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Report on National COSH Conference 2004

The Place : Washington D.C.

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In Early November 2004, just after election day, Irene Herron-Steeger and myself flew to Washington D.C. to attend the National COSH Conference.

We left early in the morning on Thursday November 4th. Irene had booked our flight over the internet for convenience, but it turned out to be anything but easy to check in. It was even harder to find somewhere to eat anything except for overpriced sugar snacks and coffee. The flight itself was good even though it was raining out, both here and in Washington D.C.

Upon arrival Irene and I started decifering the subway system, which seemed very clean and well lit. After a few minutes and a couple dollars for a debit stub we were on the platform and soon the train was there. It was only a few more minutes until we reached our stop. The only 'trouble' we encountered was when we went to exit the subway. We followed the sign to the street we wanted and ended up in a private elevator in a building that wasn't open for public exit.

After a quick dash in the rain we reached our hotel, a Holiday Inn. We arriverd about an hour early, so we checked into our rooms and called home to let everyone know we had arrived safely. We then went downstairs to join the others for the opening of the conference with a brown bag lunch and a presentation by the President of HERE Local 25 on the contract negotiation and work conditions of the hotel workers.

Tom O'Connor then 'formally' opened the conference with some announcements. Jim Moran and his wife were retiring from PhilaPOSH. Also Tom, as he had previously announced, was leaving for another sabatical and there is a position for a Assistant Co-Ordinator for the National COSH. There were job descriptions available for both jobs. We then had a short election results debreifing and what it portends for American workers and their safety and health on the job.

Next we broke into round table discussion groups to interface about :

  1. New Campaigns, New Coalitions and New Strategies
  2. Fundraising Issues and Strategies
  3. Envisioning the future of the National COSH
  4. Open - any other [relevant] topic of discussion

After about an hour we broke and allowed people to switch tables if they wished to. We then continued for about another hour or so. I took part in group I for both sessions and feel that I gathered some good pointers and reminders.

After a short break we then chose the Track group that we would follow during the conference. I chose the Youth Outreach, Training and Organizing track. This track turned out to be a recent replacement for a track that had to be cancelled due to the fact that the presenter was unable to attend the conference. This left the track rather 'unscripted.' We were able to interface with some youth activists / organizers and exchange points-of-view, ideas and get feedback on what they felt worked for / with them and what did not. The youths were brought by WNYCOSH, and were represented by a couple 'generations.' The students were organized around the 'Sweatshop Free' movement at school. While they weren't focused exclusivly on Occupational Safety and Health it was a concern of theirs, and one that Brian Brown Casdollar hoped to be able to expand in the future. The hard part for them had been the organizing of the group, as they needed a hook to get the students attention. Then they neede to get the school(s) to recognize that they were a 'legitamite' group and to have access to a room to meet in. It was slow, difficult going at first. The group has taken several trips to Mexico to 'tour' the maquiladora areas and meet some of the youths working in them instead of attending school. They also went to Canada and organized some resistance to the schools purchase of 'lowest price' uniforms and shirts.

Even though the track didn't follow the prescribed pathology, I think all of us that stuck with the track group for both days learned some valuable insight into what may work for us when trying to outreach to todays youth and train them on their rights in the workplace.

After a good five hours of Occ. S&H discussions we ended the conference for the day. We had dinner on our own that night. Before leaving we discussed what people were interested in having for dinner, what was near our area and decided on what time the different groups wanted to meet for dinner. The largest group of us decided to go for Ethiopian food. We went to a place that was a favorite of Tom's called Meeksram [I think that's how it was spelled].

That turned out to be the easy part. Earlier that day there had been an accident on one of the subway lines and all of the workers had filled all of the cabs and buses. We ended up waiting for almost an hour for a cab, and that was after quite a lot of hard work by our concierge. Once at the resturant there was only a short wait while they set up an area for us to dine in. The ended up being about twenty or so people in our group. With such a large group we quickly decided on having a couple of vegitarian combination platters and several meat combination platters. A few people had wine while some others had Ethiopian beer and I had some Ethiopian mead. The food was excellent, the service superior and the different conversations overlapped and lasted quite a long time. We had a chance to get to know new people a little better and reaquaint ourselves with those we haddn't seen for awhile.

Even though we 'lost' an hour during the flight east it was still early when we arrived back to the hotel, so I went out to walk around our area and see what was nearby. We would be having a Continental breakfast the next morning but coffee and doughnuts / pastries would not do it for me. I scouted around for nearby resturants that would be open on Saturday morning. I found that our hotel was within a couple of blocks from the Samuel Gompers Memorial Park. It had a rather large monument / statue that had several quotes from him on it along with the AFL slogan and seal on the back of it. It is quite impressive and was dedicated in 1933 with President Franklin Roosevelt and 1st lady Eleanor Roosevelt in attendance. Unfortunately by the time I found the park I had lost interest in paying attention to which directions I had been walking. This made it rather difficult to show to Irene after breakfast the next morning. I stopped to ask a DC Policeman, who was talking on his cell phone, which way to the park. Despite being less than two blocks away and having been there more than 70 years he barely stopped talking to say "Huh? What? Never heard of it."

Friday November 5, 2004

The conference began, after the continental breakfast, with an evaluation of the grant year. We then had a foundation grants panel presentation on grant writing tips and submission by individual and groups of COSH's. Cathy Lerza, of the Tides Foundation, gave us some information and the perspective of a mid to large size public foundation. Alesha Daughtrey, of the Arca Foundation, supplied us with some pointers and the point-of-veiw of a small private foundation.

We then broke into our Tracks groups until lunch, which we had in the hotel resturant. During lunch Peg Seminario, of the AFL-CIO, spoke on the election results and the significance for future Occ. Safety & Health activism [remember that the OSH Act was enacted by Pres. Nixon. However George W. Bush is no Nixon!] She continued with OSHA's future prospects along with the AFL-CIO's priorities for the coming year.

After lunch we had a couple of concurrent workshops. Irene attended the Workplace Violence workshop given by Robyn Robbins of the UFCW, while I attended the Genetic Screening and Implications for Unions workshop given by Marcus Weinstein of the UofO Labor Ed Program. Dr. Weinstein is a part of ELSI Group at the NIH. After a brief definition of "gene" and a short history of genetics and some terminology he went through an example of how employers may make use of 'genetic testing in the workplace.' Some very scary stuff. For instance : Occupational Exposure to Beryllium. As science continues to 'unlock' the different genes on our dna and how they act and what they do it's possible that someone may find the gene responsible for contracting cancer after exposure to berillium. Thus, theoretically, employers may decide to test employees for the gene and deny workers from jobs that would expose susceptible workers to berillium and contracting cancer. They could then deny 'hazardous duty pay' to the other workers as they had been scientifically proven not to be prone to cancer after exposure. This is just one example that he cited. It alone raises many new workplace issues, i.e. : what if there is more than one gene that leads to cancer after the exposure, what if no one is susceptible until after exposure, incorrect interpretation of scientific results, false positives or negitives, whose right to the information, etc... This becomes another, almost unbeatable, link in the chain of 'blame the worker' mentality and actions of employers. With this one science we now move from a population based risk index to an individual risk factor. There could, undoubtably would, be employers who might take advantage of peoples poor understanding of 'risk factor' and have employees sign away any rights due them. Things will likely only get worse as we face even more 'selective science' being accepted as the only relevant science from the likes of President Bush and his ilk in the business comunity. Genetic Biomarker research is thought to follow Moore's Law, although the time frame for the doubling of information is as yet undetermined. We will need to have very restrictive laws and policies concerning a persons right to privacy, which is completely contrary to the current trend to searching, cataloging and persecuting of any and everybody that the 'powers that be' have condoned as nessissary in these times of terrorism scare. We must work now to ensure that individual workers and their personal physician(s) have and retain exclusive right to the genetic information that any tests may uncover.

After the workshop we then returned to our track session one last time, afterwhich each group gave a report back to the whole conference on what was learned in each group and discussion on forming a national action plan based on the reports.

We then took a break so that we could prepare for the Awards Banquet, which was held down the road from us at the Govenor's House Hotel. We had a choice of three dinners : salmon, beef tips or chicken breast. At my table it seemed as if the salmon was the most popular choice. After dining the awards for Lifetime Achievment, Young New Upcomer and a couple presentations to those who have and will retire soon.

Saturday November 6, 2004

After finally finding a place for breakfast Irene and I joined the conference for the Business Meeting and discussion of the future of the National COSH and the location of the office. There was much discussion as to what to contact Tom for and what else should go to the Assistant Director for. There was some discussion concerning where the office for the National COSH should be as far as in Washington so as to assist in lobbying on Occ. S&S issues or if we can continue for a while longer with a 'virtual office' or an office elsewhere.

We broke for lunch on our own and then regrouped for some collective post-election stratigizing on the agenda for labor and COSH groups for 2005 and beyond. We were then joined by a panel of invited guests from safety and health departments from international unions and other public health activists to share their views on future activism. The panel included Steven Hecker Ph.D., Marcus Weinstein Ph.D. from the U of OR, and Jordan Barab of the AFL-CIO and the Confined Space Blogsite among others. Each shared their individual point(s)-of-veiw as well as some group ideas.

We then held a short wrap-up session and evaluation. We held a shortened session as many people had left or were leaving to catch flights home. Overall I feel it was a successfull and useful conference with a great deal of idea sharing and informative and cutting edge workshops. Time well spent.

Written and attended by Jim Schultz

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