Labor Contracts Ergo Sum

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Shirley Cheeseboro folds towels at Seacrest Linen. Standing up for nine hours a day, she folds the towels into bundles of 20. Leaning over, she places the bundles into a large tank that holds up to 800 towels. Pushing and pulling, she hauls the 800-towel tank around the laundry. It’s made the bursitis in her shoulder worse, she testified at a Worker’s Rights Board hearing on November 15–but without good ergonomic laws, there’s a limit to what her employer must do about it.

Soon, she may have more protection, thanks to a new union contract that incorporates the federal government’s tough and controversial new ergonomic standards. That new standard, which would require many employers to substantially redesign their shops, was rushed into law last November–and immediately besieged by lawsuits from both labor and business groups. With Bush in the White House, the new law is likely to be weakened, or at least held up in court a long, long time.

But that won’t matter to Cheeseboro or any of the other laundry workers covered by the industrial laundry contract renegotiated last November by the United Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees union. That’s because UNITE’s Eric Frumin, a national ergonomics expert, made sure the laundry workers will be covered by the new federal standard.

Unions have long used contract language to protect employees against the hazards of political fortune. Minimum wage laws, for example, are so subject to congressional whim that unions often write them directly into contract language. But such measures are not so common with health and safety provisions, which clearly spell out what’s legal and what’s not in the workplace.

Other unions may now follow UNITE’s lead. “If we’re not going to be able to get safety and health provisions on the national level, then it looks like we’re going to have to do it on the local level, and contract language is a good way to do that,” says Deborah Weinstock, an occupational safety and health specialist at the AFL-CIO. “We’ll be looking to include this in our upcoming nursing home contracts,” agrees Bill Borwegen, Occupational Safety and Health Director for the Service Employees International Union.

Plus, if unions begin to use the new standard, says labor expert Gene Carroll of Cornell University, that may actually increase its odds for political survival. “The more this question of ergonomics is codified in labor negotiations, the more chance it has on a national level,” says Carroll.

Perhaps the person least likely to crow about the contract is Frumin himself. As he points out, there’s one big limitation to the clause: it covers only those laundry workers who are UNITE members. “Look, the majority of laundry workers are still not even in the union,” he says. “Imagine pulling wet laundry apart all day long. It isn’t fun when you do one or two loads at home. Now imagine that you’re doing it all day. You have to reach into a bin and pull it out. You have to reach into a bin and put it in. Fingers, hands, wrists, elbows, backs–you name the part of the body, a laundry worker stresses it out.”

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