Labor, Environmental Coalition Wins Bill Passage

By Stewart Acuff

Vol. 10, No. 3, 1988, p. 16

It's not often that the environmental movement and the labor movement can find enough common ground to work together in a mutually beneficial effort. It is difficult for any coalition to hold itself together long enough to make an impact, and that difficulty is even greater without a history of cooperation.

The labor movement and environmental movement wrote a little history curing the 1988 Georgia legislative session.

Led by the Georgia State Employees Union (Local 1985 of the Service Employees International Union) and the Georgia Environmental Project, the two often disparate movements joined forces in a dramatic and exciting fight that led to the passage of HB 503, the Public Employees Hazardous Protection and Right to Know Act of 1988.

HB 503 requires that state employees be informed about chemicals on the job, be trained in the safe use of those chemicals, that an advisory council be formed to administer the bill, and that no state employee be forced to work with any chemical she or he is not familiar with.

HB 503 was drafted four years ago by State Rep. George Brown of Augusta, who is himself in a high risk category for bladder cancer because of exposure to carcinogens at an Augusta chemical plant where he worked as a teenager.

Brown's original bill covered all Georgia workers and included citizens' right to know. But that bill was made obsolete by federal legislation designed to protect private sector manufacturing workers and residents of neighborhoods close to chemical plants.

A new proposal did not make it out of the House in 1987; its most active and vocal opponent was the Georgia Department of Transportation, whose maintenance workers and lab employees are subject to the bill's provisions.

Labor and environmentalists fought hard; more than 400 GSEU members came to the Capitol on "State Employees Lobby Day." The Georgia Environmental Project helped build support by making the effort "a public policy fight rather than a wrestling match about working conditions."

When Gov. Joe Frank Harris signed HB 503 in an April ceremony attended by union members, environmentalists, and legislators, it wee the first time in his two terms that any AFL-CIO union had been in the governor's office for a bill signing.