The Staying Power of Labor Unions
Written by Faith Anderson on April 5, 2011
The law, which has since been put on hold until a Wisconsin judge can hear and consider complaints, would require state and local workers to pay more towards their retirement and health benefits, concessions which were accepted by the unions. However, the law, if passed, would also prevent union workers from negotiating future wages and benefits, and from automatically collecting member dues. It would also require unions to collect annual votes from their members in order to stay organized.
Following in the footsteps of previously union-friendly Wisconsin, other states are moving to impose limitations on the rights of union workers with laws that would end a half-century of collective bargaining rights for public employees. This anti-union battle is spreading across the country, affecting a number of U.S. states, like Michigan, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Ohio, as government officials attempt to put a strangle-hold on the freedom and collective bargaining rights of union members. Public employee unions were organized in an attempt to establish equality and justice for workers, and to implement government regulations concerning workplace safety, a cause which was honored recently on the 100-year anniversary of the devastating fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist company on March 25, 1911.
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
One hundred and forty-six lives were lost in 1911 during a fire which burned the Asch Building in New York City, a ten-story structure which housed a garment factory and employed about 500 young immigrant women and over a dozen men. The fire was a catastrophe, considered to be the deadliest industrial disaster in New York, and the fourth highest loss of life caused by an industrial accident in the history of the United States. Although the fire was an accident and the building was engulfed in flames in a matter of minutes, the tragic loss of life may have been avoided had government regulations and workplace safety laws been established by labor unions at that time.
According to reports of the Triangle fire, the building in which the company produced their garments was grossly unsafe, a factor which almost entirely contributed to the deaths that occurred that day. The fire was believed to be caused by an unextinguished match or cigarette tossed into a garbage bin containing scraps of fabric. As the fabric ignited, smoke began to pour from the windows of the eighth floor. A passerby on the street reported the fire and, although the eighth floor was able to alert the tenth via telephone, the building was not equipped with an audible alarm, and staff on the ninth floor was unaware of the fire until it literally reached their doorstep.
As the top three floors erupted in flames and terrified employees scrambled to escape the factory, the truly hazardous nature of the relatively new New York City building became suddenly apparent. The Asch Building contained no smoke detectors, no fire exits, no sprinkler system, and a single exterior fire escape which may have been broken before the fire even occurred. Several stairway doors were locked to thwart theft attempts during the work day. This prevented employees from escaping to the street, and the foreman who held the keys had already escaped from the building. Hundreds of employees found themselves trapped in their own factory, experiencing firsthand what would be known as one of the worst industrial disasters in U.S. history.
As the fire progressed, a number of people made it safely up to the roof and were able to escape, and others fled via the elevators while they were still in operation. Sadly, the elevator cars eventually gave in to the intense heat of the fire and people began to throw themselves down the empty elevator shaft in a desperate attempt at freedom. Elevator operators made several attempts to rescue employees from the upper floors of the factory, but the overwhelming weight of the bodies on the roofs of the elevators eventually made it impossible for the cars to move. As an alternative, dozens of people crowded on the solitary fire escape which eventually collapsed, sending young men and women plummeting nearly 100 feet to their death in the street below. Sixty-two people jumped from the top floors of the building to avoid being overcome by the smoke and fire. Although the fire department arrived at the scene relatively quickly, firefighters were unable to extinguish the flames, as their ladders only reached to the sixth floor of the building.
Workplace Representation and Safety Regulations in the Twenty-First Century
The implementation and enforcement of a safe working environment is only one of the causes of labor unions. Unions are critical to the well-being of working families, providing workers a fair opportunity to organize and discuss problems and solutions concerning fair wages, better benefits and safe working conditions. Without unions, employers would be permitted to establish rules and regulations without considering their employees’ perspectives.
One of the components of a person’s freedom is the ability to have fair representation in the workplace, a right that is guaranteed by law. In fact, union organization positively contributes to our entire society, establishing fair standards for wages, taxes and other aspects of our society. Unfortunately, union organization in recent years has suffered a sharp decline, due in part to employers’ obstruction of their workers’ attempts to seek fair representation. In fact, in 2010, only 11.9% of American workers belonged to a union, establishing a new 70-year low. Some government officials today believe that unions are no longer relevant, as government regulations already exist to protect workers. Unfortunately, these officials are simultaneously working to minimize those same government regulations in order to appease the desires of big corporations.
Had public employee unions existed in the time of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, the horrific event may never have occurred. Had safety regulations existed and been enforced, the deaths of over one hundred hardworking, innocent workers could have been prevented. Had the safety and lives of hundreds of workers been considered more important than preventing the theft of fabric, the stairway doors may have been unlocked and the factory owners may have stayed behind to help their employees flee the blaze. Fortunately, there are regulations enforcing workplace safety today, but with the limiting of union power and the overall obstruction of union organization, these laws may fall by the wayside as well.
The Triangle disaster directly contributed to the establishment of some of the first workplace safety, workers’ compensation, and fire inspection laws in the nation, thereby modernizing labor laws in New York and across the country. These laws have led to the establishment of today’s standards of safer work environments, fair wages and benefits for public employees, and equality and justice in the workplace. Unfortunately, anti-union battles are being waged across the country today, as certain government officials seek to cripple the very organizations that fought so hard in the past to establish laws regarding labor benefits and workplace safety. In fact, nearly half of the U.S. states have established “right to work” laws that make it extremely difficult for workers to organize. By stripping unions of their power to organize and minimizing their fight for workers’ rights, state governments are waging a national anti-union battle and crippling the very nature of American freedom.