Burlington's newest monument, which is also one of the city's simplest and most moving, commemorates all the Vermonters who have been killed or injured while doing their jobs. The tombstone-like granite memorial is inscribed with a paraphrase of the famous exhortation of pioneering American labor organizer Mary Harris Mother Jones: “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Burlington mayor Bob Kiss are expected to take part in the dedication in Battery Park on Monday along with a few Vermont union leaders and workers affected by job-related accidents or illnesses.The ceremony coincides with Workers Memorial Day, an international remembrance held annually on April 28.
Complaints about job safety regularly received on the Vermont Workers' Center hotline prompted the Burlington-based organizing group to propose creation of a memorial, says James Haslam, the center's director. The effort was also spurred by Michelle Lewis, a Shelburne resident whose stepfather, a plumber, was killed in a trench collapse in Florida in 2005.
The workers' center enlisted the help of the Granite Cutters Association in Barre, a union that, Haslam notes, “has defined success in stopping horrible health and safety conditions in that industry.” Several union members collaborated on the design for the memorial, says Matthew Peake, the association's business agent. Contributions were also made by a couple of granite companies that want to remain anonymous, Peake adds.
The Kiss administration facilitated installation of the memorial in Battery Park about 20 yards east of the band shell. “Bob [Kiss] viewed it as a piece of unfinished business that he wanted to see completed because it's something he feels strongly about,” Haslam says.
Peake estimates that the memorial would have cost about $2500 had the labor and material not been donated.
“It's important for granite workers to be involved because we've all had family members become either disabled or sick,” Peake says, noting that he is the third generation in his own family to work in the Barre granite industry.
Job-related fatalities in Vermont occur, on average, once a month. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there were 12 workplace deaths in the state in 2009 and again in 2010 — the latest year for which statistics are available. At least three Vermonters have died on the job in the past six weeks, with the most recent death taking place on April 25 in Middletown Springs, where a utility worker was electrocuted while installing a high-speed internet line.
A total of 4547 Americans were killed on the job in 2010, according to the BLS. That's about 100 more than the total number of American deaths during the 8-year-long war in Iraq.
Photo credit: Kevin J. Kelley