In an impressive display of solidarity and commitment, more than 300 union leaders, labor activists and occupational safety and health professionals gathered at the National Labor College on April 28 – Workers’ Memorial Day – to acknowledge the tragic deaths and serious injury of men and women at work and to pledge strengthened efforts to prevent them.
Though emotionally painful, the event could not have been more timely. In April, the nation was rocked by three separate workplace catastrophes. On April 2, seven workers were killed in a refinery fire in Washington. Two days later, 29 miners died in a West Virginia mine explosion. And on April 21, 11 oil workers were killed when an off-shore rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.
Citing the immortal words of Mother Jones – Pray for the dead, but fight like hell for the living! – Workers’ Memorial Day speakers issued a stern challenge to slack safety practices that proliferated under the Bush Administration.
“There’s a new sheriff in town,” Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA David Michaels reiterated, quoting his boss, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, as he endorsed new standards, more enforcement, stronger penalties and better protection of whistle-blowers (see full remarks). AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Liz Shuler stressed the importance of passing the Protecting America’s Workers Act, and United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts, who was a friend and mentor to several of the dead miners, railed against the callousness of Upper Big Branch mine CEO Don Blankenship, calling for criminal charges against him. Urging passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, Shuler and Roberts both endorsed “card-check” which would strengthen workplace protection for workers by allowing them to join unions by simply signing a card.
In a more solemn phase, the event’s organizers read the names and tolled a bell for each of the 136 individuals or groups immortalized this year with a new brick to be laid into the National Workers Memorial at the college. Among those honored was Joseph C. Fowler, Jr., the Executive Director of the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America who died suddenly last fall at the apex of 15 years of service to the cause of workplace safety and health.
One among Many: Joseph C. Fowler, Jr.
Lending a new level of dignity and power to the cause, President Barack Obama issued the first-ever, Workers’ Memorial Day Presidential Proclamation. Referring to the mine disaster, he declared the dedication of his administration “to preventing such tragedies, and to securing a safer workplace for every American.”
The cause of workplace safety was also endorsed by other world leaders including British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Initiated in Canada in 1984, Workers’ Memorial Day is now recognized in dozens of nations.
“No one should have to risk their life to earn a living,” says LHSFNA Executive Director Lisa M. Sabitoni. “Almost every workplace death is preventable, but it takes diligence and commitment in combination with strong safety programs and active worker involvement to achieve that goal. Every Laborer and every LIUNA signatory employer should know that our Fund stands ready to assist. Call us for help.”
The LHSFNA’s Occupational Safety and Health Division can be reached at 202-628-5465.