Labor Holds Events Across U.S. to Mark 1st Workers’ Memorial Day

Times Labor Writer

Some buses stopped for a minute in New York, a flower for each person killed on the job in Pennsylvania last year was gently dropped into the Susquehanna River, flags flew at half staff in Sioux Falls, S.D., and a plaque honoring an engineer who perished in a Los Angeles high-rise fire was presented to his widow and children in Pershing Square as union activists around the country participated in the nation’s first Workers’ Memorial Day on Friday.

Using the theme, “Fight for the Living! Mourn for the Dead,” events were held in more than 80 cities to commemorate the 19th anniversary of the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act and to lament what workplace safety advocates called the act’s ineffectiveness.

“We have a horror story going on in our country,” said Sonny Hall, president of the Transport Workers Union in New York.

“Hundreds of people are being murdered in the workplace, either immediately on the site or years later when they’re told afterward that they were exposed to dangerous chemicals or other kinds of toxic fumes that kill, literally kill, all in the name of productivity, all in the name of the big buck,” said Hall, speaking at a rally near the site of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in which 146 garment workers were killed.


‘March of Technology’

“Despite the march of technology and the development of standards and regulations, workplace accidents continue to kill more than 10,000 Americans a year,” said AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, speaking in Kansas City.

American workers no longer are willing to “accept this carnage as the price to pay for economic progress,” Kirkland said.

“Every six seconds another American worker is injured on the job,” said Margaret Seminario, the AFL-CIO’s health and safety director.

She said 5.6 million U.S. workers were injured on the job last year, 2.8 million of them severely, according to Labor Department figures.

“For 70,000 workers, their injuries resulted in permanent disability, robbing them of a full and active life,” she said.

Lynn Williams, president of the United Steelworkers, said in an interview that he hoped Workers’ Memorial Day, to be held annually, as is done in Canada, will raise the consciousness of all Americans about the continuing tragedy of workplace deaths, similar to what Earth Day did for the environmental movement in 1970.

“On this day in 1970, the labor movement won a great victory when the Occupational Safety and Health Act took effect,” said William R. Robertson, executive secretary of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor (AFL-CIO).

“But OSHA has not done the job it was designed to do,” said Robertson at the Pershing Square rally. “We need more and better enforcement, stiffer penalties for cheating bosses and strict control of killer chemicals, which enter the workplace at the rate of 1,500 new chemicals a year.”

Speakers at the rally here emphasized the need to mount political pressure on Gov. George Deukmejian to beef up staffing of Cal/OSHA, which will resume operations Monday.

“We have to make sure that this agency has a heart and a spine,” said Jan Chatten-Brown, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner’s special assistant for environmental and occupational health, who was seated next to a chart listing workers whose deaths had led to prosecutions by her office.

“Behind every one of these names is a family,” she said, holding up a book titled “Faces,” containing actual accounts of families suffering after workplace deaths. The book was especially written for the occasion by the National Safe Workplace Institute of Chicago.

Among the workers honored in Los Angeles was building engineer Alexander Handy, 24, who died in the First Interstate high-rise fire last May 4, and Robbyn Panitch, a 36-year-old social worker who was murdered on the job Feb. 21 at a Los Angeles County mental health clinic.

“She knew she was in danger; she had asked for more security for months,” said Gloria Panitch, the slain woman’s mother.

“There are no such things as accidents that can’t be prevented,” Bob Fox, president of Operating Engineers, Local 501, said just before he presented a plaque to Handy’s widow, Kimberly, and his children, Brittany, 3, and Christopher, 4 months old. During the rally, Brittany brandished a hand-made placard that declared the First Interstate building where her father worked “lacked sprinklers and fire safety procedures.”

Last October, federal OSHA proposed that four companies (not including First Interstate) be fined $82,000 for safety violations discovered in the wake of the fire.

The AFL-CIO’s Seminario, who was one of the coordinators of Friday’s events, noted that “the first Workers’ Memorial Day, coming at the begining of the Bush Administration, points up the opportunity for OSHA to renew its commitments to workers.”

Williams of the Steelworkers said Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole had sent a letter to Kirkland acknowledging Workers’ Memorial Day. But he said he had seen no concrete indications that the Bush Administration would be more responsive to labor’s concerns on these issues than the Reagan administration.

Bush’s proposed budget has aroused the ire of workplace safety advocates because it severely cuts funding for the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. Moreover, funds for the Justice Department unit for filing criminal prosecutions in workplace deaths “would be cut further under a Bush proposal to beef up funding for prosecution of obscenity cases,” according to a report issued this week by the Bureau of National Affairs, a Washington research organization.

Events were held in 38 states Friday, according to Seminario. One of the largest rallies was held in Harrisburg, Pa., where 650 union members and their families honored workers who had died in Pennsylvania and presented Democratic Gov. Robert Casey with a Tree of Life award for his efforts on behalf of worker safety.

Then, the crowd marched to the Susquehanna River, bearing a coffin and a wreath of white carnations emblazoned with the words, “Fight for the Living. Mourn for the Dead.” When they arrived at the river, the wreath of 268 carnations, one for each worker who died on the job in Pennsylvania last year, was placed in the water and floated away.

Times researcher Chuck Hirshberg in New York City assisted in the preparation of this story.