Why Workers Memorial Day Is a National Call to Action

Yves here. On one level I understand that labor unions are in a crouch position, protecting themselves from expected blows. On the other, the idea that labor leader think it’s a good idea to repudiate the international day of worker solidarity, May Day, and instead create a watered-down American version, Workers Memorial Day, that runs a few days earlier, is hard to fathom. But advocates of international labor cooperation like Yanis Varoufakis should take note. American workers won’t even join them in participating in well established rituals.

But then again, Americans never took up Jerusalem either. By contrast, perhaps in a nod to Labour, even the Royals are on board with this Socialist anthem (I was a student of Blake in college and concur with this reading of Blake in the Spectator):

If you want a change in diet, I’m a fan of the Emerson Lake and Palmer version.

By Tom Conway, the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW). Produced by the Independent Media Institute

The United Steelworkers (USW) Local 959 safety committee leapt into action a few years ago after discovering that more and more workers at the Goodyear plant in Fayetteville, North Carolina, were exposed to knife injuries on the job.

Committee members solicited workers’ input on how to address the hazard and then collaborated with the company to provide cut-resistant gloves, introduce more safely designed knives and take other steps to bring the crisis under control.

“It was our number one injury at the plant,” recalled Ronald Sessoms, Local 959 safety chairman. “Now, we’ve almost eliminated it.”

It isn’t enough to have marked Workers Memorial Day on April 28 by grieving for the thousands of Americans who lost their lives on the job over the past year. Only a renewed, unrelenting commitment to workplace safety will properly honor their memory and ensure that none of them died in vain.

That’s especially true in light of COVID-19, which pushed the death toll higher than usual and endangered workers like never before. The pandemic underscored the need for constant vigilance against threats as well as the importance of giving workers a meaningful voice in combating them.

No one knows the hazards and risks better than the people facing them every day. A strong union contract helped to entrench that philosophy at Fayetteville, where worker input not only led to the reduction of knife-related injuries but also resulted in better ventilation, the elimination of certain hazardous chemicals once used at the plant and even adjustments to a machine that helped to avert a head injury risk.

“Our job is not to sit behind a desk,” Sessoms said of his USW committee representatives, all of them former production workers who now perform union health, safety and environment (HSE) responsibilities under the contract with Goodyear. “We want to be very accessible.”

He and the other USW safety representatives walk the sprawling complex to look for hazards, evaluate hazard controls and confer with 96 “safety coaches”—full-time production workers who volunteer as union safety liaisons in the plant’s many departments.

However, committee members realize that plant-wide safety really hinges on leveraging the eyes, ears and expertise of all 2,000 USW members there, and that’s why they stop on the shop floor to communicate with workers about their concerns.

Target Zero, an injury prevention program that the USW and Goodyear negotiated more than a decade ago, provides another way to raise red flags.

Frank Cameron, the Target Zero facilitator for Local 959, encourages workers to fill out cards outlining safety concerns and drop them in boxes placed around the plant. He and safety committee members review all cards and follow up with the company to eliminate hazards.

One woman used the program to help a tall coworker constantly at risk of banging his head on a bar used to feed rubber along the production line. She suggested making the bar adjustable so that it could accommodate his height. The change also meant shorter workers, like her, wouldn’t have to strain to reach it.

Because of their commitment to vigilance and prevention, union HSE committees can respond quickly and effectively when a crisis strikes.

At Fayetteville, Sessoms, Cameron and other union safety representatives collaborated with Goodyear to implement safety procedures at the start of the pandemic and later worked with local health officials to set up a vaccination clinic.

And at International Paper in San Antonio, the leadership and safety committee of USW Local 13-1 swiftly rose to the challenge and launched a COVID-19 prevention campaign.

“As soon as something happens, you act on it,” Emilio Salinas, Local 13-1 executive committee member, said. “You don’t want it growing into something bigger. We try to jump on something as quickly as we can to nip it in the bud.”

Local 13-1 urged members to wear face masks, disinfect shared tools and practice social distancing in break rooms.

“We’re grateful that we’re in a union and that we have a voice,” Salinas said. “The reason the union exists is not just [to ensure fair] wages and benefits. It’s all about safety. It gives us the power to enforce safety for our workers.”

Unions not only give workers a voice and protect them from retaliation for raising concerns but also foster a spirit of solidarity that contributes to safety.

“We’re 2,150 feet underground. We have to take care of each other,” explained JJ Chavez, a union safety representative for USW Local 9477, which represents workers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico.

He and his coworkers dispose of nuclear waste in a salt bed, working at a depth that is greater than the height (1,454 feet) of the Empire State Building. Chavez, a former deputy sheriff, said only a shared commitment to safety can help union members address the many hazards they face every day.

The fight for healthier workplaces never ends.

At Fayetteville, for example, Sessoms and fellow committee members are analyzing data about ergonomic injuries and hazards to determine the need for equipment that helps lift piles of rubber. And they’re looking into the purchase of rubber-cutting machines that would further reduce the potential exposure to knife injuries.

“The goal for every one of our team members is to ensure all of our brothers and sisters go home safely to their families each and every day,” Sessoms said.

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  1. Dirk77

    I appreciate learning about “Jerusalem.” Wasn’t Lennon’s “Imagine” supposed to be deliberately subversive? Perhaps Parry or Elgar were thinking on similar subversive lines. But then the Clash’s “This is England” was made the anthem of a soccer club, and nothing The Clash ever did could be considered other than in your face. So perhaps Parry or Elgar were attracted by something other than the meaning that Blake intended in his poem. Anyways, yeah, great labor anthem, but I guess too limey?

  2. ambrit

    The piece comes across as almost an elegy itself for the Union movement. A clear exposition of the benefits of a strong Union presence without any “calls for action” on the political front.
    Ronald (Family blogging) Reagan’s evisceration of the Flight Controller’s Union back in 1981 was a clear application of force by the enablers of the Oligarchy. Remember that Reagan used United States Armed Forces personnel to fill the positions ‘vacated’ by the PATCO members. The Union did not move on up to the next obvious step in the conflict; counter violence.
    Also, the Administration was lucky in how the makeshift ‘Federalized’ Air Traffic Controllers managed to avoid any major air disasters. A few ‘crashed’ airliners would have clarified the issue in the minds of the public. At that point, competent public relations would have been the most useful skill for the Union to deploy. Reagan knew that and deployed his own, personal skills set to accomplish the task; he was a trained actor, thus, skilled at deception and propaganda.
    Mr. Conway is the President of the United Steelworker’s Union. He should remember his own Union’s history and reflect. The old version of the USW embarked on a campaign of bombings aimed at non-union shops back in the 1900s. Up until the Los Angeles Times building bombing, where people were killed, that campaign had generally been supported by the public. the bombings worked.
    Unions will have to become militant. The present system rewards no other trait.

    1. LowellHighlander

      Counter violence? Under the most heavily armed government in the history of humanity? As a unionist, I say count me out; there are much better ways, and I will suggest two here.

      First, union members must tell their union leaders that they will no longer work exclusively for political candidates within the duopoly: if a better candidate comes along who proudly stands outside the political duopoly, union members should tell their leaders that the union must back said candidate, or they will organize themselves to back this candidate.

      Second, instead of pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into candidates for President – as the AFL-CIO did with Obama – the labor federation should re-establish its Labor College to explicitly (in addition to its former curriculum) teach each and every student how to build businesses of their own as worker-owned co-operatives. [Look up the movie Shift Change to see how they work in this country, no less.] They should be marketed as “American as Apple Pie; they’re really New England Town Hall democracies” (in the economic realm).

      1. ambrit

        Not to be too ‘snarky’ here, but where are those vaunted “wildcat” union members today? If you haven’t been looking too hard, (an excusable state of affairs given the present Zeitgeist,) the Union leadership does no more than fake ‘listening’ to the rank and file. the prominent “activist” unions I have read about over the past recent history have been militant and not afraid to confront the National Union Oligarchs.
        As for “the most heavily armed government,” allow me to remind you of the Wobblies’ history with Mexico, or the Left’s history of supporting the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War.
        I’ll observe that “simple” political engagement is not generally productive for non Elite players. Many times, the Unions must resort to tactics like the English General Strike of 1926.
        See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1926_United_Kingdom_general_strike
        I do appreciate the Labour College idea. that has real potential. As I’ve said before, education is the key. (Not just the accumulation of credentials.)
        I’m wearing red for May Day. See you at the barricades.

        1. LowellHighlander

          You’ll find wildcat union members amongst all those who defied their union leaders’ diktats and worked for Bernie Sanders anyway. You’ll also find them amongst the nurses’ unions that backed Nader for President. With social media, we have many more means of finding and communicating with these people than before.

          And were you seriously comparing the arms (and thus the overt power) available to the governments of Mexico and Spain to those of the modern-day U.S.? OK, let’s quickly review: not only does the U.S. government have many more arms at its disposal, it’s making these arms available to local cops as never before. Second, the U.S. government has more spook agencies to spy on us than, I’ll bet, either Mexico or Spain ever had. Third, because the U.S. government can literally print as much money as it wants, there’s no theoretical reason why it can’t keep employing even more people to staff the CIA, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and all the other organs of the Deep State. Fourth, After these employees of the “intelligence” agencies retire, many of them then take positions in U.S. media outlets – a far more insidious and effective way to keep control over the population than was available to societies past.

          I won’t patronize anyone here and respond, “Yeah, see you on the barricades.” I’ve done that dozens of times (i.e. picket lines, demonstrations, and anti-war marches – all in the heart of the Empire). Inasmuch as I’m about to turn the big six zero, I’ve got to start figuring that I don’t have a great deal of time left, so I’ll be devoting my energies to trying to build a worker-owned co-op or three, in addition to pursuing a certain question in law that Ralph Nader confirmed for me has not been asked – apparently by anyone. [This question involves the death penalty, and goes right to the heart of corporate power – immunity from the ultimate sanction.]

          1. ambrit

            I’m close to you in age and share your “fin de siecle” perspective. However, by the history of the Wobblies in Mexico; the IWW was deeply involved in the fight against the dictator Diaz in the Revolution of 1910 and on. The IWW was directly involved with the Magonista Revolution in Baja California in 1911.
            See: https://sandiegohistory.org/archives/books/gold/ch8/
            The Left in the Spanish Civil War defeated itself through the in-fighting between the Anarchists and the Stalinist Communists. See Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” on that.
            See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homage_to_Catalonia
            In both cases, Unions decided to oppose directly, authoritarian regimes. Such regimes were not then nor, I doubt, ever will be open to dialogue and compromise. As I alluded to in my Reagan versus the PATCO Union, no compromise was ever offered by the ‘Authorities.’ As is always the case with those who “Do God’s Work,” the end state was always envisioned as unconditional surrender.
            This is not a “peaches and cream” scenario. People will get hurt. The main point to make is that what one is hurt for is as important as the damage toll itself.
            Being an audio visual oriented person, a pretty good evocation of that theme is the 1949 American film, “We Were Strangers.” Directed by John Houston with John Garfield, Jennifer Jones, Pedro Armendariz and the woefully underestimated Gilbert Roland.
            See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/We_Were_Strangers
            Stay safe.

      2. Dirk77

        I’m no expert but you appear to make good points. So many crises are brewing these days that relying on the past for guidance may not be ideal, unless you look at examples of civilization collapse. That said, there also may be low hanging fruit, such as the ones you suggest. A further one might be ending this internationalist labor thinking that people such as Yanis plug, which Yves indirectly mentions in her preamble. Restrict labor locally and international brotherhood will emerge (if you believe in stuff like that), not the other way around.

        1. HotFlash

          Uh, no. Only global labour solidarity, and human solidarity, can confront globalized enterprise. Restricting to local (ie, “divide and conquer”) leave workers playing whack-a-mole with corps that can relocate at any time.

          1. Dirk77

            Hmm. Admittedly my bias against immigration comes from being a card carrying member of the Sierra Club before they went woke. Perhaps if one focuses on worker owned enterprises, from where labor springs becomes mute. That said, as an interim, I don’t think forcing capital to relocate is necessarily a bad thing. You relocate to cheaper labor and you lose all the infrastructure that made labor valuable in the original spot.

      3. HotFlash

        Walter Reuther, from Wikip:

        On May 9, 1970, Walter Reuther, his wife May, architect Oscar Stonorov, Reuther’s bodyguard William Wolfman, the pilot and co-pilot were killed when their chartered Learjet 23 crashed in flames at 9:33 p.m. Eastern Time. The plane, arriving from Detroit in rain and fog, was on final approach to Pellston Regional Airport in Pellston, Michigan, near the UAW’s recreational and educational facility at Black Lake, Michigan.[159][160] The National Transportation Safety Board discovered that the plane’s altimeter was missing parts, some incorrect parts were installed, and one of its parts had been installed upside down,[161] leading some to speculate that Reuther may have been murdered.[162] Reuther had been subjected earlier to two attempted assassinations.

        Historian Michael Parenti wrote, “Reuther’s demise appears as part of a truncation of liberal and radical leadership that included the deaths of four national figures: President John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Senator Robert Kennedy.”

        1. LowellHighlander


          Thanks for sending along that history lesson; I had either long forgotten or had never heard about Mr. Reuther’s (and company’s) fate. Truly horrific, and should be taught to everyone in stewards’ training, honestly.

          However, I’m not sure what point you were trying to make. All I can say is that individuals can certainly be rubbed out by the State – but ideas can’t. The more we (i.e. left-wingers, unionists, teachers, etc.) start devoting efforts to building and patronizing worker-owned co-ops (and credit unions, for that matter), the safer these ideas can become. This is why the ending of the movie Camelot is so meaningful: King Arthur’s last act is to make sure that his ideas will outlive him.

    2. chuck roast

      In a past life I recall a post-PATCO air traffic controller who rose to local prominence on the Planning Board for which I was a staffer. Of course I knew that he was a scab, and his every action on the board amply demonstrated his lack of conscience and opportunism. He eventually arrived at a seat on the city council of a metro area of around a half-million. During a public non-council meeting he mentioned that his dad was an air-traffic controller and was no longer working. I don’t know how many people picked up on it, but here we had a guy who crossed a picket line that his father was walking. Did I forget to mention that he was never prosecuted for repeated violations of the Hatch Act? The perfect member of the political class.

    3. Mark Anderlik

      I agree with the almost pathetic tone of the piece as an elegy for the labor movement, as it has atrophied in the US and in many places around the world faced with neoliberalism. But your way forward leaves a lot to be desired.

      First its important to get the history correct. Reagan’s busting of the PATCO union by the military is correct. It unleashed an unused Supreme Court decision from the 1930’s that it was okay to permanently fire economic strikers. That unleashed a whole wave of firings and has convinced most labor leaders that striking is suicidal.

      What is often forgotten is the history that set up the conditions for the first former union president who became the President to unleash the Star Chamber of Commerce union-busting house of terror. The unions that exist today were largely created or reinvigorated in the 1930’s, thanks largely to the efforts of the CIO unions. more specifically, the organizers of the CIO unions. Their method of relational organizing that created the power and the organization to shut down production is the key point.

      A union’s core power is this: to cease making money for the man in a strategic and organized fashion. Without this, unions become merely a lobby.

      So from 1933 until 1947 unions in the US rose in power, not just measured by membership, but in actual ability to make demands of capital and win them. Of course, this scared the crap out of the oligarchy who retaliated with as series of amendments to the 1935 National Labor Relations Act known as Taft-Hartley.

      Everyone knows (and little understands) “Right to Work” which was established in this bill. That was not even the most damaging, for Taft-Hartley made illegal one of the most potent strike weapons that working people used at the time: secondary boycott and strikes. That was bad enough, but another section of Taft-Hartley was arguably even more devastating: the loyalty oath.

      The loyalty oath gave many union leaders the opportunity to fire their communist and socialist organizers and staff, despite the overwhelming number of them being their most effective organizers and the foundation of union success. Some unions resisted this first shot of the “McCarthy Era,” but too many did not.

      Certainly motives were mixed among unions, but there is no mistake that this began an era of relative peace between unions and capital. It was a grand bargain if you will: capital will not attack unions’ right to exist as long as unions shed themselves of their reds, abandoned replacing capitalism, and stuck to their respective workplaces. Thus the (re)birth of business unionism.

      Which brings us to the PATCO strike a generation or so later. Reagan was advised that business unions were mostly toothless as not only had they fired their most effective organizers, they had failed for the most part to maintain the culture of CIO-style organizing within their organizations. By 1980 unions were toothless tigers because they could not strike to shut the workplace down in any meaningful way and fight the neoliberal savagery that would accompany it. The loyalty oaths had been spectacularly successful for the Star Chamber of Commerce.

      Which brings us to today. There are more unions now that have been using CIO-style organizing to win significant strikes. UNITE HERE (my old union), SEIU 1199, the Chicago Teachers Union and the Unifed Los Angeles Teachers are some examples. Most of them had internal revolts that elected new leadership concretely committed to relational organizing that builds power to hold near 100% strikes (near 100% of membership). None of them used violence. None of them threatened violence. They just organized the potential power of any union and that is to strategically withhold one’s labor.

      I highly recommend reading Jane McAlevey and Her “No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age,” and “A Collective Bargain.” Watch this video if you want an introduction to her work. McAlevey did not invent the CIO-style organizing, but she has become the most prominent advocate and trainer of its methods.

  3. s.n.

    either tom conway knows nothing about american labor history in general, and specifically nothing about the origin of Mayday, or he understands everything about it, and knows that a widespread reassessment of the Haymarket affair might just be too hot to handle at the moment….
    I suspect the latter

    1. DJG, Reality Czar

      s.n.: The strangest part, in a sense, is that May Day supposedly was invented / first commemorated in Chicago. I understand the U.S. Labor Day is cooptation. So why not go back to what was already an American tradition?

  4. Mike Elwin

    Isn’t the labor movement supposed to be renewsing itself? That was supposed to mean re-invigorating labor’s grand tradition of confrontations with capital. Didn’t last long, though, did it. Now, with the PRO Act, they’re putting independent contractors out of work while trying to duplicate the flexibility of their work schedules. Silly.

  5. Jeff N

    Here in Chicago, every Memorial Day, several unions put on a memorial service on the site of the Republic Steel Massacre.

  6. HotFlash

    Have to agree w/s.n. Labor was a fiercer beast back when. But we are living in different times, where support for workers is thin to non-existent, even among other workers. Witness the Bessemer Amazon debacle and I don’t hold out much hope for the Staten Island unionization drive, either. Unions have been hollowed out from within, leadership corrupted, captured, and co-opted — by same methods as our elected reps — , seniority perverted to mean not job security but dilution of benefits (eg, ‘two tier’ pension and health benefits). Trad blue-collar work is what you don’t want your kids to do, you want them to go to college and get nice salaried jobs in offices. White collar workers, no matter how lowly or precarious, are flattered that they are ‘management’ (ie, don’t punch a clock and so don’t get overtime). And now, of course, the gig economy, where *all* costs and risks are outsourced to the worker.

    If union fierceness is a thing of the past, and by my observation it is, an even greater difference seems to be lack of public support. I am so old (how old?) that I remember when people wouldn’t buy things not union made/grown/picked. I rarely even see a union label these days, and certainly no “Buy Union” ads. I have been watching the Amazon packages arrive daily on my little two-block street, po’ folks shopping at Walmart, everybody using ATMs and the self-checkouts at the grocery store, the drug store, and now the dollar store. Don’t my neighbours think their neighbours deserve jobs?


  7. Sound of the Suburbs

    Any serious attempt to study the capitalist system always reveals the same inconvenient truth.
    Many at the top don’t create any wealth.
    That’s the problem.
    Confusing making money and creating wealth is the solution.

    The Ricardo “Pick and Mix”
    We got some stuff from Ricardo, like the law of comparative advantage.
    What’s gone missing?

    Ricardo was part of the new capitalist class, and the old landowning class were a huge problem with their rents that had to be paid both directly and through wages.
    “The interest of the landlords is always opposed to the interest of every other class in the community” Ricardo 1815 / Classical Economist
    What does our man on free trade, Ricardo, mean?

    Disposable income = wages – (taxes + the cost of living)
    Employees get their money from wages and the employers pay the cost of living through wages, reducing profit.
    Employees get less disposable income after the landlords rent has gone.
    Employers have to cover the landlord’s rents in wages reducing profit.
    Ricardo is just talking about housing costs, employees all rented in those days.
    Low housing costs work best for employers and employees.

    There were three groups in the capitalist system in Ricardo’s world (and there still are).
    Workers / Employees
    Capitalists / Employers
    Rentiers / Landowners / Landlords / other skimmers, who are just skimming out of the system, not contributing to its success
    The unproductive group exists at the top of society, not the bottom.
    Later on we did bolt on a benefit system to help others that were struggling lower down the scale.

    The unproductive group exists at the top of society, not the bottom.
    They weren’t exactly happy with this revelation.
    They needed a new economics to hide this, neoclassical economics.

    Everything is upside down.
    We are passing all the money upwards to those who don’t actually create any wealth.

  8. Susan the other

    The two things that struck me as most insincere in Biden’s speech, which was surprisingly good, were his comment, delivered straight into the camera that health care is a right not a privilege (even tho’ he came really close to flubbing it up like little George’s ‘fool me once’ stumble) – because he failed to address the health care monopoly that most definitely thinks otherwise, except to say that we need to be able to negotiate with Pharma on drug prices (is that the best Joe could plop out; “Let’s Make Obamacare Great Again”?) – and his almost-out-of-the-blue spiel about how this country was not built by politicians and financiers but by unions. Yes. All true. But both comments had the feel of pure (as in empty) politics.

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