Celebrating Gains, Working for More

May 2010

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Mike SaccoOne month before the tragic loss of life at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, the AFL-CIO Executive Council, of which I am a member, approved a statement supporting passage of legislation aimed at improving workplace safety.

If that statement seemed earnest but perhaps somewhat routine in March, it took on a much more urgent appearance after what happened in the mine, where 29 workers died. In our resolution, the council pointed out that while progress has been made since the Occupational Safety and Health Act passed in 1970, the toll of workplace injuries, illnesses and fatalities remains enormous. For instance, in 2008, more than 5,000 workers across the United States died on the job. Tens of thousands died from occupational diseases and millions more were injured.

Last month’s disaster in West Virginia specifically called attention to mine safety, which of course was appropriate. People were shocked to learn that this latest incident was the fourth fatal accident in 12 years at the mine, which is overseen by a non-union company. They were further stunned when it was reported that the Upper Big Branch Mine has been cited for more than 1,300 safety violations in the last five years alone.

I’m always cautious when reading statistics, but there’s no underestimating the significance of any of those numbers – starting with the most important and sobering ones, which count the dead.

Unfortunately, the challenge and responsibility of workplace safety goes far beyond mining or any other single occupation. As noted above, it is a nationwide task. The facts are that millions of workers still lack basic OSHA protections and rights. Even in some cases where workers are covered, the penalties for severe, intentional violations can be weak. So are the protections for employees who report hazards.

That’s only a snapshot, but it captures why the AFL-CIO supports the Protecting America’s Workers Act. Introduced both in the House and the Senate, the legislation would boost OSHA in several ways, including by expanding worker and union rights in OSHA inspections and enforcement cases.

In the wake of Upper Big Branch as well as the annual Workers Memorial Day on April 28, it is time for passage of the Protecting America’s Workers Act. The moment is right, and the stakes simply couldn’t be any higher.

I also should mention that as Seafarers know, our union and our affiliated school in Piney Point, Md., constantly emphasize safety in the training received by entry-level students and upgraders. The same is true aboard SIU-crewed vessels, where safety drills are a welcome part of the shipboard culture. Like mine workers, SIU members know they depend on their mates to do their jobs safely and efficiently, so that they will come home safely.

New Tonnage
Our union continues to welcome new tonnage into the SIU fleet, both in the Government Services Division and in the Atlantic, Gulf, Lakes and Inland Waters District/NMU. This month, we are reporting on the christening of a new Crowley ATB, the naming of a new Jones Act tanker built for Overseas Shipholding Group, and the keel-laying for what will be the Navy’s next Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo/ammunition ship, to be named USNS Medgar Evers.

In May, two additional vessels are scheduled to enter the SIU-crewed fleet. More new jobs are on the horizon.

Also in May, we are planning to dedicate the new training vessel at the Paul Hall Center in Piney Point, in memory of our friend and union brother, the late SIU Executive Vice President John Fay. That will be an emotional day, but a fitting tribute to one of the most effective, loyal officials our union ever knew.

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