Working In These Times
Remembering the Dead, Fighting for the Living
Annual 'Workers Memorial Day' recognized by Obama—the first U.S. president to do so
Their deaths are still fresh as the headlines from the past few months–especially to family, friends and workmates they left behind. Twenty-nine dead at Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. Eleven dead at the oil rig near Port Fourchon, LA, that exploded. Seven killed in Washington at the Tesoro refinery. Six lives lost at an explosion in the Kleen Energy Plant in Connecticut.
Today–Workers Memorial Day–is the time when the world’s labor movements commemorate these workers and others who die each year from work-related causes, a total of 2.3 million, according to the International Labor Organization, including about 360,000 accidental deaths and the rest from occupational diseases, especially cancer.
President Obama joined in the observance by signing a proclamation marking Workers Memorial Day, the first time a president has done so since U.S. unions began 19 years ago to observe the day, following the lead of Canadian unions. In a Q & A session in Iowa today, Obama not only pledged to enforce safety laws better, he gave a spirited defense of unions.
“I’ve said this before publicly and I’ll say it again,” Obama said. “I make no apologies for it. I’m a pro-union guy.”
Then he ticked off a list of union contributions (including improving lives of non-union workers), rebutted charges that unions make the U.S. less competitive, and lauded collective bargaining as “something that I strongly believe in, and it’s part of the American tradition.” Administratively, he said, his administration was trying “to make sure that people just get the fair chance to organize.”
In Congress, the House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing on the major new workplace safety initiative, Protecting America’s Workers Act, which would add protection for whistle blowers and rights to information about investigations for victims and family members to the 40-year old Occupational Safety and Health Act. The legislation would also give new powers and tougher penalties to OSHA investigators, plus give workers the right to sue if the Department of Labor does not act promptly.
But Obama’s prescription to make it easier to organize would be the most meaningful step government could take to make workplaces safer. Indeed, in a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee hearing yesterday, Mine Safety and Health Administration director Joe Main replied to Sen. Tom Harkin’s question–“are union mines safer?”–by saying, “Workers in mines who have the power to advocate on behalf of their own safety are definitely safer mines” (as Working In These Times reported).
The good news is that the rates of both work-based fatalities and injuries have fairly steadily declined, reaching their lowest points since the 1970s with the most recent reports (in 2008, or 2007 in some cases). Much of that improvement reflects an occupational shift away from more dangerous jobs like mining to jobs with fewer lethal threats, as in the service sector (though the transportation and warehousing industry has the third highest fatality rate among industries).
The bad news is that 5214 workers were killed on the job in 2008, 50,000 died of occupational diseases, and 4.6 million were injured on the job. But “the true toll of job injuries is two to three times greater–about 9 to 14 million job injuries each year,” according to the just-released annual report from the AFL-CIO, Death on the Job, which summarized the academic research supporting that claim. One big trouble spot: musculoskeletal injuries, the largest category of injuries, are grossly undereported. Even using the official figures, workplace injuries and fatalities cost $156 to $312 billion a year.
Latino workers–often at a disadvantage with language skills, less unionized, and more vulnerable to employer exploitation–are still significantly more likely to be killed on the job than non-Hispanics, although their job safety record also improved.
Obama’s Labor secretary Hilda Solis has increased OSHA and MSHA inspectors, after eight years of budget and personnel cuts under Bush, and strengthened programs focused on repeat offenders. But there are only 2,218 federal OSHA inspectors for 130 million workers. The 885 federal officers could inspect all workplaces only once in every 137 years. Mandating all businesses to permit workers to form independent safety committees, with the power to call inspectors or shut down dangerous work, would help compensate for shortages of inspectors–and save lives now lost unnecessarily.