Labor unions go remote to mark Workers Memorial Day

    An array of face masks for COVID-19
    Masks sewn by Jan Ruvido Stebbins | Laina G. Stebbins via Michigan Advance

    Workers Memorial Day — an annual observation for workers who have lost their lives or suffered injury or illness on the job — is usually an occasion for somber parades, memorial services and rallies to raise the issue of workplace safety.

    In 2020, the April 28 event is being celebrated differently in Wisconsin because of the statewide Safer at Home order due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And the pandemic itself has spotlighted a distinctive worker safety issue: the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) in many workplaces.

    The Wisconsin AFL-CIO scheduled a moment of silence for noon on Tuesday, while local labor councils around the state arranged for their own remote observances of the day. The Western Wisconsin AFL-CIO live-streamed a Facebook commemoration at 10 a.m.; the South Central Federation of Labor based in Madison distributed a video message; the Milwaukee Area Labor Council scheduled a virtual event at 5:30 p.m., and the Marathon County Central Labor Council scheduled a moment of silence for 5:30 p.m. as well.

    The Wisconsin AFL-CIO and union members circulated a picture of a burning candle for the day on social media.

    Federal statistics for 2018, the most recent year available, reported that 114 workers in Wisconsin were killed on the job that year.

    “This year, across our country, thousands more workers’ lives are being lost to COVID-19 because workers are not getting necessary protections like proper PPE, thoroughly clean and sanitized workplaces, and appropriate social distance at work — which would save lives and stop the spread of this very contagious virus,” the labor federation said in a statement Tuesday morning.

    Since the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970, “working people through unions have fought to gain necessary health and safety rules that have saved working people’s lives and prevented injuries and illnesses on the job,” says Wisconsin AFL-CIO President Stephanie Bloomingdale. “But the Trump administration has allowed business associations to hold back common-sense measures like an emergency temporary infectious disease standard and more that would prevent workplace exposure to COVID-19.”

    Workplace protections, expanded testing, workplace safety plans and more PPE — all sought by labor organizations early in the spread of the disease — have been ignored by the Trump administration, Bloomingdale says. 

    Erik Gunn
    Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.