– By Claudia Alexandra Paras and Jenn Hagedorn
Seattle has recently emerged as a national leader for setting local labor standards, including paid sick days, priority hire and the $15 minimum wage. In SeaTac, voters created even more workplace standards with Proposition 1. These policies could not have happened without the power and leadership of organized labor, e.g., unions and their members.
But wait – there’s more. Unions and worker associations provide huge, but often overlooked, day-to-day benefits to society through their collective action and bargaining. By collective bargaining, we mean negotiation of wages and other conditions of employment by an organized body of employees.
If you’ve been paying attention to the Seattle teacher strike, you may have noticed some unusual demands by their union: guaranteed minimum recess for kids, more time for school counselors to spend with each child, and discipline equity across schools. These demands won widespread support from parents, despite the huge inconvenience of a strike. Seattle teachers showed us the potential for collective bargaining to advance both worker benefits and public interest at the same time.
Perhaps the biggest, but most overlooked, benefit to society is public health. A growing body of public health research shows that collective bargaining with employers can make a huge contribution to making our workplaces, public spaces, neighborhoods and homes healthier environments for everyone. Below, we present two local experiences that back this up.
Vomit, Urine and Feces, Oh My!
In 2012, airport workers employed by airline contractors filed 50 complaints with the State’s Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) alleging unsafe and unhealthy working conditions. The complaints revealed a wild west for germ, disease and toxic chemical exposure to workers that provide wheel chair assistance, clean plane cabins and load bags. In Below the Radar, Puget Sound Sage’s report on how to fix the appalling working conditions at SeaTac, we showed that these hazards can hurt not just workers, but the flying public.
At the time, wheelchair assistants were organizing to join a union, SEIU Local 6. The effort was part of a larger coalition, co-led by Sage, to transform SeaTac into a better airport for everyone. Four months after the filing, the Dept. of Labor and Industries fined their employer (Alaska Airlines contractor Bags Inc.) $12,000 for failure to prepare workers for exposure to bodily fluids, such as vomit, urine and feces.
Raising hell on these health and safety issue eventually led 200 passenger services workers (now employed by another contractor, G2) to form a union and win a contract. For the first time ever, the contract gives workers real power to demand and receive proper training, equipment and a process for making health and safety complaints. In the intervening time, both Alaska Airlines and the Port of Seattle belatedly adopted labor standards in responses to public pressure, but the union and the contract has become the front line for protecting airport worker health and safety – and, as it turns out, the health of millions of passengers flying through SeaTac every year.
Local Union Contracts Help Create Healthier Region
Spurred by the success story of a healthier airport, we were curious about how collective bargaining in the Seattle area may benefit public health. With a partnership of Sage and a master’s student at UW’s School of Public Health, we studied sixteen union contracts, affecting the lives of tens of thousands of people, including hotel workers (UNITE-HERE Local 8), truck drivers (Teamsters Local 117), home care workers (SEIU Local 775), construction workers (Laborers Local 242), childcare workers (SEIU Local 925), and retail workers (UFCW Local 21).
We found that the public health effects of contract language fall into two buckets. First, the contracts we examined all set minimum wage and benefit levels. While this is sort of a no-brainer, public health as a field recognizes that underlying economic conditions for workers and their families can greatly help or hurt their health.
It’s also true that wage and benefit standards can be set by public policy, but union contracts are uniquely enforceable by workers themselves. If there is a problem, they can stand up for themselves, get help from union representatives and get resolution through a known process. In the words of workers that we interviewed, they value collective bargaining because it creates stability and certainty, making it easier to plan for their near and long-term future.
The second bucket of contract provisions create non-economic benefits. This is where public health outcomes really shine. Examples include:
- Methods of communicating health and safety information to workers so they know how to do their job in a way that is safe for them, as well as the community in which they work. Training for a whole host of workers that serve you and your family on a daily basis, such as airport workers, home care workers and child care workers, is too often left up to employers trying to save a buck (see SeaTac wheelchair assistants, above.) Union contracts guarantee that training in a way that few public agencies can enforce, even if they are required.
- Provisions creating job security so workers can talk to their boss about a safety hazard or problem they’ve noticed without fear of retaliation. The best example of this is construction work. Contracts create minimum safety standards that also make construction sites more safe for the surrounding community. Union construction workers may be sticking up for their own health when complaining about toxic dust, but they also just made your kid at the preschool next door safer.
- Paid time off so workers don’t have to choose between the time off they need and the paycheck they need even more. The debate over paid sick day policy in Seattle revealed many public health benefits of time off for illness that people will actually take. But these provisions go beyond sick days – we found several union contracts allow people paid time off for grieving and jury duty. Who would argue these don’t create a healthier society? (And don’t expect public policy to guarantee them any time soon.)
- Predictable scheduling so workers can plan around important family events and count on dropping off or picking up their kids from school. Unpredictable scheduling in industries like retail, hospitality and other services is a growing problem that has recently grabbed headlines. The good news is that several unions have already made it a priority for their contracts.
We also found something more intangible. Collective bargaining allows workers to prioritize what they need, specific to vocation and industry. That’s not to say that workers get everything they need to thrive from their contract – they don’t call it bargaining for nothing. But, from a public health perspective, collective bargaining can advance well-being and safety at a level of specificity that legislation and regulation can rarely achieve.