NIEHS celebrates Labor Day with public health presentation
By Eddy Ball
Most people wouldn’t intuitively link workers’ rights with public health, but for guest speaker Craig Slatin, Sc.D., they are inextricably connected. That was the message Slatin delivered to an audience at NIEHS Aug. 28 with his Labor Day presentation, “Labor and Public Health: Go Together Like a Horse and Carriage,” hosted by NIEHS program analyst Bill Jirles, president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 2923.
Sponsored by AFGE and the NIEHS Worker Education and Training Program (WETP), Slatin’s talk placed contemporary labor and public health issues into historical context, as he built an argument for protecting workers and the environment, as both adjust to a changing economic landscape. “Transition strategies must try to solve economic and environmental public health issues simultaneously,” he concluded, “or we can’t solve either.”
An associate professor and chair of the Department of Community Health and Sustainability at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Lowell, Slatin is a veteran NIEHS grantee who is director of The New England Consortium (TNEC), the region's model Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) worker health and safety training organization. TNEC is based in the Center for Health Promotion and Research in the School of Health and Environment at UMass Lowell.
Is social power a determinant of public health?
Slatin’s review of labor and public health began with early efforts by reformers in England and Europe, who had to deal with the consequences of unregulated business and industrial activity during the spread of the Industrial Revolution, as production shifted from a small-scale, rural-based agricultural economy to the slums and factories of larger cities. Slatin explained that early students of the social and hygienic conditions of laboring people, such as France’s Louis-Rene Villerme (1782-1863), protested child labor and the living conditions in the slums, but supported the hands-off principles of liberal economics.
However, with the beginning of the Chartist Movement in England in 1838, and the publication of “The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844” by Friedrich Engels, political activists and social scientists began to see the economic system itself, rather than individual workers, as the real threat to environmental public health. “Engels called health disparities ‘barbarism,’” Slatin explained, “and he saw social power as a determinant of health. To Engels, competition resulted in a social war — the war of each against all.”
Fast forward to working conditions in post WWII America
With the decline in union membership, growing income disparity, and increasing globalization of the economy in the past 60 years, Slatin argued, America has entered a period of what he called neoliberalism that threatens workers’ jobs and safety, as well as public health.
Among several examples, he pointed to the controversies surrounding the burning of coal for energy. As the use of coal declines in favor of clean sources, mine workers find their livelihood threatened, leading them to oppose the very clean air regulations that help protect their own health and the health of their families.
Although economic change is inevitable, Slatin concluded, a just transition strategy could help protect jobs when public health measures go into effect, or when offshore competition undermines such industries as textiles, automobiles, and furniture manufacturing. He pointed to worker training, tax reform, and green jobs as ways to achieve full employment and improve public health, as economies worldwide change at an unprecedented pace.
Slatin pointed to areas where the private and public sectors can collaborate to shape a workable strategy, by forming new and creative alliances with labor to advocate for reform and lay the foundations for a green jobs economy; developing new scientific models for environmental public health research and worker safety; and establishing the precautionary principle as a cornerstone of regulation of the growing number of untested chemicals in the environment.