A union health & safety conference reinforces the importance of worker solidarity

I’ve just had the privilege of spending several days with members of the New York Public Employees Federation (PEF) at their annual health and safety conference in Albany. It was a welcomed reminder that — at least on occasion! — even a hotel conference center can be the site of a big dose of inspiration.

Great speakers and programs

There were several dozen sessions during the conference, and these were among the highlights for me:

  • A passionate, heartfelt keynote address by Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, underscored the critical importance of labor unions in safeguarding the health and dignity of workers;
  • A Friday morning plenary included an insightful talk by Andy Coates (physician and PEF shop steward) linking health & safety challenges at work to broader indicators of distribution of wealth and resources;
  • A workshop on occupational stress led by PEF’s Geraldine Stella taught participants how to break down sources of workplace stress and analyze them in ways that lead to specific solutions; and,
  • A 100th anniversary remembrance of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire featured readings by Jemma Marie Hanson (PEF), Kristina Willbrant (PEF’s very able conference coordinator), and Maureen Cox (NY Dept. of Labor).

Nurses on the firing line

I was especially pleased that two fellow Bay Staters, both affiliated with the Massachusetts Nurses Association, made the trip to Albany to lead a program on working with law enforcement authorities to address workplace violence.

Christine Pontus, RN, opened with an informative presentation on how changes in mental health treatment policies over several decades have put health care workers in harm’s way. Ellen Farley, RN, detailed her brave, persistent, and ultimately successful efforts to spur a Massachusetts prosecutor’s office to deal with a serially abusive patient who had committed some 55 reported assaults in a single year.

They were followed by members of the local district attorney’s office who gave a useful mini-tutorial on the criminal offenses most likely to arise out of violent situations involving patient behavior.

PEF “gets it” concerning workplace bullying

I was at the conference to speak about workplace bullying, sharing an afternoon plenary session stage with PEF’s Matt London, who is working with Jane Lipscomb of the University of Maryland and others on a superb study of bullying and aggression in public agencies. (Seriously — they have a ton of great data, and we’ll be hearing more about the results in the months to come.)

PEF is taking workplace bullying very seriously. They are educating their membership about this phenomenon and supporting the Healthy Workplace Bill before the New York legislature.

In fact, my role was merely to explain how their extensive efforts relate to the broader national and international movement to respond to workplace bullying. It was heartening to talk to so many PEF members who already had taken time to learn about workplace bullying and to apply this knowledge to addressing situations at work.


The PEF Health & Safety Department deserves a warm round of applause for putting together this successful gathering. Thanks especially to director Jonathan Rosen, whose long-time commitment to addressing workplace bullying and violence led to this speaking invitation.

Why we need unions

We’re hearing a lot about state budget crises right now. Some of these concerns are serving as smokescreens to launch a virulent assault on public employees and the right to bargain collectively, as we’re seeing in Wisconsin.

Don’t be fooled about the true intentions behind these attacks. Those who had the good fortune of taking part in this conference experienced why good unions are so threatening to those who want to consolidate power and wealth: First, there is strength in organized numbers. Second, the core meaning of worker solidarity is good people helping other good people to improve the work lives of all, not just the most fortunate few.

No wonder why some folks would prefer that unions simply disappear. We have to do everything we can to ensure that will not happen.

2 responses

  1. Wow…another great article. Since I’m new to Work Place Bullying, it’s very hard not to get overwhelmed with its prevalence. It’s everywhere! Many, many of my friends talk about it but are afraid to come forward formally. In fact…I’m not afraid of
    anything when it comes to the Workplace, but WPB (bullying) has shaken me. Because of its insidious nature, it forces one into submission or you lose your job…or worse. (being ostracized). Many times…if you’re targeted, you lose your job no matter what you do. Thank you for this article! It encourages me. I’m thinking that Workplace Aggression is not long for this world. We can only hope.

    • Paul, while I do think we’ll have forms of workplace aggression for as long as people are working, I believe we are at a point where society is taking this very seriously.

      Thanks for your interest in this, esp. in the aftermath of your own experience.

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