The Multinational Monitor


E X P O R T   O F   H A Z A R D S

Export of Hazardous Industries

The View From a Local Union in the U.S.

by James L. Weeks

I would like to present some issues that members of the local I work for are worried about when it comes to this problem of the export of hazardous industries. The union I work for is Local 201 of the International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE). This local has about 9,000 members and represents workers at General Electric in Lynn and two other nearby locations in Massachusetts. Members manufacture jet engines, steam turbines, and aircraft instruments. My comments are my own and I do not speak for Local 201 of the IUE.

I'd like to start by describing an incident that happened during a strike a few years ago at the Lynn plant. The strike had to do with safety hazards of changed job classifications for crane operators. Jobs were changed in such a way that many workers thought were unsafe. After unsuccessful attempts to persuade the company to change, a strike vote was taken and workers in this section went out. But a few refused to go on strike and stayed to work. They were what the union has traditionally called "scabs." One of these workers, a black man, worked because he needed the money. He was given the job of cleaning steps leading into a cellar with a solvent known by the trade name of "axothane" (1,1,1,-trichloroethane) and considered a "safe" solvent. He was given no information about health hazards associated with this solvent nor was he told that fumes would accumulate in an enclosed space. Working alone, he took a bucket full of this solvent and started to work. As he descended further down the steps, the vapors grew more concentrated. In about an hour he was dead from overexposure to solvent vapors. His widow filed for compensation, and to this day the case is still not settled. Incidentally, the strike was lost and the cranes are operated in what many workers consider an unsafe manner. I wish I could tell you the strike was successful.

What does this case tell us? First, it illustrates that the position of Third World workers is dictated in large part by their economic situation. When this is compounded by their being held in ignorance of the hazards they face at work, the results can be disastrous, as this case shows. Second, this case adds to our understanding of the predicament of Third World workers. Like other workers, they are faced with a choice between a dangerous job or no job, between their life and their health. By using the case of a worker in the U.S. to illustrate the dilemma, I intend to suggest that the problem derives more from the economic relations between classes than it does from their differing nationalities. Persons at the bottom of the economy face this choice between their job and their health most acutely and it matters little whether the person is a citizen of the U.S. or of Mexico. We need to understand these class relations on a global and international scale.

Third, and related to this issue, this case also illustrates that not only do companies export hazardous industries to take advantage of the economic predicament of Third World workers, when exporting is inconvenient, Third World workers are imported into the U.S. in one way or another. Labor as well as capital is mobile and the people at the bottom often end up with the most dangerous jobs. Fourth, this case illustrates the determination of employers-large corporations, capitalists, call them what you find most comfortable-to maintain control and, not incidentally, to maintain divisions in the union. It was no accident that the victim was black.

Finally, it illustrates that a relative lack of unity among workers persists. Discussion of this case in our local union still can get one into some heated discussions with some of the usual epithets tossed in about scabs and about racism. If workers in the U.S., let alone in a worldwide scale, are successfully, to address the problems having to do with the flight of capital and importation and exploitation of lower class minorities, we will have to achieve a greater degree of unity in the U.S. and on an international scale.

In order to better speak to you about the attitudes of members of this local, I did a limited, unsystematic survey of a number of people in the local. Since there was a strike going on at the time, there were many people in and around the business office, so interviewing them was as simple as standing up from my desk. I asked two questions of the two dozen or so people I talked to. First, I described in very general terms the understanding I had of the problem. I said that some companies that had hazardous jobs or operations were moving them out of the U.S. and into some less developed countries, such as Taiwan, Mexico and the Philippines, in order to avoid what they considered excessive governmental regulations for health and safety. Then I asked what they thought of the problem and what they thought should be done about it. The second question I asked was, "What is your reaction to a worker in one of those countries who says, "I am willing to take these risks because I need a job and I need it now."

The typical composite answer to the first question was something like, "So, what else is new?" It struck many workers I talked to as business as usual that companies should move to areas that were less restrictive. Some workers expressed surprise that companies would move primarily to escape environmental regulations. In pursuing this problem, people said that companies move for many reasons. They will move to areas where there are low wages, no unions, high unemployment, limited governmental control or better, support from governments, low taxes, suppression or limitation of political dissent, and so on. This situation is what company economists would call a "favorable economic climate." Moving plants to avoid environmental regulations is simply one more factor to consider in plant relocation. It is another version of the dilemma that workers face regularly-having to choose between their job or health.

Another type of response was an expression of moral concern that was typified by a couple of workers who said, "We want safe jobs but not at the expense of passing our troubles on to somebody else, especially to people who have enough problems already." I believe that this morality is part of the bedrock of the labor movement.

Still another type of response was pointing out to me that this was a consistent pattern, that it was "no accident" since black and other Third World workers consistently get the most dangerous jobs anyway. It was at this point that I was reminded of the story that I related to you earlier. In eastern Massachusetts we have recently become aware of a large number of immigrants from the Portuguese Azores. These workers take jobs in marginal and hazardous shops in the area, typically non-union in the leftovers of the leather and shoe industry.

When I pressed people on what should be done, I found no consensus. Most often the response was a simple, "I have no idea. We have our hands full here." There were some of the same responses that have been discussed at this conference too, such as passing legislation putting restraints on plant closings to move operations abroad. One person said, "We should do what the labor movement has always had to do: organize. In the south, and overseas if necessary." Some others said, "We need to control production. Without that control, we are at their mercy."

I also found no consensus as a response to the hypothetical Third World worker who said he or she was willing to take the risks because they needed the job. Often, I simply received the question back to me. "What can we say to him? Don't worry about paying for a place to live, about food, about clothing, about medical care, schooling for you children. What can we say?" Many heads nodded sadly. One person thought for a minute, then said, "You know, they always teach us not to respect ourselves." A minor consensus was reached by a few people I talked to as a group who said that no one should have to make that kind of choice.

I take this lack of consensus not as an indication of lack of concern nor as an indication that the problem is insoluble or even that the people I talked to had no imagination. I did, however, take it that the problems are not easy and as an indication of a problem for the labor movement. We have to do more to educate our members about the international movement of capital and labor and we have to develop a strategy for responding to it. Capital is now global and international in scope. Labor has to respond to this movement.

What do I conclude from this information?

One conclusion I reach is that the export of hazardous industries is one more instance of runaway shops, a problem that is not a stranger to workers in New England. It is one more instance of how these large multinational corporations exploit the weak in order to expand their profits and in the name of some fine sounding objectives. Not only are they reducing job hazards in the U.S., they also claim to promote economic development in Third World countries.

Much has been said about how wrong it is for the Western World (primarily the U.S.) to dictate environmental and occupational safety and health hazards to Third World countries. This concern, while real, obscures a more fundamental issue, that is, the dictating that is already being done by an international economic system dominated by the same multinationals who wag the finger at the government. This dictating is more basic. It has to do with setting the terms for economic development and having near absolute control over what is produced, by whom, and how. Environmental regulations are a matter of public policy and are subject to public debate, as they should be. Investment plans, however, are the sacred cow of these multinational corporations. We have seen how these decisions are not always for the public good, either domestically or internationally.

My other conclusion follows from this. We need to have more control over these decisions about production and investment. Our lives are at stake. As it is now, we have to make this choice between our jobs and our health. One group of people take the risks and another reap the benefits.

Achieving this control is clearly a monumental problem. One first step I would propose is to promote further worker-to-worker and union-to-union contact on an international scale so that the people with the most immediate knowledge of working and economic conditions can compare experiences and work toward developing an international strategy for protecting our jobs and our health. 11

James L. Weeks was with the International Union of Electrical Workers, Local 201 in Lynn, Massachusetts. He is currently with the United Mineworkers of America in Washington, D.C.

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