Milwaukee County Labor Council AFL-CIO

October 23, 2014

In The News

Moore, Chisholm, USW signal fresh significance of Workers Memorial Day

By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
Posted April 24. 2012


Co-workers at his union (United Steel Workers) saw giant mining parts crush Jeff Smith to death before their eyes last September at Bucyrus (now Caterpillar) where Smith, 30, had worked as a material handler since 2008.

USW members will remember Jeff as part of the annual Workers Memorial Day ceremonies at noon Saturday, April 28.

Also speaking at Zeidler Union Square Park between 3rd and 4th on Michigan St. will be US Rep. Gwen Moore and Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm, who has continued his office’s concern about negligence and safety conditions at workplaces (the federal OSHA is also regularly called in to all incidents).

Chisholm and Mooore are officials much in the news of late as she has attacked Gov. Walker's quiet reverasal of state participation in equal pay recourse for women and his legislature's reduction in women's health care.

Chicholm, resisting calls from all sides to play politics, just proceeds as a prosecutor to investigate corruption in Walker's county administration in a John Doe probe that has already charged several of Walker's personal hires and led the governor to hire his own criminal legal team (the only governor in the nation to need a criminal legal defense fund).

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele has also agreed to attend and union musicians will provide "Taps" echoing across the park at the end of the roll call of the fallen.

Various other dignitaries as well as regular workers expect to attend because this year the national day set aside to remember workers who died on the job falls on a weekend, April 28. So the Milwaukee Area Labor Council, which sponsors the event and created though a commission from Milwaukee County the nation's only dedicated park memorial, has moved activities up to noon to accommodate the higher interst.

Smith’s death at the Bucyrus plant is still fresh in the minds of his USW colleagues. He was a popular lively member, a fitness buff who played lead guitar in local bands. Leaders of his USW Local 1343 were on the scene of the tragedy within minutes. Reports indicate the details are still being investigated but that the company has already changed procdures after his death.

Normally, the big parts involved in mining equipment are handled by special machinery, but those machines were in use that day, colleagues say, so the plant had reverted to a manual technique involving two cranes to handle the weight. Smith was reaching underneath to undo a chain when the weight shifted and fell on him, witnesses say. Caterpillar has since changed the system involved, but the accident was yet another reminder of how dangers always lurk within these intense jobs and complicated handling processes, so safety procedures must be constantly re-evaluated and both companies and workers must constantly be on guard.

Both Wisconsin workers and Wisconsin military members who died on the job in 2011 will be included in lists read by union veterans and members of WisCOSH (Wisconsin Committee on Occupational Safety and Health) while union musicians resonate “Taps” across the park.

The morning before the ceremony, at 10 a.m., WisCOSH is planning a lavish breakfast-brunch as a benefit at nearby Postal Workers Union Hall, 417 N. 3rd St. Details are being worked out. Contact James Schultz at exec_dir@wiscosh.org or (414) 933-2338.

All this accompanies new interest in the memorial itself, where the central gazebo is decorated with workers’ tools, where the walks are dotted with chains and placards of notable labor sayings. The whole concept, tranquil and functional without interfering with regular park life, has been visible to Milwaukee pedestrians since 1995 and was designed by landscape artist Mary Zebell and now nationally known tapestry artist Terese Agnew to honor workers killed on the job.

Agnew is one of four artists featured on PBS nationally May 11 in a new episode of “Crafts in America,” including Milwaukee interviews at Zeidler Park.

Since the memorial was always designed not to interfere with normal park activities, over the years other events have become regular – a farmer’s market, holiday decorations, staging areas for parades and May Day rallies. Inevitably the memorial has suffered some abuse and respect seemed to erode, much to the annoyance of the labor council, which took its concerns to the county and the downtown commerece association responsible for holiday lighting displays – and frankly, the appearance of the park was also upsetting to the PBS film crew and Agnew when they visited the park for filming.

Now some steps have been taken to restore dignity and attention to the nation’s only park that honors fallen workers. The AFL-CIO sponsors Workers Memorial activities in many parts of the country on April 28, but nothing like this.

Tributes to workers who died on the job have created slogans and ribbons – Mourn for the Dead, Fight for the Living – because the problem has national consequences. In 2010, 203 workers died in Illinois, 107 in Missouri and 4,547 nationwide (though Wisconsin figures because of privacy issues are now harder to validate). That works out to 3.5 deaths per 100,000 workers according to conservative statistics.

OSHA continues its efforts to cut deaths and injuries and has had some success over 42 years despite the low fines it can impose on chronic violators, lack of professional staff, employer resistance and intimidation of workers into refusal to report job-related injuries and illnesses.

But even limited safety gains are threatened by budget issues. “OSHA’s capacity to oversee workplaces is woefully inadequate,” said Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO’s veteran Occupational Safety and Health chief, in reports to Congress.

For instance, in fiscal 2009, “OSHA conducted 30,057 workplace inspections and had the capacity to inspect workplaces under its jurisdiction approximately once every 137 years,” the OSHA report relates. Under the Obama administration, the number has since risen to approximately 36,000 inspections yearly.

But “OSHA must target and leverage its enforcement resources to have the maximum effect,” Seminario added, pushing further efforts to “provide more meaningful penalties.” OSHA can only do so much, she says, when “penalty provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act are far weaker than most other safety and environmental laws and fail to provide an adequate deterrence.”

“With election of a Republican majority in the House in 2010, progress in safety and health is threatened,” the AFL-CIO said in its 2011 Death On The Job report. (The 2012 edition is due on Workers Memorial Day, with that warning likely to be repeated.)

“Business groups and Republicans are trying to block new regulations and have targeted key OSHA and MSHA (Mine Safety and Health Administration) rules. Attempts already have been made to slash OSHA’s budget, with proposed cuts that would decimate OSHA’s already inadequate enforcement.”

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