If you have never heard of Workers Memorial Day, you are not alone. I had never heard of it either until last week. That was when I read the story in The Post and Courier about Tina and David Williamson, who lost their 18-year-old son Matthew six years ago in an accident at Detyens Shipyard in North Charleston.
“I felt like my son had been murdered because of the way he had been taken from me,” Tina Williamson said in that story. Last week, she organized a candlelight vigil in Summerville for the friends and loved ones of workers who have died on the job.
The day of the vigil was April 28, Workers Memorial Day. The date was chosen because it is the anniversary of 1971’s Occupational Safety and Health Act. The first Workers Memorial Day was observed in 1989. Every year, people in hundreds of communities and workplaces around the country recognize those workers who are killed or injured on the job. The day is recognized by national governments in scores of countries, including the U.S., and a number of states. It is observed by trade unions around the world. In 2001, the United Nations recognized Workers Memorial Day, declaring it World Day for Safety and Health at Work.
Of course, few in the Palmetto State have ever heard of Workers Memorial Day. After all, this state has had a long and ugly relationship with its workforce. You probably have heard of South Carolina’s first workers. They were called slaves — and you know how that ended. Things didn’t get much better for workers after the Civil War. Any attempt to organize or create unions or cooperative stores was met in much the same way as slave rebellions of the past — by police, militia, mob violence, or some combination of the three.
State and municipal governments and law enforcement were universally allied with employers to maintain order and keep dissidents out. Events came to a tragic head in Honea Path during the Great Textile Strike of 1934, when a specially deputized mob of 125 men fired on striking workers in front of Chiquola Mill. Seven workers were killed, and some 30 injured. Dan Beacham, the man who deputized the gunmen, was the mayor of Honea Path and the superintendent of Chiquola Mill.
In recent weeks, Gov. Nikki Haley’s anti-union rhetoric prompted a lawsuit by the AFL-CIO and the National Labor Relations Board. Two weeks ago, Haley, Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., Sen. Lindsey Graham, and other politicos stood shoulder-to-shoulder at a press conference in North Charleston to declare that they intended to keep unions out of the new Boeing plant under construction in North Charleston and to keep South Carolina a right-to-work state.
This is the history of labor in South Carolina. Less than 5 percent of this state’s workforce is organized, and powerful forces are working to reduce that number. So it is not surprising that Workers Memorial Day has never gotten much ink here. But that very fact demonstrates how much we need strong unions in South Carolina and throughout the nation.
In 2009 (the latest figures available), 4,340 workers were killed on the job in the U.S., an average of 12 workers a day. An estimated 50,000 died of occupational diseases. More than 4.1 million workplace injuries and illnesses were reported in private, state, and municipal workplaces, according to the AFL-CIO.
Last year’s string of major workplace tragedies demonstrates the need for stronger safety and health rules, coupled with tougher enforcement. Those disasters included the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, which killed 29 miners in West Virginia; an explosion at the Kleen Energy plant in Middletown, Conn., which killed six workers; another at the Tesoro Refinery in Washington state, which killed seven workers; and the BP/Deepwater Horizon Gulf Coast oil rig explosion, which killed 11 and caused a massive environmental and economic disaster.
In South Carolina, attempts to have the governor or General Assembly recognize Workers Memorial Day have failed. No effort was made this year. But the fact is that union workers get better training, which makes them safer workers, and most union workers take advantage of OSHA classes that unions provide at no cost, says Erin McKee, president of the Greater Charleston Labor Council. And with a union contract they are not afraid to speak out as nonunion workers are.
Those who work with their hands have never been respected in this state. Just as it is popular to deny the role of slavery in launching the Civil War, so it is also popular in wide circles to deny the role of labor in building our state and our nation. And even though dozens of these workers die each year, the people who run our state government and economy deny them a day of recognition.