Worker Centers and COSH Groups Find Ways to Work Together

Worker centers and health and safety advocates joined forces on the national level for the first time last month. The Denver gathering brought together worker centers from the Interfaith Worker Justice national network and local coalitions for occupational safety and health (COSHs).

Shared by these two networks is a commitment to organize workers, union and non-union, immigrant and native-born. IWJ has traditionally focused on economic issues, most notably wage theft. It shouldn’t be surprising, though, that an employer who steals from his workers is also likely to endanger them.

For too long organizing groups have tackled these issues separately. Worker centers and COSHs alike are most often grassroots, volunteer-dependent, resource-strapped organizations that have to focus their efforts: in certain communities, in certain industries, or on certain issues. In the experience of so many worker centers, low-wage workers are eager to organize around wage theft—which is intuitively illegal and wrong—but less likely to identify health and safety violations. What decibel level is safe in a bookbinding operation? Which type of ventilation fan is required in an auto body shop? A typical worker center may not be able to answer such questions or be equipped to take action.

COSHs, on the other hand, are on the health and safety front line and staffed by experts in the field. Perhaps for reasons related to funding sources specific to health and safety, or niche roles they fill in union partnerships, COSHs have not tackled economic issues.

This separation is changing, though, in part because the Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, is emphasizing community partnerships to reach workers at risk of injury. Many COSH and worker center people met last summer at OSHA’s National Action Summit for Latino Worker Health and Safety. A group of worker centers jointly received an OSHA grant to provide training, and the Public Welfare Foundation is supporting a broad worker center agenda for health and safety education and policy work.

Combining the Issues

Just a couple of weeks ago, a construction worker contacted the Arise Chicago worker center because he is owed thousands of dollars for overtime hours worked but never paid for. Shortly after he was hired, this worker organized his co-workers to demand lunch breaks. Now Arise Chicago is supporting them to organize for their back wages, too.

When our organizer asked about working conditions, it turned out the workers were sometimes asked to work at heights without proper fall protection. After attending a worker center training, the worker is now prepared to halt work, call OSHA, and demand personal protective equipment if confronted with the situation again.

Stories like these are what motivated the two networks to come together. Tom O’Connor, executive director of national COSH, called the conference an important step in building a “national grassroots movement for workers rights.” Members of United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities, a group that supports loved ones of those killed at work and advocates for workplace protections, were also among the 75 people at the three-day gathering.

Reynel Castillo, a leader of Arise Chicago’s Worker Center, came to Denver to share his experience as a health and safety trainer for fellow Spanish-speaking construction workers. He benefited from the expertise of COSH attendees on ergonomics and asbestos. In worker center trainings, like the ones Castillo leads, Arise Chicago plans to incorporate “body-mapping” and “risk-mapping.”



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Beyond sharing information and best practices, the groups vowed to support each other’s initiatives, including legislative goals. Chicago Area COSH endorsed Arise Chicago’s action as part of the National Day of Action Against Wage Theft. And beginning in 2011, the two groups will host a public forum on worker health and safety in addition to coordinating worker education efforts.

The worker centers reaffirmed their commitment to passing the Mine Safety and Health Act. Besides improving safeguards for miners, MSHA would affect all workers. It would toughen penalties for OSHA violations, improve whistleblower protections, grant broader rights on access to information to workplace injury victims and their families, and require that employers abate serious hazards even while they are still contesting an OSHA citation.

Likewise, COSH groups pledged their support for three bills to fight wage theft, which would bolster the U.S. Department of Labor’s prevention programs, freeze the statute of limitations and help workers recover back wages, and deter employers from misclassifying workers as independent contractors.

Despite Congress’ move to the right, the networks plan to maintain a pro-worker presence in Washington and lay the foundation for future legislative activity.

To learn more about these bills and how to support them, visit

Adam Kader is director of the Arise Chicago Worker Center.