There is no disagreement among all of labor that workers and their unions did a good job mobilizing members to vote in 2004. The problem that most of labor agrees on is that the Democratic Party dropped the ball. A large percentage agrees that building the independent role of labor is a clear lesson.

Everyone agrees that increasing the number of union workers is essential to increasing union power. Some have argued that numbers is not the only issue. A militant and progressive vision is needed to encourage workers to join and stay in unions.

There is also general agreement that the struggle to increase wages and reduce hours worked is essential, along with the struggle to improve working conditions. But the issue of working conditions — occupational safety and health as it is called these days — has become a bone of contention introduced into the debates in labor by a few of the more vocal unions.

Eliminate S&H departments?

One recurring call raised by a number of the unions that once formed the New Unity Partnership (NUP) was to eliminate safety and health departments in all unions and in the national AFL-CIO, and spend the saved money on organizing. With the demise of the NUP, it was hoped by many that this proposal would be set aside. It hasn’t been.

The unfortunate aspect of this largely behind-the-scenes debate is that it artificially separates these two major issues: organizing, and protecting workers’ safety and health. It simply makes no sense.

International unions with safety and health departments have always supported and in many instances participated in organizing drives. And labor organizers and union organizing drives have almost always had to respond to occupational safety and health hazards raised by angry workers and their families. Workers’ safety and health was and continues to be a powerful organizing tool.

What better use of labor staff expertise in worker safety and health than organizing workers and keeping them organized?

Corporate power must be challenged

What’s at issue here is underestimating corporate power. Corporations use their own medical and scientific experts to determine what is and what is not safe in the workplace. They do the same in the political arena, using powerful lobbying groups in state capitals and Congress to change and pass laws that permit bosses to further exploit and endanger their employees. The residual burden on state-based workers’ compensation systems is easy to see.

Since the passage of the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act, labor has been able to reverse previous decades of corporate control over the workplace. Granted, the OSHA law has been stripped of many of its powers under Reagan and the two Bushes. And Clinton didn’t help matters. But abandoning safety and health to corporate power in the halls of Congress and in state capitals grants the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Heritage Foundation a wish that they could not have won themselves.

Let’s get real

Eliminating union-based safety and health departments and the AFL-CIO’s Department of Safety and Health will not solve the problem of low union membership. There is not enough money spent on occupational safety and health to make that kind of difference. There is simply no evidence that this is a serious strategy that will net membership increases. It certainly will put tens of thousands of workers at greater risk on the job.

Some activists worry that elimination of safety and health departments is actually a reaction by some union officials against a working-class issue they find hard to deal with. It is true that safety and health conditions are never fully resolved. It is also probably true that they are sometimes used to rally forces in insurgent union election campaigns. But this is not a reason to sweep resolving safety and health conditions under the rug.

So what is the answer?

Easy! Combine the power of an aggressive, medical/scientific safety and health department with organizing and political action departments that will attract tens of thousands of workers into labor unions.