Secretary Treasurer, WA State Labor Council, AFL-CIO
Thank you for the introduction, Yasmin. And good afternoon everyone, it’s an honor to speak with you all today. Thank you for joining us, and thank you to the organizers for an opportunity to commemorate the sacrifices of working people together.
This year, Workers Memorial Day is a bit different than in previous years. We are not gathered together in person at union halls, government buildings, worksites or memorials, but we are gathered together as a community to remember our sisters, brothers, family and friends who have lost their lives, and to fight for safe workplaces and good jobs for all workers.
At the forefront of this Workers Memorial Day is the COVID-19 pandemic—a major crisis for working people, our families, our country and the world. Each of our communities is struggling in different ways, but it is more important now than ever for the labor movement to commemorate those we have lost on the job, renew our fight for stronger safety and health protections, and highlight the need to speak up for workers’ rights.
It’s been 50 years since the job safety laws were enacted in this country. Since then we’ve made great progress in making workplaces safer and protecting workers. Still, too many workers are being killed and injured on the job.
In the labor movement, Dorothy Day’s famous quote is often used to memorialize fallen workers; “Mourn for the dead, fight like hell for the living.” These words hold both a particular poignancy for us this year and an urgent call to action that can’t be ignored.
Fighting like hell is a foundational practice in the labor movement. Here at the WSLC, we represent over a half a million working people across this state, but we fight on behalf of all workers, organized or not.
And when we consider what that fight looks like moving forward, we have to look at the emerging needs of workers and the safety of their families and communities during a global pandemic.
Many folks who don’t often consider labor issues are coming to a collective consciousness during this crisis, recognizing the systemic devaluing of essential work and the inequities working people face.
And many of us know there were built-in systemic problems threatening workers’ safety long before this pandemic. But now more than ever, it’s impossible to ignore that those performing the work that the system often deems unimportant and unskilled are now recognized as essential workers, hailed as heroes for doing the work that every single one of us relies on.
Make no mistake, grocery clerks, sanitation workers, nurses, farmworkers, delivery workers, warehouse workers, EMTs, janitors, environmental services workers, and other essential workers are showing tremendous courage every day when they show up for work. They deserve our thanks and praise.
But these workers deserve far more than a recognition of their bravery. To start, they deserve the dignity, respect, and safety on the job that all working people deserve, yet is too often denied.
Moreover, in recognition of the risk essential workers face in a pandemic, they also deserve hazard pay for their work, sufficient PPE, protection from retaliation for keeping employers accountable, the ability to protect their health, enforceable legal protections, and the unwavering support of policymakers.
And we need to be clear about who is doing much of this hazardous work. Black folks, Indigenous folks, and people of color are disproportionately at risk, overrepresented in the essential jobs society relies on to weather a pandemic. One in three jobs held by women have been deemed essential, and women of color are more likely than anyone else to be doing essential work right now, all while making, on average, no more than 62 cents to every dollar a white man makes.
And as we come together to demand protections for these workers.
The labor community is calling on UW Leadership and public officials to do their part to protect their workers, patients, and the public during this covid 19 crises by:
Installing plexiglass barriers in public facing areas
Providing proper PPE to all front-line workers
Notifying employees when they have been exposed to covid 19
These workers deserve these protections and we all have to do our part to flatten the curve.
Ensuring workplace safety requires us to advocate for working peoples’ needs broadly - looking at the many intersections of working people’s lives on and off the job. The labor movement is taking action to protect the health and safety of working people and their families right now in this crisis, and for the long-term.
Right now, we’re advocating for the support working people need. We are working to protect front line essential workers and fighting for economic relief for those who are out of work.
We’re working with local and state officials to ensure needed policy changes are implemented. We’re talking expansion in eligibility for unemployment insurance, both for folks who’ve lost their jobs and for those who are at an increased risk – so they can protect their health without risking their financial security.
And right now, more working people are eligible for benefits, like rideshare drivers and independent contractors, and the length of eligibility for benefits has increased.
We’ve advocated for changes to the workers’ comp rules, eliminating the increases in employer’s industrial insurance premiums, and thereby removing the financial incentive for employers to discourage employees filing claims. Labor advocated for a mechanism for workers to report violations of COVID-19 workplace safety standards, and job security protections for high-risk workers unable to work without jeopardizing their health. These are essential policy changes.
But There is much more for us to do. There are more than 250,000 undocumented immigrants living in Washington, all of whom are ineligible for federal assistance, or state assistance through unemployment, even though undocumented workers and their families pay more than $300 million in state and local tax annually. Undocumented workers are overrepresented in industries that have been decimated by job loss, like hospitality and construction, and in industries exempt from certain worker protections or notorious for violating labor law.
These workers need access to institutional support now, and we need a permanent system of wage protection for undocumented workers, who are otherwise vulnerable to predatory employers and unsafe workplaces. We need state policies that strengthen labor protections, create meaningful enforcement measures, and allow working people to hold employers accountable without fear due to immigration status.
This crisis is illuminating significant gaps in worker protections, made worse by the current Federal administration’s rollback of decades-old worker protection policies, along with kneecapping the regulatory authority of agencies tasked with ensuring worker safety, like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
There are significant gaps in health care access, and working people face steep challenges when injured or ill. And as more and more workers lose their jobs, the serious issues of tying healthcare to employment are even more clear.
Long-term, we need to build the political will to fight for working people. The policies made now and in the coming years will guide how we’re able to respond to the long-reaching consequences of this pandemic, and what tools will be at our disposal in the next crisis. We need federal and state leadership that will prioritize working people; we need to elect labor champions wherever possible.
And we need to expand collective bargaining rights to more working people. It is painfully clear the difference a union makes, as we’re seeing in factories and grocery stores all across the state- where unrepresented workers are being exposed to dangerous working conditions by employers who are prioritizing profit over the health and safety of their employees.
We have a tremendous challenge ahead of us, but we also have an opportunity to address the systemic inequities and bad actors that have threatened working peoples’ safety long before this pandemic.
We all have a part to play.
If you can vote, vote with working people.
If you can support struggling workers, do so. I
If your workplace isn’t organized, get in touch with a union in your industry (reach out, I’ll hook you up).
I know this moment feels daunting for many of us. We’re shedding the comfort of certainty and attempting to embrace the unknown. the And the circumstances we’re living in can lead us to feel isolated from one another, as though each of us faces an uncertain future alone. But we are not alone. We are part of communities, communities with interlocking, interdependent needs. And all of these communities are supported by frontline workers. These workers need us to fight like hell for them. The best way we can honor fallen workers is to heed the call.