Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Meaningful Anniversary

On March 25, 1911 the Triangle shirtwaist factory, located on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of a Manhattan building, caught fire. The owners, whose offices were on the top floor, were able to get up to the roof and across to another building. About half of the workers on the 8th and 9th floors were able to get to safety by elevator or by the one available flight of stairs. The fire department ladders only went six stories high, and were useless. Of the three hundred Triangle employees, 146 died in the fire, most of them immigrant women in their teens and twenties. Several months earlier, Triangle workers, along with many other garment industry employees, had gone on strike for shorter hours, higher pay and safer working conditions. The owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company agreed to modify hours and raise pay, but would not allow a union. Neither did they make the place any safer. About 30 of the workers died while trying to leave the building on a fire escape that was rusted and rotten and plummeted to the ground with them on it. The reason that there was only one stairway available is that the others were locked because the owners feared employee theft.

As a result of the Triangle Fire, the labor movement was able to establish itself and lobby for hard-won victories in working hours, minimum wage, child labor laws and safety and health requirements. Our country learned at a steep price that if those issues were left to business owners, human safety and quality of life would never take precedence over profit. Sadly, that fact is still true.

Later this month, the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Factory fire will take place. It could not come at a more appropriate time. As thousands take to the streets in Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio to protest the effort by Republican governors to bring down public-sector unions, and as hotel and food service workers in California try to improve their lot by unionizing, we need to remember the reasons why unions were necessary, and what they have accomplished. Auto workers, truckers, nurses, garment workers and supermarket checkers bought their homes, sent their children to college and retired in some comfort because of unions. Unions have been largely responsible for creating a stable middle class in the United States and yet, 100 years later, we still need to prove to some in this country that they need to exist.

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