:
You can find the full 10 minute video here.