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The Grim New Relevance of Workers Memorial Day

A holiday dedicated to workers injured or killed on the job takes on a darker resonance as work grows more dangerous in a pandemic.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The United States loves a good holiday, and depending on how detailed a calendar one keeps, there are daily opportunities to celebrate everything from gumdrops to argyle. (I finished writing this on National Spanish Paella Day.) And given our political leaders’ penchant for trumpeting America’s (faltering) manufacturing prowess and undying respect for (some) hard-working families, there are a number of holidays—both informal and federally recognized—dedicated to the struggles of the working class.

Labor Day is the best-known, though it is of course little more than a federal sleight of hand meant to distract the toiling class from the true worker’s holiday, May Day (an international celebration of workers that’s rather gruesomely marked on official U.S. calendars as “Loyalty Day”). This year’s May Day celebrations will most likely be rather muted, given the need for social distancing and impossibility of gathering in the streets. But the revolutionary flame that sparked the first American May Day parade in 1886, when anarchist firebrands Lucy and Albert Parsons led a parade of unemployed workers through the streets of Chicago, still burns; this year, it has been transmuted into a growing call for a large-scale May rent strike

But even ahead of this year’s May Day festivities there’s another, more somber workers’ holiday worth observing in earnest: April 28 is Workers Memorial Day, an international day of remembrance for workers who have been injured or killed on the job, or after being exposed to hazards at work. It’s a grim holiday in any year, but it has a special resonance now, with so many workers facing the cruel choice of either reporting for work amid a pandemic or struggling to make do as job prospects evaporate and a new recession sets in.  

This day holds a personal meaning for me, as it must for many others. Last month, my grandfather died. He was 82 and had been fighting off lung cancer for a while; I didn’t know how bad it had gotten until near the very end, because he did his best to hide the extent of the damage. He was a hard man, an ornery son of a bitch who played his cards close to his chest, loved a gin and tonic, and never took painkillers, even after countless surgical procedures had ravaged his body and left his steel backbone bent. I loved him more than anything, and I was always his favorite; he was the kind of man who was still getting into bar fights in his seventies, but he always saved a wink for me. He was an unschooled farm boy, then a Marine, then split his time between factory jobs and a side gig as a motel janitor. It was the decades he spent working as a millwright in an iron powder factory that broke his body, but I never expected him to die in his bed. It was undignified—too soft for a man like him. 

But in the end, he died of mesothelioma, a vicious form of lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos; it creeps in unannounced and eventually suffocates its victims. Industrial workers like him were four times more likely to contract the disease than members of the general population. Its long dormancy period—sometimes up to 40 years—means that when it rears its ugly head, it does so stealthily, when its prey is already weakened. Now I can’t stop thinking: Did his employer know about the risks of asbestos back then? Would they have cared? Would he? Knowing him, he would’ve waved it off. As a six-foot-four former Marine and avid big game hunter, he by all rights should have been taken down by more than a little prickly insulation. And yet down he went, to join his brethren on the great Workers Memorial in the sky. 

What happened to him should never, ever happen to anyone else. Yet even now, as the world grapples with an invisible plague, employers seem hell-bent on flouting safety regulations and cutting corners. On April 23 (which had been known in less socially distant times as Take Our Children to Work Day), the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, or COSH, released a special edition of its 2020 “Dirty Dozen” study. The report highlights a list of employers the group has cited for endangering workers and their communities with unsafe working conditions, harassment, and racial discrimination during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Given the scale of worker displacement and suffering in the coronavirus crisis, it’s especially dispiriting to see trade groups such as the American Hospital Association and the National Restaurant Association actively working against the interests of the workers in their industries. These actions are especially blood-boiling when they’re directed at workers routinely expected to put their lives on the line in service of others—when, that is, they aren’t getting laid off in droves, virtually overnight. 

And that only scrapes the surface of this grimy rogue’s gallery. There are a number of other big names on the expanded Dirty Dozen list, including Chipotle, Hard Rock Cafe, Smithfield Foods, Trader Joe’s, Victoria’s Secret, and Amazon. Their alleged offenses run the gamut from skirting labor laws to violating sick leave requirements to skimping on coronavirus protections for their workers to helping deport a witness in a labor dispute. The litany of abuses is shameful but wholly unsurprising.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated, more clearly than ever, that worker health cannot be separated from public health,” Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-executive director of COSH, said in a press release. “Life-threatening hazards don’t stay put in a single building or worksite, but spread to family members, neighbors, and the public at large. Every worker is essential to their family—and deserves to come home safely at the end of their shift.”

The cognitive dissonance between the ongoing wave of “essential workers are heroes!” rhetoric and the actual way that working people are treated is brutal. The idea of the worker is celebrated while the workers themselves are expected to be happy with a few extra pennies in their paychecks and the admonition to keep washing their hands. It’s a particularly American nightmare, one built on fantasy and a stubborn refusal to accept the human wreckage that capitalism and an oblivious strain of American exceptionalism have wrought. “No one should be sacrificed for profit,” an asthmatic construction electrician told me after he’d quit his job for fear of contracting the virus on-site. “This is all just mind-numbingly idiotic and perverted.”

Even the calendar itself looks like more and more of a grim joke. Employee Appreciation Day happened way back on March 6 (a lifetime ago now), as retail workers strained to keep up with spiraling demand from a panic-buying public and fought to convince their bosses to provide them with hand sanitizer. On March 11, National Funeral Director and Mortician Recognition Day passed by without a whisper, as the bodies began to pile up and death industry workers grappled with the macabre conditions of a corona-fueled speed-up. March 29 saw National Mom and Pop Business Owners Day, even as countless small businesses were forced to lay off their staff and shutter their operations with no clear assurance of when, or whether, they might reopen. National Doctors Day blew past on March 30, as health care professionals across the country begged desperately for personal protection equipment and life-saving ventilators; odds are that when National Nurses Day rolls around on May 6, things won’t look much better. 

April 4, National Hug a Newsperson Day, was a nice thought, even as the media industry was roiled by mass layoffs, budget cuts, and an exodus of advertiser money, leaving the fourth estate on even shakier ground than usual. National Library Workers Day passed by on April 21, as actual library workers continued their fight to close the libraries to protect themselves and the communities they serve. Administrative Professionals Day followed on April 22, as public service workers struggle to keep up with the cascading applications for unemployment insurance and are forced to keep coming into the office because crumbling state infrastructure makes telework impossible. It’s anybody’s guess what the world will look like come May 13, National Third Shift Workers Day.

With the arrival of this year’s Workers Memorial Day, there are so many more names to add to that ever-expanding book of the dead. All too many of these fatalities have been needlessly accelerated by both this cruel virus and its willing handmaidens: the profit-hungry bosses keen on extracting every possible pound of flesh from their workforces and the rapacious ghouls on both sides of the mainstream political aisle who enable the slaughter. In reality, those essential workers cheered by the press and in heartwarming viral videos are being treated as disposable beasts of burden. Those making these unwilling human sacrifices do not want your gratitude; they just want to survive this plague, too.

Truly, the best way to honor the workers who keep this country running isn’t to pay tribute after they’re already dead and gone. It’s to take care of them while they’re still here. When Mother Jones said, “’Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living,” she wasn’t talking about hand claps or simpering news segments—she was talking about solidarity, supporting our fellow workers, beating back the bosses, taking bread and planting roses. That’s the attitude we need to be taking as we head into May Day and as we bow our heads on Workers Memorial Day. The working class needs to seize the future while we still have time to live it.

And if you remember, come September 18, it’ll be my granddad’s birthday. Raise a glass of something strong to him and all those who’ve worked alongside him, because it’ll be National Tradesmen Day—and Lord knows we’ll all need a drink by then.