TEXAS CITY, Texas — A Workers Memorial Day ceremony here at the Steelworkers/PACE union hall paid tribute to 67 union members killed on the job this year and the many other victims of workplace accidents and illnesses. The event was just one of scores of similar events around the country.
Texas City is the site of the British Petroleum refinery where a March 23 explosion killed 15 workers and injured another 100. The 15 were among 2,200 nonunion contract employees on site. The increasing number of poorly trained nonunion workers puts union employees and the community at risk for similar disasters.
Texas City is also where an explosion aboard a ship in 1947 resulted in the largest number of casualties recorded in a U.S. industrial accident. The intensity of the blasts and ensuing confusion had such an impact that no one was able to establish the number of dead and injured. The official count was 405 identified and 63 unidentified dead. Another 100 persons were classified as “believed missing” because no trace of their remains was ever found.
Estimates of the injured are less precise but appear to have been around 3,500 — with the total equal to one-fourth of the city’s population at that time.
Jim Panell, PACE/USWA executive vice-president, noted that 7,000 people were killed on the job last year. He compared that to the almost 3,000 killed in the 9/11 tragedy. Although there was rightly great outrage for those events, there is no outcry for dead workers except from union members. Multinational corporations, Panell said, “continue to do business and do it at our peril.”
Workers Memorial Day was established in 1989 to “help us remember those who died and suffered on the job,” Panell said. He urged continued struggle for safe jobs and to keeping pressure on the multinational corporations, “whose only real loss is a few thousand dollars [in fines] for every worker maimed or killed.”
Paula Littles, director of human resources for the Texas AFL-CIO, noted that recent judicial actions in the state — including the rollback of the right of injured workers to sue a subcontractor — would lead to less accountability and unsafe workplace practices.
Meanwhile, in Austin, state Reps. Craig Eiland of Texas City and Jesse Jones of Dallas joined the Texas AFL-CIO and the public interest group, Texas Watch, to commemorate those who have died on the job. Texas AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Becky Moeller called for the creation of a state OSHA and a return to a strong worker safety component to the state’s regulation of workers’ compensation.
Ironically and tragically, on Workers Memorial Day, a worker at a Galveston construction site died when a crane collapsed on top of him.
Jim Lane contributed to this article.