The ceremony was a familiar one — there was a tree and members of the Community Services Committee of the Duluth Central Labor Body gathered around. But the masked faces and careful distance among participants made this Workers Memorial Day moment different than many that had come before.
“During these times as we shelter at home or work in essential services, we don’t forget about those who keep us safer as we work or are with our families,” said Beth McCuskey, president of the CLB.
The CLB plants a tree every year and holds a memorial breakfast to mark Workers Memorial Day, a time to remember workers who have been killed or injured on the job and to rededicate efforts to the fight for safety and respect at work.
But the coronavirus pandemic has brought changes. Dan Olson, a member of the committee, said a tree will be planted to mark 2020. “We do this every year — this year we’re having to make to, but the message is the same. We fight every single day for safety and safe work.”
Renee Van Nett, community services liaison, read a proclamation from the office of the mayor declaring April 28 Workers Memorial Day in Duluth.
As the CLB marked the day, the struggle continued across the country to keep workers safe on the job. For example, unions representing 230,000 nurses across the country have joined forces to demand hospitals and the government act to give nurses optimal personal protective equipment (PPE)—including N95 respirators or higher—a demand made more dire due to the fact that nurses are beginning to die of COVID-19.
National Nurses United, which includes the Minnesota Nurses Association, and other nurse unions called on employers and the government to stop treating nurses as if their lives are expendable.
“What nurses see is every hospital operating in haphazard fashion,” said Minnesota Nurses Association Executive Director Rose Roach. “No hospital is using the same protocols. No hospital is maintaining the same procedures. They operate differently, day to day, and even shift to shift. For the lives of our nurses, for the lives of our patients, we have to provide the optimal protection for healthcare workers. We need the best. Not the second best. We can’t afford these chances hospitals are taking with our lives.”
The unions are demanding employers stop hoarding the protective equipment they do have, keeping it under lock and key in management offices, away from the nurses and other health care workers who need it.
Employers must also adopt PPE standards based on science, not what the hospital industry wants, say nurses, emphasizing that hospital directives to reuse PPE and to downgrade levels of PPE which is antithetical to proper infection control and nurses’ ability to slow the spread of the virus.
As pockets of protests erupted against shelter-at-home recommendations, including in Minnesota, AFSCME Council 5 expressed support for Gov. Tim Walz’s actions. “On behalf of our 43,000 members of AFSCME Council 5, we wanted to express our deep gratitude for extending the Stay at Home order and urge you to continue extending the order, if warranted, in order to save the lives of our neighbors,” said Julie Bleyhl, executive director of Council 5, in a statement. “While groups are protesting around the country and in our state against these fact-based orders, please know that our union stands with you! Our members are often on the front-lines and cannot work from home. They work in hospitals, clinics, correctional facilities, group homes, child and adult protection departments, district courts, and more. Like all of us, they are scared that they may contract COVID-19 as a result of their work which also puts their family members at risk. Their dedication, integrity, and selfless sense of service is truly inspirational and gives all Minnesotans hope for a better tomorrow.”
Walz had also declared that Minnesota’s Building Trades members perform essential services that are critical to maintaining the health and safety of Minnesotans and that construction continues under emergency executive orders.
UFCW reported that employers are allowing workers to wear masks and are providing gloves at all of the Union grocery stores in the Northland, reported Jennifer Christensen, president of UFCW 1189. “Initial concerns that the community would think our members were working sick have been replaced by the willingness to do what is necessary to protect the workers.”
She urged shoppers to remain calm and civil when they’re at the store. “Many stores may be out of products that are in high demand. Workers are doing the best they can under less than ideal circumstances. Remember, we’re all in this together.”