Speakers recognize the sacrifice of union workers at Madison County Workers Memorial Day program
By CARL GREEN
Alton, IL – Whenever America has been in an emergency situation, the men and women of the Labor Movement have been there to provide crucial and sometimes heroic help, speakers at the annual Workers Memorial Day service said.
“When crisis hits our country, union workers stand up,” said Madison County Circuit Judge Sarah Smith, a frequent speaker at the event. “And they sacrifice, and they don’t complain if they don’t have the proper personal protective equipment or they’re working long hours or holidays, because they know that’s what our country needs.
“Union workers step up in time of crisis, and they’ve always been there for us, just like our military,” she said. “I’m telling you right now, union workers are patriots!”
The event is held every April 28 to commemorate the enacting of the law creating OSHA 50 years ago, which began federal efforts to make workplaces safer for workers.
The Greater Madison County Federation of Labor maintains a Workers’ Memorial monument in Gordon Moore Park, where the event is held if it’s not raining –
which it was this time, so they moved into the nearby community building.
50 YEARS OF PROGRESS
Federation President B. Dean Webb, hosting the event, reminded the large crowd that workers have made great progress since the signing of the OSHA law by President Richard Nixon.
“This progress did not happen just because the act was passed, it happened because workers and their union organizations fought and demanded actions from their employers and their government,” Webb said. “Virtually every safety and health protection on the books today is there because of the working men and women who joined together in unions to win these protections.
“There is nothing more central to our role as a union than to make sure our members go home safely to their families each day. We mourn for the dead, and we fight for the living,” he said, echoing Mother Jones.
Aaron Priddy, area director for the OSHA office in Fairview Heights, reminded the audience that his agency doesn’t just respond to workplace accidents but actively tries to prevent them.
“We mourn not only for those we’ve lost, but for those left behind, including the families, co-workers and the community,” he said. “Many of these tragic losses were entirely preventable. You see it time and time again.
“If the safety and health standards had been followed, if the proper controls had been in place, or if better safety and health management systems had been made a priority in that workplace, those incidents might not have occurred.”
OSHA has made great progress in instituting effective laws and policies since a slow start 50 years ago, when worker protection was still new, Priddy added. “They spent time looking at areas that might have not been the most critical element and were out chasing things that really didn’t have a significant impact,” he said. “But over the years, we identified what those serious hazards included. Because of that effort, workplaces are much safer today than before.
“We will keep fighting to make sure every American worker is protected against the myriad of hazards that can affect their safety and health,” he said. “We owe it to the fallen workers, we owe it to their families, we owe it to the men and women working today across the nation, and we owe it to the future generations.”
ALWAYS THERE IN TIMES OF CRISIS
Judge Smith recounted how the nation has been going through one of its most difficult times because of COVID-19 but can thank Labor for its contribution.
“In World War I and World War II, when our country needed ammo and supplies and people were forced to go to the factories, who was there? It was the union workers,” she said. “When the towers were hit on 9-11, who was there? It was the union workers – the first responders, fire fighters and law enforcement officers.
“And this year, who was there? It was the union workers. In a time of crisis, union workers are always there. And this time, it was our essential workers, and they ranged all the way from doctors and nurses and lab techs to the grocery workers and those individuals in Labor who were not able to stay at home when all the chaos was going on.
“It was those individuals and essential workers – those union workers – who had to sleep in the basement and couldn’t hug their kids when they came home because they didn’t know if they’d be passing the virus on.”
WORKPLACE DEATHS AND ACCIDENTS
Madison County Coroner Steve Nonn reported that deaths from workplace accidents, in the latest statistics, were down in Illinois in 2019 to 158. The high was 262 deaths in 1996, and the lowest number on record is 146, from 2012. The latest national figure was 5,250 workplace fatalities in 2018, up two percent from the year before.
“One is too many,” Nonn added. “That’s 158 times coroners in Illinois were knocking on somebody’s door, announcing to the survivors, and beginning one of the worst days of their lives, when their husband or their wife or their daughter or their son was killed on the job while trying to live the American dream.
“It’s not a pleasant experience but it’s our duty. It’s our duty to guide that family through the process and be there for them and try to answer the many questions they will have.
“My office serves as a bridge between the living and the dead,” he said. “We give voice to the departed, and with all due diligence, we strive to provide answers to the survivors.
I am sure everybody in this room knows that cooperation between Labor and management is the key to workplace safety. The people who are carrying the tools and who are exposed to the hazards have to be the focus of our concern.”
BIDEN WEIGHS IN
Priddy closed his talk by reading a proclamation made that same day by President Biden.
“Today we mourn each treasured life taken away on the job,” Biden said. “Those stricken by disease and fatal injuries as they keep America running deserve a dedicated day of grateful prayer and remembrance from the living. Workers Memorial Day impels us to work for a future in which no one should have to risk their lives for a paycheck.
“When our nation recovers from the challenges we face today, it will be in large part because of the sacrifice and the perseverance of our workers. We commit to holding close their memory and investing in the health and safety of the colleagues they have left behind.”