Rudy Gonzalez, headshot

By the time you read this, Workers’ Memorial Day, observed annually on April 28, will already be in the rear-view — but it shouldn’t be.

Why not? Because as a day of remembrance for those who have died or suffered injuries while on the job, Workers’ Memorial Day provides particularly nourishing food for thought for building and construction trades workers from the moment they step onto a jobsite to the moment they step off.

Workers’ Memorial Day is important for all workers, but it’s especially important for those who work in our sector, which is known for being one of the most dangerous lines of work in the United States. According to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), there were 1,102 construction worker deaths nationwide in 2020.

That means on average, three construction workers died every single day that year. Imagine losing three of your building trades brothers, sisters, and siblings each day of the work week. It wouldn’t be long before there was no one left on the jobsite.

Unlike work in most other segments of the economy, mistakes in the construction industry can almost instantaneously lead to bodily harm, mutilation, and death. According to OSHA, the leading causes of construction deaths were falls, being struck by objects, electrocutions, and caught-in-between incidents. Looking at that list, one sees preventable accidents that could have been avoided with proper safety measures in place.

Here’s the good news: Our jobsites are safer. But the ugly truth for most builders is that the vast majority of U.S. construction jobsites are non-union and unsafe. Thanks to corner-cutting contractors and a lack of proactive safety-standards enforcement from government inspectors, these jobsites are especially exploitive, often egregiously so. On the rare occasion when a non-union contractor gets busted for a safety violation, the fine is simply absorbed into the cost of doing business and those in danger are sent back out to work.

Conversely, our union contractors spend a lot of money on safety training and programs that this council and your local’s business reps negotiate. It’s part of the union difference, and we’re fortunate to work in relative safety as a result.

But this is no excuse to get complacent. While we’re a lot better off working union construction, problem contractors are still out there, and accidents do happen. For us, safety should always be top-of-mind on any jobsite.

This is about more than just fostering our own culture of safety, though. Equally important to protecting ourselves is that we work to organize the unorganized so that they, too, can have a voice on the job. Workers’ Memorial Day reminds us of the never-ending need to speak out and stand up for labor. It’s our job to remind people of the dignity of what we all do for a living, whether we’re unionized or not.

After all, we’re human beings. When any worker loses life or limb on the job, it affects not only the worker but also their loved ones — and often deeply. The ripple effects are very real.

In our own fight for safety on the job, one particular historical figure we can look to for guidance is Mary Harris Jones. Mother Jones, as she was known, was a union organizer who fought hard for workers’ rights in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She was famous (or infamous, to some) for her fiery speeches and her commitment to improving working conditions for all workers. One of her best-known quotes is “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”

Here’s something else she said when reflecting on labor power: “The workers of the nation were tired of waiting for corporate industry to right their economic wrongs, to alleviate their social agony, to grant them their political rights. Despairing of fair treatment, they resolved to do something for themselves.”

Too many have died doing the same work we do every day. Too many have died for our right to be union. Too many continue to die as bosses sit and profit.

It doesn’t need to be this way. But changing it is up to us.

Let’s redouble our efforts to look out for ourselves and one another on the jobsite, and let’s enthusiastically advocate for our right to feel and be safe in our work. Not only do we owe it to ourselves and our coworkers. We owe it to those who have come before us.

This council is currently raising money for the Worker Relief Fund, which provides financial assistance for workers and the families of workers who are injured on the job and for the families of workers who are killed on the job. The fund is administered through SF Clout, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit connected to the San Francisco Labor Council.

If you’d like to donate to the fund in any amount, checks can be made payable to Worker Relief Fund and mailed to Worker Relief Fund, 1188 Franklin St. #203, San Francisco, CA 94109.

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