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Workers Memorial Week 2017: A time to weep…and to organize!

Standing up for safety with SoCalCOSH, UCLA-LOSH and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network at the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor
Standing up for safety with SoCalCOSH, UCLA-LOSH and the  National  Day  
Laborer Organizing Network at the Los Angeles  County Federation of Labor

Bagpipes in front of a steel plant in Shelby, Ohio. Crosses placed in a park in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. An interfaith service in Berlin, Germany. Doves released into the air in Leeds, England. The tolling of a bell- 150 times- outside the state capitol in Raleigh, North Carolina.

In hundreds of communities across the United States and around the globe, fallen workers were remembered during Workers’ Memorial Week, observed this year from April 23rd through April 30th.

“I have a little boy who will never know his father,” Shara Anderson, 34, told the Raleigh News and Observer during a Workers’ Memorial Day event honoring 150 workers who died on the job in North Carolina. “Sunday would have been our eighth anniversary.” Anderson’s husband, Daniel, was suffocated to death by leaking nitrogen gas while working at SPX Transformer Solutions in Goldsboro, NC.

The centerpiece of the weeklong observance is Workers’ Memorial Day on April 28th, which marks the day the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Act took effect in 1971. Ever since, workers, families and advocates and health have gathered every April to put into action the works of famed labor organizer Mother Jones: “Pray for the dead- and fight like hell for the living.”

“Workplace fatalities can happen to anyone at any time,” wrote Susi Nord, who works for both New Hampshire COSH and National COSH, in an April 24th op-ed in the Concord Monitor. “They are largely preventable through strong workplace protections and analysis… We need strong protections and strong enforcement agencies.”

Affiliates of the COSH Network were in the thick of the action all week.  

On April 23rd in New Brunswick, New Jersey, hundreds joined the New Jersey Work Environmental Council (NJWEC) and New Labor for a procession featured in USA Today. “Not one more death/Ni una muerta mas,” was the bilingual rallying cry for marchers, who were led by three children, including a girl on a tricycle and a boy beating a toy drum.

A coffin honors fallen workers during Workers’ Memorial Week  
march in New Brunswick, NJ

Looking at names and photos of fallen workers was a “somber experience,” said NJWEC Executive Director Dan Fatton. Workers and families, he said, would continue to demand “protections to prevent more tragedies from occurring.”

There were multiple Workers’ Memorial Week events in New York City, including an April 27th mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, as reported in the New York Daily News, with empty red velvet chairs honoring fallen construction workers. On April 28th, workers and advocates gathered for an early morning memorial in Long Island City, and a mid-day rally at AFSCME District Council 37 headquarters in Manhattan. Workers from unions across the city remembered AFSMCE Local 2507 member Yadira Arroyo, an EMT who was killed in the line of duty by a man who ran her over as he was trying to hijack her ambulance.

“Our work to prevent these tragedies and pain,” NYCOSH Executive Director Charlene Obernauer told the crowd, “has never been more urgent.”

Bagpipers honor fallen construction workers at an  April 27th memorial
service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City

On April 28th in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf addressed 400 attendees at an annual Workers’ Memorial Day breakfast sponsored by PhilaPOSH. “It’s a primary civil right to work in a safe environment,” said the governor. The Philadelphia Inquirer, in a feature story on the event, reports that Wolf pledged to sign a bill extending health and safety protections for public sector worker in Pennsylvania. Afterwards, participants marched with a casket to a funeral ceremony at nearby Penn’s Landing.

That same day in Boston, WCVB-TV showed workers and families gathered to display photos of those who died on the job at the Massachusetts state capitol in Boston. State Attorney General Maura Healey spoke at the event- sponsored annually by MassCOSH- and pledged support for tougher criminal penalties against companies who commit manslaughter. Legislative reform efforts have gained steam since the tragic deaths of Kelvin Mattocks and Robert Higgins, who died unprotected in a trench at a Boston construction site in October 2016.

“When employer precautions are not taken to protect workers, people die,” said MassCOSH Executive Director Jody Sugerman-Brozan.

Kelvin Mattocks, victim of a preventable drowning at a construction
site, is honored during Workers’ Memorial Day ceremony in Boston.

Meanwhile, across the country in Oakland, California, Worksafe staged a lobbying day on April 27th; a noon rally in on April 28th with a moment of silence, an altar to honor fallen workers; and a panel discussion entitled “Race, Power, & Politics: Effects on Workers of Color.”

“The sad reality is that our workers continue to die from the same workplace hazards that have been killing them for years,” said Worksafe Executive Director Doug Parker. “We are particularly troubled with how members of our immigrant communities bear the brunt of many of these hazards.”

Lobbying for justice with Worksafe and the Oakland Workers’ Collective

Also in California, a multicultural coalition of workers and advocates joined SoCalCOSH, the UCLA Labor and Occupational Safety and Health Program and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) on April 28th for a packed press conference at the Los Angeles Federation of Labor.

Speakers highlighted the high rates of fatalities experienced by Latino/a workers, and pointed out that actions which make immigrant workers less secure make it more difficult to identify and correct workplaces hazards.

“When immigrant workers are afraid of reporting poor conditions,” said UNITE HERE Vice President Maria Elena Durazo, “all workers suffer.”

It was a full week from coast to coast. In hundreds of communities, COSH groups, families union members, environmental advocates, health professionals and many others joined together with a strong message and even stronger determination to empower workers and prevent workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths.

Brianna Cierra- whose father Rodger died when a beam fell on him at a steel fabrication company- joined the PhilaPOSH procession in Philadelphia on April 28th, remembering him with a rose dropped in the Delaware River. “My father,” she said, “would be proud of us for being here.”