The War on Regulators Makes Unions More Important Than Ever

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An interview with a former OSHA leader underscores the increased relevance of labor unions in protecting workers.

An argument commonly used against labor unions is that we have regulatory agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to protect workers. We don’t need unions. Unfortunately, this view does not reflect the political, fiscal and regulatory realities. An interview with former OSHA Deputy Assistant Secretary Jordan Barab, conducted by journalist Walker Bragman for Union Built Matters, reveals why unions still have life-or-death relevance. See the full video interview below.

 

It’s a striking interview. Barab says that OSHA is hamstrung from performing its core function of protecting workers. And he would know. He has spent decades working on labor safety issues. Previous to his tenure at OSHA, he worked for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the House Education and Labor Committee, the Chemical Safety Board, the AFL-CIO and more. 

The decades-long war on regulators makes union protections more important than ever for workers

Former OSHA Deputy Assistant Secretary Jordan Barab talked with journalist Walker Bragman about the gauntlet of obstacles that hinder regulators from doing their jobs and get in the way of good worker safety.

New Safety Standards Can Take Decades

Here’s how  OSHA operates. They create  “standards” to ensure safe working conditions and enforce those standards by penalizing employers who break them. But the  time it takes to issue a new safety standard can take years, often decades—  a consequence of countless provisions, requirements, and other legal and political hurdles thrown in OSHA’s path during the anti-regulatory atmosphere of the last forty years. 

 

But the real world points out the system’s deep procedural inadequacy. When the covid pandemic overturned work and lives, workers didn’t have decades to await new rules from OSHA. Despite the alarms set off by the pandemic, here we are three years into it and no new workplace standards have been issued. Not even for healthcare workers. 

 

In contrast, labor unions— free from the political hurdles impeding OSHA— have led the way on covid issues. They can demand and enforce protections for their workers that are absent from non-union workplaces where workers must depend solely on the protection of regulators. 

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With no nationally recognized worker protections in place in response to Covid, workers who were forced to return to work during the pandemic but without provided protections, took to the streets in protest against companies including Target, Walmart, Amazon, and more... 

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... meanwhile, NYC construction unions were quick to establish and enforce worker safety standards that allowed their members to return to work feeling protected. Unions were back in force far earlier than the overall workforce.

It Will Take 165 Years to Inspect Every US Workplace

But even when the right OSHA standards are put in place— for example, the standards that govern trenching and excavation— enforcement is next to impossible due to a lack of inspectors. (Two years ago, the number of OSHA inspectors hit an all-time low).  Barab told us that a recent AFL-CIO calculation determined it would take one-hundred and sixty-five years for OSHA to inspect every workplace in the country once. The staggering disparity between the resources OSHA has available and the needs of workers explains how non-union contractors routinely get away with putting workers in dangerous situations that end in tragedy. Inspectors or no inspectors, on a union job, workers can always rely on their shop steward to keep them out of danger and ensure that laws and standards are abided by. 

 

The bottom line is this: if you want to ensure your safety on the job, don’t wait around for one-hundred and sixty-five years. Join a union. 

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Walker Bragman is a journalist based out of New York.

 
 
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Mark Colangelo is a writer and blogger.

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