University of Washington School of Public Health

UW SPH News: Labor unions offer opportunity for public health innovation

Labor unions offer opportunity for public health innovation

05/06/2016
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A University of Washington School of Public Health study finds there is untapped potential for collaboration between public health agencies and labor unions. The study, conducted by researchers with the School’s Community-Oriented Public Health Practice (COPHP) program, illustrated how labor unions might be allies in promoting public health and how public health practitioners might serve as strategic partners to help organize the advocacy work of unions.

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Jenn Hagedorn

“Labor unions and public health professionals have a common goal of keeping workers healthy and safe, but they don’t often collaborate on these goals,” said lead researcher Jenn Hagedorn, a clinical instructor of health services at the School and an alumna of the COPHP program.

The research, published in the American Journal of Public Health, suggested that public health practitioners can help union organizers negotiate contracts to not only improve the health of individuals and communities, but also address the social determinants of health.

Historically, labor unions have used contracts as the primary tool to improve the working conditions of members—one way to promote and advocate for public health, the study notes. Contracts promoted health by creating higher wages, stronger benefit standards, limitations on working hours, safer environments, and protections from workplace hazards. They also reinforced social support in the workplace and promoted well-being by encouraging democratic participation.

“Our health is shaped by our environment and many of our waking hours are spent at work,” Hagedorn said. “We can’t ‘leave work at work’ because employment effects every part of our lives — our socioeconomic status, the neighborhood we can afford to live in, the amount of time we can spend with family, the hazards we are exposed to, and the level of autonomy we feel over our lives.”

In partnership with Puget Sound Sage, a community-based nonprofit that works with labor to “grow communities where all families thrive,” the researchers worked with six unions to review 16 union contracts from various industries in the Pacific Northwest. These unions represented hotel workers, truck drivers, home-care workers, office workers, and grocery story workers. The researchers looked at the specific language used in the contracts and identified 34 health-promoting indicators.

Researchers also interviewed seven union organizers and six union members to learn how contract-protected benefits and working conditions aligned with public health outcomes. The workers were asked questions about their jobs and the role of their unions, and they were asked to compare their current workplace to personal experiences with non-union workplaces.

Researchers noted there was consistency among contracts negotiated by the same union. Furthermore, contracts with public sector entities — for example, the Head Start Program, State of Washington, and Seattle School District — had fewer contract provisions that contributed to health. Research partners included Amy Hagopian from the University of Washington School of Public Health and Claudia Alexandra Paras and Howard Greenwich from Puget Sound Sage.

Read the study in the American Journal of Public Health