When a union declared war on workplace cancer

A September 2014 paper in the American Journal of History relates how a national US union “declared war” on workplace cancer. The paper notes: “During an address to the American Occupational Health Conference in Detroit, Michigan, on April 22, 1980, United Automobile Workers (UAW) president Douglas A Fraser made a bold announcement. The UAW was declaring “war on workplace cancer” in response to an alarming series of cancer mortality studies conducted among autoworkers by government, company, and union epidemiologists. These studies revealed an “increased proportion of cancer deaths” among “workers in machining operations, foundry workers, and workers in vehicle assembly plants”; the epidemiologists believed those deaths were related to occupational carcinogen exposure.” The paper adds: “Why would the UAW launch such a potentially expensive initiative at a moment when GM, Ford Motor Company, and Chrysler were in their deepest sales slumps since the Great Depression and when nearly half of the union’s members faced indefinite layoffs? Fraser was responding to unprecedented pressure from health and safety activists, including whistleblowers at union locals who had alerted media to the high cancer rates in their plants.” The union strategy involved do-it-yourself “popular epidemiology” supported by a groundbreaking ‘Cancer detective’ guide.

Josiah Rector. Environmental Justice at Work: The UAW, the War on Cancer, and the Right to Equal Protection from Toxic Hazards in Postwar America, Journal of American History, volume 101, number 2, pages 480-502, September 2014. Full text of the article is posted online here. Also see: The Case of the Workplace Killers: A Manual for Cancer Detectives on the Job, UAW, November 1980.

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