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Dr. Linda Murray, guest speaker at CUPE’s National Health and Safety Conference, got delegates off to a rousing start Friday morning.

Murray, a doctor and former CUPE member who worked at the Manitoba Federation of Labour’s Occupational Health Centre in the 1980s, got a standing ovation from the crowd after telling members that health and safety activism is all about taking power back from the employer.

When we have the structures and set-ups that allow us to have more power in the workplace, we have safer and healthier workplaces,” she said.

Murray is co-chief medical officer for 30 community health centres in Chicago’s Cook County. She emphasized the important role unions have collectively to uphold health and safety as a basic human right.

The conditions for health – peace, shelter, education, food, income, a stable ecosystem, sustainable resources, social justice and equity – that’s what unions are about. Our very reason for existing is because we believe that health, and health and safety, are a basic human right,” she said.

She singled out public sector workers as having an additional burden, a special responsibility, because our jobs are to provide services to the people around us.

When we don’t have power, not only are our lives in danger but so is everybody else’s,” Murray said, reminding members that what is in the workplace doesn’t stop in the workplace. “When we fail to maintain power in our hospitals, we allow epidemics to run rampant … As public service workplaces, we should be the best example for all workplaces.”

Either we lie down and be quiet (as workers) and continue to be exploited, and we continue to add names to CUPE’s fatalities banner, or we can stand up and fight,” she said. “We have no choice in this matter because we are fighting for our lives.”