Workers’ Memorial Day: Unions are the cure for unsafe working conditions

By Christy Hoffman, General Secretary of UNI Global Union

The old adage “Mourn for the Dead but Fight like Hell for the Living” rings even more true on this International Workers Memorial Day, taking place during an unprecedented threat to the health of working people.

As each day passes, we lose more workers who have been struck down by COVID-19 because they continue to do their jobs — despite the fear, despite the danger- to provide essential services for us all.

We do not know how many we have lost. But we know that there will be thousands, and we know that one is too many. These workers are caregivers. They are also postal and delivery workers, grocery store workers, and cleaners. They are security guards and bank workers. They work in warehouses and call centers.

There are valuable lessons we must learn from this crisis.

And one that we must remember is the difference a union can make in terms of health and safety. And it is not only about negotiating the conditions of safe work — it is about representation and a voice on the job lead by rank and file workers. A union health and safety committee is a watchdog, making sure that employers don’t cut corners or require a pace of production that is too fast to be safe. They enable workers, those who are closest to the problem, to expose the hazards and recommend solutions.

My first union position was as a health and safety representative on the factory floor of a large jet engine manufacturer. The union provided training to arm me and the other reps with the information we needed in order to ensure safety on the shop floor — how to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome or the inhalation of dust, to know when the noise was dangerously high. No set of rules sitting in a binder could replace the role of our health and safety committee — supported by our co-workers. Workers could report their concerns to us without any fear of retaliation. It was a relationship that benefited workers and management and kept us all safe.

Fast forward to 2020. Since the earliest moments of the COVID outbreak (in Europe and North America and much of Asia), unions have been educating their members and their workplace safety leaders. In a UNI survey sent out in mid-March, 90 per cent of our affiliates said that they were educating their members about the virus, about safe practices, and dispelling myths. From the very start of the virus’s international spread, union members were better off than their non-union peers. Once the threat was recognized, unions’ adrenaline kicked in and workers were mobilized to know their rights.

UNI’s affiliates became leaders in demanding better practices on the job — whether social distancing, on-site hand sanitizing, rotating shifts to diminish public contact, arranging for remote work. In overcrowded Amazon warehouses or unsanitary Teleperformance call centres, unions in Spain, France, and elsewhere have led actions or called in the authorities to insist that workers were able to maintain safe distances from one another. Worker safety required changes to the work site and to the pace of work, and these changes came only after the workers stood their ground. Without unions, workers in these same companies are doing their best to speak out, but it has taken great courage to do so. Some people — like four Colombian activists at a non-union Teleperformance site — have been dismissed after complaining about safety, and many others have suffered retaliation.

In recent months, there have been an unprecedented number of health and safety walk outs among non-union workers across the world, and these occasionally lead to temporary or one-off improvements. But without the sustained presence of a worker advocate on the job, it is hard to see how the difficult changes required to make a safe workplace will remain in place for longer than a few days or after the publicity of a problem fades from the spotlight.

My parents came from coal country in the United States, and I was there in 1968 when the Farmington mine exploded in West Virginia, killing 78. This explosion was a catalyst for the strong, federal Mining Health and Safety Rules which remain today, and which strengthened the role of the mine health and safety committees on the job.

Seven years ago, the Rana Plaza collapse lead to an historic agreement between unions and global brands to create safe factories in Bangladesh, which included the training of health and safety reps on the factory floor.

From the Farmington Mine to Rana Plaza to the grocery stores of today, it is an article of faith for me that there is no safe worksite without a union. We stand with these workers to keep fighting like hell for the living and learning the lessons from the crisis of today. COVID -19 is a global pandemic and it is a global wake-up call for us that if we want safe jobs we cannot rest. We must Organise, Organise, Organise!

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
UNI Global Union

UNI Global Union, based in Nyon, Switzerland, represents more than 20 million workers in the fastest growing sectors in the world — skills and services.