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Labour Union-Based Activities in the United States

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In 1995, the US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, published a report indicating that 18.8 million workers, or approximately 16% of the United States workforce, are either union members or workers who report no union affiliation but are covered by a union contract (US Department of Labor 1995). Table 1 draws upon this report to characterize the unionized workforce by industry. Most of these workers are represented by labour unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), which comprises 86 national and international unions (Statistical Abstract of the United States 1994). Labour unions are typically organized into international or national headquarters, regional and district offices and local unions.

Table 1. 1994 distribution of the US unionized workforce according to industry

or industry

Total employed

Members of unions*

Represented by unions**



Total (%)


Total (%)

Agricultural wage
and salary workers






Private nonagricultural wage and salary workers
























Durable goods






Nondurable goods






Transportation and public utilities












Communications and public utilities






Wholesale and retail trade






Wholesale trade






Retail trade






Finance, insurance and real estate












Government workers






Data refer to members of a labour union or an employee association similar to a union.
** Data refer to members of a labour union or an employee association similar to a union, as well as to workers who report no union affiliation but whose jobs are covered by a union or an employee association contract.

Note: Data refer to the sole or principal job of full- or part-time workers. Excluded are self-employed workers whose businesses are incorporated although they technically qualify as wage and salary workers. Data for 1994 are not directly comparable with data for 1993 and earlier years. For additional information, see “Revisions in the current population survey effective January 1994”, in the February 1994 issue of Employment and Earnings.


Labour unions provide comprehensive safety and health services to workers who are members of unions. Through the development of collective bargaining agreements and by providing technical and related services, unions address the needs and concerns of their members.

On the national and international levels, union officers and staff members (safety and health professionals, attorneys, lobbyists and others) work to influence elected officials to pass safety and health laws and rules which protect workers. Union representatives also develop and negotiate collective bargaining agreements with employers containing legally binding safety and health contract language.

Labour unions ensure that workers have safe, healthful work environments through collective bargaining agreements. Ideally these agreements also provide workers with a means of addressing safety and health issues or of resolving safety and health disputes that may arise at the workplace.

Technical Assistance

At the central office, labour unions often employ or contract professional industrial hygienists, ergonomists, occupational physicians, engineers and other safety and health professionals to furnish technical assistance to workers. These professionals provide such services as conducting complaint investigations; carrying out job-site safety and health evaluations; and interpreting and translating environmental monitoring data, medical results and other technical information into language understandable by the average worker.

Safety and health complaint investigations are routinely conducted by labour union professional staff or consultants. Working in conjunction with designated employee representatives from the affected local union, these professionals address issues such as workers’ exposure to chemical or physical hazards, musculoskeletal illnesses and injuries, and non-compliance with applicable safety and health regulations.

In addition, unions may become involved in accident investigations in situations where the employer’s investigation results are disputed by the affected employees.

Labour union representatives may use the information obtained during such investigations to resolve safety and health complaints by working with the employer through the collective bargaining process. Unions may utilize the grievance procedure or specific safety and health contract language to protect workers. However, the union may elect to contact a federal or state regulatory agency if the employer is not in compliance with established laws, rules or regulations.

Union-based safety and health professionals and/or trained designated union workplace representatives—for example, local union safety and health committee members or shop stewards —conduct job-site surveys to evaluate the work environment for hazards.

During the surveys, the manufacturing processes or other operations within the job-site are evaluated. Safety and health records (for instance, OSHA 200 Logs, Department of Transportation (DOT) Accident Reports, environmental monitoring results and written programmes) are reviewed to determine compliance with collective bargaining agreements and governmental standards and regulations. The results of the surveys are documented and any problems are resolved through collective bargaining or by contacting a governmental regulatory agency.

Workers themselves often request technical or regulatory information and reports—for example, chemical fact sheets, environmental monitoring results, biological monitoring results, or federal or state safety and health regulations. Because of the technical nature of this information, the worker may require assistance in understanding the subject matter and how it applies to his or her workplace. Union-based safety and health staff can provide the workers with assistance in understanding technical information. The manner in which the assistance is provided is dependent upon the needs of the worker.

Labour unions also serve as a clearinghouse for specialized medical care or assistance for use in workers’ compensation hearings. Unions typically maintain lists of the names and addresses of reputable independent physicians to whom the worker may be referred, if necessary.

Legislative and Rulemaking Activities

Active involvement in safety and health governmental rulemaking is a very important concern of labour unions; they encourage their members to become involved in legislative and safety and health rulemaking activities on varying levels.

Unions seek to influence politicians to propose legislation to establish adequate workplace safety and health standards; to respond to proposed safety and health rulemaking submitted by governmental regulatory agencies; to influence the manner in which governmental regulatory agencies enforce workplace safety and health regulations; or to organize support for governmental regulatory agencies subject to budgetary reductions or operational changes by the US Congress.

Union lobbyists, technical professionals, research workers and legal staff members are the primary personnel involved in these activities. These staff members are responsible for collecting, analysing and organizing the data necessary to develop a union position on legislative or rulemaking activities. They also make the necessary contacts with agencies or individuals to ensure that the union’s position is presented to elected officials.

Union safety and health staff members may encounter a safety and health issue that affects workers but is not regulated by a governmental agency. In this instance, the union may develop written comments and/or oral testimony to be presented during public hearings. The intent of the comments or testimony is to educate the relevant officials and encourage them to draft legislation to resolve the issue.

Agencies that enforce safety and health regulations are, on occasion, targeted for budget reductions. Often these budget cuts are seen as being adverse to the protection of the safety and health of workers on the job. Labour unions develop and implement strategies to prevent such reductions. This may be done by working with union lobbyists to educate legislative and other officials on the adverse effects that the reductions will have on workers. In addition, there are “grassroots efforts” that include organizing and mobilizing workers to write letters to their elected officials highlighting their opposition to the proposed cuts.

In addition, unions are very involved in preparing and delivering written comments and oral testimony in response to proposed safety and health rulemaking promulgated by federal and state regulatory agencies. It is vitally important that workers have opportunities for meaningful participation in the rulemaking process. Labour unions are the means workers can use to participate fully in the rulemaking process.

Collective Bargaining Agreements

The collective bargaining agreement is the primary tool used by labour unions to implement services to the members. Labour unions use the technical expertise of industrial hygienists, ergonomists, engineers, occupational physicians and other safety and health professionals to collect and analyse safety and health information in order to prepare the union representatives who are responsible for negotiating collective bargaining agreements.

Labour unions utilize collective bargaining agreements as legal, binding documents to provide occupational safety and health protection to workers. The primary goals of the agreements are to provide protection to workers who are either not covered by federal or state workplace safety and health standards and regulations, or to provide protection to workers beyond the minimum state and federal standards.

To prepare for bargaining, unions collect information to document the safety and health issues affecting the membership. This may be accomplished by conducting membership surveys, working with technical staff and/or consultants to identify workplace hazards, reviewing information pertaining to safety and health complaints or investigations that may have been conducted, and by reviewing and evaluating workers’ compensation data, environmental monitoring surveys, or injury and illness logs.

In the final stages of preparation for bargaining, the negotiation committee prioritizes the safety and health issues and considers feasible solutions to the issues.

Worker Education and Training

Labour unions have a very important role in providing safety and health training and education to their members.

The type of training provided ranges from basic workplace safety rights (e.g., hazard communication) to extensive industry-specific training such as that provided to workers who are involved in hazardous waste remediation projects. This training is vitally important for workers who work in rapidly changing work environments.

Worker training provided by unions is usually funded through members’ dues, federal and state grants, and training funds established by employers as negotiated in collective bargaining agreements. Worker training and education courses are developed by professional staff and consultants along with extensive worker input. Often, train-the-trainer courses are provided to allow for peer training.

Research Efforts

Labour unions work with institutions such as universities and governmental agencies to conduct specific occupational safety and health research. The research efforts are typically funded by the union or the employers or through state or federal grants.

The unions use the results of the studies in the safety and health rulemaking process to negotiate contract language in order to eliminate or significantly reduce hazards in the workplace or, alternatively, to develop interventions to eliminate or significantly reduce excessive risk to the union members—for instance, to provide smoking cessation courses among asbestos-exposed workers. In addition, research results may be used to develop or modify various types of equipment used on the job.

The occupational safety and health services provided by labour unions are primarily preventive in nature and require the combined efforts of technical professionals, occupational physicians, lawyers, lobbyists and union members. By providing these services, labour unions are able effectively to ensure the safety and health of their members and of other workers in the workplace.



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