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Philadelphia Unionists Commemorate Workers’ Memorial Day

05.15.10

Workers’ Memorial Day Held in Philadelphia
by John O. Mason

Jordan Barab, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor in charge of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), was the keynote speaker at the 22nd Annual Workers Memorial Day breakfast and march, held at the Sheet Metal Workers Local 19 Hall, 1301 South Columbus Boulevard, on Friday, April 30, 2010.

The event was co-sponsored by Philadelphia AFL-CIO and the Philadelphia Area Project for Occupational Safety and Health (PHILAPOSH).

The event began with the playing of a video, produced by Brave New Films, titled “16 Deaths a Day,” about the number of workplace deaths that take place each day. The invocation was given by the Reverend Colleen M. Butler, of Campbell AME Church.

Tables were reserved for the families of workers in the Philadelphia area killed on the job-Kevin Sparks, Richie Brady, Thomas Hetrick, George Hamner, Fred Ware, Charles John McKelvey, Jeff Davis, Scott Shaw, William Palmer, Jeffery Martin.

Terry Gallagher, President of PHILPOSH, welcomed those who attended, and he recognized PHILAPOSH board members and staff-Director Barbara Rahke, Nicole Charles, and Bonnie Logue.

Patrick Eiding, President of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO, greeted the families of deceased workers, saying, “We welcome you here. I wish it was on some other occasion, but we’re (happy to ) stand with you and recognize those folks you lost. “ Eiding also recognized Holly, Shaw, wife to Scott Shaw and head of a support committee for workers killed on the job.

“As always,” added Eiding, “Workers Memorial Day is supported my workers in Philadelphia, in a very strong and emotional way at many times. Today, there are over fifty local unions here, and councils representing twenty-two different national unions.” Eiding recognized such public officials at US Congressman Pat Murphy, Pennsylvania State Senator Tina Tartaglione and State Representative LeAnna Washington, Philadelphia City Councilman Bill Greenley, and students of Mercy Vocational High School.

“We went through eight terrible years” of the Bush administration, said Eiding, “ and we have a President right now who has shown more courage for working people, and will show more affiliation for working people, than any President we’ve had since Franklin Roosevelt. We need to stand up and cheer (Obama), and we need to work in 2010 (In the congressional races), to make sure we don’t lose the people who supported him.” Eiding urged participants to work to elect pro-labor candidates to support Obama’s agenda, such as tightening OSHA rules to better protect workers from fatalities. Eiding stated the purpose of the Workers Memorial Day event, “to recognize the name of one hundred and thirty workers who have died from work related injuries and illnesses in the past twelve months in the tri-state area.”

Barab recalled the time he sat down with AFSCME members, to “listen to them, to listen to the kind of work they do, (what) they have to face every day…(T)hat is the basis of” his work in Washington, to help workers.

Occupational safety, added Barab, is a “very difficult (topic) for American workers,” and he mentioned the deaths of the workers in the Big Branch mine in West Virginia and in the off-shore oil rig off the Gulf Coast. The news media, he added, does not mention the workers’ “friends, their families, and their coworkers,” along with workers who have died from diseases from their worksites and received injuries from their jobs; “Their lives are irrevocably changed,” he said, and he commended the families of workers killed on the job for meeting with US Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis.

Barab cited “a disturbing pattern of deadly neglect in this country” among corporations in terms of worker safety, adding “Paying fines and penalties is just the cost of doing business, but it’s really the cost of putting profits before people. Today we’re here to say that price is too high.” Workers getting killed on the job, added Barab, “get forgotten, they get neglected, and that’s why we have such a fight to get through legislation in Congress, to make sure everybody notices and knows what happens to workers in a dangerous workplace, and how many lose their lives.”

America has, Barab added, “a workplace safety and health crisis,” and he called for revising the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA); “We have heard stories about how the appeals process has been log-jammed, how justice has been delayed, how tougher enforcement has been blocked, how workers continue to be exposed to potentially lethal hazards.” Penalties for violating OSHA regulations, said Barab, “are barely noticeable, they’re so low.” Employers, he added, “are basically gambling with their workers’ lives, and we know what happens when someone gambles, someone always loses.”

Sean Gerie, General Chairman of the Commuter Rail System division of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, spoke of the work his union’s members do: “We build, maintain and inspect the nation’s railroads-the tracks, the buildings, and the bridges,” he said, “we represent workers throughout the country on railroads. We have done so since 1887. Our members work in the most grueling conditions, extreme heat and humidity, bone-chilling cold, rain, sleet. Snow and ice create added responsibilities for us. While the riding public sleeps, we clear the snow and ice from railroad switches, station platforms, and parking lots. In order to meet the physical and mental demands of the job, it takes a certain kind of person.

“On November fifth, 2009,” added Gerie, “I received news that hit home. Kevin Leroy Sparks was the kind of person who gave of himself…He was a man who served his country in the United States Marine Corps, prior to his career in the railroad. He gave every day to provide for his family, in a job, as I stated, is not for the faint of heart.” Kevin Sparks, a member of Local 2910 of BMWE, performed track inspection duties when he was struck and killed by a SEPTA train, “carrying passengers to their jobs and schools,” said Gerie, “during the morning rush hour…It was characteristic of Kevin to perish while he himself ensured the safety of others.”

Jim Savage, President of Local 10-1 of the United Steel Workers, spoke of the explosion at the Tesoro refinery Washington State on Good Friday, “which immediately killed three workers and sent four more to the hospital with severe burns over the majority of their bodies. All four of those workers eventually died of their injuries…Within hours of the explosion, the oil industry, through their mouthpiece the American Petroleum Institute, put out a statement applauding their safety record. OF course their were talking about personal safety, not process safety.”

After the explosion at the BP refinery in Texas City, Texas, said Savage, USW conducted a survey in all the refinery workers they represent in the US; “One or more of the root causes,” he said, “that lead to the tragedy in Texas City existed in over ninety percent of the facilities we represent.” OSHA also conducted a study of safety in refineries, and, said Savage, “the results were deplorable. More recently, our union began tracking every process safety incident in every facility we represent… a grassroots effort, operators, maintenance employees, writing it down when they see something, and we would gather all that information and get it to our safety department,” and the results were “shocking, stunning.”

Martin Brigham, an labor attorney in Philadelphia, spoke of the passing of attorney Robert Sloan, from cancer. “Our community,” said Brigham, “lost a famous advocate.” Twenty-five years earlier, said Brigham, “Bob Sloan and I first met, and we started working on the very first edition of Injured On The Job (a handbook published by PHILAPOSH for workers on their rights if they are injured). Over those twenty-nine years, Bob donated hundreds, if not thousands of hours to PHILAPOSH, giving advice to injured workers, and working constantly on revising (the handbook).” Bob Sloan, added Brigham, dedicated such work to the rights of injured workers.

Celeste Monforton, Assistant Professor at the School of Public Health and Health Sciences at George Washington University, declared “Philadelphia rocks!”, showing her appreciation for the city’s Labor movement. “I never had the privilege to have a union in any of my workplaces,” she added, “but I found the spirit of solidarity through two organizations; one is the American Public Health Association, (particularly) its health and safety section, which is a seven-hundred person strong organization of advocates, physicians, nurses, educators.” Her other “sisterhood of support and collective action,” said Monforton, “is the United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities, an organization founded by Tammy Miser, who lost her brother in an aluminum dust explosion…I’m proud that two of our organization’s members, Holly Shaw and Tonya Ford, testified in the House and Senate earlier this week” in support of the Protecting America’s Workers Act.

Peggy Cohen spoke about her father-in-law, Fred Ware, 59 years old, who was killed in the Sago mine explosion in West Virginia in 2006. “My husband lost his father,” she said, “my children lost their grandfather, and my uncle lost his brother.” She spoke about the continuing accidents that have killed mine workers, adding, “our miners deserve better than this,” and how mine owners “have unpaid fines while miners continue to lose their lives.”

After the presentation, participants joined in a funeral procession in honor of workers killed on the job, led by Brian Widelitz playing the bagpipes. The procession ended at the Grand Plaza of Penn’s Landing, where Rabbi Mordechai Liebling read prayers and the 23rd Psalm. At the end of the program, participants lined up by the Delaware River and read the names of workers killed on the job in the Philadelphia area and threw roses into the river while Widelitz played “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes.

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