On Workers’ Memorial Day, AFL-CIO’s Shuler says workers still pay “ultimate price”
AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler | afscme.org

WASHINGTON—Even after decades of enforcement, activism, and union campaigning, “workers are still paying the price every day” in deaths and injuries on the job “for corporate greed,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler says.

Flourishing a copy of the federation’s 33rd annual report, Death on the Job: A Toll of Neglect,” Shuler told a Labor Department audience the job of campaigning to cut the toll is incomplete. Workers and their allies must lobby for tougher laws against companies and more enforcement, too, she said.

The AFL-CIO’s comprehensive report, plus the Dirty Dozen study by the labor-backed National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, the DOL ceremony, and personal stories from surviving victims or relatives of the dead marked Workers Memorial Week. The reports are on their websites.

The daily price is exacted from workers due to “the greed and negligence of corporations…who send us out every day” in hazardous working conditions “just so they can make more profits,” Shuler said.

Added Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts, quoting then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt after she descended into a coal mine in the early 1930s and talked with miners there: “There are only two things you can do to make these miners safer: Legislation and union representation.”

Death on the Job provided the numbers: Job-related deaths have risen for the last two years, as has the death rate, to 3.7 per 100,000 workers. Some “344 workers died each day from hazardous working conditions and 5,486 workers were killed on the job” in 2022, the last year for which data are available. It pointed out Black and Latino workers are more vulnerable to deaths and injuries than whites and those rates—three and four times the overall rate–are rising, too.

And “43 workers died from heat on the job” that year. The report adds that this may be an undercount.

It may be an undercount in Florida alone. Its right-wing Republican-dominated legislature, at the behest of Hispanic-hating GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis, just banned county and city ordinances to force firms to protect workers against heat stroke. Ana Maria of Costa Farms knows all about that. “Costa, with their lawyers, led the campaign” for that ban.

“I have suffered from extreme heat at work,” in rural areas of Miami-Dade County. “Once they took me to a nurse at work but the nurse wasn’t there,” she said in Spanish through an interpreter at NACOSH’s Zoom press conference. “In South Florida” over the last several years “34 workers have died and there were 11,700 visits to the emergency room.” More than half were in Miami-Dade,

“Symptoms of heat can escalate to heat stroke,” she added. “All we want is protections in the shade, drinking water, and ten minutes of rest every two hours.”

Other malefactors whose workers suffered due to corporate greed, listed in the Dirty Dozen, included:

  • The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, the AFL-CIO, and civic and civil rights groups are suing the Alabama Department of Corrections for what RWDSU calls “modern-day slavery.” The department rents out workers to private enterprises, garners $450 million annually from those firms—and pays the workers around two bucks a day.

One particularly horrendous death of an Alabama prisoner occurred seven years ago, the report adds. But it took years for the details, and the fine, to work its way through the system. “In October 2017, Frank Ellington, 33, incarcerated at a work release center, was tragically pulled into a machine he was cleaning at a Koch Foods chicken processing plant,” Dirty Dozen reports.

“His skull was crushed and he died instantly. The machine was still running” and Ellington, who was Black, “had never been trained in how to properly shut it off.” OSHA fined Koch Foods (which is not part of the infamous Koch brothers’ conglomerate) $19,500.

  • At SpaceX, owned by one of the world’s richest people, Elon Musk—whose firms also break labor laws—600 workers “suffered crushed limbs and preventable deaths” over the last several years, NACOSH co-Executive Director Jessica Martinez said.

OSHA fined Musk’s firm $112,000, and it’s contesting the fine. Musk, with corporate allies, has also gone to federal court against the National Labor Relations Board, arguing the board’s combination of prosecution and judging in the same agency is unconstitutional.

For Workers Memorial Day the Dirty Dozen Report by the National Council for Occupational Health and Safety was released by the AFL-CIO.
  • There have been multiple shootings at Waffle Houses. And veteran worker Cindy Smith reports “I was robbed at gunpoint in front of my son,” then six years old. That robber, a dozen years ago, demanded Smith open the cash register. “My life is not worth a cash register,” Smith says. Waffle Houses are open round-the-clock, all week, with no security.

“A guy went outside to his car and got his gun,” Naomi Harris, a Waffle House worker in Columbia, S.C., says in the Dirty Dozen report. “I was just like, ‘Wow, he was really about to possibly end my life over hashbrowns.’…I shouldn’t have to go into work and think I’m about to die.”

But despite the robbery Smith suffered and others in ensuing years, management refused to listen, much less hire security. “They make enough to do so,” Smith said of the firm. So the workers at her Waffle House in Georgia struck for four days. “We deserve the right to be protected,” she says.

  • The neglect extends to the gig economy, or at least to Uber and Lyft in Chicago. Driver Johnnie Mohammed discussed an assault and attempted robbery apparently coordinated between the perpetrating passenger, a gang-like group that met Mohammed’s Uber at the end of a rush-hour trip to Chicago’s South Side, and the caller who made the appointment.

The perpetrator threw a brick at Mohammed, then another when Mohammed got back in his car, without being paid, and drove off. At that, Mohammed got away. “Three or four drivers have been killed in the last several months,” he says.

“The response from the company was paltry and unsatisfactory,” Mohammed adds of his report to Uber. “We don’t have any protocols to report information” about passengers to the drivers, so they know which calls not to answer, he elaborates.

And since ride-sharing firms don’t gather personal data on their passengers, as opposed to their drivers, going to the police “was like going into a black hole.” And, for good measure, both Uber and Lyft pulled Mohammed’s apps, depriving him of the chance to do further driving to earn a living.

“The drivers are on edge. Their spouses are on edge. And their families are on edge.”

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.