This Workers Memorial Day, honor lives lost by joining workers’ fight for a future that includes safe work

“Our health is just as essential,” read the homemade sign Chris Smalls carried in front of the Amazon JFK8 Staten Island warehouse on March 30, 2020, a moment when it had become clear that exposure to coronavirus could be deadly. After a week of appealing to management for masks, gloves, and a temporary shutdown to sanitize exposed areas, several JFK8 workers walked out and called on Amazon to take steps to protect those inside the warehouse where positive cases were known but not always being reported to employees.

This Workers Memorial Day, policymakers should listen to and follow the lead of workers at Amazon and elsewhere who are organizing to build the power necessary to demand safe work, often in the face of long odds and intense employer union-busting. With pandemic losses still mounting and untold numbers of worker deaths to mourn, it’s past time to ensure effective regulation of workplace safety and the protection of all workers’ rights to form a union.

Like thousands of workers across the country who experienced retaliation after raising health and safety concerns early in the pandemic, Smalls was fired. Instead of giving in to fear or lowering their expectations, several of the workers who’d planned the walkout at JFK8 stuck together. They helped form The Congress of Essential Workers, read up on union-organizing, visited Bessemer, Alabama, where another group of Amazon workers were gearing up for their first union election, and in the spring of 2021 set up tables outside the warehouse to launch what would turn into a full year’s worth of thousands of conversations with coworkers about forming a new union.

The rest is history still in the making: Almost exactly two years after the COVID-19 safety walkout, the Black-led, multiracial organizing committee at JFK8 celebrated the country’s first union election victory at an Amazon warehouse. Born of front-line workers’ widespread experiences of facing impossible choices between maintaining health and earning a necessary income during the pandemic, the solidarity on display among those organizing in 2022 points to workers’ best hope for rejecting impossible choices and gaining the ability to keep themselves and their co-workers safe by forming a union.

Many lives to mourn and much more to fight for

Workers Memorial Day is observed annually on April 28, the date the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) took effect in 1971. Signed in 1970, the OSH Act has made a tremendous difference, and, after more than 50 years, over 647,000 workers can say their lives have been saved by its passage. But the pandemic continues to reveal serious limitations of the OSH Act and its enforcement in an era of eroded worker power and vast economic inequality.

There is much to mourn this Workers Memorial Day, including the 340 workers who die each day on average from hazardous working conditions, and the 3.2 million workers annually who suffer workplace injuries or illnesses. While these official statistics are staggering, they are also inevitably undercounted. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports show that a majority of employers fail to report workplace injuries due to OSHA’s limited resources and procedures. Official statistics likewise do not include the untold numbers of worker deaths linked to preventable workplace coronavirus exposure. Low-income, front-line workers still face elevated risk of exposure to and death from the airborne virus, and two years into the pandemic, the lowest-income workers have had the least access to vaccines and boosters.

This leaves a great deal to fight for. Since the start of the pandemic, unions and advocates have called for OSHA to enact comprehensive COVID-19 workplace safety standards. Yet to this day there are no enforceable standards protecting workers from coronavirus exposure, and OSHA withdrew its Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) for health care at the end of 2021. In striking down OSHA’s proposed vaccine or test mandate at the start of 2022, the Supreme Court left the door open for a more targeted standard, but OSHA has yet to pursue issuing standards on key measures like ventilation, high-quality personal protective equipment, or social distancing.

The union difference: The power to win safer work

In the absence of federal action, workers are continuing to take matters into their own hands, and policymakers at all levels must support them. Evidence has long indicated significantly better health and safety outcomes for workers who have, or are able to form, unions. For example, in the construction industry, studies show union work sites have significantly fewer health and safety violations than work sites without a union presence. By the same token, erosion of worker power makes work less safe. A surprising overall increase in worker fatalities between 2008 and 2016 that reversed prior-year trends was closely correlated with declining union strength in multiple states that had adopted anti-union right-to-work laws during the same time period.

Labor unions are highly correlated with safer work because they give workers a collective voice in setting workplace policies and provide “just cause” protections against unfair discipline so workers can report safety hazards or other workplace concerns without fear of retaliation. Union contracts typically include enforceable grievance procedures that workers can use to ensure management compliance with all OSHA standards plus other industry-specific safety requirements. Many union contracts also create mechanisms for direct worker participation in labor-management health and safety committees. At its best, collective bargaining over subjects such as training, production quotas or staffing ratios, shift lengths, breaks and restroom access, and a host of other terms and conditions of work that affect health and safety yield a union contract that reflects workers’ front-line knowledge of their own jobs, work processes, and recommendations for eliminating hazards, toxins, and stressors at work.

Evidence of the difference unions make for pandemic health and safety outcomes has been equally striking and heartbreaking. One recent nationwide study finds that since 2020, in unionized nursing homes residents have been less likely to die and workers less likely to become infected by COVID-19 than in nonunion facilities. If all nursing homes had unions at the start of the pandemic, the increase in worker power could have prevented an estimated 8,000 resident deaths. Research in other sectors shows that in schools, the presence of a strong union increased the likelihood of districts implementing public health recommendations, while union interventions also led to better infection-control policies and COVID-19 outcomes for grocery store workers.

Evidence bears out that unions save lives, but far too few workers had the protection of a union at the start of the pandemic, and not nearly enough have it now. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to result in alarming numbers of preventable workplace exposures and deaths because too many workers lack the power to demand safe work.

Policymakers can address unequal power by strengthening OSHA and reforming labor laws to ensure all workers have full rights to a union

Fifty years after OSHA’s passage, most workers lack a meaningful right to refuse dangerous work due to unequal power. Former OSHA Associate Solicitor Ann Rosenthal explains in a recent analysis that “though there have been some notable successes under the OSH Act, the lack of adequate resources and political support, combined with structural weaknesses in the statute and the changing nature of work in the 21st century, have resulted in dashed hopes and a continuing stream of powerless, injured, and ill workers.”

In the absence of a union, employers retain considerable power in most workplaces even with OSHA standards in place. Consequences for employers who cut corners, violate OSHA, or harm workers are weak as compared with potentially high costs to workers who stand up for themselves, and these structural imbalances are even greater for many of the most vulnerable and lowest-paid workers, who are disproportionately likely to do the most dangerous jobs. On the whole, access to safe work is far from equal. Black and Hispanic workers, often segregated into more dangerous occupations, statistically face greater risks of injury and death on the job. And employer misclassification of workers as independent contractors leaves growing numbers of “gig” workers and others completely excluded from OSHA protections.

Chronic underfunding of OSHA puts workers further at risk. For example, there were 61,642 workers for every federal OSHA inspector in 1979, but this number tripled to 198,532 by 2019. That is 19 times the International Labour Organization’s recommendation of one inspector per 10,000 workers. OSHA had a record-low number of investigators on staff in 2020, contributing to a sharp decline in investigations during the deadliest pandemic in U.S. history. OSHA conducted only 21,674 inspections in fiscal year (FY) 2020, compared with 33,393 in FY2019 and 32,023 in FY2018.

An enforceable, comprehensive OSHA COVID-19 standard and increased funding for agency enforcement are sorely needed and long overdue, but even at double or triple their current numbers, OSHA inspectors will never be capable of reaching every workplace. This Workers Memorial Day, policymakers should prioritize strengthening OSHA while empowering workers to create the best workplace health and safety programs available—unions and collective bargaining agreements. This starts with reforming state and federal labor laws so that all workers who want unions have a legal pathway to get them, at a minimum including passage of the PRO Act and serious monetary penalties for employers who retaliate against workers who engage in collective action to demand safe work.

The struggle for pandemic safety hasn’t ended for front-line workers, like the thousands of Sutter Health nurses who went on a one-day strike last week to demand safe staffing ratios, access to employer-provided N95 masks, and better contact tracing. And workers across the economy know they need more power to make their work safe. After workers at a newly unionized Starbucks store walked out last week to demand attention to an unsafe grease trap overflow, they summed up the importance of more workers learning about and gaining union protection: “Seeing that we did not get fired over it and that we could not get punished for it, is probably a good thing for other workers,” and “not just even for Starbucks [workers], but for low-wage workers in general, to see that we deserve more, and it is possible to fight back.”

Most workers know exactly what’s needed to make their own jobs safe, and know they need unions to amplify their voices, prevent retaliation when they speak up, and bring employers to the bargaining table to secure lasting improvements. It’s time to follow the lead of workers fighting for a future that includes safe work and ensures their rights to organize and collectively bargain are fully protected.