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April 28, 2021

By Traci Young,

Labor Liaison to United Way Bay Area; Community Services Director, Contra Costa Labor Council AFL-CIO


Fifty years ago, on April 28th the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) went into effect, promising every worker the right to a safe job. The law was won in 1970 because of the tireless efforts of the labor movement and allies, who drew major attention to work-related deaths, disease, and injuries by organizing for safer working conditions and demanding action from the government. On April 28th 1989, thanks to the AFL-CIO, Workers’ Memorial Day was recognized.

Workers’ Memorial Day was created to honor the lives of workers that were tragically lost in the workplace. In 2021, workers still face many risks on the job, making the need for workers’ advocacy just as important today as it was with the creation of OSHA.

Even after the passage of OSHA fifty years ago, thousands of workers are killed and millions more suffer injury or illness because of our jobs. Far too many workers die from preventable hazards and many more get sick from exposure to toxic chemicals.

Knowing that the only way to have a safe workplace was by coming together, workers organized for change. Decades of evidence shows that unionized workplaces are safer workplaces.

Labor and United Way Bay Area (UWBA) have worked together in winning protections that have made jobs safer and saved lives. There is much work to be done before the promise of keeping all workers safe on the job during the pandemic and beyond, can be fulfilled. Throughout the pandemic, union allies like UWBA have worked on direct relief work, tenant protections, hazard pay, along with PPE and vaccine distributions to make sure all workers had a level of security throughout the crisis. 

While COVID-19 exposed basic inequities, we know these inequities existed for far too many, long before the virus. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the weaknesses in OSHA’s capabilities to ensure workers are protected on the job and in structural failures that have prevented workers from organizing in their workplaces to demand safer working conditions. 

The pandemic also highlighted the inextricable link between workplace safety and health, and the safety and health of the community. Public health cannot begin to be addressed without attending to the needs and safety of workers on the job. The disproportionate impacts on people of color, widely represented in the essential workforce—health care, food supply, transit, grocery, corrections—has been devastating. Real public health reforms need to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic while dismantling the racism embedded within the system that exacerbates the loss of workers’ lives and safety. 

Racial disparities are apparent in the impact of COVID‐19 in the United States and data has shown a correlation between the prevalence of COVID‐19 deaths and occupational differences across racial/ethnic groups and states. Although many states implemented stay‐at‐home orders to contain COVID‐19’s rapid spread, many individuals employed by “essential” businesses were unable to remain at home, further highlighting the impacts of systemic and racial inequalities. Adding to the crisis, vaccine distribution and some hesitancy in communities of color as a result of historic mistreatment from the medical community, are further contributing to health inequities. 

Throughout the country, working people of all backgrounds are organizing and winning. We will continue to mobilize to demand reforms that uplift our standards and our rights. Our nation’s working families cannot wait any longer. 

This May Day, we renew our call for the administration to provide concrete protections to brave workers who take a stand to demand fair treatment at work. This can only happen with the passage of the PRO Act, which would give working people an opportunity to stand together for lasting change at their jobs. Unions can change lives and create the generational wealth that can lift communities out of poverty. 

There is much more we need to do to ensure that all people can work safely and with dignity, which is why we are fighting today for our right to join together and demand changes to an inequitable system. 

On April 28, 2021, the unions of the AFL-CIO will observe Workers’ Memorial Day to remember those who have suffered and died on the job, and to renew the fight for safe jobs. We will come together to call for action to protect workers from COVID-19 at work, advocate for stronger job safety, health protections and enforcement, and to pass the PRO Act so that workers have the right to form a union and have a voice on the job.