I Got a Peek…


It’s not too often you get to look into the future, but I had a glimpse a couple of weeks ago and it was good! I heard of a young steward who did something we all wish we could do every time we get an opportunity—speak truth to power. C’mon, I’ve done it and you have too. We’ve wished we would have said (fill in the blank) to that foreman, superintendent or manager. You know what I mean. You told them the way it really was, that catchy comeback that you share with your friends at break that you really wish you would have said.

 It appears that in some not-so-remote location in our local, management has been content for years to allow workers to crawl into dangerous machinery that is not locked out and lie underneath heavy, heavy loads suspended by a forklift in order to perform maintenance and set-ups. When the steward spoke up and said he didn’t think it was safe to be under a load on a forklift, the supervisor disagreed and climbed under the load to do the job himself. As he was under the load, completely defenseless in the event of any type of mechanical failure, the supervisor’s boss walked by and observed him underneath the forklift, inside the machine that was not locked out.  The boss immediately directed the supervisor to come out from underneath the forklift and machinery because it was too dangerous for him to be there. 

It must have been a sudden moment of clarity that overcame the boss, because this had been the standard practice, or should I say standard work, for hourly workers to perform for over twenty years. Maybe it was the first time a superintendent-level manager had ever seen this task done. Maybe it was the first time a superintendent-level manager had ever seen a supervisor inside the machine under a load on a forklift. Maybe it was overlooked on all of the behavioral-based observations this business unit brags about. Maybe it was a lot of things, but it was damn sure not the first time members of management had seen UAW-represented workers performing similar tasks—they had been done this way thousands of times. What was the difference? I’ll leave the answer to that question for you to decide.

Over the weekend, the steward got on his computer and looked up health and safety standards on the OSHA website (http://www.osha.gov/ ).  He found three standards that applied to this situation, and since his printer was not working, he copied by hand, word for word, the exact language from the three standards. He then took it with him to work the next week. I cannot begin to tell you how impressed I was by the amount of dedication and initiative shown to not only find this information, but also to copy it verbatim , by hand. (You readers also need to know that this steward was given a written warning because the supervisor did not like the way the steward asked for his union health and safety representative).

Upon returning to work the next week, the steward had the opportunity to address both the supervisor and superintendent regarding the apparent violations of OSHA standards. He was determined to get his point across and read the exact language from the standards to both members of management. For his efforts, the steward was threatened with indefinite suspension by the supervisor, a really brave act from someone who should have been fired for assigning and/or allowing workers under his direction to be blatantly placed at such risk.

What other choices could have been made? Could everyone have remained silent and continued climbing into the machine that was not locked out, under the heavy load suspended on the forklift? Sure they could, it had been done that way for years, but does that make it right or safe? How many different scenarios can you imagine that could end up with someone killed or maimed?

Could someone have filled out a CI card? Sure, but how has that been working for you? Probably pretty good as long as it’s a simple problem, doesn’t affect production and doesn’t cost much. Even then there’s no guarantee it’ll be addressed. I doubt you’ve ever heard of cards that disappear or issues that drag out months or even years, have you?

No, there was no easy solution to this problem. This young man wasn’t elected to be a Health and Safety representative, he was elected to be a steward, there on the front lines of the labor/management relationship, handling grievances in the first step and keeping track of overtime.

 Right is always right and wrong is always wrong, but it often takes considerable effort to correct even the most obvious health and safety issues. This young man took the initiative to become educated regarding the requirements of the safety standards that applied to this particular situation. These laws were put into place because countless workers had been killed or maimed doing the job the way it had “always been done”. He took the responsibility of being a steward seriously and did what had to be done.

First, he looked at the job and determined there was a hazard. Second, he identified the hazard to his supervisor. Third, he asked for his UAW Health and Safety representative when the hazard was not adequately addressed. Finally, he educated himself on safety rules that had been violated and he spoke the truth to people who were responsible for the welfare of those who worked for them but had put his life and the lives of his co-workers in danger.  

So what does the future hold? This steward and his peers are just like a lot of us were at one time. They are the future. Their eyes can see the difference between what’s always been done and what can be done. Experience cannot be discounted, but neither can a fresh set of eyes that can see things differently and ask the question, why?  Past UAW Local 974 Bargaining Chairman Jerry Baker once said, “Very few people are born union, it takes a company like Caterpillar to make them union”.  The little peek I had into future showed me that Caterpillar is doing a good job of making people union once again.


Steve Mitchell