A recent study by Harvard University professor Michael Zoorob showed that unionization saves lives. That’s the good news. But it doesn’t happen automatically when you sign the union card. The beneficial effect of unions on worker safety is the result of action by educated union members supported by union staff. Unfortunately, the Service Employees International Union, the nation’s largest labor union, doesn’t seem to have learned that lesson. As of July 1, the two-million member union will no longer have a health and safety program as it lays off its last health and safety staffer, Mark Catlin, who has been SEIU’s lone health and safety staffer for many months.

As former SEIU health and safety director Bill Borwegen said, “‘Healthcare for All’ is a meaningless jingoistic slogan if unions aren’t willing to fund even the most meager of efforts to reduce workplace hazards that lead to preventable injuries, illnesses and deaths.  And with the release of the most recent troubling latest BLS statistics demonstrating how – if anything- unions need to be redoubling their efforts at this time. Wow. Tragically this is a symptom of what happens when union leadership becomes thoroughly and utterly disengaged from the day to day workplace realities of those they get the privilege to serve.”

From the early 1980s into the 2000s, SEIU built one of the labor movement’s largest and most dynamic health and safety departments.  Working together with other health care unions such as AFSCME and AFT,  labor forced OSHA to issue its Bloodborne Pathogens standard in the 1990s, and a later OSHA sharp safety rule would never have happened without SEIU’s dogged work. Protections for workers against workplace violence, back injuries and other hazards plaguing our nation’s frontline health care workers are only being addressed because of pressure from workers through their unions.

OSHA is currently working on standards to protect health care workers against communicable diseases and workplace violence. Based on my many years at OSHA and in the labor movement, I know that the chance of those standards ever seeing the light of day — even in a Democratic administration — are much smaller without the strong voice of SEIU in Washington and across the country.

Unfortunately, SEIU is not alone. Last year, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) also dissolved its health and safety department when long-time director Darryl Alexander retired.  (AFT has a large and active health care component.) The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) is now the only labor union representing large numbers of health care workers that has full time paid health and safety staff in their national office (and several of their councils.) National Nurses United also maintains a significant presence in nurse safety issues.

In 2005, when the AFL-CIO folded its Health and Safety department into its Government Affairs department, I wrote an open letter to then AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. Some of the thoughts I expressed then are still relevant. Rather than re-invent the wheel, I’ll repeat some of that letter below. You can read the entire letter here.

Working conditions, and workplace health and safety concerns can play an important role in almost every organizing campaign and can play a prominent role in political mobilization as well. There is little doubt (and numerous polls have confirmed this) that working conditions – particularly safety and health conditions – are an area of high concern for American workers and one that they look to labor unions to protect. For many members, union resources that are used to train rank and file activists in how to investigate and organize around health and safety issues is a service well worth paying some dues money for. A larger safety and health department could assist affiliates to develop strategic organizing programs focusing on health and safety issues.

Perhaps the most important function of health and safety departments – either at the AFL-CIO or at the affiliates – is to provide the knowledge, tools and organization that workers can use to defend their rights, their health and their lives when they go to work every day. This support takes a variety of forms that are crucial to maintaining and expanding union membership. The ability to translate local health and safety issues into a larger political context is also important in political mobilization.

It is well known fact that workers are the proverbial canaries in the coal mines: Almost every major workplace health problem was initially discovered by workers (by their illness and death) and their unions, and then brought to the researchers and government regulators.

Look back at the proud history of the American labor movement and everywhere you look, you’ll find workplace safety and health concerns. In fact, there is probably no issue more central to the founding of the labor movement in this country than the issue of safety on the job.The history of the Mineworkers, the Steelworkers, the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers and many other unions is also the story of workplace safety. Karen Silkwood died defending the health and safety of her members. The 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike was sparked by two workplace fatalities. This is not just dead history, but an indication of how health and safety issues can be used to build a new labor movement. What message are we sending to American workers (and the enemies of American workers) if we devalue the importance of the issue upon which the labor movement was founded?

Postscript: I also hear through the grapevine the the Communications Workers of America have decided, at least for now, now to fill the position of their recently retired health and safety director, David LeGrande.  CWA, which also includes the former International Union of Electrical Workers and the Airline Flight Attendants union has done pioneering work around ergonomic hazards and has been a strong advocate in Washington and around the country on a number of workplace safety issues for decades.

11 thoughts on “SEIU Retires Its Safety and Health Program”
  1. It is a shame when unions talk the talk but do not want to invest and support safety, what will be next, apprenticeship and training programs? How does justify the dues that are paid if the aren’t going to the betterment of the worker. Time to stand up a demand protection from the unions that the people are paying for.

  2. I find it Hard to Believe…..I think I will have to consult with my “sources” for clarification; after I’ve completely
    read your insight and contribution to this subject.

  3. The purpose of unions is to get better working conditions for workers. Health and safety is one of the primary issues in the workplace. SEIU and other unions backing out of having health and safety programs is a major blow to workers who cannot effectively fight serious health and safety problems on their own.

  4. Wow, so you wrote this whole article and didn’t even mention the impending Janus decision/? Because, like, that’s why this is happening.

    1. Sadly, the SEIU decision to not support health and safety work was made was made several years ago, before Janus / earlier cases.

  5. Unfortunately, this was inevitable. There isn’t a good understanding among the upper management of unions of how safety and health can be used to mobilize and energize workers, show value to members, and defend regulations crafted to protect workers. I was once told, ” (you) can’t promote safety and health if there aren’t any members to pay dues (ie: your salary) “. To which I replied, “dead members don’t pay dues either”.
    I wasn’t very popular after that exchange………….
    Mark and Bill contributed greatly to the safety and health of their members and to the labor movement. I will always be grateful for the support both showed me as a union staff member.

  6. Maybe if the unions spent a little[!!]less on Democratic Party campaign coffers and more on their health and safety departments……….? Hmmmm,

  7. Cheers to Mark and Bill who have done so much for their members. And cheers to Dave LeGrande as well, who is missed already.

    Anyone who has connections to local SEIU leaders should forward this post to them. It’s too little, too late, but staff on the inside cannot reach out to those in a position to push the national leaders.

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