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June 20, 2005

Philadelphia Labor Great Jim Moran Retires As Director of Philaposh

Jordan Barab (Reprinted from Confined Space)

The essence of trade unionism is social uplift. The labor movement has been the haven for the dispossessed, the despised, the neglected, the downtrodden, the poor.
-- A. Phillip Randolph

This isn't exactly labor news of great national significance, but it is news for Philadelphia area workers: the retirement of Philaposh Director Jim Moran.

Philaposh, for those who don't know, is the Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety and Health, the second oldest COSH group in the United States. COSH groups are local coalitions of labor, environmental and public health advocates who organize and provide technical assistance to worker on workplace safety and health issues. For workers who don't belong to unions (and for many who do), COSH groups are their only available resource for health and safety issues.

I've known Jim for over twenty years and had heard of him before that. Philaposh earned its first fame in the struggle for Philadelphia's right-to-know law in the late '70's. When it was their turn to testify during a crucial city council hearing, Philaposh representatives brought along a tank of compressed gas and opened it up in front of the skeptical Councilmen. "What is this stuff?" they demanded to know.

The point was made more effectively than any boring testimony would have done. The Philadelphia Right-to-Know law passed - the first in the nation.

A couple of years later, OSHA came under its first organized legislative attack with the so-called Schweiker Bill, named after its main sponsor Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker. Instead of settling for normal lobbying, Philaposh took its case directly to Schweiker -- directly to his home, to be precise. The Senator -- and the press -- were not amused. But the Schweicker bill never passed.

Philaposh's most (in)famous exploit came about ten years ago.

In 1995, North Carolina Republican Congressman Cass Ballenger, newly in command of the House committee that covered OSHA after the 1994 elections which brought the Republicans to power in the House and Senate, introduced OSHA Deform legislation. Labor and COSH groups fought back with letters, demonstrations, testimony and petitions. But Philaposh had a better idea: a "wanted" poster with Ballenger's picture on it, declaring that the congressman was wanted "for conspiracy to maim, injure and kill American workers. There was also a button and a petition to go with the poster. It didn't receive much notice until then-OSHA director Joe Dear put the button on at a conference of the American Public Health Association, prompting Ballenger to investigate whether Philaposh or APHA were receiving any federal funds. (They weren't)

According to an article published at the time,

Some in the labor movement criticize tactics like the wanted poster, Moran noted. But, he said, "When people are out to hurt you, you have to do something more than write a letter to your congressman. We have to expose these guys more and call them what they are, and not be afraid that we were impolite. They're coming at us with tanks and we got peashooters."


"Obviously he was out to hurt us," said Moran. ButPhilaPOSH, a 21-year-old non-profit organization supported by 150 unions, didn't have any federal grants. Ballenger also demanded (and got) an apology from Joe Dear. The conflict got headlines earlier this year. By March 19, Ballenger withdrew the bill.

Moran doesn't think PhilaPOSH's "wanted" campaign was solelyresponsible for killing Ballenger's bill, "but we do think it was probably what pushed it over the edge. It drew him out," Moran said.

But of course, those are just the big stories. What makes Moran and Philaposh special are the thousands of smaller battles fought and won, the lives saved, the bodies protected.

There was one thing that struck me at the retirement party -- particularly at a time when the AFL-CIO seems to be giving up on the idea that health and safety has any role in organizing.

Normally at a retirement party for a COSH director, you'd hear lots of speeches from members of the health and safety activist "cult" about how he helped win this or that health and safety battle. We certainly heard those stories, but the remarkable thing about the evening is that most of the speakers -- who were labor leaders from the Southeastern Pennsylvania, and southern Jersey areas, including officials of the state AFL-CIO and leaders of several regional labor councils -- told stories that were mostly about Jim teaching them not just about workplace safety and health, but first and formost how to be progressive trade unionists, how to use their members' health and safety problems to mobilize and organize them, and how to use the union to save members' lives.

And Jim's activities weren't just confined to safety and health, or even just traditional labor issues. Stories were told of him leading a bunch of co-conspirators in a raid to open up an abandoned house for the use of homeless persons one frigid Philadelphia night.

On a personal note, Jim was always an inspiration and a reminder to me of who I'm really working (and writing) for -- something that's all too easy to forget living in Washington D.C. And amidst the storming and struggles here in DC over the future of the labor movement, it was enormously refreshing to sit back for an evening and listen to stories of the small and large struggles and victories of workers and organizers where the labor movement is alive, dynamic and focused on workers' lives. For a few moments, D.C. seemed a million miles away.

Finally, I'd be remiss (and in trouble) if I didn't note that retiring along with Jim is his wife of 42 years, Aggie Moran. Aggie has been a Philaposh volunteer since 1992 and before that was an IBEW shop steward at Progress Lighting before retiring after 17 years with multiple musculoskeletal injuries. And as Jim said last night, "Without Aggie Moran, there would be no Jim Moran."

So, good luck, Jim and Aggie. we'll all miss you, but more important, as was said last night, 'the dispossessed, the despised, the neglected, the downtrodden, the poor' will miss you.

The history of the labor movement is one of great achievements for the entire working class, strengthening the rights of the whole society, not just union members. We're proud of our great victories like the 8-hour day, public education, child labor laws, unemployment compensation, the Occupational Safety and Health Act and Social Security, one of the last standing monuments of the "New Deal." But again, they want to "privatize" Social Security.

The only movement that will police the social contract listed above is the labor movement. When that contract is broken and union busting prevails, look out! Show me a Country without a labor movement and I'll show you a Dictatorship.

Far from being obsolete, unions are the most important weapon we have to defeat all of the social ills mentioned above, not to mention the ongoing struggle for social justice over issues like racism and sexism.

Jim Moran, Who Needs 'Labor Day'?

Posted by Jordan Barab at June 20, 2005 07:04 AM