Welcoming Remarks from U.S. Labor Delegation

US-EU Health and Safety Conference
San Francisco, California November 15, 2000


Franklin E. Mirer
Director, Health and Safety Department
International Union, UAW

Franklin E. Mirer Director, Health and Safety Department International Union, UAW

I wish to add my welcome to our European colleagues, especially our colleagues from the labor movement, to this second US-EU Transatlantic Health and Safety Conference. At our first meeting in Luxembourg, we felt the excitement of getting acquainted with a new set of allies in labor, industry and government, of learning from the European system and standards, and making initial contacts. But, the pressure of day-to-day activities at home distracted us from those contacts, which we are pleased to renew.

Let's remind ourselves why we are here. On May 17, 2000, Lazaro Fuentes, a 50 years old Machine Repairman with 12 years seniority at the Daimler Chrysler Jeep Assembly Plant in Toledo, Ohio, a member of UAW LU 12, was crushed by the transfer rails in a robot cell while making a repair. Joint investigation with management revealed that interlocks and e-stops had been programmed out of the automation logic, contributing to this tragedy. Larry Green, a pipefitter at Ford was killed in a similar incident some months later. Both companies responded with jointly implemented safety stand-downs. Ford top management directed every plant manager to "Establish a process to verify the correct operation of every guard, safety interlock, emergency stop, two hand control and presence sensing device, and complete the verification within 30 days."

But, large multinationals are only one sector of the UAW. We represent workers at about 2,000 sites with average membership 98.

On September 19, 2000, Dwayne Smith, a 42-year old production material handler with one-month seniority at Sennett Steel, a small supplier in a Detroit suburb represented by UAW Local 417, was crushed by rolls of steel in a staging area. Because the victim was working alone, and the scene was disturbed before OSHA and UAW investigators could arrive, the specific cause was not determined, and specific corrective actions not taken.

These are two of the twelve fatalities among UAW bargaining units so far this year. We must agree there are drastic and immediate problems among high tech, high skilled, high seniority workers in large plants of multinational corporations. Although the fatality rate in that sector of our union is decreasing, we can't be proud of these results. And there are problems among low tech, lower skilled suppliers, and the fatality rate in this sector is increasing.

Let's take a moment to recognize these victims, as the AFL-CIO and UAW do every Worker's Memorial Day, April 28. Let's remember that we are here as safety and health people because our current best is far from good enough.

I complement the organizers on the agenda, but also must mention an item on which we need to focus in the future.

Ergonomics is rightfully on the agenda, at center stage on both sides of the ocean. We salute OSHA's triumph in releasing the ergonomics standard. The majority of injuries in our sector, and the US generally, are musculoskeletal disorders caused by repetitive motion and over exertion.

This conference will focus on management systems, which are the root of the problems in large enterprises. That is important on both sides of the Atlantic. The conference will also focus on provisions for small and medium sized enterprises. That is important too. But, in our view one of the solutions to problems in small facilities is for the recognized industry leaders, those who occupy the commanding heights of our economies, to take leadership in health and safety. Quite frankly, we have not seen that leadership, and sometimes we have seen the opposite.

We are please to see worker participation on the agenda. Worker protection is the driving force for what we do, and worker participation is essential to directing that force. I hope we can reach a consensus on the factors which discourage worker participation, including incentive programs which discourage reporting of injuries.

Now to an issue for the future. Workplace fatalities are a one fraction of the problem, injuries and MDS's another. But epidemiologists estimate that 90% of work related mortality arises from occupational illness arising from chemical exposure over the long term. That is our estimate in the auto industry. New' evidence for health risks at prevailing and permitted exposure records has been developed for many common materials of industry. We need to expand our work regarding exposure levels and hazard evaluation.

We thank the organizers for bringing us together across borders. While management is increasingly global, we in the labor movement remain national. The UAW negotiates with the president of Ford Motor Company who is Australian. The Detroit papers report German management is assuming leadership at Chrysler because they are not making enough money this quarter.

Yet our contacts across the ocean are limited. Imbalance.

We have to correct this.

Finally, I want to talk about chaos and contradiction.

Peg Seminario, head of the US delegation also sends her welcome. However, she felt she had to stay behind in Washington, DC to deal with the chaos there. Not only don't we know who our next president will be, not only has the ergonomics standard been issued, but the huge labor, health and human services budget bill is locked up over the rider to block that ergonomics standard. Imagine a safety and health regulation at the center of one ring in a national three ring political circus?

The essence of chaos theory is that a small item, or a small change can have large and unpredictable results, and that a system that's perturbed may not come back to the same equilibrium. A poorly drawn ballot in a county in Florida can gridlock our national government. A small imbalance in the world oil market, without warning, has truckers barricading roads over gas prices. Most serious incidents arise from a cascade of small faults. However, sometimes chaos leads to unpredictable positive results. The chemical catastrophe in Bhopal in 1984 lead to million dollar OSHA citations for covering up injuries at a sister plant in West Virginia, which lead to citations forcing ergonomics programs in the meat packing and auto industries in the 1990's, which lead to the OSHA ergonomics standard in November 2000.

And who knows why the same political forces in the House and Senate who are trying to block ergonomics and chemical standards rushed through new sweeping protections against blood borne infections for health care workers in record time?

For the US labor movement, our views of international affairs flipped in the 1990's. Earlier, our focus was political rights for labor unions, freeing political prisoners, fighting amongst ourselves over cold war issues, and some technical assistance and exchange. We are proud of our role in political change in South Africa, and the UAW's efforts to put pressure on the American car companies operating there. Then, gradual increases in cross border and offshore production by our multinational companies flipped our views. Labor rights, including health and safety conditions, in Mexico and the Pacific Rim, in Korea and China, became bread and butter issues to our members almost overnight. NAFT A, WTO and PNTR became splitting issues in the US Democratic Party coalition.

The UAW stands behind the principle, embodied in US trade legislation, that failure to make progress on labor rights, including health and safety protection, is an unfair trade practice. The developed world, as well as the developing world, should live up to this principle. Frankly, the prize for multinationals is access to the US and EU markets. So trade, and the legislation and regulation of trade, give unions and our allies leverage to improve health and safety conditions and labor rights that we didn't have before, even while exploitation of uneven development by multinationals IS an economic threat. That's a contradiction. What nations do in their home market, within some limits, is their sovereign right, but when the multinationals and their subsidiaries sell in the world market, they should be governed by world rules.

Unfortunately, while human and labor rights are recognized and advanced by international organizations such as the UN, the ILO and WHO, the implementation of these rights is typically opposed by the free traders running the WTO and the World Bank. In my opinion, these ideologues probably question these protections at home, and they use free trade rhetoric to erode these protections at home and abroad.

Which brings me back to this conference and to safety and health. Our American focus on exploitative trade relations in the developing world should not distract us from developments in Europe. These issues make Europe more important to the US, and vice versa. The United States and the European democracies have developed the world's safety and health enterprise, pioneers from Ramazzini in Italy, to Alice Hamilton in the United States, and their modern day successors have saved millions of lives through their work. We have somewhat different systems, and perhaps diverging development in various areas.

This is an opportunity to identify those differences and equalize protections at the highest level. For example, in US manufacturing industry the EU directive on machine guarding is influencing new equipment design for the better. I wish we could codify it into enforceable OSHA standards. The EU directive on hours of work is of great interest to us, since employment levels, overtime, and organization of work are critical issues in collective bargaining throughout the US. Hopefully, some of our developments in ergonomics, protection of health care workers from infectious disease, and chemical exposure limits will be of interest internationally. Make no mistake, there will always be pressure to pick the lowest level protection in our transatlantic community as the world standard. We have to work against that by equalizing standards at the highest level of protection.

We in the US labor delegation look forward to this week. In face-to-face contact, informally, we can get behind the words of a regulation or code of practice, and find out how it really works. We will be frank about our successes, and frank about our failures as well. We also hope to use this interlude of political uncertainty in the US to reach understandings with our industry colleagues on our future course.

We must remember our real mission. We are here to protect the men and women all over the world who go to work every day to earn a living. They should come home as health and whole as when they left for work.