To honor those who died on the job, give every worker a voice in the workplace

Workers Memorial Day 2021 arrives at a moment of the greatest urgency, when the front lines of the war against COVID-19 run through America’s workplaces.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began just over a year ago, thousands of health care workers, as well as thousands more front-line and essential workers, have died while serving and protecting their communities. Many more of these everyday heroes have become ill with COVID-19 after contracting the virus on the job.

Among AFSCME members, front-line workers – from correctional officers to nurses, from child care providers to sanitation workers – have chosen to never quit on their communities despite the risks to themselves and their loved ones.

At least 179 AFSCME members have died of COVID-19. Many more have become ill.

Today, we honor and mourn the lives of all workers killed or injured on the job. We celebrate their service and thank them for their sacrifice. But we must do more. We must recommit to the fight for safer and healthier workplaces.

“On this day of remembrance, as we grieve those lost to the coronavirus and other workplace dangers, we must recommit ourselves to the fight for worker safety,” AFSCME President Lee Saunders said in a press release. “When workers have a voice on the job, they use that power to negotiate for safe staffing levels, enhanced training and other protections that keep themselves and their communities safe.”

Unions keep workers safe

Workers Memorial Day marks the anniversary of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, signed in 1970, as well as the formation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a federal agency charged with ensuring safe and healthy working conditions for American workers.

But under the Trump administration, OSHA failed in its duty to protect workers. As the deadly virus spread, the agency left this responsibility to employers, who were often slow or unwilling to provide the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) to their employees and reluctant to adopt the necessary workplace safety measures to prevent transmission.

Instead, through their unions, workers raised their voices to demand safe workplaces and accountability from their employers. AFSCME members across the country led the fight to secure PPE for themselves and their co-workers, as well as to implement health and safety protocols on the job that would keep them safe.

“Without unions, many workers are forced to work without personal protective equipment or access to paid leave or premium pay,” the Economic Policy Institute wrote in August 2020. “And when nonunion workers have advocated for health and safety protections or wage increases, they have often been retaliated against or even fired for doing so.”

Through our union’s Fund the Front Lines campaign, AFSCME members also demanded real support from the federal government in the form of aid to states, cities, towns and schools. Our efforts culminated in passage of the American Rescue Plan (ARP), which President Joe Biden signed into law in mid-March.

The landmark law is already making workplaces safer. It provides $200 million for pandemic-related worker protection activities at the Labor Department, half of it to OSHA to support enforcement and worker training in high-risk sectors.

Toward safer workplaces

In its first 100 days, the Biden administration has done more for workplace safety than the Trump administration did in four years.

Yet, while the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic have taken center stage, more needs to be done to address everyday workplace safety, including violent assaults on the job, which are a leading cause of work-related deaths.

In an Iowa prison last month, two AFSCME members were killed after they were attacked by two inmates trying to escape. The deaths of Registered Nurse Lorena Schulte, 50, and Corrections Officer Robert McFarland, 46, were the result of years of defunding, staff cuts and safety lapses, according to AFSCME Iowa Council 61 President Danny Homan.

“This attack was completely avoidable,” Homan said. “Our prisons and community-based correctional facilities do not have the staffing levels and workplace protections they need to ensure the safety of our staff.”

To move toward safer workplaces, Congress must legislate to further protect workers on the job and make it easier for them to have a strong union voice.

They can start with the Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act (H.R. 1195), which the House of Representatives approved earlier this month; the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which seeks stronger protections for workers trying to form a union and which the House passed in March; and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, which would set a minimum nationwide standard of collective bargaining rights for state and local workers.

“Workers deserve more than thanks for their sacrifices,” Saunders said. “They deserve action from leaders to keep them safe. Giving workers the freedom to join a union and collectively bargain is key to ensuring that they are protected on the job.”