International Workers’ Memorial Day: “Mourn for the dead, fight like hell for the living!”

By Kevin Henry

Today is International Workers’ Memorial Day, a day of remembrance established in the 1980s by American trade unions to remember those killed in workplace and industrial accidents and mark gains made by the movement when it comes to workers’ health and safety.

While it often gets less attention than May Day or International Workers’ Day three days later, it remains an important opportunity to highlight issues close to home and abroad. Last year, for example, the National Union of Journalists and the trade union movement locally used it to mark the killing of Lyra McKee and highlight the killing of journalists in the line of duty. It has also been used to shine a light on horrific conditions in sweatshops across the world which have led to countless deaths, including the 1,134 killed in the garment factory fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2013. Correctly, it has also been used to highlight deaths caused as a result of dangerous substances in the workplace, including the criminal role of employers in not dealing with asbestos safely, which has led to many workers suffering horrifically and dying.

This year, of course, Workers’ Memorial Day takes on a special significance. Key workers, many previously discarded as unskilled, have put their lives on the line across the globe in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, and many have paid with their lives. Over 100 NHS staff have died as a result. It is clear that the lack of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) continues to put healthcare workers at serious risk. 

The same is true of other key workers, some of whom have had to take action to demand proper health and safety conditions, including 1,000 workers in Moy Park in Portadown who walked off site in protest. Similarly, bus workers have highlighted the conditions they face with minutes of silence and stoppages across Britain and Ireland, called by workers in London where 26 bus drivers have died. Now, we are seeing a push by bosses and right-wing politicians to quickly reopen workplaces and the economy, regardless of the human cost.

What all these cases show is that profit will always come first under capitalism. In his book Conditions of the English Working Class, Friedrich Engels called this “social murder,” when capitalism places “workers in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death.” As we take up the struggles of today, we can learn much from the writings of socialists and trade unionists who battled unsafe conditions in the past. James Connolly, for example, writing about Belfast commented that “the ambulance bell is one of the most familiar daily sounds on the streets between our shipyards and our hospitals.” 

Very relevant to today, he made the point that death as a result of tuberculosis was higher in the working-class slums due to overcrowding, and highest amongst the Belfast ‘millies’ who worked in conditions “so hot with a moist heat that all girls and women must work in bare feet”. He pointed out that medical instruction was of limited use for “the class most subject to the scourge. What use is it to teach people about the evil of overcrowding when their wages will not permit them to secure decent house room?” While Connolly praised the work of those who sought to educate people about the real causes of tuberculosis, as opposed to moralistic and superstitious quackery, he correctly saw it as essential that the conditions of poverty be abolished, and that this required challenging capitalism itself.

For Engels or Connolly, it wasn’t enough to comment on these conditions and the system which created them. They became active in the fight to transform those conditions. Nowhere is this epitomised better than in the slogan of Mother Jones: “Mourn for the dead, fight like hell for the living!” Today, we need fighting and democratic trade unions more than ever. People should, of course, observe the one minute of silence called by the trade unions, and other actions to remember those who have died. But, crucially, we also need to fight like hell for PPE, against premature returns to work imposed by employers, against the conditions of overcrowding that help this virus spread and, ultimately, against the callous system of capitalism, which puts profit before workers’ lives.

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