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COSHCON18: Our dreams, our demands…and making a difference

“If someone comes to you and says, ‘I was raped,’ Alejandra Valles told a hushed crowd during a keynote address at COSHCON18, “it’s different than if someone says, ‘I didn’t get my vacation.” “

Valles, who is secretary treasurer and chief of staff at SEIU-United Service Workers West, (USSW), spoke on December 4 at the 2018 National Conference on Workers Safety and Health. (Video of her talk is available here.)

Valles told the inspiring, intense story of janitors who have won landmark legislation to address rape on the night shift in California’s service industry. She had the entire room’s rapt attention when she shared her own story of being stalked and assaulted in her own home after a long night of house calls on a union organizing campaign.

“I” m going to tell you” Valles said, “how hard it’s been to lift this up and confront this issue head on as a person of color.” Sexual assault and violence are pervasive, Valles said, and change must take place at every level- within our movement, in our workplaces, and in city halls, state houses and Congress.

The fight to end sexual violence was just one of dozens of workplace and community issues discussed during three action-packed days at COSHCON18. Hundreds of activists, workers, union reps, COSH and worker center team members, and health and safety professionals gathered to share stories, learn best practices and discuss strategies for winning safety and dignity on the job.

We were also fortunate this year to have a retrospective exhibit from renowned labor photographer Earl Dotter, who has documented organizing campaigns for safer working conditions in mines, factories, fishing boats and other worksites for more than five decades.

At a time when workers, immigrants and our unions face a steady assault on our most basic workplace rights, COSHCON participants heard important stories about successful campaigns that have improved conditions at specific worksites and across entire industries.

Transforming work in U.S. tomato fields

Julia de la Cruz of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), also a keynote speaker, related how workers in Florida tomato fields, partnering with consumers, have convinced giant multinational food corporations to change their purchasing practices. The result has been improved pay, safer working conditions and an end to sexual slavery for the largely immigrant workforce that labors long hours to put food on our tables. Video of de la Cruz’s remarks, in Spanish, is available here.  

“We confront large corporations, because they have great power and make profit from our labor, while we as workers can barely live,” said de La Cruz. A code that growers must now observe to sell their produce to major customers, she said, requires shade, clean drinking water, bathrooms and other basic safety protections.

“You can make a difference”

COSHCON is the nation’s premier gathering of health and safety activists. Each year, the conference includes recognition of family members who are left with tragic consequences when greed or irresponsibility takes the life of a loved one.

“No matter how small of a piece of the pie you are, you can make a difference,” said Brian Wynne during a panel discussion titled “Cutting Edge Issues–Lessons from Workplace Fatalities.”

Brian’s brother, Drew, died in October 2017 after exposure to a paint stripper containing toxic methylene chloride. Since then, Drew’s family- his parents Cindy and Hal and brothers Brian and Clayton- have been working to make an enormous difference for the many workers and consumers who are exposed to dangerous chemicals contained in commonly available products.  

With support from National COSH, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families and others, the Wynnes have successfully campaigned to remove paint strippers and other products with deadly ingredients from giant retail chains, including Lowe’s, Sherwin-Williams, The Home Depot, Amazon and Walmart.  

The Wynne family received the National COSH Community Activist Award during this year’s conference. Other awardees are:  

  • COSH Educator Award: Alejandra Domenzain of the University of California, Berkeley Labor and Occupational Health Program, winner of the COSH Educator award
  • Tony Mazzocchi Award: Mark Catlin, recently retired health and safety director of SEIU and principal at MDC Consulting and Training
  • COSH Activist Award: Veronica Lagunas, janitor, mother, member of SEIU-USSW and promotora (health and safety trainer)
  • Advancing Justice Award: Robert Shull, Public Welfare Foundation

“I believe in our movement,” said Domenzain, recognized for her work in developing innovative programs to train and educating workers about sexual harassment, workplaces rights, and other critical issues.   I believe in our dreams and our demands and in this joint mission to transform our world, not just or workplaces.”

You can find out more about our 2018 honorees and their work here.

You can see a photo gallery from the 2018 national conference here.

And if you” re a dreamer, with demands for a better world, it’s not too soon to save the date for COSHCON19: December 3-5, 2019.