How Musicians Can Observe Workers Memorial Day

Volume CI, No. 4April, 2001

David Sternbach

Once again Local 802 is joining other unions in reminding its members of Workers Memorial Day, to be observed this year on Saturday, April 28.

Workplace safety has always been a high priority for unions. A major achievement, 30 years ago, was winning Congressional passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which promised every American worker the right to a safe job. As the AFL-CIO points out, “Unions and our allies have fought hard to make that promise a reality – winning protections that have saved hundreds of thousands of lives and prevented millions of workplace injuries.”

After years of struggle, it seemed that we had won important new safeguards that would prevent millions of workers from being disabled by workplace injuries. New ergonomic standards, under study for more than a decade – and under fierce attack by Big Business and its allies in Congress throughout that period – were put in place during the final weeks of the Clinton administration.

Workers’ safety has now become the first casualty of the Bush administration.

Despite an enormous mobilization by the labor movement, the Republican majority in the Senate and House of Representatives moved rapidly on March 7 and 8 to overturn the standard and guarantee that OSHA may not issue a similar rule without explicit authorization from Congress. It seems clear that industry groups will quickly target other critical workplace protections. If they succeed, tens of thousands more American workers will be killed or injured on the job.


While we have suffered an enormous setback on the ergonomics standard, we must continue the battle to maintain and expand worker safety legislation. I believe that this issue is one that all of us can come together on, regardless of how we voted last election. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine any working musician urging that OSHA regulations to protect workers’ health and safety should be torpedoed. And, unless we get involved, every piece of legislation that protects working people is at risk.

There is a long history of opposition to such laws. Social Security, for example, was opposed on the basis that “It’ll bankrupt us. No business could afford it.” Worker compensation and unemployment insurance? Same tune, same lyrics. Minimum wages? Da capo. Working conditions, including limits on unpaid overtime, reasonable breaks – a six-day, and then a five-day week – every one of these has produced the knee-jerk response, “We can’t afford it.”

Well, as to the issue of the costs for safety, here’s one quote: “OSHA’s 1987 rule on formaldehyde elicited cries that it would cost users [business and industry] $251.2 million. The Office of Technology Assessment panel looked only at one large group of users – metal foundries – and found that while OSHA had projected costs of $11.4 million, the affected companies eventually cleaned up their workplaces for $6 million.” (This appeared in a New York Times article entitled “Keeping Workers Safe, But At What Cost?” by Mary Walsh, on Dec 20, 2000.)

This is typical. The price for installing rights and protections for workers has consistently proved to be less than opponents claim. And while I suppose that figure of $6 million looks like a lot from the perspective of a single gig, it is a drop in the bucket for Big Business.

Every health and safety regulation has come about because of some abuse. Anybody remember the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911? Exit doors, which at that time opened inward, were locked to keep the girls from taking breaks. When the fire broke out young women, locked inside, died piled on top of each other at the bottom of the stairwells. Other, in flames, jumped out of windows. This terrible tragedy led to many health and safety regulations – but at an absolutely unacceptable price.

The New York Times recently noted the passing, at age 105, of the last survivor of that fire, Rose Freedman, a woman who worked the rest of her life as an outspoken and tireless advocate for workers’ health and safety.

On a more personal note, I recall this event because years ago, when I was a student at NYU, a teacher brought it up. Then he told us to look down under our seats and desks, where we saw regularly spaced black lines in the floor. “Those marks,” he said, “were made by the feet of the sewing machines turning red hot and scorching the floor.” That class was in the very building in which the fire had occurred, a building taken over and refurbished by the university years later. I don’t remember much about the class the rest of that day – but I remember that. It’s the kind of up close and personal encounter that sticks in your mind.

The new OSHA regulations on overuse injury were designed to avoid further injuries to working people. They would have had a direct, and positive, impact on musicians. We don’t usually get killed on the job, true. But aside from the stress of being a performer, which is intense, who among us does not know of musicians who have been disabled, temporarily or permanently, due to repetitive overuse injuries? They can happen to anyone, they might happen gradually – or they can happen in a moment.

In a recent statement, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said, “This Workers Memorial Day we urge you to get involved and organize actions, activities, or observances in your workplaces and communities to highlight the toll of job injuries and deaths. Make it clear that the labor movement will continue to fight for safe workplaces and defend the protections we have won.”

One important action you can take is to contact your representatives and senators with this message, using letters, phone calls, email and faxes. If you don’t know who they are or how to reach them, call Local 802.

Beyond this, however, I think we musicians are in a unique position to carry this issue more directly to the public. On April 28, on every stage in the United States, suppose the musicians agreed to have a spokesperson from the band, the orchestra or opera house step forward and briefly let the audience know the significance of Workers Memorial Day. Let them know that musicians can get hurt or see their careers finished, because of injuries. Then ask the audience to join with the musicians in a minute of silence, in recognition of all those working men and women whose injuries and deaths on the job have brought us the safety laws that are intended to keep more such tragedies from happening.

Then please write to the union and relate what you did and how it went. Can you imagine the impact if musicians everywhere that day made this gesture of solidarity?

David Sternbach, who joined Local 802 in 1957, was a horn player for more than 25 years. For the past 20 years he has been a psychotherapist with a practice in Washington, D.C., specializing in working with musicians. He is widely known as a writer and speaker on musicians’ health and safety issues.