The following tries to explain why unions do not adequately address the safety concerns of rank-and-file workers who work for an employer. Of course, safety conditions in non-unionized settings may be even worse, but we should not idealize unionized settings either. They are better than non-unionized settings, generally, but they remain inadequate since workers’ safety and well-being are sacrificed for the benefit of the particular employer as well as for the benefit of the class of employers.
From Tom Dwyer (1991), Life and Death at Work: Industrial Accidents as a Case of Socially Produced Error. (New York: Springer Science+Business Media), page 77:
Evaluating Union Efforts: Negative Evaluation and Scission
The organization of a different constellation of factors leads to a
negative evaluation. It may be arrived at through an argument traced
along the following lines: the institutionalization of safety conflicts, in a
process of negotiation that limits their content, has removed the only
organized vehicle through which those worker safety demands that
have a social content can be expressed. The organized vehicle for workers
is the union movement. When it becomes a political force, it separates
from the workers’ movement because of the imperatives of the
negotiation process, and as a result either ignores or becomes unconscious
of socially expressed demands. The workers’ movement is left
without access to institutional channels for the articulation of its social
This negative evaluation finds support in both historical and contemporary
research: workers are concerned about accidents and express
views on cause and prevention that differ from the dominant ones. In
France, psychopathologist Christophe Dejours has demonstrated, with
extraordinary force, the anguish and fear hidden behind the defense
mechanisms and supposed apathy of many who labor in dangerous
If there is a disconnect or a gap between union representatives and rank-and-file workers over the dangers of work in an employer-dominated context, then there is a problem at the level of collective bargaining, of course and at the level of lobbying for legislative change.
There are undoubtedly many reasons for this disconnect. Some of the reasons are the bureaucratization of unions and the gap between the immediate experiences and concerns of rank-and-file members and union representatives. Another reason is the level of resistance of employers over the issue. Employers generally oppose measures that limit their capacity to control the work of workers, and safety measures are one such interference with their control over the workplace.
More generally, though, the fundamental reason is that workers in a society dominated by employers are, necessarily, things to be used by employers, and as things they have lost control over their own process of producing their lives. Unions and, more to the point, rank-and-file resistance, can limit their use as things, but they cannot eliminate it unless they take over the power to direct their lives at work from the employers. That is of course their decision, but such a view is rarely suggested by unions (and other social institutions further removed from the workplace).
To make the workplace as safe and healthy a place as humans deserve (and not just a safer and healthier place), it will be necessary to discuss whether it is time to eliminate the power of employers in the workplace. However, the union movement as well as most on the left (really the social-reformist left) generally do not want to discuss this issue. Any attempt to do so is either considered a waste of time–as being utopian or unrealistic, or those who try to open up such discussions are oppressed in one way or another.