Wednesday, November 10, 2004

APHA Lorin Kerr Award Speech

OK, the election is over, the American Public Health Association Conference is over, so there are no more excuses.

I'm back.

To start myself off easy, I'm going to post a speech I made yesterday at the APHA Occupational Health Section Awards Luncheon at which I was awarded the Lorin Kerr Award. For those who don't know, Lorin Kerr was a life-long worker safety and health activist who served for over 40 years as a physician for the United Mine Workers. He was dedicated to improving access to care for coal miners and other workers, to preventing black lung disease and to assuring compensation for those who suffered from the disease.

The award supposedly recognizes a "new" activist for their sustained and outstanding efforts and dedication to improve the lives of workers. After more than 20 years of work in this area, I'm not sure how I qualify as new, unless the clock started ticking again when I began Confined Space.

Nevertheless, after the events of the past week, being honored by friends of more than two decades was just what the doctor called for.

Remarks by Jordan Barab
November 9, 2004

Thank you.

I want to thank my wife, Jessie, for being amazing supportive, especially over the last year, with my second job – Confined Space -- especially considering how well it pays. I want to thank Darryl Alexander, Gail Bateson and Tony Mazzocchi for taking a lost young International Relations major 25 years ago and getting him excited about workplace health and safety. James August for years of support at AFSCME, and Peg Seminario for her never-failing wisdom and advice. And I want to thank Charles Jeffress for a few very exciting years at OSHA, for letting me be me, (not an easy task as my previous employers know) and for really listening to workers and the labor movement and giving us one last glimpse – at least for a while-- of what the agency can do for workers.

I really can’t tell you how much it means to me to get this award from my peers and friends of decades. Despite the temptation, I’m not going to give you my analysis of the election or the political situation in this country. We’re depressed enough already. Suffice to say, the White House is bad, the Senate is worse, the House couldn’t be worse and the Supreme Court will soon be worse.

The only thing I can offer in the spirit of hope is this quote from I.F. Stone that I’ve had on my blog for some time now. I had hoped to take it down last week, but now I’ll probably have to leave it up for the next few years:

The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you are going to lose, because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins.

In order for somebody to win an important, major fight 100 years hence, a lot of other people have got to be willing -- for the sheer fun and joy of it -- to go right ahead and fight, knowing you're going to lose. You mustn't feel like a martyr. You've got to enjoy it.

And in that spirit we face the future together.

Nineteen months ago, I started Confined Space for two main reasons. The first was to have a personal outlet for the outrage that I constantly feel and, hopefully, to spread the outrage. The idea of writing a weblog, or Blog, came to me shortly after the space shuttle Columbia disaster in January 2003 that killed 7 astronauts.

You may remember that the media worldwide covered every detail of their lives. And I admit, I soon felt like I knew more about their lives than I know about my own parents.

At some point it dawned on me that the astronauts were really just workers – space workers – but not terribly dissimilar to the more than 100 other workers who died tragically that week on the job in the United States. They were all just doing their jobs. The only difference is that the other 100 only got a couple of paragraphs in the local newspaper. No outrage, no anger, no call to action. They weren’t glamorous enough. In fact, they were generally people who do ordinary, dirty jobs on construction sites, roads and factories. Most of them died alone, only noticed and remembered by their immediate family, friends and co-workers.

You will only need a few moments on Google to find the names, pictures, hometowns and dates of death of every American killed in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past three years. But you can search long and hard, and ultimately in vain for the names of the more than 5,000 Americans killed in the workplace last year. You’ll find the few that I can locate on Confined Space. But otherwise, they don’t exist, except in statistics.

Irving Selikoff once said, “statistics are human beings with the tears wiped away.”

Well, our job is to put those tears back.

And while we’re at it, we need to put the politics and the organizing back as well.

Which brings me to the second reason I started Confined Space: To make sure that every worker understands that his or her vote is directly related to their chance of coming home from work alive and health at the end of each workday.

We knew in the very early days of the Bush administration that the Republicans were going to go after the ergonomics standard. My response was something like “Make My Day!" I had a vision of millions of American workers, having patiently waited a decade for an ergonomics standard, rising up in righteous anger to smite those who would snatch away their hard-won gains.

Needless to say, I was wrong. The time was too short to educate and then mobilize the American workforce—or even just the AFL-CIO. We need to have an American workforce that is already educated and pre-mobilized.

So how do we spread the outrage, put back the tears and politicize workers?

First, we need to take advantage of every teachable moment. Last year, we had 5,559 “teachable moments” when workers lost their lives in the workplace (not counting the 50,000 to 100,000 workers who die each year of occupational diseases.) We need to take those moments to educate not just our members and our students, but also journalists. We will not be able to rely on Congressional hearings to bring out the truth. Our best hope is the media.

No longer can we tolerate headlines – even in a rural, low-circulation newspaper -- that claim that a workplace death resulted from a “freak accident” when the unprotected walls of a 12-foot trench cave in on top of a worker.

No longer can we let journalists get way with calling the death of a worker a “mystery” when he suffocates in an unmonitored, unventilated manhole.

No longer can we let journalist blame a severed limb or crushed head on “employee error” because someone accidentally turned on the machine while he was inside.

No longer can we let articles go unanswered that neglect to note that well recognized safe practices were ignored, that laws were broken.

We need to call reporters up, write letters to the editor, send them copies of David Barstow’s NY Times articles and Andrew Schneider’s series on death by asbestos in Libby, Montana. We need to put them in touch with experts, teach workshops at their conventions, convince them that these are tragic tales of good versus evil, stories that Pulitzer Prizes are built upon.

We need to use those teachable moments not just for journalists, but also for politicians. November 4, 2008 may be a bit too far in the future to start focusing on just yet, but November 7, 2006 isn’t too far away. We need to make sure that every time a worker dies, someone in the local paper is quoted asking the local and state politicians what they are doing in Washington – or even in the statehouse – to make sure these tragedies don’t happen again. Are they supporting higher fines, jail terms, stronger standards, more inspectors?

We also need to mobilize families. Some of the most moving mail I’ve received as a result of Confined Space is from the wives, siblings and children of workers killed on the job. They are angry about the death their loved ones. And they find some solace in knowing that there’s someone else out there who is just as angry.

We need to put that anger to good use. We need to spread that anger to the community, to the journalists and politicians. It not only advances the political struggle, but it helps the families know that the death of their loved ones may serve some higher purpose.

And, of course, we need to continue to remind workers that injuries, illnesses and deaths can be prevented, that an organized workforce is their best guarantee of a safe job.

That a safe workplace is a right, not a privilege to be enjoyed only when the company is making a good profit.

We need to make it clear that the right to a safe workplace wasn’t bestowed upon us by concerned politicians or employers who were finally convinced that “Safety Pays.” The right to a safe workplace was won only after a long and bitter fight by workers, unions and public health advocates. It was soaked in the blood of hundreds of thousands of coal miners, factory and construction workers. And the current movement to transform the agency into nothing but a coordinator of voluntary alliances is a betrayal of that promise and those lives.

While I was searching for the meaning of life the other day and I happened upon a list of Saul Alinsky’s rules for effective action. Two of them struck a note with me:

1. Ridicule is man's most potent weapon.

2. A good tactic is one that your people enjoy.

This was somewhat serendipitous. Earlier in the day I had overheard a Mike Silverstein telling Jim Moran that he had found an audiotape of a very famous Philadelphia City Council hearing. I don’t know how many of you know about this. You young-uns out there probably weren’t even born yet, so I’ll summarize it briefly.

This was back in the days before we had a national Right-to-Know standard. Philaposh was attempting to pass a city ordinance and had to convince a skeptical City Council that workers really deserved the right to know what chemicals they were being exposed to. Jim brought a tank of compressed gas up to the city council desk and opened the valve. The City Councilors scattered, panicked, demanding to know what was in that tank, demanding to know what they were being exposed to!

Those are the kind of tactics we need to figure out how to use again. What we need to do is relax, find some tactics we enjoy, and show the world not just that they are wrong, but that they are ridiculous.

I will leave you with this thought that Jeff Faux, former President of the Economic Policy Institute used to say:

“We don't get to decide who wins; history decides that. We only get to decide which side we fight on and how hard we fight.”
So go forth. Be of good cheer. This too shall pass.

Thank you.