Workers Memorial Day: Honoring those lost, fighting for safety

Rev. Jennifer Copeland opened a memorial service for workers killed on the job Friday with a quote from the Book of Genesis and a personal meditation on death.

“People die all the time,” Copeland said  “It’s a fact of life that from the moment we are born, we are in the process of dying. But in between birth and death, the creator who gave us life provides the resources for every single person to flourish — to reach his or her highest, greatest potential. When that doesn’t happen — when we don’t reach our greatest potential — all of creation suffers.”

Rev. Jennifer Copeland speaks at Friday’s Workers Memorial Day event.

It was those deaths that were mourned Friday morning at the capitol as the AFL-CIO of North Carolina hosted an annual Workers Memorial Day. There were 183 workers killed on the job in North Carolina in 2017, the last year for which full data is available.

Flanked by mourners holding photos of workers who died on the job and placards bearing their names, Copeland said work accidents happen — but can often be avoided if profit isn’t put before humanity.

“Much of what causes death has to do with god given resources,” Copeland said. “Just because the creator provides resources doesn’t mean the creatures have learned how to share them or conserve them. Mostly, we horde them and abuse them – causing all of creation to suffer.”

Bertha Bradley shared her personal experience with that suffering. A fast-food manager who makes $13.20 cents an hour working at Wendy’s, Bradley said she recently slipped in a walk-in fridge that had three inches of ice on the floor and had a shelves full of frozen hamburger buns fall on top of her.

She was made to work 10 hours after the accident — which later necessitated back surgery. Now she’s being told she has to come back to work three weeks after that surgery or lose her job.

“No one from the company ever even called me to ask if I was all right,” Bradley said.

Stories like Bradley’s  — unsafe working conditions, unreasonable demands — are all too common, said MaryBe McMillan, president of the North Carolina State AFL-CIO. The state is ranked the 28th most dangerous state in which to work and has seen workplace fatalities increase in each of the last four years.

As safety inspectors and budgets are cut, McMillan said, the state is becoming much more dangerous for working people.

“Right now it would take over a century — 108 years — to inspect every work place in this state just once,” said McMillian. “That’s almost double what it was in 2010 when we had enough inspectors to inspect every workplace once every 55 years.”

MaryBe McMillan, president of the North Carolina State AFL-CIO, speaks at Friday’s event.

The N.C. Department of Labor considers it a priority to inspect elevators and amusement rides once a year, McMillan said – but once a century is too often when it comes to work places.

“We need more inspector and employers need more than a slap on the wrist when workers die,” McMillian said.

In North Carolina the average fine for a serious safety violation is $1,700, McMillan said. Only ten states have a lower average fine.

Every year, the AFL-CIO invites Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry to their Workers Memorial Day ceremony, McMillian said.

But each year Berry, who has announced she won’t run for a sixth term in 2020, declines each time. She does, however, attend an annual company awards safety banquet.

“Preventing workplace deaths will take a lot more than presenting plaques at workplace banquets,” McMillian said. “It will take more inspectors, more enforcement, more penalties. But unfortunately our labor commissioner and our department of labor embrace a philosophy of less – less regulation, less enforcement, less fines.”

It’s clear Berry’s allegiance is with the companies she is supposed to be regulating, McMillan said.

James Munir Perry of Muslims for Social Justice said workers have to demand corporations place their lives above profit.

“Our prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said ‘Pay the laborer his wages before his sweat dries,'” Perry said.

“One life lost is too many,” Perry said.

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