New York, NY – Labor leaders, workers, and elected officials gathered on Wednesday, April 28, across the street from Elmhurst Hospital in Queens — once the “epicenter of the epicenter” during the COVID-19 pandemic — to commemorate all the essential workers who have succumbed to the the virus.
They also called on Congress to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would strengthen workers’ freedom to organize a union and collectively bargain for safer working conditions. The event featured speakers from the New York City Central Labor Council [NYCCLC], AFL-CIO, New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), and Congress Member Grace Meng, among others.
“When we talk about safety in the workplace, we usually gather at the site of workplace fatalities. But not all take place at the workplace,” NYCCLC President Vinny Alvarez said. “Today, we are at a hospital.”
Alvarez also thanked essential workers for keeping the city safe throughout the ongoing pandemic, and said labor unions are coming together to demand safer conditions. The gathering was “to honor those who we have lost/died and to fight for those working in unsafe conditions, and also to fight for the PRO Act. This would strengthen workers’ voices on the job,” he added.
Menge alluded to the 7 p.m. ritual of banging pots and pans in celebration of all the essential workers making it possible for the rest of New York to survive the pandemic. But said they now need more than “applause” and “hashtags.”
“They need legislation to be passed,” the representative said. “We will not rest until the [PRO Act] has passed. We can’t talk about voter suppression when workers don’t have their voices heard.”
NYCOSH Executive Director Charlene Obernauer, cited workers in a variety of industries including construction, nail salons, nurses and teachers, who were injured or killed as a result of workplace violence, and also spoke of the high percentage of those who contracted COVID-19 because of their jobs.
Miriam Bolanos of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union [RWDSU], spoke of the harsh working conditions in the car wash industry, and said, “We remember all the members we lost all too soon because of exposure to workers’ hazards.”
Queens Borough President Donovan Richards honored the “over 7,000 Queens residents that died of COVID-19,” “essential workers that drive the city,” and said that his father, a building service worker at the height of the pandemic, “couldn’t even find a mask but still had to go to work.” He said we need a “new normal” where “policies and priorities reflect what we need as a city.”
“We are proud of the 150,000 New Yorkers we saved, but many nurses were lost and some are still suffering today. It’s time to go back and protect workers,” New York State Nurses Association [NYSNA] Executive Director Pat Kane said.
Each attendee held flowers honoring the memory of all those who lost their lives simply performing their jobs over the past year.