As Illinois gears up to vote on workers’ rights, unions remember those killed on the job

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Roy Graham, the father of Deidre Silas, the state Department of Children and Family Services worker who was stabbed to death while doing her job, places a rose for workers killed on the job on a replica of the Illinois Workers Memorial statue during the annual Workers Memorial Day ceremony Thursday at the Illinois AFL-CIO Front Plaza. [Thomas J. Turney/The State Journal-Register]

Fifty-one years ago, the Occupational Safety and Health Act went into effect. Since 1989, the day has been commemorated by American labor unions as Workers Memorial Day. 

On Thursday morning, the AFL-CIO hosted its annual memorial service to honor the day, the first time its been held in-person since the start of the pandemic. 

This year’s service was dedicated to Deidre Silas, a Springfield resident and Department of Children and Family Services worker who was killed on the job earlier this year. 

Silas’ family attended the ceremony. Her father, Roy Graham, placed a rose on a replica of the Illinois Workers Memorial statue in Silas’ memory as part of the ceremony. 

Past coverage:Family, friends, co-workers remember Silas during services at Union Baptist Church

Graham was joined by other relatives of workers who died on the job as well as their "union brothers and sisters," who placed 75 roses to honor the dead. 

The 75 workers all died since the Workers Memorial Day tradition began in the 10-county area covered by the local AFL-CIO’s Springfield and Central Illinois Trades and Labor Council. About half of Illinois’ 22 AFL-CIO councils held similar events around the state. 

Silas’ death motivated several lawmakers to push for new standards for DCFS this spring, resulting in the legislature passing several new laws, including one granting DCFS workers the option to carry pepper spray or mace if they’ve been trained and one granting the family of those killed on the job ancillary benefits, such as health insurance. 

"It’s not a political issue, it’s a workplace safety issue," said state Sen. Doris Turner, D-Springfield, who co-sponsored both of those bills. 

Despite multiple attempts, Turner was unsuccessful at passing the Knight-Silas Legacy Act, a proposal first introduced by Rep. Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, after the death of Pamela Knight, another DCFS worker who died on the job. Turner said she is looking to bring that bill back up for consideration in this fall’s legislative veto session. 

"The only way way we can continue to put workplace safety on the front burner is to have days like this to honor our brothers and sisters for the sacrifice they made and at the same time, advocate for laws that will protect workers, so we can eliminate workplace death and injuries," said Tim Drea, president of the Illinois AFL-CIO.

Family members of Department of Children and Family Service caseworker Deidre Silas, who was stabbed to death while doing her job, front, along with others attending the annual Workers Memorial Day ceremony at the Illinois AFL-CIO Front Plaza, observe a moment of silence Thursday. [Thomas J. Turney/The State Journal-Register]

In Illinois, 135 people died on the job in 2020, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s just over one workplace fatality every three days. 

Nationwide, there were 4,764 fatal work injuries, meaning somewhere in the country, a worker died every 111 minutes. 

2020 saw the fewest workplace fatalities of any year since 2013 nationwide and the fewest workplace fatalities in Illinois since 1996, the first year for which statistics are available. 

Though the numbers have been decreasing, labor advocates and officials within workplace safety agencies around the country believe that more must be done to reduce the number of workplace deaths. 

"We have to keep fighting until every worker is able to go home to their family at the end of the day, safe and healthy," said Natalicia Tracy, senior policy adviser at OSHA during the Department of Labor’s Workers Memorial Day service.

State Sen. Doris Turner, D-Springfield, speaks during the annual Workers Memorial Day ceremony at the Illinois AFL-CIO Front Plaza on Thursday. [Thomas J. Turney/The State Journal-Register]

Illinoisans are preparing to make a decision about the future of organized labor later this year, when a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the rights of workers to "organize and to bargain collectively" will be put to voters on the ballot at the Nov. 8 election. 

"Workplace safety is why we’re advocating for the passage of the Illinois Workers Rights Amendment," said Drea in a speech at the memorial. 

The amendment was approved by the General Assembly in 2021, with the language that will appear on the ballot approved this year on April 9. 

Read the language of the amendment

"They normally vote for Democrats, Republicans, independents or Libertarians," said Drea. "This time, the first question on the ballot, they can vote for themselves." 

Illinois AFL-CIO President Tim Drea speaks during the 2022 Annual Workers Memorial Day Ceremony at the Illinois AFL-CIO Front Plaza on Thursday, April 28, 2022. [Thomas J. Turney/The State Journal-Register]

Drea added that the amendment will help workers ensure their workplaces are safe in addition to protecting collective bargaining in Illinois. 

The amendment gained bipartisan support in both chambers of the Illinois legislature, passing on a 49-7 vote in the Senate and 80-30-3 vote in the House. All of those who voted against the amendment are Republicans. 

But others have already started to fight the measure in the courts. 

Last week, lawyers from the conservative Liberty Justice Center and the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think tank, filed a lawsuit against the state board of elections arguing that the language of the amendment is too broad. 

"If Illinois were seeking solely to make right-to-work unconstitutional in Illinois, the phrasing would have reflected that, as it did in a previous version of this amendment filed in 2019," said Mailee Smith, director of labor policy and staff attorney at the Illinois Policy Institute in a statement. "Instead, the current phrasing creates a litany of problems, could lead to unparalleled power by a special interest group and most importantly, is unconstitutional.”

Smith and lawyers from the Liberty Justice Center argue in the lawsuit that because the amendment regulates private sector unions, it conflicts with the federal National Labor Relations Act. They say because the federal constitution says federal law takes precedence over state laws, the amendment is unconstitutional. 

This is the first time the two conservative organizations have partnered since they argued the U.S. Supreme Court case Janus v. AFSCME, in which the Supreme Court found that government employees cannot be required to pay union fees as part of their employment. 

via The State Journal-Register

April 30, 2022 at 06:03PM

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