Unions say workplaces more dangerous under Bush

Report scores on-the-job fatalities

CROCKETT, Calif. — How much is a human life worth? If that life was claimed by one of the nearly 6,000 U.S. workplace fatalities in 2006, the answer is just $10,133.

In its updated annual report, Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect, released on the eve of April 28 Workers Memorial Day commemorations, the AFL-CIO says that’s the average penalty in fatality investigations.

Calling $10,000 for a worker’s life “an outrage,” AFL-CIO President John Sweeney warned that American workplaces “have gotten more dangerous, not safer, under President Bush.” Saying “America’s workers simply can’t afford another four years of Bush administration-style cuts, rollbacks and opposition to new safety protections,” Sweeney called on Congress and the next president to “take real action” to strengthen the Occupational Safety and Health Act, to boost funding for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, fully implement mine safety laws and address the growing risks faced by Latino and immigrant workers.

The AFL-CIO said there were 5,840 workplace deaths in 2006, an increase of 106 over 2005. On an average day, 153 workers lose their lives from workplace injuries or disease, and another 11,233 are injured.

A key finding is the marked rise in fatalities among Latino and immigrant workers. In 2006 fatalities among Latino workers grew by 7 percent over the previous year, and were 25 percent higher than fatalities among all workers.

The national labor federation said more than 10,000 memorial services, rallies and marches were expected to mark the annual observance of Workers Memorial Day in the

United States. Commemorations are international, too: the International Labor Organization calls April 28 “World Day for Safety and Health at Work.”

As he prepared to address a rally at the Alfred Zampa Memorial Bridge on April 26, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, called the Bush administration “criminally negligent” in enforcing safety laws for workers and their families. “It’s urgent to put good people in charge of the national Occupational Safety and Health Administration and fund it adequately,” Miller told the World. “We need to put a stop to the idea that worker safety can be accomplished through voluntary actions of employers. These help, but they are far from enough.”

From the platform, Miller said recent tragedies like those at the British Petroleum refinery in Houston, the Imperial Sugar plant in Savannah, Ga. and the mines in West Virginia and Utah are “no accident.” House Democrats can pass stronger laws, he said, but it is also vital to win back the White House, strengthen Democratic control of Congress and win a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

California Labor Federation head Art Pulaski said some 500 California workers were killed on the job in 2006, and another 470,000 were seriously hurt

or made sick. “Governor Schwarzenegger has been slashing California’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is responsible to protect our workers in California,” he said. With just 236 inspectors for the state’s 1.5 million work sites, Pulaski said it would take 133 years for them to check each site just once.

The November elections’ importance for worker safety and health, including the abysmal track record of Republican presidential candidate John McCain, was a theme at the early morning event.

Under the current six-year contract, 12 longshore workers have been killed on the job, International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10 business agent Trent Willis said, adding, “I’ve had to watch senseless deaths that could have been avoided.” The ILWU is making safety a prime issue in negotiations now underway for a new contract.

Manuel Rivas, a 20-year truck driver at the Port of Oakland, urged the port to follow the lead of Los Angeles, which recently passed a requirement that trucking firms hire their drivers as employees and maintain a clean truck fleet. Rivas, an “independent contractor” like most Oakland port drivers, gave a moving account of his struggles to maintain an old truck, buy fuel, pay license fees and taxes, and raise his family on low wages and no benefits.

In Pittsburgh, workers and supporters braved a cold rain to hear AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Rich Trumka highlight the urgency of the November elections. Participants dedicated a plaque to pioneering health and safety activist Crystal Eastman, whose work a century ago became inspiration for the modern OSHA.

In Silver Spring, Md., a ground-breaking ceremony was held for a permanent Workers Memorial at the National Labor College/George Meany Center. The memorial, to be built with union and individual donations, will feature bricks honoring individual workers who died on the job, and benches honoring groups of workers.

To read the AFL-CIO’s report, Death on the Job, go to www.aflcio.org/issues/safety/

memorial/.

mbechtel@pww.org. Denise Winebrenner Edwards and Mark Gruenberg contributed to this article.