Reflections on Workers' Memorial Day

by Matt Shudtz

April 28, 2016

Today, a lot of numbers will be thrown around – the staggering number of workers who died gruesome deaths on the job last year, the paltry fines that employers responsible for those deaths paid, the months and years we've waited for Congress to revisit the Occupational Safety and Health Act to make it more relevant to our modern workforce.

There's good reason to reflect on those numbers. They tell us something important about our society and our relationship to work. They tell us that we have a long way to go before the real value of workers' time, effort, and dedication to their jobs is respected and honored.

40,000 Verizon workers are on strike. The contract dispute is complicated, but one of the core issues is the company's threat to move jobs from one location to another, like so many interchangeable, faceless component parts of a massive machine. The corporate mindset that undergirds the threat is the flipside of looking at workers as "assets." An asset can be something uniquely powerful and a source of strength when appreciated for its intrinsic value; or, an asset can be reduced to a dollar figure on a balance sheet, and it becomes just another fungible instrument of commerce.

Too many employers look at workers as assets in that second sense. It's an attitude that ensures fatality rates remain stubbornly high. There's a vicious cycle at work: skimpy paychecks and bad working conditions lead to high turnover rates, high turnover rates lead short-sighted employers to think of workers as interchangeable cogs, their lack of respect for workers leads to unsafe working conditions, and the cycle starts all over. It churns and grinds and wears down many workers to the point where the fight to reclaim dignity and respect looks almost unwinnable.

Might a higher ethical standard for employers break that cycle? Sure, but where to begin? I got an interesting glimpse into one path forward last week at a screening of A Day's Work, co-sponsored by the University of Baltimore's Hoffberger Center for Professional Ethics, CPR, and Baltimore's Public Justice Center. The film centers on the death of Day Davis, a 21-year-old temp worker who was killed 90 minutes into his first shift on the first day of his first real job because his employers failed to give him basic safety training. It is a powerful documentary that explores the health and safety implications of the temp work economy (CPR's take on that, here), which by some accounts is responsible for all net job growth since the Great Recession.

The audience was mostly students from UB whose business ethics coursework drew them to the screening. They were amazed when I shared some statistics about how infrequently OSHA and its state-plan partners inspect dangerous worksites, the penalties that follow even the most egregious fatality cases, and the fact that our laws are so outdated that OSHA's attorneys have to grapple with multiple conceptions of what the definition of "employer" is, even under their single authorizing statute.

Remarkably, those same students – future business leaders – got just as fired up as I did about the need for stronger criminal enforcement to put more pressure on employers and ensure all their workers go home safe and healthy at the end of every day.

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Also from Matt Shudtz

Matthew Shudtz, J.D., is the Executive Director of the Center for Progressive Reform. He joined CPR in 2006 as policy analyst, after graduating law school with a certificate in environmental law.

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