Working for an Employer May Be Dangerous to Your Health, Part Two

I thought it appropriate to post on the issue of safety and health in relation to working for an employer at this time since, in Canada, April 28 is the National Day of Mourning, or Workers’ Mourning Day, for workers killed, injured or suffering illnesses due to workplace hazards.

Why do unions and the social-reformist left often speak in terms of “fairness,” “fair contracts,” “economic justice,” and so forth in the light of persistent deaths and injuries on the job? They do so in order to justify their own practices–which generally do not question the legitimacy of the power of employers as a class. By limiting their reference to fairness and justice to social relations within the present class system, they serve as ideologues or representatives of employers (even if they do not intend to do so).

Part of the purpose of this blog is to undermine the typical ways of thinking about social problems among the social-democratic or reformist left and among radicals. It is highly unlikely that any major social changes will arise without a frontal attack on the ways of thinking of many workers (including trade unionists). Tom Dwyer points out the importance of this task (Life and Death at Work: Industrial Accidents as a Case of Socially Produced Error, pages 97-98:)

The effect whereby notions of truth and justice are undermined is of great importance for sociology, anthropology, and, as we shall see in highly complex industries, for cognitive psychology. This effect potentially modifies cultural systems, contributes to the destruction of one set of visions of truth and justice and their replacement through the building up of another

Of course, notions of truth and justice are not just undermined and others arise through ideological means. Struggles against those in power play an important part, but the explicit critique of old, upper-class expressions of truth and justice and their replacement by new, working-class expressions of truth and justice are important in unifying the direction of diverse movements consciously and in modifying the direction of each separate struggle accordingly.

The idealization of unions by the left, on the other hand, play into the hands of employers since union representatives and rank-and-file members often diverge over key concerns related to, for example, safety and health issues (from Dwyer,  pages 78-79):

Studies from the United States illustrate this last point: the union movement perceives safety in a manner different to workers. A survey by the Upjohn Institute found that unionized automobile and steel workers placed job health and safety issues at the top of their priorities. This was corroborated by a national survey which found that in “the labor standards areas . . . most important to workers were those relating principally to the general area of health and safety.”121 In the Upjohn study, union leaders and top management “both thought money rather than working conditions deserved the most attention, an almost exact reversal of the blue collar attitudes.”122 In other words, these are clear
signs that the union movement integrates an uneasy tension between political demands, which are perceived, built, and responded to by its leadership, and social demands from its base.

It is high time the radical left begin to openly criticize the persistent ideological conceptions of truth and justice characteristic of trade union reps. If they do not, they form part of the problem rather than a solution to the social problems characteristic of capitalism and the domination of our lives by the class of employers.