April 28, 2011–Today, on Workers’ Memorial Day, the UFCW will join workers in the U.S. and around the world to honor the thousands of workers who have been killed on the job and the millions of workers who have suffered from injuries, sickness or diseases in their places of work. This year’s memorial day marks the 40th anniversary of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the right of workers to a safe workplace, as well as the 100th anniversary of one of the worst workplace disasters to take place in our country.
One hundred years ago, on March 25, 1911, a fire spread through the cramped floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. When the workers—mostly young female immigrants—tried to escape, they encountered locked doors and broken fire escapes. Rather than be burned alive, the workers began jumping out of windows and fell to their deaths on the street below as bystanders watched in horror. That terrible tragedy, which took the lives of 146 workers, served as a catalyst for major labor reforms and changed the way we work and live.
A century later, the fight to protect workers continues amid anti-union legislation that is sweeping though the country. Just three years ago, managers at the Imperial Sugar Company in Port Wentworth, Georgia—one of the few non-union plants in the industry—tolerated dirty and dangerous worksite conditions, and 15 workers without a collective voice died in a massive fire and explosion. Twenty years ago, 25 poultry workers at the Imperial Foods plant in Hamlet, North Carolina, were locked inside by their bosses and died in a horrible fire. Like the Triangle workers, they had no other voice to demand safety. Indeed, we just saw the worst mining disaster in 40 years, as the executives at the Massey coal mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, told their subordinates to put production first before any other job duties. Surviving workers testified to the rampant fear that effectively suppressed complaints in a company that had viciously opposed unions for decades.
The right to a safe workplace was won after decades of struggle by workers and their unions. On Workers’ Memorial Day, we honor and pay tribute to the men and women who died at Imperial Sugar, Imperial Foods, Massey Energy and all the other dangerous workplaces. In their memory, we renew our commitment to preventing such tragedies by supporting workers who are struggling to protect their basic rights–including safe jobs, workplace fairness, collective bargaining, freedom from discrimination and favoritism.