November is Labor Martyr’s Month. Below is a thing I wrote for that, a little early. But first, a poem by Ralph Chaplin.

Red November, black November,
Bleak November, black and red.
Hallowed month of labor’s martyrs,
Labor’s heroes, labor’s dead.

Labor’s wrath and hope and sorrow,
Red the promise, black the threat,
Who are we not to remember?
Who are we to dare forget?

Black and red the colors blended,
Black and red the pledge we made,
Red until the fight is ended,
Black until the debt is paid.

In November we remember. Fellow Worker Utah Philips, gone but not forgotten, hopefully somewhere up in the sky enjoying a piece of pie, said once that we should remember our labor martyrs, like Frank Little, murdered by mine owners in Montana, Welsey Everest, lynched by anonymous cowards in Washington. Even more than that, he said, we must also remember all the people who died and got hurt on the job. We must remember our martyrs who died fighting for justice. As part of keeping alive our urgent demand for justice we must also remember our fellow workers ground under the gears of the capitalist system while trying to earn a living.

I recently became a father, so babies, parenting, and family are on my mind a lot. Injuries take a toll on the individuals hurt. Since all of us are social beings, an injury to one is also a direct injury to many others as well, financially and emotionally. Workers compensation law in the US deliberately sets the level of compensation below that of workers’ wages. This means that in addition to the physical and emotional costs, institutions in our society are deliberately set up to make injuries a greater financial cost than they have to be.

There is an old IWW poem, later set to music, “We Have Fed You All For A Thousand Years.” Its author is listed as “Unknown Proletarian.” It accuses the capitalists, “You have taken our lives, and our babies and wives and we’re told it’s your legal share.” The poem also states “There is never a mine blown skyward now but we’re buried alive for you. There’s never a wreck drifts shoreward now but we are its ghastly crew.” It urges the working class to “Go reckon our dead by the forges red and the factories where we spin.”

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there were 4,340 workers killed on the job in 2009. That’s 4,340 people who had mothers who gave birth to them; that’s 4,340 people who used to be little kids, people with friends and loved ones. That’s not all. In 2008 between 50-60,000 US workers died of occupational diseases. Also in 2008 about 4.6 million US workers reported suffering nonfatal workplace injuries or occupational illnesses. And these are just the reported cases — many go unreported — and just the ones in the US. The actual toll globally is much, much higher.

Fortunately no one in my family has died on the job, at least as far as I know, with the exception of some relatives killed while serving in the military. Still, workplace injury has effected multiple generations in my family. In the 1950s a great uncle of mine broke his back in an accident at a coal-mine in West Virginia. This led my grandfather and many others in the family to move out of that state and to look for work in other industries.

In the late 70s my mom hurt her back lifting packages at UPS. She collected workers compensation for a while before she went back to work. She wore a back brace pretty regularly for a few years after this injury. Shortly after she came back to work she got pregnant. When her manager found out, he fired her. My mom begged for her job but was told there was no place for her there while pregnant. She was convinced this was because the boss was angry at her for filing a workers comp claim.

In 1994 on a construction site my dad was working at some workers were lowering a manhole cover. One of them slipped and dropped the manhole cover. The heavy cover landed on tips of all four fingers one man’s hand. It tore all the skin and muscle off. One co-worker called an ambulance while another tried to comfort him. The 911 dispatcher said someone should find and gather up the man’s severed finger tips in case they could be sown back on. My dad picked them up, trying not to throw up. The guy was in his late 20s and had previously been an avid guitar player.

In 1996 at a Siegel’s factory a bunch of lumber fell on me, hitting me in the head and the hand. Luckily I was wearing my hard hat so my head was okay. The lumber broke off a piece of the bone in one of my knuckles in my left hand. My mom insisted that I not file a workers comp claim or I would be fired so I never filed. I was off work for 6 or 8 weeks unpaid. At the time I was a pretty good bass played before the injury. That job paid $7.60 an hour.

A year or so ago my 23 year old brother was told to lift something too heavy at a welding job. He felt a strong pain in his crotch. He asked to go to the doctor. The manager argued with him back and forth for an hour. He finally insisted enough that they let him go. He had a hernia. The company doctor put him on light duty at work. He drove back to work. They told him they had no light duty and sent him home. After a week, feeling somewhat better but still hurt, he decided he needed to go back to work. He had just bought and moved into a trailer-home and was worried about money. His boss said he couldn’t work unless the doctor cleared him. My brother called the doctor and explained his situation, the doctor faxed a note to the plant manager’s office. My brother called his boss, who said “we got that fax saying you’re able to work but you don’t have a job here.” He needed money so he found another job at a different factory. He works 60 hours a week at the new plant and says he doesn’t have the time and energy to find a lawyer to pursue any legal action over his injuries. He made about $9.00 an hour at that job.

About a week ago my 20 year old brother got a shard of metal in his eye at a metal fabrication factory. At the emergency room they dug into his eye to pull the shard out, gave him a prescription for vicodin, and said that if he couldn’t see out of it in a few days then he should go see a doctor. So far we don’t know if his employer has workers compensation insurance or not. The boss is not cooperating. My brother is going to see about getting a lawyer. He made about $9 an hour at that job.

I want to quote again from “We Have Fed You All.” In the words of the Unknown Proletarian, “If blood be the price of your cursed wealth, Good God we have paid it in.” In November, we remember.

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