Workers Memorial Day at Capitol

In St. Paul, more than 125 people gathered at the Workers Memorial Garden on the Capitol grounds. Most huddled under a tent in 40-degree weather as steady drizzle fell around them. (with MNDOT video) For the first time, the ceremony combined observances organized each year by MnDOT’s Metro District and by the Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council.

With road construction season about to get under way, speakers emphasized the partnership in creating safe work zones that exists between MnDOT, state employees, union construction workers, signatory contractors in the private sector, and the Minnesota State Patrol. The missing piece of the partnership, speakers stressed, is motorists. “Highway workers put their safety and their very lives on the line every day,” said Mike Buesing, president of AFSCME Council 5 and a member of MnDOT Metro Local 221. “They face risks not seen in other occupations.”

There were roughly 225 more crashes in work zones in 2010 than in 2009, bringing the annual total to more than 1,900, said Mike Barnes, director of MnDOT’s operations division. Although it is the highway workers most at risk, it is motorists who usually die, the statistics show.

Col. Mark Dunaski, chief of the Minnesota State Patrol, alluded to the recent epidemic in which 36 State Patrol vehicles have been hit by other motorists in the last six months. “Media always cover troopers being hit,” he said. “In many cases, the construction workers and DOT workers put themselves at even greater risk than the troopers, in much more perilous situations.”

Dunaski pointed out Minnesota’s “Ted Foss law,” named for a state trooper killed by a motorist in 2000. The law requires drivers to “move over” into the next lane or to slow down when passing not only police, fire and emergency vehicles on the shoulder, but also construction and highway vehicles. “Let’s do one thing,” said Dave Simerod, CEO of Associated General Contractors of Minnesota. Holding up a cell phone, he said: “Turn this off. Your phone call, your text message, your email message can wait. If it can’t wait, pull off to the side and be safe. Think about how much safer our roads will be and how much safer our workers will be.”

Mike Buesing, president of AFSCME Council 5 and member of MnDOT Metro Local 221, speaks in front of a poster of deceased Local 280 member Michael Struck.

The Workers Memorial Day ceremony officially honored the 33 MnDOT employees and 13 private-sector road workers killed on the job since 1960. That includes AFSCME Local 280 member Michael Struck, who died in the line of duty March 22 while fighting flood waters near St. Peter.

The ceremony also honored five workers killed during construction of the nearby Minnesota Capitol between 1898 and 1903. Labor historians, for the first time, compiled the names of the workers: Felix Arthur, Albert Swanson, Alfred Magnuson, Florian Zauner, and John Corrigan. A labor history tour of the Capitol, on May 14, will give details on their lives and deaths.

Finally, Thursday’s ceremony also honored three Building Trades workers who died from asbestos-related illness this past year: David Helterline, of Sheet Metal Workers Local 10; Robert Nuestvold, of Elevator Constructors Local 9; and Jerome Pietruszewski, of Heat and Frost Insulators Local 34.

Article by AFSCME Council 5 Communications CoordinatorMichael Kuchta, and reprinted from Workday Minnesota.