Ron Bieber: Every worker has the right to a safe job. That fight isn’t over.

Union members and supporters rally in solidarity with striking Kellogg workers at Festival Market Square in Battle Creek, Dec. 17, 2021 | Laina G. Stebbins

By Ron Bieber, Michigan Advance

Fifty-two years ago, Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), promising every worker in America the right to a safe job. Since then, workers, labor unions and our allies have fought hard to win protections making jobs safer and saving thousands of lives.

But this fight is nowhere near over. In 2020 more than 4,700 workers lost their lives from job-related traumatic injuries, including 131 Michiganders. These numbers do not include the thousands of people who have lost their lives to the COVID-19 pandemic, which heavily impacted workers of color that already face disproportionate exposures to many job safety and health hazards.

Every year, thousands of workers are killed and millions more suffer injuries or illnesses on the job that are entirely preventable. Being safe at work is a fundamental right — and under OSHA, employers must provide workplaces free from hazards.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the many weaknesses of our federal and state laws and enforcement by our workplace safety agencies that are meant to ensure workers are protected by their employers on the job. It’s also abundantly clear that there is an unequal balance of power between workers and corporate CEOs.

Throughout the pandemic, working folks have fought hard to ensure a safe workplace for everyone while showing up for their daily shifts at work. Michigan’s essential workers and frontline heroes made sure we had life-saving vaccines and medical care, hospitals had ventilators, grocery stores remained stocked, and class was still in session.

Last year, BCTGM Local 3G members in Battle Creek went out on strike to stop Kellogg from outsourcing hundreds of manufacturing jobs to Mexico. Kellogg’s responded by attempting to hire permanent replacements for those same workers. The frontline heroes who kept the company’s cereal stocked on shelves throughout the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Republicans at our state Capitol have focused on cutting taxes for the wealthiest Michiganders rather than providing for our communities and improving the lives of working families. 

These same Republicans have essentially blocked legislation from the Putting Workers First bill package. This legislation would not only protect Michiganders right to form a union, but would also prohibit the use of replacement workers during labor disputes, offer a resolution to urge the National Labor Relations Board to outright ban the use of permanent replacement workers, and hold employers that outsource good-paying Michigan jobs accountable.

Fortunately, workers should feel confident that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has stood with Michigan’s working families every day since she first took office. She has stood strong through the darkest hours of the pandemic, and her bold actions have protected our frontline heroes.

We still have a lot of work to do, and working together in solidarity with our labor siblings and community allies is our best bet to make lasting change for a better, more safe Michigan. A Michigan where all working people make it home from work unharmed to their families every day. 

This Workers Memorial Day, I ask you to stand with us to mourn those we have lost this year and fight like hell for the living.

Ron Bieber is president of the Michigan AFL-CIO. Ron is a third-generation UAW member, and the son of former UAW President Owen Bieber. Prior to his election as President of the Michigan AFL-CIO, he served as Director of the UAW’s Community Action Program.