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Labor Day Postscript


The Labor Day holiday has passed — for those who still have paid holidays. The Census Department just report that says 23% of private-sector employees don’t get paid holidays, and only 48% of those in service sector do.

For most newspapers and pundits, Labor Day is all about falling real wages, the loss of health insurance and pensions, creeping Wal-Martization of our pay and benefits, the flailing labor movement and the role of labor in the upcoming elections. You can find articles about almost anything you want to know about: Labor history (here, here and here), the Republican war against unions, all the good things that unions are doing, problems for entry level workers and how changes in the economy give workers nothing to celebrate. and on and on. But what you’ll have a hard time finding are stories about actual workers and what they do at work and the life and death struggles that many endure every day.

There have been a few notable exceptions, however. Chicago Tribune writers Steve Franklin and Darnell Little published a two-part series on "Throwaway Workers," about the hazards faced by immigrant workers in America and how they are neglected even after they’ve been hurt.

The problem in numbers:

While non-Latino workplace fatalities dropped 16 percent between 1992 and 2005, Latino workers’ deaths jumped 72 percent during the same time. Last year the fatality rate for Latinos was 4.9 per 100,000 workers, a rate unmatched by any other group.

The real stories are worse: 

Before the accident, he had warned the owner of the small Diversey Avenue dry cleaner that the pressing machine was old and dangerous. But his boss told him to forget about it and Mario, fearful of losing his job, didn’t say another word.

Then one day last winter the massive, steaming press collapsed on Mario’s left arm, melting the skin, mangling his fist and costing him a $5.70-an-hour job. There was no health insurance, no worker’s compensation benefit and no severance pay offered, Mario said.

"If you don’t have papers, you work eight or 10 hours a day, six days a week, and you don’t complain," said the muscular, middle-age illegal immigrant from Mexico.

Much of the furor over immigration reform has been about whether undocumented workers like Mario should be allowed to stay in the U.S. or made to leave. But beyond that debate lies an undeniable fact: They face disproportionate dangers on the job.

After they’re hurt, they’re often denied medical care and workers compensation. OSHA doesn’t have the resources to address the problem, and workers are reluctnat to complain anyway, because they fear being deported and they fear their workplace will be shut down.

And then we have the human byproducts of the current election year anti-immigrant hysteria:

When Antonio Cabrera, a 25-year-old Guatemalan, was badly injured in a Chicago construction accident, he was so petrified he hid instead of getting immediate help.

Eager for work and in debt $6,000 to the coyote who had smuggled him to Chicago, he took a painting job on the North Side last spring. The pay was about $7 an hour. Back home in rural Guatemala, where his wife and four children still live, he had earned $4 a day as a farmer.

It had started to snow, and he was the last of the painters to quit, suspended in a swing three stories above the ground. Usually, his team would use a back-up rope for safety, but this time, for some reason, he said there wasn’t one for him.

As he began to lower himself, the rope broke and Cabrera plummeted to the street, landing first on his left foot. Passersby called the police, but hearing the approaching sirens his colleagues panicked and hid him in a nearby car. A bone was sticking out of his foot, so they covered it over with a blanket.

When police arrived, he and his co-workers insisted he was OK and did not need any help. They feared being turned over to immigration officials. "I was afraid and they were afraid, too," he recalled.

Now let’s step back from the individual workers to look at the whole picture and one "labor" statistic that you don’t see mentioned on Labor Day. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last month that according to preliminary figures, 5,702 workers were killed in the workplace in 2005.

That was enough to send champagne corks a-popping over at the Department of Labor because that came to 62 fewer dead workers than in 2004. OSHA director Ed Foulke called it "positive news for our nation and all workers." Turns out it wasn’t quite so positive for the workers chronicled by the Chicago Tribune, however. Fatalities rose last year for Hispanic workers (in addition to African American and young workers.) And the number may not be that good for anyone else. These are preliminary numbers; the final fatality statistics aren’t due until April, and last April another 61 fatalities were added to the preliminary figures.

Finally, just to put all of this in perspective. Over the past five years, 5, 805 Americans were killed in the 9/11 attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq put together — just over 100 more than were killed in the workplace in 2005 alone.

And speaking of the war, Kathy Snyder of Mine Safety Watch tells the heartwrenching story of Corporal Ayron Kull, a Marine who survived two tours in Iraq, only to return home where he was killed on the job at a local sand and gravel operation. The crusher where he was working had no machine guard. As Kathy writes:

More than 5,000 Americans die on the job annually. Ayron Kull’s story is especially poignant in that he survived a war only to lose his life in earning a livelihood. On this Labor Day, after the hot dogs and apple pie and the 1938 recording of Kate Smith singing "The Star Spangled Banner" so clear and true and straight from the heart, it seems right to take a moment to remember Corporal Kull and the others like him.

I want to end with a cite that found its way into my Confined Space comment box today. It’s from Maya’s Granny and tells the story of her father’s death in 1948 and the difference unions have made in the work place. Her father had stepped on a nail and was given an out-of-date tetanus booster by the company doc in the company town. He went to work sick and died of tetanus, although the company tried to pass it off as "natural causes" — a cerebral hemorrhage:

When people hear this story, they can’t understand why on earth a man who was that sick would get up and try to go to work. Or how a company could own a town, control a physician in private practice. And the reason that they can’t understand it is labor unions. It is because of labor unions that when you and I are sick, we can stay home and our families don’t have to make due without that day’s income. In 1948 people didn’t get "paid for not working". There were no sick days. There was no health insurance. There was only the simple, stark reality of a day’s pay for a day’s work. It is only because of labor unions that towns in the United States are rarely owned so openly by corporations these days.

That’s how it was when Maya’s Granny was young. That’s how it still is for immigrant workers today. And that’s how it may be for the rest of us if labor unions die out in this country. Something to think about this Labor Day (+1).

Jordan Barab blogs at Confined Space

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Jordan Barab

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