News and Updates
Workplace Safety & Health
January 10, 2012
Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was published in 1906, sparking a public outcry around safety issues in the meatpacking industry. That’s how long the industry has been infamous for its hazardous working conditions.
The good news is, according to new reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), workplace safety in the meatpacking industry is steadily improving, with injury and illness rates for full-time workers on the decline.
The bad news is, in comparison to other industrial and manufacturing sectors, meatpacking and poultry processing are still among the most dangerous. Food manufacturing workers are twice as likely to experience injuries and illnesses than industrial and manufacturing workers as a whole. The meatpacking industry also ranks high for severe injury and illness cases – meaning those that cause workers to miss days at work or those that necessitate restricted work activities or even job transfers. Nationally, the poultry industry has the fifth-highest rate of worker illness across all industries.
Though progress has been made on worker safety in the meatpacking and poultry industries, we must understand what the numbers really mean, and make sure we are addressing issues that really make a difference in improving safety and health in these industries.
Some in the meat industry, like the trade association (read: lobbying outfit) American Meat Institute, are quick to highlight improvement using data that does not reflect the most dangerous jobs in the industry. That’s a slippery slope – and one that risks obscuring the truth on safety for the sake of profit-margin. The truth is, there is some doubt about the accuracy of the BLS numbers themselves. Studies conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conclude that both BLS and OSHA miss from 20 percent to as much as 50 percent of the nation’s workplace injuries. A number of factors can cause this kind of under-reporting: workers sometimes don’t report injuries because of fears surrounding their immigration status and retaliation by their employers; employers are motivated to under-count injuries in order to win safety awards, and managers are incentivized by low-injury bonuses; and finally, some employers have instituted programs requiring workers who report injuries or accidents to undergo drug testing – adding additional risk to reporting.
For all these reasons, we must not let a modest increase in overall workplace safety lull us into a false sense of security when it comes to the meatpacking and poultry processing industries. We must continue to strive for better and safer workplaces for all meatpacking and poultry processing workers – and for collective bargaining agreements as well as stronger regulations that make it safe for all workers to report hazards and injuries.
April 28, 2011
Today, on Workers’ Memorial Day, the UFCW will join workers in the U.S. and around the world to honor the thousands of workers who have been killed on the job and the millions of workers who have suffered from injuries, sickness or diseases in their places of work. This year’s memorial day marks the 40th anniversary of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the right of workers to a safe workplace, as well as the 100th anniversary of one of the worst workplace disasters to take place in our country.
One hundred years ago, on March 25, 1911, a fire spread through the cramped floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. When the workers—mostly young female immigrants—tried to escape, they encountered locked doors and broken fire escapes. Rather than be burned alive, the workers began jumping out of windows and fell to their deaths on the street below as bystanders watched in horror. That terrible tragedy, which took the lives of 146 workers, served as a catalyst for major labor reforms and changed the way we work and live.
A century later, the fight to protect workers continues amid anti-union legislation that is sweeping though the country. Just three years ago, managers at the Imperial Sugar Company in Port Wentworth, Georgia—one of the few non-union plants in the industry—tolerated dirty and dangerous worksite conditions, and 15 workers without a collective voice died in a massive fire and explosion. Twenty years ago, 25 poultry workers at the Imperial Foods plant in Hamlet, North Carolina, were locked inside by their bosses and died in a horrible fire. Like the Triangle workers, they had no other voice to demand safety. Indeed, we just saw the worst mining disaster in 40 years, as the executives at the Massey coal mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, told their subordinates to put production first before any other job duties. Surviving workers testified to the rampant fear that effectively suppressed complaints in a company that had viciously opposed unions for decades.
The right to a safe workplace was won after decades of struggle by workers and their unions. On Workers’ Memorial Day, we honor and pay tribute to the men and women who died at Imperial Sugar, Imperial Foods, Massey Energy and all the other dangerous workplaces. In their memory, we renew our commitment to preventing such tragedies by supporting workers who are struggling to protect their basic rights–including safe jobs, workplace fairness, collective bargaining, freedom from discrimination and favoritism.
March 30, 2011
WHAT: Press availability with Ernestine Bassett – a Laurel, Maryland Walmart Associate who is working to organize her workplace, after her participation at Monday’s White House event on women and organizing.
WHEN: Approximately 10:30 EDT, Monday, March 28, 2011
WASHINGTON – Monday morning at 9:00am EDT, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the White House and Department of Labor are hosting a Women’s History Month forum with women workers and organizers, discussing their courageous roles in organizing their workplaces.
U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and Valerie B. Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President and Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls will be joined by women who are currently working to organize their workplaces, including Ernestine Bassett, a Walmart Associate from Laurel, Maryland. A significant majority of Walmart’s hourly Associates are women.
“”As a retired CWA member, I understand there is strength in numbers. I know first hand the pride that comes with being part of a union. That’s why I am committed, despite significant intimidation from my employer, to winning that same respect for my fellow associates at this county’s largest private employer, Walmart,”” said Bassett.
On March 25, 1911, one hundred years ago, 146 garment workers – most of them young women and girls – died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City. A seminal event in the United States labor movement, public pressure after the fire spurred critical and long overdue workplace safety reforms. This compelling history highlights the critical need to ensure worker safety and labor standards for all workers. It is also a story of women who were seeking to improve their workplaces and lives by organizing– the same action many women are taking up today in the workplace.
The White House event is not open to the press, but Ernestine Bassett will be available for interviews after the discussion.
Jennifer Stapleton, Assistant Director of the United Food and Commercial Worker’s Making Change at Walmart campaign said, “”Ernestine Bassett is a profile in courage – working to organize her store despite intimidation by her employer, Walmart. The role of our campaign, Making Change at Walmart, is to stand with workers like Ernestine, who are organizing for respect in the workplace. We’re looking forward to her participation and the discussion.”
Casie Yoder – (202) 223-3111 x1451 / email@example.com
March 28, 2011
(Washington, D.C.) – This morning, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the White House and Department of Labor hosted a forum with women workers and organizers, discussing their courageous roles in organizing their workplaces.
U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and Valerie B. Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President and Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls, were joined by women who are currently working to organize their workplaces, including Ernestine Bassett, a Walmart Associate from Laurel, Maryland.
“We are still fighting to provide adequate working conditions for all women and men on the job, ensure that no person within our borders is exploited for their labor, and uphold collective bargaining as a means to give workers a seat at the tables of power,” said President Obama in a proclamation released at the event.
“At today’s event, the Administration made it very clear that it values the role unions play in building the middle class in this country,” said Joe Hansen, UFCW International President. “We thank them for standing with courageous women who are currently trying to improve their lives by organizing their workplaces.”
“Walmart is the largest private employer in this country,” said Patrick O’Neill, UFCW Director of Organizing. “Their practices set the standard for the retail industry. We are pleased that the White House and Department of Labor gave a Walmart associate the chance to testify about the intimidation she and her coworkers face when trying to exercise their legal rights to organize for respect on the job.”
“I am committed, despite significant intimidation from my employer, to winning respect for my fellow associates at Walmart,” said Ernestine Bassett. “We are organizing to ensure safety and a better life for all Walmart associates.”
To watch the event online, visit:
September 30, 2010
FOOD WORKERS UNION APPLAUDS SENATE DEMOCRATS FOR INTRODUCING SENSIBLE COMPREHENSIVE IMMIGRATION REFORM BILL
WASHINGTON — United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) International President Joe Hansen released the following statement today in response to the introduction of comprehensive immigration reform legislation by Senate Democrats:
“The legislation introduced today by Senators Menendez and Leahy is an important step toward real, meaningful comprehensive immigration reform.
“As we have said, for too long, our nation’s badly broken immigration system has allowed unscrupulous employers to drive down wages and working conditions in industries across the nation, while creating an underground economy where labor laws are shredded and workers are afraid to report safety violations.
“The legislation announced today would chart a new course for our country: A course that protects workers, respects families and reflects our nation’s rich immigrant tradition.
“We applaud these Senators for offering real leadership and sensible solutions to our nation’s challenges, and we stand ready to work with them to ensure that pragmatic immigration reform becomes a reality. The labor movement has already released historic joint principles on immigration. The House has introduced a CIR bill, and now Senate Democrats have acted. It is time to roll up our sleeves and make this happen.
”It is unfortunate that Republicans across the country continue to use the issue of immigration as a tool to divide and to scapegoat. The American people want and deserve more. So rather than fabricating stories about beheadings in Arizona, let’s use this opportunity, and this legislation, to begin a level-headed debate about revamping our immigration system and revitalizing our economy.”
September 28, 2010
WASHINGTON – As activists, advocates and working families from across the country prepare to rally for good jobs in Washington on October 2, 2010, a new national poll conducted by Lake Research for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) shows that the American public is overwhelmingly in favor of government action that addresses income inequity and that seeks to level the playing field for all American workers.
At a near universal level of agreement, voters strongly believe our economy needs to be defined by jobs with benefits and wages that can support a family. It is exactly this message that families from across the country are coming to Washington on Oct. 2nd to deliver to Congress.
“American voters want our nation’s lawmakers to focus on creating economic policies that support and sustain good, quality jobs,” said Joe Hansen, UFCW International President. “They want politicians who will stand up to the fringe elements of our society and to stand for pragmatic solutions to our economic challenges.”
“One Nation is about turning our attention to the needs of people,” said Ben Jealous, President of the NAACP. “A strong economy is only strong if it provides good jobs that support families and bring opportunity. We need to get our country moving; we need to get on common ground, we are coming together this Saturday to start this process; we are going to turn out in force this election cycle, and elect leaders who put people first.”
“The UFCW poll shows that a huge majority of Americans agree we must improve job quality, even as we focus on creating new jobs,” said Janet Murguia, President and CEO of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR). “That’s just one of the reasons why on October 2 we’ll be joining thousands of our friends on the National Mall calling for jobs, justice, and, yes, comprehensive immigration reform.”
Over the last 30 years, workers’ wages have remained essentially stagnant, while worker productivity skyrocketed by 75 percent. For three decades, American workers have been producing more, but taking home paychecks that don’t reflect their hard work. Consequently, we see the biggest pay gap in nearly a century.
“The only way to achieve lasting economic recovery and to ensure future prosperity is to address the wage inequity crises that is plaguing our nation’s workers,” added Hansen. “If our elected officials fail to address this issue, our nation can never fully regain its financial footing.”
With so much of the cable television debate focused on the noisy fringes of our society, it seems that the aspirations and needs of the vast majority of hard-working Americans are getting drowned out by the noise and the nonsense of the extreme elements of the political debate.
The reality, as this poll shows, is that the American people want pragmatic government solutions and sensible legislative actions that address job creation and that ensure a foundation for secure and stable communities.
Voters have a clear vision of what kind of economy they want, and while they understand the current economic situation is difficult, they still believe that all jobs should pay a living wage, come with affordable, quality health care, and offer real retirement security.
The poll, taken among 700 randomly selected registered voters nationwide, shows:
- Concern about the economy goes beyond the present; voters are deeply questioning the types of jobs America will have in the future. Eighty-seven percent of voters are very or somewhat concerned that America’s future jobs will be low-wage and low-benefit — including 65 percent who are very concerned.
- Eighty-nine percent of voters agree that economic development should result in jobs with good wages and benefits that can support a family.
- Eighty-four percent of voters agree that economic recovery means creating jobs with good benefits so people can afford to take care of their families, not low- wage jobs with no benefits.
- Eighty-four percent of voters favor requiring that government contracts go to companies that provide good paying jobs and benefits so that their employees don’t end up on welfare programs like Medicaid and food stamps.
According to the Lake poll, a majority of voters believe job growth must be good job growth. In a number of polls, Lake Research has found that a key economic frame for Americans is to have good-paying jobs—no matter what the sector.
To make that happen our elected officials must actively engage in the policy decisions that guide economic growth and job creation, and they must correct the current wage gap so that as worker productivity increases, paychecks also increase.
In addition to pushing for economic policies that address income inequality and quality job growth, the UFCW, NCLR and other civil rights organizations will be using the One Nation Working Together rally to push for comprehensive immigration reform as a key component of economic recovery and prosperity.
Study after study has shown that meaningful, comprehensive immigration reform would help bolster the economy and ensure that there is fairness and justice in America’s workplaces.
“Failure to enact immigration reform impedes our economic recovery efforts because under the current system, unscrupulous employers exploit undocumented immigrants to lower wages and working conditions for all workers,” added Murguia. “Reform that requires undocumented immigrants to come forward, pay taxes, and learn English to obtain legal status would strengthen labor standards for all, by eliminating the ability of bottom-feeding employers to rip off workers.”
The UFCW will continue working with leaders like NCLR and NAACP, as well as other labor organizations, to organize and mobilize our members and their families around key issues facing our communities—from job creation to labor law reform to immigration reform.
June 9, 2010
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The following is a statement from Jackie Nowell, Director of Occupational Safety and Health at the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union:
A year ago today – June 9, 2009 – it was a warm afternoon in Garner, North Carolina when a powerful explosion leveled the ConAgra Foods plant. A tragic error in judgment while installing a new water heater led an outside contractor to repeatedly release natural gas from a pipe into an enclosed room near the center of the building and an unknown spark set it ablaze.
The resulting explosion and toxic ammonia release killed four people and injured 70 others. It was a preventable tragedy that destroyed lives, livelihoods and a community of friends and neighbors. The United Food and Commercial Workers represented the more than 300 ConAgra workers affected by the blast and saw first-hand the devastation caused by this explosion.
Conflagrations like this one killed and injured workers from Missouri to Michigan, and yet no regulations existed to prevent contractors from purging gas lines into closed spaces. Working with authorities and experts from across the country we set about to change this. Our fight became marked by even greater urgency after five workers were killed in yet another gas purging explosion in Connecticut that February.
Along with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, who investigated this explosion, we urged the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) – who provides safety codes for building contractors across the country – to adopt regulations that would prevent contractors from purging explosive gasses into enclosed spaces. But after heavy lobbying from the natural gas and propane industries, the NFPA wilted like old lettuce and failed to stand for the safety of America’s workers.
So here we are, one year later. The plant in Garner rather is scheduled to close, bringing a second round of devastation to the community. We know we can’t bring back these workers, these friends, these family members back to their community and their loved ones. The broken system at the NFPA has failed to learn from these tragedies and has bowed to industry pressure to let these deadly indoor gas purges continue unregulated.
This is frankly unacceptable. As Debra Petteway, a Food and Commercial Workers member who worked in the ConAgra plant and lost her son to the explosion said, “Louis Watson was my son, he was my only son, and now he’s gone. They didn’t have to die, and if someone doesn’t fix this, it’s going to happen again.”
Ms. Petteway is right. The NFPA, who is supposed to protect workers like her son, has shirked their duty.
So one year later, the “experts” charged with protecting America’s workers have failed to learn from this tragedy or from the legions before or after. How much longer will we wait with no regulatory or legislative action for the safety of American workers? The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and our legislators must not wait for these quasi-governmental regulatory bodies to demonstrate their craven kowtowing to industry demands any longer. We need comprehensive legislative or OSHA regulation so that the lessons of those who gave their lives in these explosions are not forgotten and all those that come later are protected from a similar fate.
May 11, 2010
With rising temperatures and increased consumer demand, grocery stores, supermarkets, pharmacies, and the warehouses that supply them are moving and selling ever-increasing volumes of bottled water. When palletized, these products can pose significant risks to workers in our industry as a recent deadly tragedy illustrates.
In mid-March, a Kroger employee working in the back room of a store in Franklin, Ind. was crushed by falling pallets of water. Five days after the accident, the employee died. The Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigated the accident and fined Kroger $17,000 for unsafe working conditions. This tragic incident and others like it are preventable – especially if UFCW members and locals take action for safety today.
When you are at work or a worksite, here are some things to look for:
- Don’t transport double stacked pallets beyond the distance necessary to remove them from a truck. Double-stacked pallets are inherently unstable, and when they have liquids (like bottled water) as cargo, they often exceed the safe weight limits for forklifts.
- Avoid double stacking pallets when storing them.
- Carefully monitor the stability of pallets at all times.
- Don’t attempt to straighten pallets that have begun to shift. Unload the pallet instead.
- Maintain a clear safety area around pallets when they are being moved.
- All forklift operators or other powered-equipment operators must be trained and certified. This is an OSHA requirement – check for proper recordkeeping.
Palletized bottled water is especially dangerous because of the high volume moved, the heavy weight involved, and increasingly thin plastic causing cases to be unstable. In addition, the limited amount of floor space in the back of grocery stores often leads to water or other heavy unstable products, being stacked higher than safety permits.
Kroger and UFCW Indiana locals have learned from the tragic accident in Franklin and are actively working to prevent future injuries or deaths. We urge you to do the same before something similar happens in your stores.
December 15, 2009
STATEMENT BY UFCW PRESIDENT JOE HANSEN ON THE INTRODUCTION OF COMPREHENSIVE IMMIGRATION REFORM BY CONGRESSMAN GUTIERREZ
Washington, DC — “The bill introduced today by Congressman Gutierrez and his colleagues would help create an immigration system that works for American workers.
“For too long, our nation’s immigration system has fueled exploitation, discrimination and abuse. It has allowed unscrupulous employers to drive down wages and working conditions in industries across the nation, while creating an underground economy where labor laws are shredded and workers are forced to toil in fear.
“This legislation charts a new course for our country. A course that protects workers, respects families and reflects our nation’s interests and our better instincts. It upholds our values as a nation of immigrants and embraces the vitality and diversity that are the fabric of a vibrant and strong society.
“The UFCW applauds Congressman Gutierrez and his colleagues for offering real solutions to address this important issue, and we look forward to working with him to make comprehensive immigration reform a reality.”
December 8, 2009
The U.S. Senate has confirmed David Michaels as the new OSHA Administrator.
Michaels was nominated by President Obama earlier this year. He is an epidemiologist and professor at the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services. He has conducted many studies on the occupational exposure to toxic chemicals, and has served as assistant secretary of energy for Environment, Safety and Health.
This is the first time, since the previous administrator’s resignation in 2008 that OSHA once again has a permanent administrator.