Braelyn McClure - 2014 Scholarship WinnerRole of American Labor Unions

by Braelyn McClure 

 

 

In 2013, a devastating disaster occurred. Imagine a shaking building crumbling to its foundation. Imagine thousands of people's screams of terror frantically looking for a way out, but failing. Imagine fires raging and thousands of people gasping for breath, trapped under the rubble of an illegally constructed factory building, awaiting their inevitable death. The Bangladesh Garment Factory collapse and the large fire just five months previously also in Bangladesh, represents the need for unions. Not only were the workers getting paid extremely low wages for their extensive hours, but the management lacked organization and trust. In fact, the factory was constructed with substandard materials and in blatant disregard for building codes. Imagine being a parent making so little to provide for a family, that you are forced to send your child to work in a place like this just to survive. This is not imaginary; sadly my father has seen children doing this in Asia.
   A massive inferno engulfed Kranti Fireworks at Bhairnala village, [India], around 3.30 pm yesterday. At least 6 people were killed and 17 were injured in the incident," says an article in the news as I write this essay. The article goes on to say "the owner is missing."

Why don't we see this in America?

   We credit the labor movement for improving working conditions overall, but particularly in health and safety. For example, the 8 hour work day and the 40 hour work week is a product of the labor movement. Time off, vacation time and minimum wage along with enforceable work site regulations ensures citizens they will work in a safe and friendly environment and provide for their families. In America, we take it for granted that we have the right to refuse unsafe work and management now expects their workers to identify unsafe conditions and report them. Companies now proudly display their safety records on the gates of their facilities. Even local grocery store has a sign declaring "200 work days accident free." In America businesses preferentially hire contractors with the better safety record.
   This present business and work culture didn't come out of a vacuum. It took the work of unions over decades to design a work place that complies with health and safety standards. The major influence of a labor union has been to organize the workers in collective bargaining agreements with the management. These agreements are used to improve working conditions and quality of life overall by bringing management and labor under an established agreement both sides seek to uphold.
   And this is where Bangladesh fell short. There was a large divide between workers and management, along with a major divide between management and safety laws. Having thousands of workers housed in a poorly built factory working for dollars a day was a reckless incident, found only in countries that haven't been affected by labor unions. They disregarded leadership in favor of dangerous, cheap construction that put thousands of lives in danger, and ultimately, the grave. I am thankful I live in America where we don't just say 'get the work done" but "get the work done safely!"
   Unions have paved a path that ensures a safe workplace for Americans to make a living. But there is always room for improvement. What is needed is not just enforcement after the fact (although that is necessary as well); rather, what is needed is better upfront innovation so the company sees the benefits of workplace safety in their business model. In the case of unions, I feel a major topic that could improve health and safety of workers across America would be to produce safety-minded business decisions at all levels of management and demonstrating how it would be in the best business interest to do so. Most of the time, a mistake occurs in the business, and rules are enforced after the fact to ensure that mistake doesn't happen again. How to be held out to other companies as the model way of doing business by safety inspectors?
   Labor unions have instilled a sense of duty, honor and respect for workers and their families, along with the reasonable hours of a work week and living wage. Let's help with innovation and leadership so there is a safety-minded culture and business mindset in America that says "Good Safety is Good Business!" and extend that over the globe in our business dealings.