Workers Memorial Day mourns workplace fatalities, brings calls for stronger unions

    Workers Memorial Day display
    An array of symbolic tombstones on the lawn outside the Madison Labor Temple represents workers who died on the job, in observance of Workers Memorial Day Wednesday. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner}

    Across Wisconsin on Wednesday, labor advocates honored the deaths of people killed on the job and urged supporters to campaign for passage of a new federal law to toughen the rules protecting organizing rights for workers.

    Kevin Gundlach, president of the South Central Federation of Labor (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner}

    “We honor the dead, but we also have to fight for the living,” said Kevin Gundlach at a late-morning ceremony in Madison that was both fiery and somber to mark Workers Memorial Day. Gundlach is president of the South Central Federation of Labor, made up of about 100 unions in Dane County and surrounding counties.

    The event was held in front of the Madison Labor Temple, where rows of replica tombstones stood on the lawn to symbolize lives lost to injuries or illness at work.

    The AFL-CIO established Workers Memorial Day in 1989, setting it on April 28 to recognize the launch of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on that date in 1971 — making this year the 50th anniversary of the agency. Workers Memorial Day has since become an international day for labor solidarity and commemoration of on-the-job deaths.

    At the Madison event, labor leaders and politicians followed one another with speeches that were by turns mournful and motivational for the occasion, finishing the 50-minute ceremony with a reading of the names of 56 people in Wisconsin who died on the job in the last year.

    The names were provided for the occasion by OSHA officials, and Gundlach noted that there were likely countless others who could be included but who worked in fields not covered by the federal agency, among them agriculture workers, including children, and mine workers (whose safety is monitored by a different federal agency). And there were the workers “who have succumbed to COVID,” Gundlach said, adding that he believed many of the nearly 7,000 Wisconsin residents who have died might have been exposed to the coronavirus at work.

    The pandemic itself was among the themes of the ceremony. Mike Jones, the president-elect of the teachers union at Madison Metropolitan School District, spoke of teachers around the state who had died from COVID-19. And he named a student who died from the illness as well. “When we fight for better protections, we’re not just fighting for ourselves, we’re fighting for the future of young people,” Jones said.

    “This year of the pandemic has shown us there is no business as usual,” said Victoria Gutierrez, a critical care nurse. A recently resolved contract dispute at her hospital strengthened the voice of nurses in the event of a future health emergency and also improved sick leave practices, she said. (She didn’t name the facility in her remarks, but was referring to UnityPoint Meriter Hospital, where nurses reached an agreement in March after having set a strike deadline.)

    “We the workers who do the jobs to make our communities and things run, no matter what, must be put front and center,” Gutierrez said. “And our voices must be heard because we’re not going back to business as usual.”

    Politicians who spoke — Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin), U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Black Earth) and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, all via pre-recorded videos — called for swift passage of the PRO Act to strengthen U.S. workers’ organizing rights.

    State Rep. Francesca Hong (D-Madison), who attended in person, urged restoring collective bargaining rights — part of Gov. Tony Evers’ proposed 2021-2023 budget. “The story of Wisconsin is the story of the working class,” said Hong, who owns a Madison restaurant. “As a small business owner myself, it is my duty to empower workers and make unions accessible to them.”

    Besides the Madison event Wednesday, Workers Memorial Day commemorations and rallies were planned around the state, some in person and some virtual. In Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Area Labor Council conducted a virtual commemoration Wednesday morning, while the Green Bay Labor Council held an in-person observance Wednesday morning.

    Marathon County labor leaders scheduled an in-person event Wednesday afternoon at 5 p.m., while the Western Wisconsin AFL-CIO in La Crosse and the Greater West Central Area Labor Council in Eau Claire both planned online remembrance ceremonies for the late afternoon or evening.

    Also in Milwaukee, the immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera planned a 7:30 p.m. memorial vigil for “the sacrifices and losses of Wisconsin immigrant essential workers,” the group announced. The vigil was to be held in front of the federal courthouse, where Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) has an office.

    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.