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violence, other job risks

Workers should not face
violence, other job risks

The Oklahoma City bombing came just nine days before Workers Memorial Day, an annual observance in honor of the thousands of American workers who die on the job each year. In Rochester, we marked the occasion by placing flowers at the federal building downtown, in memory of those killed in Oklahoma City, as well as their fellow workers here and across the nation who have given their lives on the job.
Among the speakers on Workers Memorial Day was James Bertolone, president of the local chapter of the American Postal Workers Union. Like many unions here and across the country, the APWU contributed heavily to the funds set up to help the victims of the bombing. As fellow federal employees, however, this tragedy struck a little closer to home for Jim and his union members. These are some of the thoughts he shared with us on April 28:
“Government workers, as well as many others, are not strangers to violence in the workplace. Postal workers alone have been murdered or wounded on the job by the dozens in the last decade.
“I believe our workplaces, as well as our society, will only be free from fear and violence when we as individuals and as a people no longer tolerate bigotry and hate. To actively oppose hate, I am not calling for the denial of free speech, or the trampling of the Constitution. But whenever we hear or see in print the messages from those who spew hate in the name of their race, religion and/or politics, and believe they have the right to weapons whose only purpose is to kill people, and to use these weapons to promote their views, we cannot let such messages go unchallenged or be condoned by our silence.
“In the two days following the tragedy in Oklahoma City, federal workers, including postal workers, had to be sent home from our very own federal building–a building that also contains a child-care center–due to bomb threats from twisted people.
“We must not forget the brutal scenes from Oklahoma City and we cannot be silent.
“When hatemongers spit out intolerence and hate and talk about the honor and glory of violence for their cause, we cannot be silent.
“When we hear a talk-show host tell listeners to aim their gun for the head because that government employee may be wearing a protective vest, we must stand and shout united: “A bullet in another’s head? Where is the honor and glory in that?’
“Workers serving the public, earning a living to feed their families, brutally murdered without warning. Where is the honor and glory in that?
“And where is the glory in children literally torn apart in a day-care center that was established by workers through the efforts of their union?
“Where is the justice for workers forced to work in unsafe workplaces so employers can save a few dollars, not for corporate need, but for corporate greed?
“Meanwhile, Congress votes against safety regulations to please the privileged few even as thousands of workers die in their workplaces every year from the institutionalized terrorism that places higher value on profits than on worker lives.
“The message I bring you today is that it is up to each one of us to stand and shout together against the hate and injustice, because the struggle must continue and we must make sure that it will continue.”
The nation recently celebrated the traditional Memorial Day, honoring the men and women who gave their lives in defense of our nation. My own father was among those honored, so as a son and as an American worker, these twin memorials provide an important opportunity, not only to honor and remember, but to pledge to work to ensure that the blood of future generations is not spilled –in war or in unsafe workplaces.
After last month’s column on excessive CEO salaries, I was pleasantly surprised at the positive response I received:
–from the management-side HR specialist who’s fed up with the demoralizing effects of high executive salaries coupled with layoffs of lower-echelon workers;
–from the anti-union businessman who read the column twice, and found himself nodding in agreement with my suggestion that performance should be linked to pay at all levels;
–and from the reader who sent me this note: “Imagine how many workers would not be laid off if the obscenely excessive amount of money paid to executives could be used to keep workers employed.”
My argument obviously struck a chord, even among Business Journal readers, whose income, education and jobs place them among the owners and managers, rather than the rank and file. It is a chord of sympathy I am happy to hear. Clearly, those of you who responded understand that frustrated workers with low morale are unproductive and inefficient.
The answer lies in true mutual respect. A willingness to walk a mile in each other’s moccasins. Only then is it possible to move forward together.
The path of distrust, suspicion and scapegoating of workers leads directly to Oklahoma City. The handwriting is on the wall; now it’s up to us to choose the way.
(Ronald Pettengill is president of the Rochester and Vicinity Labor Council, AFL-CIO.)

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