Remembering the workers

Today is Workers’ Memorial Day, and every year NYSUT holds a simple and solemn ceremony to mark the memory of those who have lost their lives on the job in the past year. A red rose is laid down on a table as each name is called; a symbol for each life lost in the Capital Region. Candles flicker.

The commemoration is part of the international Day of Mourning for those who have been killed while on the job. It is a time to gather and seeks ways to renew efforts for safe workplaces.

The list of names this year was longer than usual.  Workers were killed on the job by a farm vehicle; logging accident; allergic reaction; electrocution; a heart attack while responding to an EMT call;  a restaurant accident; an 18-wheel rollover; dam maintenance; working at a school; plane crash; automobile accident; crushed by a pipe; a fall from scaffolding; an injury while cleaning; an accident with a horse; being pinned under a tractor; and another restaurant accident.

Before the names were read, the audience heard the grim and sobering facts on the garment factory collapse in Bangladesh last week: 397 workers have been confirmed dead, and an estimated 600 workers remain unaccounted for.  Most of the workers were between 18-22, although children as young as 13 worked also. An inspection had revealed a crack in the building, but owners of the six apparel factories operating there insisted workers go to work anyway or be penalized up to a month’s pay.

Here in the U.S, students learn about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 in New York City, which took the lives of 146 people and galvanized women and unions to improve working conditions.

“We have to remember that deadly conditions were once the standard in the garment industry in the U.S. as well,” said Sara Niccoli, director of the NY State Labor-Religion Coalition. Labor battles that followed the Shirtwaist fire resulted in minimum wage, 40-hour work weeks, disability insurance, and the elimination of child labor.

“But thanks to harmful deregulation and union-busting trade policy, these good jobs have moved to China and Bangladesh where the struggle is just beginning, ” said Niccoli. “Once again, the moment calls for unity amongst all workers… As consumers, we have the power to demand fair wages and healthy working conditions globally.”

Action can be taken with the International Labor Rights Forum against large chains such as Wal-Mart, GAP and H&M, the largest buyers of clothing made in Bangladesh, according to ILRF.

During the ceremony at NYSUT headquarters in Latham, officer Lee Cutler read a poem by Mike Baird, International Assocaition of Machinists and Aerospace Workers:

We bow our heads in silent grace; proud to stand upon this place.

To honor those who we love and lost; whose lives were taken at such a cost.

Through the pain and sorrow, for all the brave and true; to always be remembered by me and by you.

To heal the minds and hearts, of those who still live; always remembering what they had to give.

Live your lives with pride in hearing what I say; May God bless and keep you on this and every day.”

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