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Looking Back
Over the Century

UE News, January 2000

The charred remains of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company ...
The charred remains of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, where 146 workers, mostly young women and immigrants, lost their lives. The tragedy resulted in industrial fire safety codes, but it took the growth of unions to demand federal protection of health and safety on the job.

This is a good time, as we begin a new century, to look back at labor’s progress in health and safety during the 100 years which have just passed. What is striking as we look back is the great progress which has been made in protecting worker health and safety on the job, especially during the past 30 years. And that progress rests in turn on the great struggles of working men and women to organize themselves into large, strong, vibrant trade unions.

Remember that at the beginning of this past century, the labor movement was relatively small, with hardly more than a foothold in the great booming industries of the day: steel, textiles, auto-making and electrical manufacturing. The unions that did exist were organized largely by craft and were constantly at each others’ throats, arguing over whose members should perform which tasks and what union should represent them. Meanwhile, workers in U.S. industries were dying and being maimed by the tens of thousands in the steel mills of Pittsburgh, the underground mines of Appalachia and the West, and in railroad accidents across the country.


During this period one workplace incident, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City in 1911, took the lives of 146 workers, most of them young women. Workers were trapped in the holocaust by windows which were barred, doors which opened inward and a fire escape which melted from the heat of the flames. The resulting outcry focused the attention of the nation on the carnage going on in U.S. workplaces. The results: passage of industrial fire safety codes in cities and states across the nation, passage of state workers’ compensation laws, and increased unionization in the textile industry.

But over the next few decades, from World War I through World War II, relatively little was accomplished in improving workers’ health and safety, as unions attended to their first priority — organizing and gaining a foothold in the largest U.S. industries. This was highlighted by the great CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) organizing drives of the 1930s, which gave rise to UE and the United Steelworkers and the United Auto Workers, among others. These efforts were aided by passage of the federal Wagner Act in 1936, which guaranteed workers the legal right for the first time to petition for and conduct elections to establish unions in their plants.


Gradually during this period, workers gained important health and safety protections through their union contracts and through use of grievance procedures to enforce these contract provisions. But these protections were spotty and, of course, protected only those workers covered by union contracts.

This was not to change until 1970, with the passage of the landmark federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). This law came about by an array of circumstances: the strike of organized coal miners following a terrible mine explosion in Farmington, West Virginia; the failure of state laws to adequately protect workers health and safety on the job; and the sharp rise in job injury and illness rates during the 1950s and 1960s. But none of these was so important or decisive as the strong, united support of the law by U.S. labor unions. Without the labor movement behind it, this law might have gone the way of much other needed federal legislation — delay, weakening of protective provisions and perhaps death by a thousand cuts.


But instead OSHA was passed, largely intact, establishing minimum health and safety standards for most private-sector employees (and some public sector employees), and a national system of inspectors with the right to enter and inspect all covered workplaces. This law has faced strong employer opposition ever since. In almost every session of Congress since 1970, Senators and Congressmen, supported by large, unregulated corporate campaign donations, have tried to weaken the law. In most cases they have failed, thanks in large measure to the strong, steady support of OSHA by the U.S. labor movement.

A number of important worker protection standards have been issued under OSHA by the U.S. Department of Labor. Among them are standards to provide health and safety information to workers and to prevent overexposure to asbestos dust, lead, noise and other chemical and physical hazards. But these have been consistently weakened by underfunding the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and lack of OSHA enforcement. Currently OSHA is proposing an important new workplace ergonomics standard to prevent repetitive strain injuries on the job, including wrist, arm and back injuries.


But as many of us know, who have tried to make use of OSHA the law and OSHA the agency and its standards over the years, OSHA the agency often comes to us with too little, too late. Currently the agency has a greatly weakened enforcement capacity, conducting fewer workplace inspections than ever in its history.

However, the importance of OSHA lies not so much in its standards or enforcement, but in the adoption of its principles in the hearts and minds of working men and women. Working people today know that among their inalienable rights is the right to a safe and healthful workplace. When employers try to undermine this right, they face a firestorm of opposition by working people and their unions. And this determination of workers to protect their rights is more important in the long run than the wording of any particular health and safety standard.

As long as working people, including the members of this union, firmly insist on workplace protections on the job, their health and safety rights are secure, no matter what the ups and downs of OSHA. With worker support on the shop floor, and the continued strong support of health and safety by unions in every U.S. industry, the future prospects for health and safety on the job are bright.

And as our collective experience has shown us over the past century, the union movement is the backbone of health and safety protections for working men and women. Whether we work on the shop health and safety committee, the local’s legislative committee, as a local or regional union officer, or as a rank-and-file union organizer, when we help build and strengthen our union, we are thereby protecting our own health and safety and that of other workers.

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