Members of local workers’ unions and labor allies, including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, United Auto Workers, the A. Phillip Randolph Institute, MICAH, the Memphis and West Tennessee AFL-CIO Central Labor Council and the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, gathered on April 28 for Workers Memorial Day. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

Last week, union members stood before the IBEW union hall in honor of Workers Memorial Day and shared the findings of an AFL-CIO report on worker safety. 

The national study found that in 2020, more than 4,700 workers lost their lives from job-related injuries. It found that Latinx and Black workers face the greatest risk of dying on the job compared to workers as a whole. The Latinx rate was 4.5 per 100,000 workers, a 15% increase over the last 10 years. The Black worker rate was 3.5 per 100,000 workers. Older workers are at high risk, too, the study said, with more than a third of workplace fatalities occurring among workers 55 and older. 

In 2020, more than 5,000 Black workers died from traumatic injuries, a number that excludes COVID-19 or chronic illnesses.

Tennessee isn’t among the states with the highest fatality rates in 2020. But the state’s top employer, transportation and warehousing, is among the industries with the highest fatality rates in 2020, with 13.4 per 100,000 workers. We reported on one of the local deaths; there was another in February and another just yesterday.

The report notes the dearth of Occupational Safety and Health Act inspectors — there are only 1,719 to inspect 10.4 million workplaces or one for every 81,427 workers. And OSHA penalties are weak, it says. The average penalty for a serious violation was $4,660 for federal OSHA in fiscal year 2021. On the state level, it’s $2,421. Just 115 worker death cases have been criminally prosecuted under OSHA since 1970. 

There’s also information in the report about workplace violence, which has no federal OSHA standard to protect workers. Workplace violence deaths increased to 705 in 2020; it’s the fourth-leading cause of workplace death overall and the second-leading cause for women. There’s no statistic that can measure the toll these incidents can take on workers. 

Yesterday was another day set aside to consider the lives of workers. 

International Workers’ Day, known, too, as May Day, was birthed in 1886, when 300,000 workers at 13,000 businesses across the country held a general strike demanding an eight-hour day. 

It worked to some extent. But those in power know how to regroup. That’s why here we are, more than 130 years later, and workers are still fighting for sensible working hours. 

I think about the Kellogg’s strikers who management said were well paid, some making six figures, and how the workers admitted that was true but pointed to the mandatory overtime and seven days of work, week after week. For one worker, the strike was a relief; he could see his family for a change. 

What workers want is a livable wage and a livable schedule at the same time. 

These goals of safety and reasonable hours are connected, of course. A safer workplace is closer to achievable where workers aren’t exhausted from a double shift or a second or third job. 

The staff at MLK50 isn’t in the same position as the workers we cover. But our founder Wendi C. Thomas often says that we are trying to create the place we’ve always wanted to work. It’s not easy. It takes pushing past our ideas of what we’ve known work to be, the messages we’ve been told about productivity and dedication. We’re unlearning as much as we’re learning.

We’ll keep trying and we’ll keep writing stories about hard-working Memphians. What we know for sure is that a safe job with a livable wage shouldn’t be a privilege. 

Adrienne Johnson Martin is executive editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at adrienne.martin@mlk50.com



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