May 3, 2004

Memorial Remembers Workers

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A new memorial honoring workers who died on the job was dedicated last Saturday at Union Fields. The dedication was held in conjunction with the commemoration of Workers’ Memorial Day, set up by the Midstate Central Labor Council. In attendance were members from various labor unions within Tompkins and Cortland counties, Mayor Carolyn Peterson and Dan Lamb, the district representative for Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.).

According to Linda Smith, president of the Midstate Central Labor Council and a health and safety trainer for the labor coalition, Workers’ Memorial Day has two components — to mourn for the workers who died on the job or from occupational diseases, and to rededicate workers toward improving health and safety conditions.

“Work kills more people than war,” Smith said. According to the AFL-CIO, each year 60,000 workers die from job illnesses and injuries, and 6 million are injured. To honor and remember those who have died, the Midstate Labor Council came up with the idea of placing a stone in Ithaca as a memorial two years ago. According to Smith, “that was the year more people recognized hazards of work because of 9/11.”

The labor council chose to place the stone at Union Fields because the park was built through voluntary labor.

“This was a park that was done by the blood and sweat of workers saying our children need a place where they can run and play,” said Brian Goodell, president of United Auto Workers 2300. A plaque will be placed on the rock that reads “Dedicated to the memory of fallen workers and the continuing pursuit of workplace safety and health.”

“We need this,” Peterson said. “It’s important to have these memories here.” She also read and signed a formal proclamation that officially recognized April 28 as Workers’ Memorial Day in Ithaca. “I look forward to explaining this rock to [my son], as I believe most parents will do,” Lamb said. During the ceremony, specific issues surrounding safe work conditions were addressed by a number of speakers.

“We’re advocating for higher penalties from employers that knowingly and willingly ignore public safety rules that lead to death and injury,” said Tony Del Plato, delegate for Service Employees International Union 200 United.

Smith explained that workers who are not protected by unions are often afraid to speak to their employers about unsafe working conditions because they are afraid of losing their jobs. Smith supports the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that she claims will make it easier for workers to form and join unions. The bill was introduced to Congress in November 2003 and currently has 30 senators and 180 house representatives co-sponsoring the bill.

“Low-wage, non-union jobs are more likely to be unsafe,” Smith said. “The right to join the union is a big part to a safe workplace.”

Dave Marsh, a member of the Local Laborers 589, spoke about the current situation facing people who were exposed to asbestos at their workplace decades ago and are now being diagnosed with asbestos poisoning.

“It’s a slow painful death,” Marsh said. “It’s affecting many of our elders right now.” He said that the state is currently making a deal with corporations to create a pool of money for people who will be diagnosed with asbestos poisoning in the following years. Marsh believes that the money will be less than sufficient to help everyone and once the pool of money runs out, the corporations will no longer be held responsible for future diagnosed victims.

Lamb spoke out against the Bush administration decision to repel ergonomic laws that have been developed over the past 10 years. Ergonomics is the science of designing equipment that maximizes productivity and focuses on the comfort and safety of the worker.

“This administration stands to be the worst administration in history, in terms of [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] regulations,” Lamb said.

Smith said that Workers’ Memorial Day could be summed up in a quote by labor organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, who worked with mine workers at the turn of the century — “Mourn for the dead, fight like hell for the living.”

Archived article by Casey Holmes
Sun Staff Writer