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COSHCON2021: Building a movement and a community

“When we come together, we can win” was the rallying call by Dr. Linda Rae Murray that launched the 10th annual National Conference on Worker Safety and Health (COSHCON2021) in December.

Our growing movement for safe and fair workplaces is at a pivotal moment. Workers and families are confronting a deadly pandemic; heat stress, extreme weather, and abuse and indifference from unfair employers.

These very challenges are what make COSHCON such an exciting, life-changing experience. Instead of just doomscrolling about the dangers we all face, at COSHCON workers and labor activists connected through our common struggles and learned how workers are organizing- and winning.

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler greets COSHCON delegates

“National COSH is more than an organization,” said AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler, in a video greeting during our opening session. “It’s a movement and it’s a community. For decades, you have built coalitions by uniting workers from different backgrounds, speaking different languages…   it’s fundamental and lifesaving work as we continue to battle this pandemic.”

U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh kicked off an interactive listening session with Doug Parker, the recently confirmed new chief of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, along with OSHA labor liaisons.   “The fact is, every worker has the right to earn a living in a workplace where they are safe, healthy and treated with dignity,” Walsh   said. “The work that COSH is doing to connect workers with allies is absolutely essential.”

Rosanna Coto-Batres from NENYCOSH highlighted local action and local victories by COSH affiliates this year, including:

  • In New York, NYCOSH and partner groups won passage of the HERO Act, expanding workers’ right to have a real say on the job by forming health and safety committees.
  • In Philadelphia, PhilaPOSH and partners in the Coalition for Restaurant Safety and Health (CrsH) provided hospitality and service workers with tools to protect mental health, protested a culture of harassment in restaurants, and created a virtual marketplace for Latinx hospitality workers to share their marketable talents.
  • In Los Angeles, SoCALCOSH and partners celebrated the launch of a new program giving workers the right to form public health councils to monitor workplace COVID violations.

Health and safety advocates also notched two important wins at the national level. After years of advocacy by National COSH and allies, OSHA will finally start the process of writing a heat stress standard. And the Biden Administration has pledged to stop mass immigration raids, focusing instead on employers who use immigration status to exploit workers.

“When we come together, we can win victories, save lives, and keep workplaces healthy and safe,” said Dr. Linda Rae Murray, a pioneer in workplace and community medicine and a past president of the American Public Health Association. “When we win, we can have a planet that is healthy and safe for us to live.”

Dr. Linda Rae Murray at COSHCON2021: “When we come together, we can win victories.”

Also at this year’s COSHCON:

  • The Expo @COSHCON, with exhibitors highlighting their services and campaigns, including OSHA, Safe & Just Cleaners, Harvard Center for Work, Health & Well-being, the National Clearinghouse for Worker Safety and Health Training, Oxfam, Author Alejandra Domenzain talking about her book For All/Para Todos, and attorneys from Motley Rice.
  • Crash Course in Organizing:   This workshop gave participants a chance to brainstorm how to respond to critical safety issues on the job. Demonstrating a real path to change is key to getting workers involved.
  • Heat 101, a session that outlined the dangers of heat stress and showed that it is preventable. Participants learned warning signs and symptoms, and tools to intervene to help   co-workers.
  • Meet the authors, with Celeste Monforton and Jane Von Bergen, co-authors of On the Job, a landmark new book about the workers’ center movement and Alejandra Domenzain, worker advocate and children’s book author. Alejandra’s new bilingual book, For All/Para Todos tells the story of a young girl named Flor and her immigrant family. “Most of the books I” ve seen about immigrants show them as victims,” she said. “I wanted kids to know they can make a difference and shape their own story.”
  • Transforming Accident Investigations:   This workshop provided participants with key insights on what to do after something goes wrong in the workplace. “The company creates the safety environment in the workplace,” said facilitator Jim Howe, a veteran safety trainer. “If a worker makes a mistake or does not follow procedures, it is a symptom of ineffective safety systems.”
  • International Media Panel: We were joined by Rebecca Rainey of Bloomberg Law, Luis Feliz Leon of Labor Notes, and Evy Peña from the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM) in Mexico City, for a lively discussion on how activists and journalists can collaborate to tell important stories about workplace conditions.

“I think every story involving workers is newsworthy,” said Rainey. “The past two years shows why workers are so important and why we need to listen to them.”

“We see media as a tool to change the narrative,” said Peña, who serves as CDM’s communications and development director. “Our objective is to amplify the voices of working people.”

International media panel at COSHCON21.   From upper left:   Evy Peña from CDM: Melissa Moriarty from National COSH;
Rebecca Rainey from Bloomberg Law and Luis Feliz Leon (lower left) answer a question from a conference participant.

Amplifying workers’ voices, changing the narrative and winning more local and national victories is precisely what’s on our agenda for 2022. Participants left COSHCO2021 inspired, enlightened and ready to take on new fights for workers and families.

Just after the conference wrapped up, Steve Mooser– longtime health and safety director at RWDSU- reached out to say that he’s often talked with colleagues about “the imperative to find and cultivate a new generation of health and safety advocates and warriors.”

“National COSH is doing that,” he said.. Congratulations!”

This event depends on support and hard work from COSH groups and our partners in workers’ centers, labor unions, and allied organizations.   Many thanks to all of you- and our sponsors for their financial support.

See you next year!

American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) ⬧ American Federation of Teachers (AFT) ⬧ Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) ⬧ ⬧ International Association of Machinists – CREST ⬧ International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), Health and Safety Department ⬧ International Chemical Workers Union Council (ICWUC) ⬧ International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftsmen (IUBAC) ⬧ Jobs with Justice ⬧ Karmel Law Firm ⬧ Media Genesis ⬧ Michael D. Baker, Inc. ⬧ Motley Rice ⬧ National Nurses United ⬧ New Solutions Journal ⬧ Oxfam America ⬧ Strippers United ⬧ United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) ⬧ Retail, Wholesale and Distribution Workers Union (RWDSU) ⬧ International Union of Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers (UAW) ⬧ United Mine Workers of America (UWMA) ⬧ United Steelworkers (USW)