The Multinational Monitor

JUNE 1990 - VOLUME 11 - NUMBER 6


Taking Control

Workers and Communities Demand the Right to Act

by Scott Tobey

In 1986 union health and safety activists and environmentalists celebrated the enactment of two laws which gave workers and community residents the right to know about hazardous workplace chemicals. In May 1986, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began enforcing its Hazardous Communication Standard, which provided workers with access to hazard information for chemicals used on the job. Later that year, the U.S. Congress enacted the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act which required certain companies to divulge chemical hazard information to state and local governments, fire departments and community residents. The law was intended to assist emergency response organizations in planning for chemical disasters and to increase citizens' knowledge about chemical emissions into the environment.

Four years later, a coalition of trade unionists and environmental advocates has launched a campaign for a "Right-to- Act" law which would enable workers and community residents to take direct action to protect themselves not only from dangerous chemicals but also from other workplace and environmental hazards.

"Where Right-to-Know told us more about what was killing us, Right-to-Act would give us the power to act upon that knowledge," says Peter Dooley, an industrial hygienist with the United Auto Workers (UAW) Health and Safety Department and a vocal supporter of the Right-to-Act campaign in Michigan. "We need to get people thinking that it is logical for workers and community residents to have the right to defend themselves against workplace and environmental hazards."

The problem

The movement to give workers and community residents the Right to Act has been motivated by a variety of factors. Unions and environmentalists have been frustrated by weak laws and regulations and by OSHA and the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) lax enforcement. They have found that many hazards are not addressed: employers have found ways to withhold important safety and health hazard information from public scrutiny, and, in some cases, government standards give employers what some have called "a license to kill."

Even if OSHA and the EPA took aggressive action to protect workers and citizens, neither agency has enough personnel to do the job properly. Hillary Horn, coordinator for the New Jersey Right-to-Know and Act Campaign states, "At the current rate of inspection, a given New Jersey workplace would be inspected an average of once every 60 years."

Hence the need for worker involvement in workplace inspection. "The labor movement feels that the biggest hole in our health and safety legislation is the right of workers and their representatives to correct health and safety problems," asserts Frank Mirer, director of the UAW Health and Safety Department. "The way the law is structured now, you are supposed to turn the matter over to OSHA to fix it for you." Many workers have come to the conclusion that simply reporting violations to these agencies does not significantly improve workplace safety.

Rather than relying on government bureaucracies to provide the necessary protection from hazardous conditions, Right-to-Act advocates suggest increasing worker and citizen involvement and empowering those affected by the hazards to help solve the problems that confront them. "Worker and community groups typically know the problems and solutions better than a third party anyway," says Dooley.

The direct action approach

Right-to-Act advocates propose a number of solutions for empowering workers and citizens. Some call for direct action to eliminate hazards and others aim to increase worker and citizen rights through legislation.

Local unions and workers have used a variety of direct action tactics to bring about improvements in workplace conditions including refusing to work, initiating work slow-downs, filing mass grievances, circulating petitions and establishing worker- controlled safety and health committees.

To support safety and health efforts at the local level, many unions have negotiated contract language that gives workers the right to take direct action to protect their own health and safety. These include the right to refuse dangerous work, the creation of joint labor-management safety and health committees and the union's right to conduct its own safety and health inspections.

In some cases, workers propose changes which make economic sense in addition to improving safety. At an AC Delco plant in Flint, Michigan, Phil Alward, a member of UAW Local 651, has asked his employer to discontinue the use of ethylene glycol in his work area. The chemical, which may cause damage to the reproductive system, is used to stabilize temperatures in a molding operation.

It is also, according to Alward, expensive. "Ethylene glycol costs between $300 to $400 for a 55 gallon drum. We diluted it by 50 percent with water which creates twice as much of the solution. Because of the state regulations, it costs us $800 to dispose of each barrel of used material." Alward proposes that AC Delco "could save a lot of money and protect people's health by .. . using something less harmful." Although no law gave Alward or the union the right to demand the removal of ethylene glycol, he believes that his request will succeed because of the money the employer will save and because he has the support of fellow workers.

Citizen groups have also used a direct approach to convince companies to reduce toxic emissions, guard against potentially catastrophic releases of dangerous chemicals and improve chemical emergency response efforts. Groups in several states have pushed companies to sign legally binding agreements to reduce emissions and the use of certain chemicals and to implement improved safety procedures. These are known as "Good Neighbor Agreements." Some give citizens the right to inspect the plant with their own expert and verify the information that the company has provided.

In Wyandotte, Michigan, for example, a group called the Downriver Citizens for a Safe Environment documented the discharge of hundreds of thousands of pounds of ethylene oxide and propylene oxide from the BASF Wyandotte Chemical Corporation. The group has asked BASF to commit to a 50 percent reduction in air and water emissions within five years. The citizens also recommended eliminating discharges and have requested accurate reporting of emission data.

John Nasarzewski, a spokesperson for the citizens' group, is not satisfied with the company's response. "They are trying to preempt our group by claiming to adopt our agenda. At this point, they are only using public relations instead of real concern."

Although companies are not legally compelled to comply with citizen demands, the Chemical Manufacturers Association has urged its members to maintain an open line of communications with community residents. Unfortunately, many plants refuse to make public their health and safety information and to deal with workers and citizens on an equal basis. Despite this lack of cooperation, Horn says, "Through a citizen/worker campaign, I think we can create a compelling mandate for a company to become a 'Good Neighbor,' with or without a signed agreement." Mark Osten, national field director for the Public Interest Research Group's Toxic Action, suggests, "Industry will resist citizen empowerment, but citizens can still demand action through a creative campaign."

The legislative approach

Citizen and worker successes at the local level have laid the groundwork for broader efforts. At the national level, the AFL- CIO has proposed a series of revisions to the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which has not been amended since its inception in 1970. In addition to beefing up enforcement, improving record-keeping and expanding the number of workers covered by OSHA, the AFL-CIO wants Right-to-Act provisions codified.

In a policy statement issued in February 1988, the AFL-CIO Executive Council stated, "Union and worker participation should be a cornerstone of all work site safety and health programs . Safety and health committees should be mandated, with the right to inspect workplaces, shut down dangerous jobs and review employer hazard control measures."

The right of a committee to shut down dangerous jobs is especially important because of the reluctance of many workers to risk their jobs by refusing a direct order to perform unsafe or unhealthy work. The UAW's Dooley explains, "We need to empower worker representatives to act on behalf of individual employees who may be threatened with job loss."

Peg Semanario, director of the AFL-CIO's Department of Occupational Safety and Health, adds that it is also necessary "to mandate training and education for safety committee members and workers exposed to hazards on the job." She believes the government should support such a program. "We would like to expand the government's role in providing money to unions and others who can develop health and safety training materials and deliver training programs to workers who need it."

State level Right-to-Act legislation is an integral element in the national battle, according to Eric Scherzer, cochair of the New Jersey Right-to-Know and Act Coalition and secretary- treasurer of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Local 8-149. "While we are supporting Right-to-Act initiatives through the AFL-CIO, we will use the passage of a state law as a model that will point the way. In fact, this is the same strategy we used in winning the Right to Know."

Right-to-Act legislation has already been introduced in New Jersey. In addition to creating joint labor-management health and safety committees, the New Jersey legislation would empower community organizations to inspect facilities with an expert of their choosing and would permit community groups to discuss means of eliminating environmental hazards with the owner/operator, as well as the workplace safety and health committee.

Horn believes that the worker and citizen committees provide a crucial service to employers. "A worker/citizen inspection looks at a broad range of hazards, many of which are poorly regulated. By suggesting changes rather than applying fines and penalties, the inspections provide a preventative rather than a punitive approach to environmental and occupational hazards."

Right-to-Act legislation is also being drafted in Michigan by the same labor and environmental coalition that fought for Right-to-Know. Like the New Jersey bill, Michigan's draft legislation would require the creation of workplace health and safety committees with the powers to inspect and investigate occupational hazards. It would also permit community organizations to conduct workplace inspections and negotiate with facility owners for improved conditions.

There are two additional subjects covered in the proposed Michigan law. First, it provides for the creation of worker representatives in plants with more than 10 employees. In unionized work places, the representatives would be selected by the union. In non-union settings, the representatives would be elected annually by non-supervisory employees. These elected representatives would be independent from the joint labor management committee.

Second, the Michigan law would compel facilities to develop toxic use reduction plans. These plans would be reviewed by the in-plant health and safety committee. Although an individual firm would not be required to reduce chemical usage by a specific amount, two- and five-year reduction plans would be submitted and made available to the public.

Proponents of Right-to-Act in New Jersey and Michigan believe the legislation will create closer working relations between workers and community representatives. "There will be a greater need for cooperation," Horn says, "because community groups will be going into facilities to conduct inspections. The inspections will be more effective if there is a cooperative effort between workers and community residents."

Changing power relationships

As it stands now, workers and community residents can only complain about industrial practices that result in increased rates of injury and disease. The Right-To-Act promises to alter the basis of labor and community relations by giving workers and community residents the power to protect themselves from hazards before damage occurs. By taking direct action at the local level, activists are demonstrating that workers and citizens can take control of their own safety and health. The enactment of Right-to-Act legislation would empower all citizens to do the same.

Scott Tobey is an Associate Professor in the Labor Program Service at Michigan State University.

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