The Foundation of Our Union: Activists Share Commitment to Healthier and Safer Workplaces

It didn’t take Eva Diodati and her fellow Local 9562 members long to appreciate the value of union activism on health and safety.

Just a few months after Diodati and about 300 fellow Carnegie Library workers voted to join the union, they were in the midst of bargaining their first contract in early 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything.

Members negotiated with management of the 20-location system to ensure workers kept their jobs and continued to be paid through a four-month shutdown, then guaranteed that, when the libraries reopened, workers had proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and other safeguards in place. The local ratified its first contract in 2022.

“Our primary goal has always been to look out for each other,” said member Sierra Baril, who, along with her USW colleagues, received the union’s Karen Silkwood Award for building solidarity through health and safety.

Boosting Activism

Baril, Diodati and other Local 9562 leaders led a discussion on the importance of local union health and safety activism at the 2023 USW Health, Safety and Environment Conference this April in Pittsburgh. That dialogue was one of the scores of workshops, training sessions, speeches and other events at the conference intended to bolster member education and activism on health and safety.

Those efforts have already changed millions of lives for the better and will continue to do so if workers keep up the fight, said International President Tom Conway.

“Nobody should be under the illusion that health and safety just takes care of itself,” Conway told the gathering of 2,000 USW and Communications Workers of America (CWA) activists at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh. “These things happen because we work hard and we push it. That’s what makes us a union. That’s what pulls us together. You are the foundation of that. The health and safety work that we do is the foundation of our union.”

Growing the Union

That work also is the key to growing the union movement and ensuring it is strong enough to protect future generations of workers, said Steve Sallman, USW director of health, safety and environment.

“We’re going to continue to build the union with member involvement and to make healthier and safer workplaces,” Sallman vowed as he welcomed his predecessor, Mike Wright, to the stage for an address that celebrated the success USW members and other activists have had in doing just that.

From the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1971 to “right to know” and process safety management rules, to workplace standards for exposure to toxic chemicals, silica, beryllium, and other hazardous substances, workers have won countless victories to improve safety and health, said Wright, who directed the USW’s work on those issues from 1984 to 2021.

“I didn’t accomplish anything,” Wright said. “You accomplished so much, and we in the union accomplished so much.”

Tragic Losses

In some cases, those advancements came in the wake of tragedies that shed light on workplace hazards. That sobering fact was evident on day two of the five-day gathering, when participants memorialized co-workers who lost their lives on the job since the last conference in 2019.

Members stood in reverent silence as 116 workers’ names scrolled on the screens before them, each one representing a life unnecessarily cut short by uncontrolled hazards.

For District 10 Director Bernie Hall, the memorial was a powerful reminder that making safer workplaces is the most important fight union members have.

When he was a budding union leader in 2010, an explosion at the factory where he worked took the lives of two USW members. It was a day that changed Hall and his siblings forever.

“I don’t know how we got through it, but I know that we wouldn’t have without the membership and resources in our union,” he said.

The Hidden Fight

Marty Warren, national director for Canada, reminded the crowd that on-the-job deaths aren’t the only tragedies that workers experience. Diseases arising from unhealthy conditions also claim countless lives, Warren said. 

“This is sometimes more hidden. It creeps up on us and affects us later in life,” he said. “The fight never ends for healthier and safer workplaces.”

As the conference convened, Sallman asked the crowd how many members were attending the event for the first time, and about 70 percent of the hands in the room went up.

Those first-timers included Local 183 members Julian Hernandez, Isabel Moreno, and Ann Marie Ruiz, who work at Providence St. Mary Medical Center in Apple Valley, Calif. The trio said they hoped to use what they learned at the conference to build solidarity in their 750-member local.

Effects of COVID

Many workers are still suffering from the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ruiz said. That was part of the reason why this year, for the first time, the conference included a track of workshops and training sessions focused on health care.

Hernandez, Local 183 Next Gen coordinator, said he hoped to return home and communicate the importance of health and safety to newer workers who may not know how much the union does for them.

“If I can be a type of bridge to the next generation, that’s my motivation,” he said.

In addition to union leaders, other officials addressing the conference included OSHA Director Douglas Parker; Christopher Williamson of the Mine Safety and Health Administration; U.S. Chemical Safety Board member Sylvia Johnson; and James Frederick, a longtime member of the USW health and safety department who has served since 2021 as deputy assistant secretary of labor for OSHA.

Parker said the administration has an “absolute intolerance” for employers who disregard health and safety.

“We have your backs,” he said.

Health and Safety Awards

The USW presents the I.W. Abel Award to individuals who act heroically to save or attempt to save a life in the workplace. The 2023 recipient was Amanda West of Local 507, at Evergreen Packaging, District 9.

The USW presents the Karen Silkwood Award to local unions that build solidarity through health, safety and Environment work. The 2023 recipients included Local 9562 at the Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh, District 10, and the health care workers of Local 9600 in Oroville, Calif.

The A.Q. Evans Award is given to local unions for outstanding accomplishments in occupational safety and health. The 2023 recipients included:

  • USW Locals at Bridgestone/Firestone
  • Local 1011-9 at Safety-Kleen Systems, District 7
  • Local 6486 at Glencore and Canadian Electrolytic Zinc, District 5

The J. William Lloyd Award is given to an individual or organization from outside the USW for outstanding service in the cause of worker safety and health. The 2023 recipient was Randy Rabinowitz, founder and executive director of the Occupational Safety and Health Law Project.

Press Inquiries

Media Contacts

Communications Director:
Jess Kamm at 412-562-6961

USW@WORK (USW magazine)
Editor R.J. Hufnagel

For industry specific inquiries,
Call USW Communications at 412-562-2442

Mailing Address

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Communications Department
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