The lives of people who died while on the job in 2020 – particularly those who died as a result of COVID-19 – were remembered at the annual Workers Memorial Service on Wednesday afternoon, April 28, at Bringewatt Park.
The names of 18 North Dakotans were read during the service. Eighty Minnesota workers also were remembered. A bell was rung for each of them.
The event, organized by the Northern Valley Labor Council of the North Dakota AFL-CIO, drew a crowd that assembled to pay homage to those workers at the brick memorial structure in the northwest corner of the park
During the service, special emphasis was placed on frontline workers who died because of the coronavirus – nurses, doctors and other health care workers. Other workers – including teachers, truck drivers and grocery store employees – who put their lives at risk also were honored.
They are among “all kinds of people who’ve put their lives on the front line to try to make life a little bit easier for everybody else,” said Mark Froemke, president of the Northern Valley Labor Council.
Among health care workers, “over 3,000 have died because of COVID-19 as of March 11 of this year,” said Froemke. “Hundreds of nurses have died throughout the United States because of COVID.”
“In the meatpacking industry, more than 250 workers have contracted COVID and died from it,” he said.
“This is a time to remember how important everybody’s life is,” Froemke said. “We remember all workers because all workers, whether they’re in a union or not, deserve to be in a safe environment.”
Another speaker, Joe Dewey, president of the Grand Forks Firefighters Union Local #242, said that nationwide about 32,700 firefighters were exposed to COVID-19 in 2020; 164 of those were hospitalized and 39 died in the International Association of Fire Fighters. He also recognized, across the country, the 123 firefighters and 56 emergency medical personnel who lost their lives.
Dewey asked the audience to remember those family members whose lives have been impacted by loss, “especially the Cody Holte family,” Dewey said. Holte, a Grand Forks police officer, was shot and killed in the line of duty in May 2020.
Local singer-guitarist Ron Franz performed songs, including “We come here to work, we don’t come to die.” The song was performed by “a great folk singer,” Anne Feeney, an American singer-songwriter, when the Workers Memorial was dedicated in September 1997, Froemke said. Feeney died recently from COVID, he said.
The Rev. Monsignor Daniel Pilon, pastor at St. Michael’s Church, delivered a prayer at the start of the service. For years, that prayer was offered by the Rev. Lynn Ronsberg, of Sharon Lutheran Church, who died April 19.
“She was an incredible person,” Froemke said. “She surely was a good friend of working people. We really appreciated her doing that for us.”
The names of North Dakotans who died were read and a bell was rung for each. But because Minnesota only releases the number – and not the names – of its deceased workers, those workers were commemorated with a bell ring only.
The event, which has been held annually for more than 20 years, is intended “to remind everybody that when workers go to work, they don’t go there to die,” Froemke said.
“It’s important to remind people how important people’s jobs are,” he said, “but at the same time how important it is that people have a good, safe job and employers provide safe jobs, and that workers abide by the rules of safety.”
Froemke also used the occasion to highlight the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which would change laws to make it easier for workers to organize in unions, he told the Herald earlier this week. “Because if laws were changed and workers had more say in their being union, if they choose, they would have a bigger say in the PPEs (personal protective equipment) in their workplace and (that) would keep them safe.”
He hopes that with safer workplaces, memorial services such as this one won’t be necessary in the future.
“What we’re hoping to do in a sense is, in the end, put our program out of business, because nobody dies on the job,” he said.