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Paper Workers Pause to Honor the Dead

Jeremy Sprinkle
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USW Local 9-738 continues annual tradition

Every year on April 28, Workers Memorial Day, workers in the United States and around the world honor those who died on the job.

This year is a historic year for workplace safety. It’s the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, where 146 workers in New York City - most of them young immigrant women - were killed, trapped behind locked doors with no way to escape. That terrible tragedy sparked an outcry for Workers' Compensation, safety rules and employer fines, and organizing in New York and beyond.

April 28, 2011 is itself the 40th anniversary of the passage of Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). Workplace injuries have significantly declined since passage of OSHA and the Mine Safety and Health Act.

Last week, workers at International Paper and members of USW Local 9-738 in Riegelwood, NC kept alive their yearly tradition of marking Workers Memorial Day with a solemn observance and wreath laying.

NC State AFL-CIO President James Andrews, who spoke at the commemoration, recognized that "Workplace fatalities and injuries have significantly declined" since the creation of OSHA and MSHA:

"Exposures to job hazards and toxic chemicals like asbestos and lead have been reduced.  Far fewer workers are dying from trench cave-ins or from being caught in unguarded machinery."

While these laws are important and must be enforced, their passage and other progress in workplace safety was made possible by the organized efforts of workers:

"Virtually every safety and health protection on the books today is there because of the unions.

"It is the unions that won passage of the mine safety law and OSHA law.

"It is the unions that demanded and won stronger standards to protect workers from asbestos, benzene, other toxic chemicals and safety hazards.

"It is the unions that won the right to know about toxic chemical hazards in the workplace and in the community.

"Some of you are old enough to remember our victory with our right to know legislation in North Carolina. It is the unions that pushed for stronger laws and regulations to prevent chemical plants from exploding and to protect workers and the community from danger.

"And it is the unions, through collective bargaining that have given workers a voice to have a say in safety and health on the job, to raise safety concerns and demand that employers protect workers from harm."

Thank you to our brothers and sisters at USW Local 9-738 for reminding our labor movement to never forget those workers who needlessly died so that they could bring home an income to support themselves and their families.  We hope to report on more Workers Memorial Day events across North Carolina, next year.