In response to:
Blue Collar Blues from the February 8, 1973 issue
To the Editors:
Murray Kempton’s review [NYR, February 8] of five current books about blue-collar problems, with his footnote reference to mine, is a brilliant example of why many blue-collar workers disdain intellectual preachments from outside union ranks.
The point I tried to make in The American Worker: An Endangered Species is that working conditions are not generally specific things like cents per hour, so many paid vacations per year or a certain level of pensions. They are insidious generally and do not lend themselves to hard and fast contract language. What Murray Kempton has neglected to note is that UAW major contracts—Ford, GM, Chrysler, and many others—have the right to strike during the life of the contract over speedup and health and safety. This is better than any law, state or federal, and better than any conjured up language. The trouble is that because noise levels, dust levels, fumes, untested chemicals, and other workplace environmental horrors are not easy to identify, it is exceedingly difficult for workers or the most highly motivated union official from shop steward to international president to do something. Despite this we have had many health and safety strikes in the UAW—as have other unions—and we will have more.
What Murray Kempton should have done, and what I plead with you here, is to invite the scientific community to come down out of the academic clouds and relate environmental problems to working people. Some of the most exciting intellectual/working-class relationships occurring today are those scientists who are working directly with workplace environmental problems. I talk extensively about them in my book and I am curious to know why Murray Kempton has ignored them. I am a tired liberal, too—but not that tired.
As to the point that UAW policy discourages worker complaints let me say simply that we can generally get quicker results when a complaint is handled through the grievance machinery and the complaint is not lost in the Department of Labor’s cumbersome procedures. We have never hidden from our membership or anybody else the many worker rights we fought for in the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, but it is the height of naïveté to assume that a single worker can correct a working condition without the union’s help or with the present implementation of the new national safety and health law.
Editor, UAW Washington Report