Bill Knight - April 19
12:01 pm
Wed April 18, 2012

Earth Day & Workers Memorial Day

For organized labor: If the environment deteriorates, where will we work? For that matter, for environmentalists: If work is unsafe, how can society be sustained?

Single-issue activism can be focused, but it also can be ineffective, and this month that’s especially worth noting. April is when people commemorate both Earth Day and Workers Memorial Day, sensibly urging prevention as the best course against trouble – on global and personal scales.

 But instead of focusing exclusively on one cause – ecology or labor rights, say – involved citizens might mimic Chicago’s late Cardinal Joseph Bernandin, who embraced a “seamless garment” approach to issues of life, opposing not only abortion, but the death penalty, euthanasia and war.

 This Saturday, it’s expected that more than 1 billion people around the globe will participate in the 42nd annual Earth Day and “Mobilize the Earth,” as Earth Day Network says.

“People of all nationalities and backgrounds will voice their appreciation for the planet and demand its protection,” the organization adds. “Together we will stand united for a sustainable future and call upon individuals, organizations and governments to do their part.”

 People are encouraged to attend an Earth Day event and perhaps join with that group’s campaign to collect “A Billion Acts of Green” to elevate the importance of environmental issues around the planet.

 Events are scheduled throughout the area, including Chicago, St. Louis, Rantoul, Morris, Des Moines and Peoria – where the Green Party will take part in the local 8th Annual Earth Day Celebration from 11 a.m.- 4 p.m. Saturday at Forest Park Nature Center there. It promises to be an “opportunity to ‘think globally, act locally’,” say organizers say, who urge folks to check out booths, local resources, and learn what you can do to make a difference – plus enjoy local food, hands-on demonstrations, crafts and more.”

Days later will be Workers Memorial Day, with its tried-and-true slogan “Mourn for the dead, fight for the living.” Started in 1984 in Canada, Workers Memorial Day was adopted in 1989 in the United States. It’s usually marked on April 28, but because of schedule conflicts, the west-central Illinois commemoration will be at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, April 23, when people will gather at the Peoria Labor Temple, on NE Adams, and walk to the Workers Memorial Monument at City Hall a few blocks away.

Why? Every year more people are killed at work than in wars. In the United States, 4,500 Americans are expected to perish on the job this year, according to the AFL-CIO. Most don't die of mystery ailments, or in tragic "accidents” but because an employer decided safety wasn't a priority.

In Illinois, 158 workers died in 2009, the most recent year statistics are available. That’s 2.7 out of 100,000 workers; 3.5 of a mere 100 workers were injured or sickened due to their workplaces.

The AFL-CIO says, “Business groups and the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives are attacking [proposed] stronger measures, falsely claiming they kill jobs. They are pushing legislation to make it difficult, if not impossible, to issue needed safeguards to protect workers and the public.”

 The labor federation’s objectives are as simple as environmentalists’ goals of a clean and sustainable world, including: defending safety and health protections and workers’ rights from industry attacks, requiring employers to find and fix hazards and prevent injuries, illnesses and deaths, prohibiting employers from discouraging people reporting workplace injuries.

 Despite Republican claims that business is “over-regulated,” safety laws are rarely enforced, on the state or federal level. There are too few inspectors and too mild a punishment. The 77 inspectors assigned to oversee workplace safety and health in Illinois would need 94 years to inspect each workplace in the state once, according to the most recent AFL-CIO report, “Death on the Job.” The AFL-CIO Executive Council last month said, “Some employers, such as Massey Energy and BP, cut corners and flagrantly violate the law, putting workers in serious danger and costing lives.”

The penalty to an Illinois employer for a serious violation of OSHA was just $991 in FY 2010, the AFL-CIO noted. Criminal penalties are rare and only 84 workplace safety criminal cases have been prosecuted since 1970 (that’s 41 years, or about 2 per year).

“Voluntary compliance” exposes the myth of the benevolent market, which supposedly needs few, if any, regulations to operate. In reality, self-policing employers tend to relax adherence to the law, like at UCLA – where 23-year-old research assistant Sheri Shangji died in 2008 as a result of a fire in a lab that wasn’t safe. The university and a professor were arraigned on felony charges last month.

Prevention would have been preferable.

Bill Knight is a freelance writer who teaches at Western Illinois University. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of WIU or Tri States Public Radio.