Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

“Unions are also the only large-scale movement left in America that persistently acts as a countervailing power against corporate power. They’re the only large-scale movement left that persistently acts in the economic interests of the middle class.”

On March 25, 1911, 146 young immigrant workers, mostly female, died in a tragic fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York’s Greenwich Village. Within 18 minutes, the fire spread to consume the building’s upper three stories. Firefighters who arrived at the scene were unable to rescue those workers trapped inside because the doors were locked and their ladders could not reach the factory floor. This tragedy galvanized a city and state to fight for labor reform and safety in the workplace.

And now a century later, it’s clear that organized labor is under attack. You may have seen the cookie joke. “You know: a CEO, a tea party member, and a union worker are all sitting at a table when a plate with a dozen cookies arrives. Before anyone else can make a move, the CEO reaches out to rake in eleven of the cookies. When the other two look at him in surprise, the CEO locks eyes with the tea party member. ‘You better watch him,’ the executive says with a nod toward the union worker. ‘He wants a piece of your cookie.'”

Just because I haven’t spoken much here about the attacks on labor, in the US and elsewhere, doesn’t mean that I’m not disturbed by the lies that have been thrown around in the debate.

In particular, I’ve been irritated over the trampling of school teachers, which, of course, hits home. Especially compared with the Wall Street folk who apparently are barely scraping by.

Check out the latest Productivity and Costs news release from the U.S. Department of Labor: productivity rose 2.6 percent in the nonfarm business sector in the fourth quarter of 2010; unit labor costs declined 0.6 percent (seasonally adjusted annual rates). Annual average productivity increased 3.9 percent from 2009 to 2010. Squeezing more with less, which may be good for the business bottom line, but not necessarily for the workers who buy the goods and services that are being produced.

Jaquandor quotes Kevin Drum: “Of course unions have pathologies. Every big human institution does. And anyone who thinks they’re on the wrong side of an issue should fight it out with them. But unions are also the only large-scale movement left in America that persistently acts as a countervailing power against corporate power. They’re the only large-scale movement left that persistently acts in the economic interests of the middle class.”

Another labor story is running through my mind: the “feel-good” story of 2010, the rescue of the 33 Chilean miners. But the 60 Minutes story about them in February 2011 shows that the men are still suffering from a sense of despair. There was supposed to have been emergency food made available, but it was a “pittance”; the men seriously considered suicide or cannibalism over starving to death. The disaster, like so many other mining crises, in the United States and elsewhere, was a function of management ineptitude or callous indifference.

Almost all labor unions evolved from greed or stupidity on the part of those in control. I recall that there was a massive snowstorm on a Saturday in March of 1993 in Albany, and the librarians tried in vain to get ahold of the director. Since the city had called a state of emergency – 26 inches would ultimately fall, making it the 2nd worst snowstorm in city history, after March 1888 – the folks made the decision to close the library. The autocratic director was furious, took some disciplinary actions against those who departed early. The unionization of the librarians stemmed from that event.

So, let not my lack of ranting confuse you; in most cases, I tend to side with the labor unions, even though, I should point out, I do not belong to one. Not every labor dispute is a matter of life and death; sometimes, it’s only a matter of worker dignity.

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

3 thoughts on “Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire”

  1. Thank you for this Roger—though I hope you won’t catch too much flak for it. I was a member of a labour union for awhile because the company I worked for was restructuring and we didn’t trust them. They eventually sold out to a foreign company, and things ended up even worse.

    I’d extend what you said by arguing that unions are, in fact, the only thing preventing complete takeover by the corporate elites. And that’s why Republicans want to destroy them. I’m biased, I know, but I’ll wear that as a badge of honour.

    As an aside, when I lived in the US I actually did “look for the union label,” as the commercial for the union that sprang from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster asked. But even way back then, I seldom found one.

  2. My parents were teachers who had a union. I never had a union in my job sector. A union is good for pay and perks negotiations but sometimes they hinder productivity.

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