Today is Workers’ Memorial Day

Today is Workers’ Memorial Day

- in Must Reads
Image courtesy AFL-CIO

Here’s why you should care and how you can participate

Today, April 28, is Workers’ Memorial Day. If this is a day of remembrance that doesn’t ring a bell for you, you are, sadly, not alone. Here in North Carolina, the government agency designated by the state constitution to protect workers has apparently never heard of it either.

This isn’t a mere rhetorical dig meant to score points; a search of the North Carolina Department of Labor’s (DOL) website does not produce a single mention of the day – zero, zip, nada, bupkis.

In contrast, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration dedicates an entire section of its website to the day. Here’s part of what it says:

Workers’ Memorial Day is observed every year on April 28. It is a day to honor those workers who have died on the job, to acknowledge the grievous suffering experienced by families and communities, and to recommit ourselves to the fight for safe and healthful workplaces for all workers. It is also the day OSHA was established in 1971.”

Of course, if North Carolina had somehow overcome the plague of workplace death and injury from which the need for Workers’ Memorial Day arose, the lack of a formal recognition by state officials might be somewhat understandable. Unfortunately, that is anything but the case. According to the latest data released by federal officials, 137 people died in our state doing their jobs in 2014. That’s one lost life every 2.7 days.

Fortunately, despite the lack of concern over worker deaths evidenced by the state DOL, many North Carolinians do care about this ongoing tragedy and will renew their commitment to combating it this morning in downtown Raleigh. The commemoration will take place at 10:15 on the Bicentennial Mall across from the Legislative Building on Jones Street. Click here for more information. Many attendees will be wearing black.

One of the groups participating in today’s event will be the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC). It was, of course, worker organizations like FLOC that helped prod government to enact workplace safety and enforcement laws in the first place. This past weekend, Raleigh’s News & Observer published a brief but excellent op-ed on the subject of worker health and safety by Sintia Castillo, a North Carolina farmworker and member organizer for FLOC. We offer it here in commemoration of this important day and as a reminder of the huge challenges that still confront vulnerable American workers in 2016.

Remember the farmworkers and others who died while working for a better life

By Sintia Castillo

I am a daughter of single farmworker mother. I began working in the fields when I was 8, selling food with my mom on the weekends and summers. When I turned 13, I started to work with my friends from middle school, picking crops like berries, tobacco, bell peppers, and tomatoes.

In the fields, no one cared that I was young or undocumented because it meant that they could pay me less. They paid me based on how much I picked- $2.50 for a bucket of blueberries sometimes earning me only $15 dollars for 10 hours of work. So I moved to the packing sheds to make the $7.25 minimum wage but conditions there turned out to be even worse, requiring 10 hours of work without breaks. Worse still, it was here that I realized the grower was stealing my wages. When I reported the wage theft to my boss, he retaliated and eventually fired me. I turned to the NC Department of Labor for help, but the first thing they asked for was something I didn’t have to give – a Social Security number.

Last year, I met a representative of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), through which farmworkers are working in union to change the agricultural industry. I realized that I was stuck in a system that marginalizes hard working and respectful people who have no choice but to work with what we’re given. Justice in the fields is not possible until we can monitor and report abuses ourselves without fear of retaliation. For this reason, FLOC has been fighting to win collective bargaining agreements designed by workers themselves that raise salaries, provide an accessible grievance procedure, and destroy the culture of fear that for centuries has kept farmworkers toiling in silent exploitation.

Farmworkers know well what needs to be changed to make the workplace safe and fair and how those changes can be implemented. By coming together in union, our voices are amplified and growers have to listen. There is strength in numbers, but there is power in union. When we come together, we can see the connections between fields and factories, between packing sheds and call centers, between working people everywhere who all want the chance to enjoy the fruits of our labor.

We invite you to join us this Workers’ Memorial Day, April 28th in Raleigh to remember the farmworkers and others who have died while working for a better life and to support our organizing to build worker power.

Sintia Castillo, FLOC, Mt. Olive, NC