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Anthrax, the unions and the web

by Eric Lee

The people who are being directly affected by the current wave of bioterrorism are overwhelmingly ordinary workers -- journalists, clerks, postal workers. Until a few days ago, few of them knew anything at all about anthrax. Today, it is essential that they know a great deal.

For the trade union movement, anthrax and other biological weapons are creating the first major health and safety crisis of the twenty-first century. We are used to coping with things like asbestos, carpal tunnel syndrome and coal mine disasters. Having an envelope with white powder threaten the lives of thousands of workers is something utterly new.

The most important thing unions can do now is spread correct and timely information to their members. And the best means they have at their disposal to do so is the Internet.

There's nothing like a website to get out information fast -- and to change the information as we learn more.

The Communication Workers Union here in the UK published on its website a circular it had sent to all postal branches. The circular noted that "the Health, Safety & Environment Department [of the union] have liaised with the Post Office Employee Health Services and the UK Public Health Laboratories" and prepared a brief with advice to postal workers. CWU Area Safety Representatives were also informed and the union promised to continue using its website to post updates.> (The CWU website is located at )

In the USA, where several people have already tested positive for the disease, the website of the 315,000 member National Association of Letter Carriers is dominated by the anthrax scare. The site is full of helpful advice for postal workers (and not only in the US). As in the UK, the union promises to keep the website updated with the very latest. (The NALC website is located at )

While postal workers seem especially vulnerable to this form of bioterrorism, actually most of the victims have been media workers. Unions of journalists have been especially active on the web with information and resources on the anthrax threat.

"We want people not to be frightened by the latest developments concerning exposure to anthrax, but it is the time to be cautious and to ensure that health and safety regulations are being followed," said Aidan White, General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists. He said that the IFJ commended the action of its US affiliate, the Newspaper Guild, which has asked union representatives to meet urgently with media management to discuss precautions and guidelines for staff in handling postal items, according to an IFJ press release. (The IFJ website is located at )

Though the Newspaper Guild in the USA has extensive coverage of the anthrax crisis on its website (, oddly enough, its British counterpart, the NUJ, has nothing at all on their website ( Indeed, a search of the site for the term 'anthrax' comes up with nothing.

Similarly, the TUC website (at the time of this writing) has nothing at all on anthrax except a passing reference in a recent edition of its health and safety newsletter. Without wanting to cause panic, presumably Britain's national trade union centre could be doing a bit more to keep affiliate unions informed.

Of course the mainstream media websites have been producing tons of information about anthrax and most workers will be getting their information from those sources and not from their unions.

But unions have a unique role to play on health and safety issues and usually the very presence of a union in a workplace is enough to cause change for the better. Unions have only one interest, which is the health and safety of their members. Their websites must reflect this.

In a crisis like this one, union websites -- and unions themselves -- are being tested.

This article appeared in the Scottish Socialist Voice -- "the paper that's NOT owned by millionaires".

This document was last modified: Wednesday, 23-Nov-2022 08:33:37 CET

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