Workers Memorial Day and May Day: Putting back the history that was stripped from the books

PHILADELPHIA – At the annual Workers Memorial Day Breakfast here on the morning of April 29th 300 assembled trade unionists honored the over 160 men and women who died on the job during the past year in the tri-state area, which includes Delaware and South Jersey.

Some of the families were present, and some family members spoke. The featured speaker was freshman Rep. Joe Sestak (D) from suburban Delaware County. He told the crowd about his experience in just a year on the House Education and Labor Committee, which has held hearings preliminary to writing stronger legislation to protect workers and enforce penalties against employers who flout the law.

Hearing the testimony of one worker after another about the hazards they faced on the job and the difficulties they encountered in correcting them, had, Sestak stated, caused him to feel more strongly than ever about the need to strengthen OSHA and repair the years of damage done by the Bush Administration's cavalier pro-big business policies.

Philadelphia AFL-CIO president Pat Eiding and PA AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Rick Bloomingdale also spoke. It was a morning full of poignant and thought provoking moments.

But this year the guests also got a new – and perhaps to many – an unexpected bonus. They heard Jim Moran, founding member of the Philadelphia Project on Occupational Safety and Health (PHILAPOSH), which sponsors the breakfast, give a brief, but, in the circumstances, amazing history lesson. He announced that this year on Thursday, May 1, a program would be held to dedicate a Workers' Memorial at Elmwood Park in the city's southwest section.

Moran went on to relate the story of the Haymarket massacre and the Haymarket martyrs and to tell how international Labor Day had been born in the USA and adopted by labor around the world. Pointing out that workers in every nation but the US celebrate May Day as Labor Day, he said, 'probably many people here did not know this story; this knowledge was stripped from our history books and stripped from our memories.'

The assembled guests, representing many different unions, gave Moran a stong ovation when he finished.

I've heard the comment around here recently that 'This is not your fathers' labor movement.' While I do not entirely agree with the literal meaning of those words, the statement is generally intended to refer to positive changes going on all around us as labor confronts daunting challenges, old and new.

That morning's breakfast provides an example of truth of that statement.