On April 28, 1971, the Occupational Safety and Health Act officially went into effect, and decades later, Mayor Tyler Moore and local union leadership honored that same date, declaring April 28 Workers’ Memorial Day.
Last Tuesday, Moore was joined at City Hall by local union leadership to remember workers who lost their lives while on the job. Among those remembered were those who recently died due to COVID-19.
“The reason for the observance of Workers’ Memorial Day is to recognize and honor those workers who have lost their lives recently due to COVID-19 or work-related accidents at the workplace over the course of the year,” said Moore. “Obviously, also to recognize the sacrifices of those that are currently working on the frontlines or in our factories to keep us going, the sacrifices them and their families are making.”
Each year the city of Kokomo gives a proclamation honoring the date, but this year differed slightly due to COVID-19. Observers maintained social distancing practices, and the outbreak served as a focal point during remarks made by local union leadership.
AFL-CIO Board President for Howard and Tipton counties Cheryl Graham took time at the podium to call for better protections for workers during the pandemic. Looking forward at a time when some states, and even leadership in the federal government, were considering reopening as deaths mount, Graham called for better worker protections, including free access to soap and water for handwashing, gloves for protection, and required facemask use with a focus on workers who directly serve the public.
“We realize as we open workplaces we will not get a second chance to get it right. People’s lives are at stake as well as our local economic survival,” said Graham. “Workers have hard decisions to make, to work and possibly get their families sick or not to work and lose everything they have worked for.”
United Auto Workers leadership was also on hand last week, including UAW Local 685 President Rick Ward and UAW Local 1166 President Scott Flatford.
Since the pandemic began, Ward said 17 UAW workers with FCA US have died due to COVID-19 in the United States as of last week.
“I think as we go along with COVID and this virus that none of us really know, we see the seriousness of having a union shop and good healthcare because it’s good for our workers and the community,” said Ward.
Similarly, AFSCME Local 2185 President Jeff Haworth and USW 2958 President Dave Tocco also gave remarks. Both thanked their respective membership for working during the crisis.
Chet Fincher, business manager for Carpenters Union 615, urged local workers to look out for one another during the pandemic, especially concerning matters involving mental health. According to Fincher, Local 615 has lost multiple members to suicide over the last eight years, and one was currently hospitalized after an attempt recently.
“I want to encourage everybody to reach out,” said Fincher. “If you feel like you need to talk and you need help, please reach out to your pastor, your preacher, your friends, and call your local and the suicide hotline.”
Andy Eshelman, president of Professional Firefighters of Kokomo Local 396, also reflected on how his membership has continued to serve during the pandemic.
“Our guys are on the frontlines,” said Eshelman. “As you know, as first responders, we see this stuff, and we’ve seen this coming for quite some time. We tried to prepare for it, but we can’t prepare for this because it’s the unknown. We’re doing the best we can with the city of Kokomo, our administration. Our guys are working, as you know, nonstop day in and day out.”
The letter carrier local was also a part of the event, which was held on the heels of a letter carrier being killed in Indianapolis recently.
Tim Turner, the executive chair of the Indiana State Association of Letter Carriers and vice president of National Association of Letter Carriers Branch 533, said the event was fitting given the recent death of an Indiana member.
“As you all know, letter carriers face many challenges as we’re out there delivering mail day to day, not only with COVID but numerous obstacles including dogs and other things … It’s fitting we’re here today and recognizing those individuals,” said Turner.
Members of IBEW Local 873 also were continuing to work during the pandemic. Mike Young, business manager of the local, said many of his union’s electricians worked “around the clock” during the economic shutdown on retooling the recently-rebranded FCA Kokomo Engine Plant. Young said he was proud of his union’s work and said honoring a day in history that implemented wide-ranging safety protocols for workers was paramount.
“It’s very important,” said Young. “A lot of people give their lives, and their lives are at risk during these unprecedented times.”