This post was contributed by the PA AFL-CIO’s Summer Intern Lindsey Hogge.
Often we forget the hard battles unions fought for safe working conditions. Every person who works for a living has benefitted from these struggles. The labor movement believes that no one should lose their life working to provide for themselves and their families. But for most of history, this was not a right guaranteed to all. Many workers risked their lives when they went to work.
For much of the Industrial Era, many people worked for low wages in dangerous workplaces while factory, mine, and mill owners profited handsomely. These under-protected and over-worked men, women, and children had missing limbs, damaged hearing and vision, and contracted deadly diseases stemming from the hazardous, unregulated working conditions. From 1880 to 1900, over 35,000 workers were killed in workplace accidents and over a million suffered from life-changing injuries.
It’s a fact that organized workplaces are safer workplaces. Union representation saves lives, leads to reductions in illness caused by unsafe working conditions, helps maintain a positive safety culture in organizations, and saves the economy millions of dollars as a result. Through organizing and collective bargaining, unions gain stronger protections and rights for workers, giving them a voice in the safety and health provisions in their workplace.
Union-led fights culminated in the passing of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 and the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977. In the following decades, more than 500,000 workers were saved by the strengthening of workplace protections. Fatality and injury rates dropped significantly.
It is estimated that in 1970, 14,000 workers were killed on the job, and in 2015, that number fell approximately to 4,836 even though the number of workers more than doubled. In 2015 there were over 127 million working people in the United States and more than 8 million worksites. “These are more than numbers; they are our brothers and sisters, and a reminder of the need to continue our fight for every worker to be safe on the job every day”, stated AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. The effects of union activism on worker health and safety cannot be overstated.
In the last few decades, the political landscape has shifted dramatically. Union victories are being attacked and the health and safety of all workers are in danger. Corporate negligence, the deregulation of worksites, lagging investment in oversight, and the dismantling of U.S. safety laws contribute directly to the growing number of workplace injuries and fatalities. It seems that the United States is regressing back to the Industrial Era– worker safety is being disregarded as corporate profits skyrocket.
As we have done in the past, the labor movement will continue to fight hard to defend worker safety and health protections. As a nation, we must join together to protecting workers and make health and safety protections a priority.