Working for Employers May Be Dangerous to Your Health, Part Five

In Dwyer’s book, Life and Death at Work: Industrial Accidents as a Case of Socially Produced Error, in a passage quoted below, he argues that so-called accidents at work are socially caused but, historically, have been defined otherwise–as technical problems, for example, or as a result of individual mistakes.

In the passage below, he notes that health and safety issues should be identified and resolved according to need, with the priority being on the most destructive threats to health and safety. However due to the drive towards maximum profit at the expense of workers as mere things to be used to that end (see The Money Circuit of Capital), such a priority is often shelved in favour of solutions that agree with the interests of employers and those in political power.

From Tom Dwyer, Life and Death at Work: Industrial Accidents as a Case of Socially Produced Error. New York: Springer Science+Business Media, pages. 26-27:

Accident Prevention as Political Rationality

One might suppose that problems should be attacked according to
need: accidents provoked by different technically defined causes kill and
injure at dissimilar rates, and from a socially rational viewpoint the most
destructive of these should be the first to be treated. It appears, how ever, that accidents were singled out for treatment on the basis of rational
criteria developed within the economic and political spheres. In
the former case [the economic sphere] the commercial availability and viability of the products of scientific and technical development appears to be an important factor. In the latter [the political sphere], prevention appears to be primarily concerned with those accidents identified as having important political consequences–disasters constitute a prime example.65 In other words, it appears that early safety legislation was formulated neither as a function of needs
ascertained through a form of social rationality nor as a function of a
perception that accidents result from the operation of social forces within
the workplace. Reference to the social world is precluded in developing
criteria of need and strategies of prevention.

Unions often address the issue of health and safety through shifting focus from the worksite itself to legislative measures. From Dwyer, page 27: 

The attention of unions was increasingly channeled away from the
worksite and toward legislative change to be conquered through the
efforts of members of Parliament sympathetic to the workers’ cause. The
power of the bureaucracy grew as industrial problems became increasingly
subject to political control through their transformation into
administrative questions.

Legislature measures may indeed address some health and safety concerns, but as just indicated, by shifting focus away from the worksite, legislative measures often transform the question to an administrative level. This shift is consistent with the shift in the nature of the capitalist state from legislative measures to administrative measures (see Mark Neocleous, Administering Civil Society: Towards a Theory of State Power).

Legislative measures are thus insufficient for addressing health and safety issues since they are transformed into a form of administrating workplace relations that are less directly subject to the control of workers. 

What is needed, at least in part,  is what Jane McCalevey, in her book No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age argues calls deep organizing at the worksite itself. Worker organization and solidarity at the worksite is required. Organized worker opposition at the worksite needs to be developed as a culture. Supplementary tactics (such as those suggested by the International Workers of the World (IWW) should also be integrated; a march on the boss, for instance, where a group of workers face the immediate supervisor with an issue that concerns them, provides workers with a collective means that solidifies their workplace power.

However, this view definitely needs to be linked to a general critique of the power of employers as a class–which is what McCalevey does not do. She argues, incorrectly, if workers are organized at the workplace level, that organization or structure is the same as worker agency, or the idea that workers’ nature as persons is taken into account. However, the peculiar nature of capitalist relations is that what is produced by workers is used by the class of employers is used as a means to exploit, to oppress and to use workers for the purposes of the employers. The class issue cannot be resolved at the level of the workplace since the class issue is much, much wider than any worksite.

The attempt to shift to a legislative focus at least expresses the impossibility of resolving the exploitation, oppression and use of workers by employers solely at the level of the workplace.

What is needed to address health and workplace issues, then, is deep organizing at the workplace with a general critique and movement against the power of employers as a class. In this way, the real health and safety needs of workers can more adequately be addressed.

Should not the issue of the health and safety of workers be a priority? Is it? Can it be when a class of employers exist? Can it be when human beings are treated as means for the benefit of employers?

Should not union members call to account their union reps concerning the impossibility of adequately protecting workers in the face of the power of employers?

Should not workers begin to organize to end that power in order to make health and safety a priority at work?

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