by Dennis Rahkonen
April 22, 2003
Workers’ health and safety circumstances have vastly improved since the “robber baron” industrial era when U.S. mines, mills, and factories were a constant, unrelieved threat to employee life and limb.
Over decades of often arduous struggle, labor unions have won great advances -- such as the Occupational Safety and Health Act -- plus many other standards that have helped all workers, whether organized or not.
Still, a grim, unacceptable fact remains.
Each year in this country almost 6,000 workers are killed on the job.
50,000 die from occupational diseases, and additional millions are hurt.
The AFL-CIO consequently devotes its energies to remedying this situation, through ongoing effort, and by emphasis on a special, annual occasion focused on the problem:
“On April 28, the unions of the AFL-CIO observe Workers Memorial Day to remember those who have suffered and died on the job. As we remember workers who have died in workplace catastrophes, suffered diseases due to exposure to toxic substances or been injured because of dangerous conditions, we rededicate ourselves to the fight for safe workplaces.”
Victories have been won, but not without a harrowing cost.
Moreover, amelioration of old hazards sees fresh hazards emerge. Ergonomic problems associated with new styles of repetitive work cripple and injure almost two million U.S. workers each year. They constitute our country’s leading job safety and health issue.
Also, immigrant workers are being killed on the job at an unprecedented rate. Millions of workers remain beyond the pale of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) protection.
The AFL-CIO’s commitment to this cause is commendable, and rock solid:
“We will honor the victims of workplace injuries and illness by holding employers accountable for protecting workers’ safety and health. We will demand that the Bush administration stop putting corporate interests over the well being of workers. We will call for action on needed job safety protections. We will demand stronger enforcement of the law and protection from known workplace hazards and from new safety and security threats. We will fight for OSHA coverage for all workers and the freedom of workers to form unions and, through their unions, speak out and bargain for safe jobs, respect and a better future. On April 28, we will honor fallen workers. And we will keep on fighting until the promise of safe jobs is a reality.”
But the struggle, now, is against a very ruthless foe. The Bush administration is no friend of America’s wage-earning majority, as evidenced by its unvarying, profits-before-people priorities. Joining with powerful business groups, it seeks to thwart or roll back many vital worker protections.
Again, the AFL-CIO:
“After repealing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA’s) ergonomics standard, the administration halted work on dozens of new safety and health standards and ignored important hazards. The administration has proposed cutting OSHA’s budget and slashing funding for job safety research. Meanwhile, the Bush administration continues its pro- business stance, stacking advisory committees with management representatives and even shutting workers and unions out of OSHA’s voluntary programs.”
Organized labor gives us centralized clout to fight for worker betterment on health and safety questions, plus other conditions, as well as benefits and wages.
But -- since almost all of us get up each workday morning to earn our daily pay -- this is a matter that transcends whether we belong to unions or not. Everyone should make their voice heard, for the common good.
Whether through vigils, rallies, contact with elected officials, letters to the editor, testimony from injured workers themselves, participation in radio call-in shows, or the dedication of local memorials to those who’ve died simply trying to put food on the family table...please stand up for our collective right to make it through our working lives healthy and whole.
Get in touch with your area’s individual unions or central labor body to find out what’s planned. Then take part.
For additional information, contact:
AFL-CIO Department of Safety and Health, 815 16th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20006; phone: 202-637-5366; fax: 202-508-6978; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dennis Rahkonen, from Superior, WI, has written commentary and verse for various progressive outlets since the ‘60s. He can be reached at email@example.com