How quickly we forget: Workers Memorial Day

Just last year at this time 11 workers were killed when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig (which had a history of questionable safety inspections) exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Workers continue to die because of unsafe working conditions and neglected regulations.

Today, April 28th, is Workers Memorial Day.

Odds are, you’ve probably never heard of this day. Neither did I, until I took my first sociology class at UCSC. Workers Memorial Day began in 1984 by who else – the Canadian Union of Public Employees! The following year on April 28th an annual day of remembrance was called for by the Canadian Labor Congress. Since 1989, Workers Memorial Day in the United States commemorates workers’ deaths, bodily injuries and occupational illness, however, it is not a widely known holiday, and gets little attention outside of union/labor activist circles. We know that industrial massacres occur in the Third World and developing countries, but what many Americans don’t know is that work-related deaths and injuries from industrial disasters occur every day right here on our own soil in factories, mines, farms and sweatshops.

Unidentified victims of the Bhopal Gas tragedy on December 3, 1984

The International Labour Organisation – an agency of the United Nations – does recognize International Workers’ Memorial Day, but it’s a shame the day is not as widely known and commemorated. Directly from the International Labour Organisation’s website:

“The purpose of Workers’ Memorial Day is to call attention to the extent of workplace accidents and illness and to promote awareness of health and safety issues in general….. The ILO estimates that approximately two million workers lose their lives annually due to occupational injuries and illnesses, with accidents causing at least 350,000 deaths a year. For every fatal accident, there are an estimated 1,000 non-fatal injuries, many of which result in lost earnings, permanent disability and poverty. The death toll at work, much of which is attributable to unsafe working practices, is the equivalent of 5,000 workers dying each day, three persons every minute. This is more than double the figure for deaths from warfare (650,000 deaths per year). According to the ILO’s SafeWork programme, work kills more people than alcohol and drugs together and the resulting loss in Gross Domestic Product is 20 times greater than all official development assistance to the developing countries. Hazardous substances kill 340,000 per year, with a single substance, asbestos, accounting for 100,000 of those. Exposure to daily occupational hazards such as dust, chemicals, noise and radiation cause untold suffering and illness, including cancers, heart diseases and strokes.

According to the ILO, at least half of the deaths from accidents could be prevented by safe working practices and all accidents are avoidable and preventable. Agriculture, construction and mining are the three most hazardous occupations in both developing and industrialized countries.”

The disaster I’m most familiar with on American soil is the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911, in which 146 garment workers (mostly young women) were killed in New York City because locked doors and inadequate fire escapes (which were denied to them by the factory owners) prevented them from escaping a fire that broke out in the building. Historically, factory owners did want to spend money to protect workers. They skimped on fire escapes, alarm systems and worker safety protections. Two years before the fire, garment workers in New York City went on strike to protest the horrible, unsafe working conditions that they were forced to endure. They wanted the factory owners to grant them protections from working hazards – including adequate fire escapes and emergency exits. While other New York City factories improved some policies, the owners of the Triangle Factory did not grant their workers these protections. Two years later the Triangle Factory was still ill-equipped, and as a result hundreds were killed or seriously injured by the fire.

Victims of the Triangle Factory Fire lie dead at the foot of the building

In 2011, workers all over the world (including the United States) are still denied proper protections, and industrial disasters like the Triangle Fire continue to occur. A disaster with conditions very similar to Triangle occurred in Bangladesh on December, 2010, in which 25 garment workers were killed and at least a 100 more injured in a factory fire. Just 10 months earlier, a different fire killed 21 at another garment factory fire in Bangladesh. Considering most of our clothes in the US comes from Third World garment factories like these ones in Bangladesh, Americans should certainly be concerned with the conditions that these garment workers are forced to endure. Why don’t we care? Perhaps because those likely to be hurt and killed by industrial accidents tend to be poor or working-class immigrants? Or are we afraid to confront the slavery that still takes place today?

A few more questions to ask: Why are we so uninformed about these workplace disasters – both overseas and at home? Why is there is no nationally sanctioned memorial to the victims of Triangle Fire? There are countless unmarked sites of historical importance, making workplace disasters and their victims very much a part of our nation’s hidden histories. We collectively honor Americas fallen soldiers with national holidays and erected memorials, so why aren’t there memorials dedicated to people killed in labor on American soil? Does America intentionally gloss over industrial accidents? Perhaps because we’re ashamed that our country allowed these accidents to occur? Or maybe we’re at odds because our capitalistic drive is often the reason that these industrial disasters occur.

In the early 1900s, workplace disasters like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire led to the development of labor – especially child labor – laws. People fought for their lives to change the conditions in factories and in the workplace – they won the right to collectively negotiate maximum working hours, health and safety conditions, benefits and wage scales. I’ve been working on a short piece about the Triangle Factory Fire, and this past March I attended a lecture at the San Francisco Jewish Community Library about the disaster and its effects on the Jewish community (a majority of the fires victims were young Jewish immigrants). After the lecture I spoke with the two presenters, Elaine Leeder and Judy Baston, and we spent a lot of time talking about the origins of worker safety legislation and how collective bargaining drastically improved working conditions for American laborers. Perhaps what is most disturbing about the plight of American industrial workers is that Republican Congressmen and Women are at this moment trying to revoke the rights that have saved millions of American lives over the century. In response to what has been going on in Wisconsin,  Judy Baston, a retired union communications worker, noted:

“Wisconsin was not only the birthplace of collective bargaining for public employees but it was the birthplace of the nation’s public employee union in the 1930s. And now what is going on there is not just a weakening of the ability to bargain collectively – but a lot of people don’t realize this – the legislation that was just passed by the Wisconsin statehouse actually makes it virtually impossible for public employee unions to organize. They would  every single year have to go back to the workers and basically take a new card count or a new election. This is the sort of thing that opponents of unions have tried to use for a long time. And I just think that they realize that the unions have been the bullwark against the ability to do just whatever they want. Somebody said, I believe, ‘What would you see if there were no unions?’ And they pointed to the horrible, horrible site of the bodies below the Triangle Factory. And I’m not saying that the lack of unions would necessarily result in this, but if there are no unions the next step will be any existing legislation to protect workers, so it’s really – I don’t think even 6 months ago that most people would have predicted this, they would have said yes, there is going to be a concerted attack on the pensions of public employees, the vast majority of which are not that excessive, even though some higher level management do take home excessive – but they’re going way beyond this and it has nothing to do with the pensions, they simply want to wipe out whatever rights working people have.” (Emphasis mine)

Protesters turn out in Wisconsin

Yes, unions aren’t perfect, and some union members take advantage of the things that they offer. But it is NECESSARY to have these unions to ensure that workers are protected from industrial disasters and unsafe, inhumane working conditions.

Today President Obama released a statement about Workers’ Memorial Day. It’s wonderful that the President is nationally acknowledging the day, however, it still remains a very hidden part of our nation for the majority of Americans. And unfortunately, the President’s statement mentions nothing of the recent attacks on worker’s rights in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the country.

Go HERE to find a Workers Memorial Day event near you.

Here are some related websites to learn more about worker protection:

WorkSafe.org’s newly released report on work-related death and injury in California

WorkSafe.org

The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

For further reading, check out some of these books:

Bauman, Zygmut. Wasted Lives: Modernity and its Outcasts. 2004.

Foote, Kenneth E. Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy. 2003.

Zandy, Janet. Hands: Physical Labor, Class and Cultural Work. 2004.

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One response to “How quickly we forget: Workers Memorial Day

  1. Pingback: (Slut)Walk This Way | Projects and Musings by Rachel Scott

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