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Unions improve the health and safety practices of workplaces

More than 4,800 workers are killed on the job every year. An estimated 50,000 to 60,000 more die of occupational diseases each year, and the estimated number of work-related injuries and illnesses exceeds 7 million. Unions have always championed workers’ safety by investing in programs to educate workers about on-the-job hazards and working with employers to reduce worker injuries and the time lost due to injury. In unionized workplaces, workers generally have a right to involve a union representative in injury and fatality investigations, which gives workers a voice in their own safety. And researchers have suggested that unions create safer workplaces because union workers protected by their union from repercussions are more likely to report not only injuries but near misses that can lead to reducing work hazards. The union contribution to safety is particularly important because government health and safety regulations are being weakened.

Here are some specific ways unions have improved safety in the workplace by representing workers’ concerns in public and testifying before Congress and state legislatures:

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  • Nurses win violence prevention standards. In the past decade or so, the rate of reported violence against health care workers (who make up 9 percent of the nation’s workforce) has more than doubled. The increase stems from cuts in state funds for mental health services and hospital budget cutbacks thinning the ranks of nurses and security guards. National Nurses United (NNU), which represents more than 160,000 nurses across the country, has fought for and won workplace violence prevention standards in California, Minnesota, and Massachusetts. NNU is now petitioning the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for a formal workplace violence prevention standard that would apply nationwide.
  • Laborers, autoworkers, and others secure protections for workers from deadly silica dust. Roughly 2.3 million workers are exposed to silica dust, which causes silicosis (an incurable and often deadly lung disease), lung cancer, other respiratory diseases, and kidney disease. Silica dust is produced by grinding stone or masonry in mines or on construction sites. Although the hazards of silica dust have been known for at least a century, existing regulations limiting exposure were outdated and were not keeping up with worker exposure to silica in new industries such as stone countertop fabrication and hydraulic fracturing. A broad section of the labor movement—including the United Automobile Workers and the Laborers’ International Union of North America—helped persuade OSHA to issue a new rule that reduces workers’ exposure to silica.
  • Firefighters get relief from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Firefighters who develop PTSD after witnessing repeated trauma on the job don’t always have recourse if the disorder means they cannot work while they seek treatment. When independent studies showed that post-traumatic stress rates are on the rise for Texas firefighters, the Texas State Association of Fire Fighters (TSAFF) launched an education campaign for state lawmakers leading to legislation to improve workers’ compensation coverage for Texas first responders diagnosed with line-of-duty-related PTSD. The legislation (HB 1983) was signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott on June 1, 2017.

Unions are good for workers’ retirement security

Few Americans have enough to live on in retirement. A key part of the story of rising retirement income insecurity is a shift from traditional defined-benefit (DB) pensions that provide a guaranteed income to defined-contribution (DC) plans—401(k)s or similar plans—that force workers to bear investment risk without providing any guarantees. The shift from pensions to 401(k)s has also exacerbated inequality, benefiting only the very rich and leaving the vast majority unprepared for retirement. Nearly half of all families headed by a working-age adult have zero retirement savings.

Union members have an advantage in retirement security, because union members are more likely to have retirement benefits and because, when they do, the benefits are better than what comparable nonunion workers receive: union members are more likely to have pensions, and employer contributions to the plans (whether pensions or DC plans) tend to be higher.

  • Ninety percent of union workers participate in a retirement plan (of any kind), compared with 75 percent of nonunion workers.
  • Seventy-four percent of union workers who have pensions participate in a traditional defined benefit pension, compared with 15 percent of nonunion workers.
  • Traditional defined benefit pensions are especially important to black workers, who derive more than a fifth of their household income from these pensions in retirement.
  • Union employers (when adjustments are made for various employer characteristics) are 22.5 percent more likely to offer an employer-provided retirement plan and, on average, to spend 56 percent more on retirement for their employees than do comparable nonunion employers.

Economic Policy Institute

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