Every year in the United States, more than thirty thousand workers are injured on the job, and another 4,821 Americans suffered fatalities (per 2014 statistics) that are directly related to inadequate employer training or unsafe work environments. That adds up to be 92 deaths per week, or approximately 13 workers killed on the job every day across all industries.
While labor unions are constantly under fire by both members and by businesses that would prefer to operate without the additional “red tape” that is involved with salary, safety, and other negotiations, unions have a long history in the U.S. of advancing worker rights, advocating for workers unfairly mistreated by employers, and for assisting with legal action where long-term personal injury is involved.
In this article, we’ll explain how labor unions represent employees, and in many cases, work with employers to enhance safety. While a worker may go through his or her entire life without needing the personalized services or representation of a local union steward, the advantages outweigh the cost to injured union workers.
What Is a Labor Union?
If you have never worked in a unionized environment, a labor union may be difficult to get used to at first, as the administrative process is a little different. First, it is important to understand that the union stewards (employees, in most cases) represent the worker, and not the employer; they are on your side. There are specific laws that protect workers and their right to vote in a union at any workplace in America. Specific to the creation and existence of labor unions in America, the legislation allows for organized representation of worker rights through unions.
Can Employers Fire You for Being a Member of a Union?
It is illegal for any employer in America to fire someone for wanting to introduce or indoctrinate a labor union within a workplace. Employers cannot threaten disciplinary action, harass, lay off, or even transfer a worker because of the worker’s involvement or active participation within a labor union.
Did you know that it is also illegal for an employer to close a factory, worksite, or business after a union has been voted in by the employees? Employers eager to avoid the perceived hassle and expense of dealing with a union have tried, in the past, to simply shutter factories or businesses to negate the union and fire all workers. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) outlines that this too is illegal, and subject to severe fines and legal liability for businesses that attempt to circumvent a legalized union by closing up shop. The laws through the NLRA have been in effect in the United States since 1935.
Workers can illegally be discriminated against for previous experience or workplace history with unions, and unfortunately the practice happens frequently with regard to hiring criteria in certain sectors, including construction, general labor, or manufacturing.
What Happens When a Unionized Worker Sustains a Workplace Injury?
A worker may go through his or her entire career without needing the services of a labor union, except for collective bargaining for wage and benefits. However, when a worker is injured on the job, in most cases, it is the worker’s word against the human resources team and the employer. Not every employer has the integrity to follow standard procedure and legislation that protects the rights of the workers when they are injured due to a safety issue within the workplace. The process can be the start of a battle between the injured worker and the employer.
Health and safety is an issue that is ‘grievable’ through a union. It is the employer’s obligation to provide adequate training and a safe environment for the worker to perform his or her duties. If the workplace injury is a direct result of unsafe working conditions, the union will step in to protect the worker against hostility and illegal measures by the employer to deny accident benefits or medical care and coverage.
Examples of employer safety negligence can include (but are not limited to) the following:
- Inadequate safety lighting
- Slippery floors
- Faulty tools and equipment
- Faulty wiring
- Inadequate safe storage of chemicals and hazardous compounds
- Trip and fall obstacles on the floor, including loose flooring or improper storage of supplies which can contribute to a fall injury
A union steward is notified in unionized environments from the moment when a work injury has occurred. While medical intervention is required, the union advisor will become a liaison between the worker and the employer, advocating expressly for the worker’s rights. The union fulfills the job of protecting the worker against offers or guidance from the employer, which may not be in the laborer’s best interest.
After an injury, a union steward can:
- Ensure that the worker receives the appropriate medical attention. Many employers may treat with first aid on site, but in most moderate injury cases, the union steward will recommend a hospital evaluation to diagnose (or rule out) any long-term injuries or complications. It is illegal for an employer to deny or delay medical care, pending a drug test.
- Ensure that a worker does not agree to benefits which do not meet their interests. Some employers will apply pressure or use misinformation to get injured employees to agree to sickness and accident compensation, rather than filing with workers’ compensation. This saves the employer money, but reduces the amount of compensation that a worker can receive, including funds for therapies and medical treatment.
- Ensure that the proper legal accident report is filed following a thorough investigation. Not all injuries require medical treatment, but all workplace injuries should be thoroughly documented and followed-up with regarding safety issues and increased risk of injury to other workers. (Employers may attempt to dissuade a worker from filing an injury accident report, as a chronic pattern of workplace injuries can elevate insurance costs.)
If it is your first time working within a unionized environment, your local steward should provide you with an information package at the time when you enroll in the union membership. If you have any questions regarding your rights or general best practice for injuries, you can also contact your labor union for support and educational resources.