Lt. Gov. Sara Rodriguez and Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson on Friday were among those who spoke at a Workers’ Memorial Day event at Zeidler Union Square in downtown Milwaukee.
More than 60 people gathered to commemorate workers who died on the job. Labor organizers such as the Milwaukee Area Labor Council and elected officials spoke about strengthening employee protections on Wisconsin. Worker’s Memorial Day, which was celebrated on April 28, marks the anniversary of the Occupational Safety and Health Act which passed 50 years ago, according to the AFL-CIO.
Rodriguez said many workplace safety regulations are in place today due to a strong union presence. She referred to lawmakers in 11 states who introduced or passed bills to roll back child labor laws.
The Lieutenant Governor’s statement was just days before Republican lawmakers in Madison introduced a measure allowing fourteen-year-olds in Wisconsin to serve alcohol to seated customers in bars and restaurants. If the bill passes, Wisconsin would have the lowest age limit for workers allowed to serve alcohol in the nation, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism .
Back in Milwaukee, Rodriguez said Friday, “We need to keep talking about this. You heard about those child labor laws. We do not want to go backwards on safety within the workplace. That’s why we need unions, that’s why you are all here today.” She added Gov. Tony Evers’ administration wanted to make it easier to organize in Wisconsin.
Johnson said safety was the responsibility of every resident and said it was critical for people from marginalized communities.
“It’s important for all of us to know this: Each of us has a responsibility to those who are around us. We are all responsible for public safety and the safety generally of those folks around us, and that includes the safety of workers not just in Milwaukee, but across Wisconsin and other communities and states across this entire country. It’s especially important for workers who come from disadvantaged communities, because those are the ones less likely to have the power to make the changes to protect themselves in the workplace,” Johnson noted.
While she worked outside of unions, Milwaukee County District Supervisor Felesia Martin said she recognized her work benefits came from unions. She added the board knew Milwaukee County was strong because of union work.
“Every single opportunity I’ve had in my life is due to unions. I’ve always been on the other side, but I respect and am so thankful and grateful for a 40-hour workweek, overtime, paid vacation and sick time. All of that is due to hard, hard labor. I don’t go without a day without understanding and recognizing that,” Felesia said. The County Supervisor presented a plaque recognizing the labor movement.
In a statement, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin noted there was “more work to do” for labor protections in the U.S., as 105 Wisconsinites had died of fatal workplace injuries in 2021.
“Every Wisconsinite should have the security to be safe at work and will come home to their loved ones healthy. We’ve made great progress to protect workers, but we have more work to do. More than 5,000 workers tragically died on the job in 2021 in the U.S., including 105 Wisconsinites. An estimated 120,000 more passed away due to work-related diseases. These are fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, friends, neighbors and community members. On Workers’ Memorial Day, I stand with labor to recognize and honor the victims of workplace-related injuries, illness and death. I know unions play a critical role in protecting the rights and interests of workers by providing a collective voice to fight for better wages, benefits and working conditions,” Baldwin said in a statement.
Union officials read off the names of 65 Wisconsinites who had died because of fatal workplace injuries in 2022. It wasn’t a definitive list, and some deaths were recorded without names, James Schultz of the Wisconsin Committee on Occupational Safety and Health said at the event. The list was twice as long when Schultz started compiling them 20 years ago, he added.
At the end of the ceremony, a member of the Local 8, American Federation of Musicians played the song “Taps” on a trumpet.
There are 14 site inspectors in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Milwaukee Area Office, OSHA official Allen Grisar said at a meeting before the ceremony. Grisar added there are around 40 compliance offices in the state of Wisconsin.
A total of 5,190 workplace deaths in all job sectors in 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of those deaths, 105 Wisconsinites died on the job that year, according to the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO.
An overwhelming number of Black and Latino workers had died from fatal workplace injuries for several reasons, including over representation in dangerous industries, which lack safe working conditions and have low rates of union membership, national AFL-CIO Safety and Health Specialist MK Fletcher told The Daily Reporter.
“Workers of color are overrepresented in industries that are more likely to have dangerous or precarious jobs. Many of those same industries also lack safe working conditions and have low rates of union membership so employees do not have a say on the safety protocols in their workplaces. Employers also often rely on staffing agencies to hire temporary workers who are assigned to dangerous tasks with little to no training and do not have the same protections or benefits as full-time workers. This creates an environment where neither the employer or the staffing agency are accountable for ensuring a safe workplace,” Fletcher said.
Of the Latino workers who died on the job in 2021, 64% were born outside the U.S., Fletcher added. Immigrants are often “more vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and discrimination due to their status,” and immigration status is also a significant factor behind worker deaths, Fletcher noted.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.