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April 28, 2017

Workers Memorial Day 2017: Mourn the dead; fight for the living

Author: Leslie Duncan Fottrell
Source: NYSUT Communications
Workers Memorial Day

More than 100 unionists and other activists gathered in the lobby of NYSUT’s Albany-area headquarters today, in the famous words of Mother Jones, “Mourn for the dead; fight like hell for the living,” in commemoration of Workers Memorial Day.

NYSUT President Andy Pallotta welcomed union members, staff and guests on this solemn day: “Each and every day, when we come to work, we do what we can to make things better for not only union members but also for those that we serve. We share the burden. … each year, we come back and remember these lives that were lost.”

Kara Garbarino is an organizer for the Capital District Area Labor Federation. For her, unionism is a way of life; her father worked for the New York State AFL-CIO and her mother is a longtime union member.

“Being born into the labor movement, I was raised to fight for what I believe in,” Garbarino said. “Today, we take the time to remember all of them, those who have died and the millions who have been sickened or disabled because of their jobs. We must fight back. We simply cannot and will not let politicians and corporations put workers in danger, drive down wages and destroy our communities.”

“No one should give up living to make a living,” added Charles Harvey, a compliance, safety and health officer for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). He underscored the important work that OSHA does in helping to ensure compliance with safety standards in the workplace while offering free safety training to facilitate best practices in workplace safety.

However, “OSHA is a small agency with a massive responsibility,” Harvey said. Indeed, in New York, there are only seven OSHA offices for the entire state. But still, Harvey said, the agency would, “continue to fight with you all as partners to make sure all workers get to come home at the end of the work day.”

Unfortunately this may be harder than ever in the coming months. According to Maureen Cox, chairperson of the Northeast New York Coalition for Occupational Safety Health, this year there are proposals to reduce OSHA funding by 21 percent or $116 million dollars; funding for training grants would be cut.

“Safe worksites means fully funding OSHA. We need to tell Congress to say No to budget cuts that endanger or lives and limbs,” Cox said.

NYSUT staffers and members of the Professional Staff Association, Bernice Rivera and Matt Mahoney, recited a poignant poem entitled “The Plan” by Sue Waltz.

Then, in a moving tribute, came the laying of the flowers ceremony. For each of the 22 Capital District workers who lost their lives last year the name, occupation and manner of death was read aloud, while one volunteer walked forward to place a rose on a table. And 22 times, once after each flower placed, a bell was tolled in remembrance.

One person placing a flower was Trooper Brian J. Duncan of the New York State Police. “We were academy classmates and worked together for almost 30 years,” Duncan said of his friend, Tim Pratt. “His death was an unexpected shock. We still haven’t really recovered from his loss.”

Rev. Emily O’Neil, acting director of the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition, used scripture to “Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.” She asked attendees to commit to listening, to showing up and to advocating for one another in the fight for health, safety and justice.

In his closing remarks, Rev. Peter Cook, executive director of the New York State Council of Churches, recently spoke to lawmakers in Washington D.C.: “The budget is a moral document that says a lot about what we think of people. When we start cutting money that will protect workers, we are going against our faith.”

Paul Webster, NYSUT director of community outreach, served as master of ceremonies and thanked participating co-sponsors of the event including, CSEA, Capital District Area Labor Federation, Capital District Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Occupational & Environmental Health Center of Eastern New York, Northeastern New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, New York State Labor-Religion Coalition and New York State Council of Churches. In addition to Pallotta, Executive Vice President Jolene T. DiBrango and Secretary-Treasurer Martin Messner were in attendance.