The Job Safety Law Turns 51
Nearly 51 years ago, the Williams-Steiger Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed. This law, which gave the federal government the authority to set and enforce health and safety standards for most U.S. workers, was signed under a Republican president, and was opposed by Labor.
How could this be? Well, like most legislative endeavors, the act, also known as the Job Safety Law, didn’t end as it started.
This particular battle began in 1968 under President Lyndon B. Johnson. Citing statistics revealing that each year, more than 14,000 workers were killed and 2.2 million more were injured on the job, Johnson described the situation as “the shame of a modern industrial nation.” Of course, he wasn’t wrong.
The Labor Department of the era advanced new standards, and businesses dug in on a multi-year campaign to stop the progress, playing every possible card, including challenging the legal authority of the federal government and claiming that safety regulations would stifle innovation.
Unions supported the original Johnson proposal because the bill included an important general duty clause requiring employers to carry the burden of providing a safe and healthful workplace and gave real access and authority to federal inspectors. Violators could be fined or jailed.
This version of the bill would never see a vote in Congress. Escalating deaths and tragedy among mineworkers and other industrial trades would force an end to the stalemate over federal (in)action, and, eventually, a watered-down version would pass in 1970.
While much has improved since then, with states like California implementing more robust laws to protect workers, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how truly inadequate these regulations still are.
In 1968, Labor Secretary Williard Wirtz opined that the carnage would continue because people “can’t see the blood on the food that they eat, on the things that they buy, and on the services they get.” That rings as true today as it did then. It’s a lesson for us. The stories of our workplaces must be told, and perhaps we should mourn our losses more loudly, so as to guard against the complacency and indifference of consumers and elected officials alike.
April 28 is Worker’s Memorial Day. This year, the pain will hit closer to home, and the toll will undoubtedly be greater. The pandemic has left nobody truly safe at work, and regulators have done little to protect the working people who were given labels of “essential” and hailed as “heroes” — titles that amount to nothing more than platitudes, with little regard to these workers’ overall health and safety.
This April 28th, let’s send a message loud and clear: Our workers and their families deserve more than fair pay. They deserve to reap the benefits of their labor without losing their lives. Take time to honor your fallen, and make sure your employers know the true cost of doing business.
California Senate Bills and the Political Environment
State Senator Scott Weiner lost the endorsement of the California Labor Federation last August. While he succeeded in his bid for re-election, he did so without many of us. The federation made a principled decision based upon the facts, and we have no regrets.
The officers of this Council and other labor leaders have made efforts to “reset” and work with Weiner. Unfortunately, I must report that despite being assured of a new day, we are on what feels like a familiar road.
The senator’s challenger made bold and aggressive commitments and levied criticism as one would expect in any competitive race. Apparently, it stung a bit more than anyone had expected. In fact, we believe it is motivating some rather cynical moves in Sacramento.
The most recent episode involves a bill, SB 617, that would allow virtual self-inspection of renewable energy facilities. This could result in grave consequences for first responders, industry workers, and neighbors, as battery storage and many other aspects of these facilities are anything but safe until thoroughly examined by properly trained personnel.
A second bill, SB 467, touts environmental justice and an end to fracking and other extraction. Unfortunately, it lacks any energy plan to break free of fossil fuel dependence. It’s an ambitious bill, but fire trucks, cranes, and emergency generators don’t run on good ideas.
SB 467 also lacks dignity for the workers who give their careers and, often, their health to power our energy demands in California. Rather than provide a fair shake for workers, the bill relegates us to do the cleanup work — if we’re lucky. The authors of the bill may even prefer we import our oil from other nations like Saudi Arabia and Russia, so long as we don’t extract here.
Both SB 617 and SB 467 are losers for our environment, our workers, and our state. The seriousness of the issues we confront require thoughtful and committed lawmakers to build coalitions in order to tackle big problems. Instead, we are dealt a hand that will only serve to drive deeper wedges among advocates.
My hope is that we focus on building our infrastructure and energy capacity while centering environmental policy around the workers and communities they live in. Until then, SB 467’s reference to “just transition” is mere lip service and has more to do with the political environment than the planet.
Three-Day Janitor Strike Ends
On Day 1 of the three-day janitor strike for unfair labor practices (March 24 through 26), I joined President Olga Miranda, District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney, and DA Chesa Boudin on the picket line at Salesforce Tower. Field reps, signatory contractors, and the news media all waited to see how it would unfold.
The first issue arose when janitors risked being fired for not walking inside to turn in their company badges while on strike. A quick escort of the workers inside, with Boudin on one wing and Haney on the other, settled that matter. Morale peaked as members of the SF Building Trades and other unions, location by location, packed up or refused to enter their job sites in solidarity.
These are not easy times to pass on work, but I am certain our members understood the consequence should the strike not carry the day. While it is the seniority and safety of the janitor in dispute today, if could just as easily be ours tomorrow.
I am humbled by the many members who made the sacrifice to honor the line. Through our solidarity, we showed that San Francisco remains a union town.