Op-Ed | The significance of Worker’s Memorial Day

seller in a protective mask standing in front of the counter with fruit
Members of Local 338 work in supermarkets, retail pharmacies, home health care, the state’s medicinal cannabis industry, as well as grow and harvest local produce as farmworkers.
Photo courtesy Getty Images

Worker’s Memorial Day is dedicated to those who lost their lives on the job. Every year, on April 28, people across the country take a moment to reflect. It was first established in 1970 to recognize workers who lost their lives while trying to earn a living and provide for their family. This day of remembrance has become even more poignant after the unrelenting toll the pandemic has taken on our nation, our economy, and most importantly, on our workforce.

Workplace safety is something many take for granted today. Until 1970, with the passage and signing of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA), a safe and healthy workplace was the exception not the rule. Before then workers relied entirely on labor unions to negotiate with employers to establish basic health and safety precautions. In the early 20th century, annual workplace deaths were estimated to be about 23,000 a year. In 2019, that number had dropped to 5,333 annually. While the union movement made things better it was no substitute for a health and safety mandate with the full force of the federal government behind it. 

The pandemic has complicated workplace safety, to say the least — how do you take steps to keep people safe from something you can’t see and often can’t detect until it’s too late? Labor organizations, including my union, Local 338 RWDSU/UFCW, have worked tirelessly to protect all workers with an obvious focus on our membership since the pandemic began in March 2020. The members of Local 338 are all essential workers and have no choice but to be in a public setting every day. They work in our supermarkets, retail pharmacies, home health care, the state’s medicinal cannabis industry, as well as grow and harvest local produce as farmworkers.

We’ve always done our best to ensure the safety of our members. Since the beginning of the pandemic we worked to provide them with PPE, helped book vaccine appointments, and worked with government leaders to establish safe masking policies. The passage and implementation of the NY HERO ACT, legislation that established extensive workplace health and safety protections to prevent or reduce disease exposure, enhanced safety too. We must not let our guard down—as a society things have changed. Our lived experience tells us it is more important than ever to listen to our public health experts and consciously incorporate best practices into our everyday lives.

Most importantly, we must ensure that our elected officials do not give up the fight to empower unions. The union movement is a people-powered movement on the frontlines fighting to keep workers and those they encounter safe. A recent study noted that unionized nursing homes benefited both workers and residents, with 10.8% lower resident COVID-19 mortality rates and 6.8% lower infection rates among workers than nonunionized nursing homes.

The pandemic has been a reminder that so often, employers and the public take our essential workers for granted. People don’t realize just how much we rely on their services to ensure our communities continue to function — we need people to stock shelves, fill prescriptions, and take care of our loved ones at home and in facilities when we cannot. 

Worker’s Memorial Day is a commemoration of the people who went to work and never came home. It is a grim reminder that we must not take our workforce, particularly those who are at risk of being hurt or fatally injured at work, for granted. This Worker’s Memorial Day, our thoughts are with the families of those who lost their lives while on the job. We will continue our fight to ensure that all workers have access to a safe working environment. 

It is the mission of our union movement to ensure the safety of our members, their families, loved ones, and all working people. It is my hope that going forward, we continue to treat our frontline workers with the dignity and respect that they deserve. 

John R. Durso has been the president of Local 338 since 1999.

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