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Safe Workplaces Help with Contract Bargaining

Safer workplaces equate to better bargaining positions for organized labor

Brian Young's picture
Nov 20, 2017

One of the most important jobs that a union has is making sure that their workers return home safe at night. Throughout history, unions have fought for stronger workplace safety laws. Recently, Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) Local 601 celebrated two major milestones in workplace safety.

Local 601 represents meter readers, field collections, and customer service agents at PSEG NJ and handles claims for Jersey Transit. Many of their members’ jobs involve being out in the field and involve a lot of driving and walking. Since safety is often an afterthought, the union has taken a proactive approach to keeping their members safe. Through collective bargaining, the union asked for and was granted more control over safety procedures. Now, union representatives from their District Councils speak at staff meetings to reiterate safety policy and to remind the members that safety should be their top priority. Local 601 also got the company to agree to mandatory driver training. This driver safety class takes place on certain Saturday’s and all field personnel must attend. The members are put through an obstacle course to teach and reinforce safe driving practices and to help them feel more comfortable with avoiding safety issues that may pop up on the road.

Another important safety procedure was helping to prevent incidental accidents in the workplace. According to UWUA 601 President Noel Christmas, the number one injury to their field personnel was head bumping. Often times, their members need to go into crawl spaces and would hit their heads. Since the members are not required to wear hardhats, this was becoming a major safety problem. The union looked into different options and decided that while hardhats were impractical for members walking from house to house, a bump cap was a better option. The bump cap, a hardened baseball hat, is now provided to all field members by the company along with other safety gear like safety shoes.

It’s not only Local 601 who is working hard to be accident-free. In Pennsylvania, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 29 recently celebrated 2 years without an OSHA accident at their Property Services and Shop Testing Departments and the Transportation Department of Duquesne Light Company celebrated one year without an accident. By increasing the focus on safety and making sure that the members have the right tools and training to their do their job safely, both of these locals are ensuring that their members come home every night the way they left.

All of the efforts to make their jobs safer has worked. Earlier in the month, their Hackensack District completed three years without an OSHA reported accident and their New Brunswick District completed 1 year without an OSHA reported accident. For Local 601 being accident-free is a win-win situation. Of course, their first goal is to make sure that all of their members go home safely at night, but having a good safety record also helps the union negotiate their next contract. “Being a safe workplace helps us to fend off outside contractors,” said Christmas. “When they say they can do the job better, we fend them off by pointing to our safety record.”  

While protecting jobs from outside contractors is important, it also means that the union has a stronger bargaining position when it comes to wages. With fewer people getting hurt and more people working, the company is getting more out of their employees. “Accident-Free workplaces can help a union bargain better contracts because it allows the union to direct more bargaining resources to wages, benefits, and retirement because less of those resources have to go to Accident Disability benefits,” said Michael Gendron, Executive Vice President of Communications Workers of America Local 1108. “The increase in time on the job also raises productivity, which gives the union a better bargaining position.”

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