Questions about union organizing and collective bargaining frequently center on economics. How much will the employees make? What other economic benefits will be provided? This is especially true in the context of unionized employees of the government, where the taxpayers are the ultimate source of the funds required for wages and benefits. This issue is coming to a head right now in Illinois, where their newly elected Governor is taking on their public sector unions over “Fair Share.” Even here in Maine this issue bubbles up frequently – for instance, I was on a local cable show a few weeks ago in which the host questioned whether or not we should allow public sector unions at all.
This type of discussion, however, tends to obscure some of the other valuable reasons that unions exist. No clearer is this seen than in the recent nationwide strikes at oil refineries by their unionized workforce. Is you can read here, the USW members walked out over safety issues and, from their perspective, insufficient progress in negotiating these issues with the management. According to this source, there have been 14 deaths in the last 16 years in their workforce. With numbers like that, it should be no surprise that the Employees are demanding more attention on safety issues.
Unions have a long history of fighting for the safety of workers. Following the devastating Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911 that killed 146 workers because exit doors were locked, the International Ladies Garment Worker Union worked with political leaders to create comprehensive workers’ safety and workers’ compensation laws that are still in effect now.
As we see worker safety continuing to be an issue even today, it’s important to remember the part unions play in protecting not just union members, but all of us. Economic rights aren’t the only things that concern employees. Sometimes issues in the workplace are life-and-death issues. We would all do well to remember that when we read about union activity.
About the author: Ben Grant is an attorney at the workers’ rights firm, McTeague Higbee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 207-725-5581.