April 28, 2016

Workers Memorial Day: Mourning the dead, fighting for the living

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications
workers memorial day ceremony
Caption: "Solidarity forever." Photo by Nicole Clayton.

Every person has a story. So does every death.

Some are quiet stories, such as the death of Dexter White, who died one night in one of the tunnels at the SUNY Albany campus, where he worked for years polishing floors and setting up for events. Others are violent stories, such as the death of Wilfredo Vasquez-Mancia, a 37-year-old who fell off a roof while working on a Sunday at an apartment complex being built in Schenectady County.

"We perceive those who have gone on as dead, but they have a lot to teach us," said Rev. Victor Collier of Saratoga Springs, at a ceremony today for Workers Memorial Day held at NYSUT headquarters in Latham. "They're not dead if we utilize what they've given us." As individuals, we suffer, he said, if we don't care about what happens to each other.

"We don't forget those who have fallen anywhere," said Collier, former president of the Capital District Area Labor Federation. "We should be caring like no one else can."

The International Labor Organization reports that 2 million men and women die each year as a result of work-related accidents and diseases, said NYSUT President Karen E. Magee. "That's about 6,000 workers worldwide each day." The AFL-CIO reports about 10,000 workers a day are injured or become sick because of workplace hazards, she added.

Unions take on the fight against policies and practices that discourage reporting of workplace injuries, she said, and advocate for new workplace standards. NYSUT is working with federal representatives to get passage of the "Protecting America's Workers Act" to expand Occupational Safety and Health Administration protections.

A bell was rung and a flower placed on a table for each of the workers from the Capital Region area who died on the job in the past year. Wendy Hord, PSA, NYSUT"s health and safety director, read the names of the deceased.

Vasquez-Mancia was one of the many, many undocumented workers who are used unfairly by construction workers, said Jeff Stark, president of the Great Capital Region Building Trades Council. He explained how some companies hire undocumented workers as independent contractors. Stark said these companies are often not subject to health-and-safety regulations, and they don't pay taxes.

Workers Memorial Day

"It costs the state about $300 million a year in lost taxes," Stark said. If the undocumented workers complain about unsafe working conditions, they are often sent home.

The Building Trades Council had complained to the Department of Labor about worker exploitation, unsafe working conditions and lack of worker comp insurance where Vasquez-Mancia worked 14 months before his tragic death. But it was never investigated, Stark said, until the day after the fatal accident.

"The state really needs to crack down on it," he said. New York City records show that construction sites "are less safe than they were seven years ago."

Last year, of the 16 construction workers killed, 14 were non-union and 14 were Latino, Stark added.

Some NYSUT members deal with injury on the job from lifting hospital or home-bound patients and medically fragile students; from violence on the job in attacks from patients and students; from occupational asthma; or from other hazards.

Improper training, inadequate safety equipment, poor indoor air quality, mold, lack of maintenance and upkeep, improper storage and/or ventilation of chemicals (cleaning products, school labs, photography darkrooms), water quality, and construction hazards are just some of the health-and-safety problems in schools and worksites across the country.

"The labor movement is the single most important entity toward ensuring a better life for working men and women … virtually every safety-and-health protection on the books today is there because of the ability of working people to join together and speak up together to fight and win these protections," said Mario Cilento, president of the New York State AFL-CIO, in a statement released today.

"Workplace safety is at the very core of the labor movement," said Mary Sullivan, CSEA executive director, wearing purple at the podium in a sign of solidarity for the deceased. "When tragedy strikes, it is often due to negligence."

CSEA lost six union brothers just in the last two years, she said, and three of them were under the age of 30.

Bernice Rivera, a member of Professional Staff Association at NYSUT, read an impassioned American labor song written by Hamper Stamper, with the refrain of "We just come to work here. We don't come to die."

Staff singers sang "Solidarity Forever" to close the event, which was coordinated by NYSUT community liaison Paul Webster with the support of CWA staff Swinka Richards, and designed and decorated by Therese Swota, CWA.

In the Capital Region area, those who died on the job, include:

  • Dexter White, University at Albany, natural causes
  • Sean McCutcheon, Guilderland Highway Department, run over by refuse truck
  • Robert Fournier, forestry, hydraulic boom collapse
  • Edward Riley, BOCES, heart attack
  • Wilfredo Vasquez-Mancio, fall at construction site
  • John Murphy, crushed between a loading dock and a trailer
  • Yesenia Valle, BOCES, motor vehicle
  • Joseph Lemm and Louis Bonacasa, 105th Airlift Wing, National Guard, suicide bomber in Afghanistan

 

workers memorial day