Dead and injured remembered in Texas

TYLER, Texas – On April 26, a bell tolled here for workers who had been killed on the job during the past year. Leaders of the United Steel Workers of America (USWA) read a name, then waited for the sad, piercing song of the bell, then read another name. The bell rang more than 40 times while the crowd of 300 silent unionists attending a Workers Memorial Day commemoration stood silently in remembrance of the dead, the injured and to rededicate themselves to ending workplace tragedies.

Speakers at the USWA Local 746 hall talked of the tragedies of the many workers who die every year from workplace injuries and disease. Some called special attention to the awful safety record that brought national disgrace to the Tyler Pipe Company nearby. Some of them pointed out that certain Texas politicians were trying to make it even harder for workplace victims to get justice. And all resolved to fight the future battles necessary to stop the workplace slaughter.

Even before Workers Memorial Day, top national leaders of the Steelworkers Union had come into this relatively small city (population 83,000) to make sure that management at Tyler Pipe put an end to the many unsafe practices that had been exposed to the world by The New York Times. Just prior to the commemoration, steelworkers proudly announced a new agreement that would put an end to the Tyler scandals.

USWA National Health and Safety Coordinator Mike Wright told the rally that Tyler Pipe had, “A history we must never forget, and a history we must never repeat, ever!” Wright said all the top management at Tyler Pipe had been replaced and a new safety agreement was in place. He said USWA was in the process of negotiating new contracts for eight facilities across the nation that are owned, as is Tyler Pipe, by the McWane Corporation. He emphasized that strong safety provisions would be in every one of them.

Wright told the crowd that Workers Memorial Day, a distinctly American holiday that celebrates the passage of safety legislation on April 28, 1970, is now celebrated in 40 countries around the world. He said that 60,000 Americans die every year of workplace-related injuries and disease, and 2,000,000 die worldwide!

USWA District 12 Director Terry Bonds recalled the Bible story of Cain and Abel. “We are our brothers’ keepers,” he said. Bonds put the political situation directly: “Our union and all of the labor movement at this time is in crisis,” he said and singled out the corporate push for undemocratic trade agreements as a problem. He called on all unionists to pull together because, ultimately, “There’s nobody for us but us.”

USWA Vice President Leon Lynch reminded the crowd, that safety is everybody’s job. He brought his listeners to the emotional peak of the day when he said, pounding the lectern for emphasis, “As long as there is a United Steelworkers of America, damn it, we’ re going to fight for safety.”

A number of other important speakers joined the Steelworker leaders on the podium. Tyler City Councilman Derek Choice read a proclamation honoring Workers Memorial Day. Kathryn DeLaney, Area Director of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), reminded the crowd that workplace injuries had decreased by more than half since OSHA became a reality in 1970.

Congressman Max Sandlin (D–Tex) went over some of the history of the fight for workplace safety. Emmett Sheppard, secretary-treasurer of the Texas AFL-CIO, took time from crucial battles in the Texas legislature to commend the Steelworkers union for their commitment to workplace safety, and particularly to praise them for their hard work at Tyler Pipe.

After prayers, participants enjoyed a picnic luncheon, then went away remembering those for whom they had gathered and for whom the bell had rung.

In his earlier speech, Wright recalled the unionized firemen and policemen who died in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, saying: “They would all say they were just doing their job. There is a real heroism in ‘just doing your job!’”

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org