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October 31, 2023 HUMAN RIGHTS

Amid Climate Disasters, Workers Demand a Right to Safety

by Rebecca Dixon

Many years ago, I was a college student at home in Mississippi for the summer and in need of a temporary job. Lured by the promise of good pay, I took a job on the production line at a chicken plant.

I will never forget the air, pungent with the smell of feathers and machinery. Amid the sounds of clanging metal and whirring conveyor belts, dozens of chickens whizzed by every minute. My coworkers and I, clad in protective gear, worked as fast as we could to pluck feathers, detach limbs, and prep the carcasses for packaging. The work involved performing repetitive motions like cutting and slashing, hundreds of times every minute, for hours. If you were not precise, it was easy to wound yourself. It was exhausting and dangerous work, and I did not last long.

The grueling conditions left me aching and disillusioned—and while it was one of the better paying jobs around, my coworkers and I were underpaid given the work involved and the skill required to do it safely. My experience at the chicken plant led me to ask, “What is a good job? What would it take to make these jobs better?”

These are questions that I have worked to answer throughout my advocacy career—questions that have taken on renewed significance today, as worker organizing efforts gain momentum across industries and challenge major corporations. From Starbucks to Amazon, REI to Trader Joe’s, and Hollywood writers and actors to L.A. city workers, fed-up workers have been joining forces to assert their rights and improve their working conditions through collective action. According to the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, there were 424 work stoppages of all sizes in 2022, involving at least 224,000 workers, representing a 52 percent increase compared to the previous year. Most strikes last year were in the food services and accommodations sector, which accounted for 34 percent of all work stoppages.

As these workers know, a good job means more than just monetary compensation; it encompasses safety, dignity, a role in determining working conditions, and the assurance of a brighter future. Through labor unions, worker centers, and community-based organizations, workers are challenging power imbalances and demanding just working conditions across a range of issues, including fair/living wages, the right to unionize, and the right to refuse unsafe work. 

This past summer in particular saw a wave of workers striking for safer working conditions as the heat surpassed record temperatures in many states.

This past summer in particular saw a wave of workers striking for safer working conditions as the heat surpassed record temperatures in many states.


Expansive calls for more power and protection at work are needed more than ever in the context of an accelerating climate crisis. Workers in every state will increasingly face climate-change-induced dangers in the workplace. This dramatic shift presents an opportunity to reimagine and move beyond an extractive, at-will economy—and instead build equity and respect for fundamental human rights into new paradigms for regulating work.

This past summer in particular saw a wave of workers striking for safer working conditions as the heat surpassed record temperatures in many states across the country. While the Biden administration has proposed executive actions to protect workers from extreme heat, and members of Congress have introduced legislation to hasten the adoption of a heat standard, these efforts face serious opposition, and a bill could take years to pass. In July 2023, Texas workers and their unions, together with lawmaker allies, held a thirst strike on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to call on the federal government to accelerate its work on these standards in light of a new Texas law that “preempts” or blocks cities and counties from adopting stronger protections on a range of issues covered by state law. This so-called “Death Star” law nullified local ordinances in Austin and Dallas requiring water breaks for construction workers, despite the fact that more workers die from heat in Texas than in any other state. The same month, cooks and cashiers at a McDonald’s in Los Angeles walked out and staged a rally over the restaurant’s broken air conditioning system.

Meanwhile, nearly 340,000 drivers, dispatchers, and warehouse workers employed by UPS threatened to strike starting in early August if the company didn’t start putting air conditioning in its trucks, among other demands. By threatening what would have been the largest single-employer strike in U.S. history, the workers were able to bring the company to a tentative agreement in late July. Amazon delivery drivers at a facility in Southern California, who are categorized as contractors rather than employees, have joined the Teamsters in hopes of negotiating for similar heat protections. They have been on indefinite strike since June.

Workers who are excluded from the right to organize, such as immigrant farmworkers, are also coming together to demand change, insisting that elected leaders in California; Oregon; Washington; Colorado; and Miami-Dade, Florida, put protections in place against heat stress and hold employers responsible for compliance.

While extreme heat and other unsafe working conditions are harmful to all workers, Black and Latinx workers disproportionately bear the brunt of the climate crisis. In general, Black and Latinx workers have been sorted into outdoor work and other manual jobs that subject them to climate disaster harms. Nationally, just under 22 percent of white workers are employed in at-risk jobs, while 25.5 percent of Black workers are in these industries, as are 36 percent of Latinx workers. In 14 states, Black workers face at least a 30 percent chance of being in an at-risk job. Clearly, Black and Latinx workers have been unjustly put at greater risk in these more dangerous jobs.

This is occupational segregation, the process of shunting workers into specific occupations based on their gender, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background. This practice significantly influences economic outcomes for Black people, people of color, immigrants, and women, profoundly impacting their wages, benefits, working conditions, and their capacity to speak out on the job or organize and form unions. And in the case of climate-related dangers, it has even resulted in Black and immigrant workers being forced to enter evacuation zones to work in the midst of disaster, even as public safety officials compel others to flee. 

Black workers also experience particular harms due to legacy labor market policies and systemic practices that—from the era of slavery to the era of Jim Crow segregation and persisting to this day—have deliberately excluded them from accessing fair and equal wages and benefits, safety and health protections, job opportunities, and advancement prospects. This is why Black workers like Naomi Harris, founder of the Union of Southern Service Workers, or USSW, a “multiracial advocacy group for workers in low-wage, high-turnover jobs that have a legacy of racism,” are intent on leading, organizing, and helping workers unionize and push back. “We are going to fight by marching up on the bosses with our petitions, striking at the right time, getting community support for rallies. We will organize walkouts, sit-ins, and boycotts if we need to. We will take legal action. . . . We’re going to fight and fight and fight until we get what we deserve,” Harris told the American Prospect.

Worker unionizing plays a vital role in industries where racial occupational segregation and other inequities are prevalent, as it offers workers an opportunity to collectively confront workplace injustices and build solidarity. By unionizing and negotiating strong contracts, workers can address issues such as wage disparities, protection against unjust terminations, improved benefits, and the establishment of robust health and safety regulations. Historically, unionization has been instrumental in fighting against racial discrimination and promoting economic justice for Black workers, who maintain the highest rates of unionization compared with other racial groups.

In fact, long before the current wave of union organizing and strikes, the Fight for $15 and a Union captivated the labor movement’s imagination, inspiring and activating Black workers and workers of color from coast to coast to join together in one of the first mass-scale labor actions in the United States in a generation. Steadily over the past decade, this movement has achieved major successes in 28 states and the District of Columbia, putting $150 billion in additional income into the pockets of 26 million workers and significantly narrowing the racial wealth gap, particularly in higher-wage states.

Today, as the labor movement sets its sights not only on a living wage but also on safer working conditions and other workplace protections, our challenge now is to design comprehensive policies and initiatives that benefit all workers while also addressing the disparities faced by Black workers like Naomi and the worker members of the USSW.

Together with our allies in a growing number of jurisdictions, we are advocating for a meaningful right to refuse dangerous work in the face of climate-change-induced natural disasters—a right that must be supported with job-protected rights to paid leave, anti-retaliation provisions with penalties for noncompliance, and expansive unemployment insurance benefits. These reforms would be an important step toward a meaningful acknowledgment that workers’ lives are more important than keeping businesses open during disasters for the sake of corporate profits.

Central to our vision for a good-jobs economy is a rebalancing of power so that workers can exercise more autonomy over their own workplace safety. As active members of the Worker Power Coalition, we support the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, which would strengthen and protect workers’ rights to organize and collectively bargain, prevent employer interference, and bolster funding and resources for the National Labor Relations Board.

Today, more and more workers are joining together, using tactics such as strikes, protests, lobbying, public awareness campaigns, and legal action to hold employers and policymakers accountable for the changes that our society needs. This is how we begin to make every job—including those in Mississippi’s poultry processing plants—a good job. By growing worker power, we can build a good-jobs economy in which all workers can thrive.

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Rebecca Dixon

President and CEO of the National Employment Law Project.

Rebecca Dixon is a respected national leader in federal workers’ rights advocacy and is in great demand for her thought leadership on issues of labor and racial, gender, and economic justice.