This Day in Labor History: April 28, 1971. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration opened its doors. Let's talk about the fight for workplace safety and how OSHA has been so captured by corporations today!
The creation of OSHA proved to be one the greatest victory in American history for workplace health.
Unfortunately, OSHA could never live up to its potential to revolutionize the workplace due to the organized resistance of corporations, the conservative movement that would transform American politics beginning in the late 1970s, and regulatory capture.
Unsafe and unhealthy working conditions had long plagued American workers.
The Gilded Age theory of workplace risk, encapsulated in the 1842 MA Supreme Court decision Farwell v. The Boston and Worcester Rail Road Corporation, placed workplace responsibility onto workers rather than employers, saying they assumed the risk when they agreed to work
By the 1890s, this had begun to break down after workers and their survivors successfully sued corporations for injury and death.
Employer supported worker compensation plans began passing at the state level in the 1910s, allowing corporations to avoid lawsuits and rationalize losses for workplace injuries, while also giving quite little to workers.
Industrial reformers like Alice Hamilton continued drawing connections between worker health and exposure on the job, leading to very slow reforms. By the Great Society, keeping workers safe became increasingly important to policy makers.
Workers were unsatisfied with the exposure they faced on the job, the rising environmental movement provided an ecological language to workplace environments, and liberals within the Johnson Administration sought to center broader quality of life issues to the Democratic Party.
Even when Vietnam blew up LBJ’s career, the momentum for a federal workplace safety program, like much else of the Great Society, carried over into the Nixon Administration.
On December 29, 1970, Richard Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, creating an agency to oversee workplace safety and health that would begin operation on April 28, 1971.
The act also created the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) as a part of OSHA to spearhead research programs on these issues.
Organized labor by and large supported OSHA’s creation, but only a few unions really took advantage of the agency to bring workplace safety and health to the front of union politics.
The AFL-CIO pushed for full implementation of the act as one of many legislative goals, but did not seek to empower workers on the shop floor by fighting for safer workplaces.
A few individual unions however did do this–the International Association of Machinists, the International Woodworkers of America, and most famously the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers.
These were also the most reformist oriented unions in the AFL-CIO during the 1970s, seeking to channel the broader disgruntlement of the working-class away from racial politics and toward something useful.
They were also the unions who often chafed against the conservative leadership of George Meany and the culture of staid bureaucracy that dominated many unions during these years. The labor leader most associated with OSHA and workplace health is Tony Mazzocchi of the OCAW.
Sometimes called “The Rachel Carson of the American Workplace,” Mazzocchi had pressed through the 1960s for vigorous workplace safety programs in union contracts.
He sought to empower union members to become activists on the shop floor for workplace health, and built bridges between the labor and environmental movements to make the workplace environment an important agenda item for both.
After OSHA’s founding, Mazzocchi became the national leader in pressing the agency to issue stronger asbestos standards to protect both workers and consumers.
Like any agency, it took a few years to really get up and running. The best OSHA leader ever was Eula Bingham, under Carter. She really sought to use OSHA to advance the workers' struggle and was a very fine leader. But that was short-lived because here comes Ronnie.
The turning point in OSHA history was the election of Ronald Reagan. Reagan gutted the OSHA budget in 1982.
Reagan’s OSHA director, Thorne Auchter, a Florida real estate developer, signaled a switch in OSHA policies when he reversed a regulation that allowed construction workers to view their own medical records for information on toxic exposure.
Given the time that an agency needs to establish itself, create programs, and conduct research, in many ways OSHA was just reaching its stride when Reagan slashed the budgets. For the International Woodworkers of America, the decline in OSHA funding was devastating.
The IWA was a bit slower than OCAW in engaging OSHA seriously. The election of a new generation of union leadership in 1976 catapulted the union into one of most aggressive for using OSHA as a tool to empower workers on the shop floor.
The IWA trained workers in OSHA policies, then sent them back to the shop floor to demand problems be cleaned up.
It even suggested to OSHA that the agency send a staffer to work directly with the IWA, which was denied because it was outside the purview of the agency, but also got the attention of the agency as a union serious about workplace health.
Basil Whiting, Deputy Assistant Secretary of OSHA, told the IWA Convention in 1977, “You have been one of the few unions in the United States that has grasped the nettle here,......
.... has begun to move forward in terms of developing your own internal capacity to take action in relation to the serious problems of health and safety that are killing off your members.”
The Reagan budgets, combined with the decline in timber employment due to outside factors and thus a smaller membership, put a stop to these workplace safety programs.
NIOSH grants to fund the effects of ash from the Mt. St. Helens explosion were ended, as was a federal grant to the University of Washington to study chemical exposure among plywood mill workers.
Other plans to develop compensation programs for physical aliments suffered by loggers were shelved entirely.
Despite Reagan’s defunding of OSHA programs, overall workplace safety has improved significantly in the United States since 1971.
A good bit of this has to do with industry outsourcing industrial risk to Latin America and Asia, but there have also been real changes in workplace culture.
In 1970, there were 18 workplace fatalities for every 100,000 workers. By 2006, that fell to 4.1 deaths per 100,000 workers. Occupational injury and illness rates fell by 40% over the same years.
OSHA’s ability to protect workers has severe limitations due to underfunding. In 1980, OSHA employed 2950 people. In 2006, it employed only 2092 people, despite the near doubling of the size of the workforce.
The explosion at the West Fertilizer plant in Texas in 2013 that killed at least 14 people demonstrated the agency’s very real limitations. There are so few OSHA inspectors that it would take 129 years to inspect every workplace in the country at current staffing levels!!!
That 129 years number is from 2013 as well; it would be more than that today.
Punishment for OSHA violations are often weak and employers have minimum fear that of any real punishment.
OSHA is a pretty broken agency. When I teach my labor history classes, we talk a bit about it. I ask my students, many of which are working class and have union backgrounds. They think of OSHA as a joke.
Specifically, they think OSHA focuses on the ticky-tack violations while ignoring the real issues of workplace safety. This is how employers break the government, by making agencies worthless and they people don't trust them.
We need a much more aggressive workplace safety regime and it much stress across borders as well for products entering the U.S. and sold by American stores.
In case anyone is interested, all the material in this thread on the International Woodworkers of America comes from my book Empire of Timber, which is the first book to explore workers' environmentalism across an entire century in a single industry.…
Back Friday to discuss Coxey's Army.

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More from @ErikLoomis

27 Apr
Turns out there's a lot of people on the left out there who really, really, really want to believe heroic myths about past radicals and have no interest in actual history.

I mean, I already knew this, so I'm not at all surprised. But it's a very real thing.
As many historians will tell you, people say they want to know the "real history" but in fact what they mean by that is "history that reinforces my preexisting beliefs."

And that's true of leftists, liberals, centrists, conservatives, and fascists.
Today the Twitter left is really mad at me for noting actual facts about the Haymarket anarchists and talking about their actual beliefs and actions.

Sorry for having read the literature on labor history and then reporting it to you?
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27 Apr
Yes, the Haymarket anarchists were in fact bad actors who helped destroy the Knights of Labor by giving government an excuse to crackdown on actual workers fighting for their own demands.
Same with Goldman and Berkman trying (and of course failing because anarchists can't do anything right) to kill Henry Clay Frick and discrediting the Homestead strikers who had nothing to do with it.
And I mean, let's be clear, the Chicago anarchists at Haymarket thought that American workers were too stupid to understand revolution and so decided to do it for them. I mean, these were not great people.
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27 Apr
This Day in Labor History: April 27, 1939. Senator James Murray, a Democrat from Montana, introduced SB 2256, authorizing federal funding to states to pay out claims to workers suffering from silicosis. Let's talk about the fight for workers' health!
The rise of organized labor and the New Deal in the 1930s placed new pressures on employers to clean up unsafe workplaces. Silicosis was one of the major issues in the workplace.
The horrifying Hawk’s Nest massacre of Black workers in the early 1930s from silicosis was just the most famous incident in this horror show of death and debilitating illness.…
Read 31 tweets
27 Apr
Once again, it is entirely possible that Biden is the most pro-union president in American history. In fact, it's really a probable statement at this point. FDR never came close to these actions.…
It is true of course that Democrats passed pioneering labor legislation, but a) that only happened because they had gargantuan legislative majorities and b) they still had to basically exclude Black workers to get them through.
New Deal Democrats, that is
Read 4 tweets
20 Apr
This Day in Labor History: April 20, 1946. The International Fishermen and Allied Workers of America (IFAWA) Local 46, a communist led union of largely Native Alaskans, walked off the job to demand wage increases, shorter workdays, and the closed shop. Let's talk about this win!
First off, I am very pro IFAWA salmon union logo. I need a t-shirt of this.
Working in solidarity with Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers (FTA) Local 7, which largely represented Filipino salmon cannery workers, this successful strike demonstrated the potential of cross-racial organizing among workers.
Read 40 tweets
19 Apr
This Day in Labor History: April 19, 1911. Furniture makers in Grand Rapids, Michigan went on strike to protest the terrible wages and working conditions that defined their lives. This is also a moment to talk about how religion can shape class consciousness!!
To begin with, that we are ever going to have a giant united class-based movement is a fantasy because everyone's going to bring such different life experiences into it. People aren't coming into class consciousness in a vacuum. Their whole lives influence their thoughts.
One of the real lessons of intersectionality is that we are all a creation of a series of interests and influences that overlap to create the person we are. This becomes quite clear if we look at the furniture workers strike and how religion was THE central issue here, not class.
Read 38 tweets

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