The pandemic is a milestone used to mark the passing of time and while many things have changed since then, sadly one thing remains consistent: Baltimore city failing to ensure safe working conditions for city employees. Prior to the pandemic, City Union of Baltimore (CUB) Local 800 member Trina Cunningham tragically died while at work at the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant (Baltimore Sun article). Following her death, Maryland Occupational Safety and Health (MOSH) found more than a dozen serious violations at the plant, including missing and loose clips that keep grates in place. Cunningham’s death came as a result of dislodged grates.
CUB has persistently advocated for city workers’ health and safety. This time they are taking direct action, meeting members at their worksites, and distributing information about safety at work, as well as workers’ rights to refuse dangerous work. CUB President Antoinette Ryan-Johnson called it “necessary direct action in the face of what appears to be neglect on the part of the city for the safety and welfare of our members and Baltimore city public employees.” Ryan-Johnson would go on to say “as President, it is my duty to ensure the safety of our members. Our members come to work every day as they love the jobs that they do. They serve not only this city, but surrounding jurisdictions with vital services, and they deserve a safe work environment.”
This isn’t the first attempt to enhance worker safety for CUB members. In October of 2022 the union trained members on Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines (VIDEO). The ongoing effort demonstrates the dire urgency in addressing workplace safety. “We have approached management with our concerns on several occasions and by and large have been met with an iron fist. The level of concern for our members and all workers in Baltimore is so high, we felt the need to actively warn workers about the dangers of working in city facilities and at city worksites,” said Keith Wrightson, Assistant Director of Health Issues for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).
Members echo Wrightson’s concern. “Every worker, regardless of their role or position, has the fundamental right to a safe and healthy workplace. As public employees, we must advocate for this right and demand the necessary training and resources to ensure that we can work safely in confined spaces, trenches, aerial lifts, offices, and all other workspaces. It’s not just a matter of policy, it’s a matter of respect for human life and dignity,” says Donnell Allen, a CUB member working for the Department of Public Works.
This campaign utilized the resources of the local union CUB, but also the state federation, AFT-Maryland and the national federation, AFT. The all-hands-on-deck effort to reach CUB members saw organizers and activists fan out across the city over a week to share information, observe worksites, and hear directly from members about health and safety challenges. “The work CUB members do is vitally important for the city and residents depend on them to do high quality work. The information CUB distributed should raise workers’ awareness around workplace safety, and the way the union can help keep workers safe and healthy. The state federation strongly supports CUB’s awareness-raising efforts because every member deserves a safe and healthy place to go to work and the security of knowing work will not harm them,” said AFT-Maryland President Kenya Campbell.
Cunningham’s death followed the tragic Baltimore city workplace death in 2018 of Kyle Hancock, a 20-year-old contractor who was buried alive when a 15-foot trench collapsed, burying him alive.