It's very near the 100 year anniversary of an important event you've forgotten the details about--or maybe never even knew happened. But, a century after New York's Triangle Shirtwaist fire on March 25 of 1911, the lessons from the deadly disaster are as relevant as ever in the context of increased public scrutiny on the role, power and value of workers rights and public employee unions.
The Shirtwaist fire, if you vaguely recall, caused the deaths of well over 100 low wage garment workers who were locked inside the burning building that, as the New York Times notes, had inoperable fire hoses, flimsy fire escapes and no previous factory fire drills set in place.The ensuing coverage of the disaster helped give a face and a place for workers rights groups and was the impetus for the city (and then the nation) to mandate simple regulations that we now take for granted (things like sturdier fire exits and escapes, for instance).
Approaching the 100 year anniversary of the event, commentators are approaching the incident in light of the recent union standoff in Wisconsin, especially Gov. Walker's legislation to curtail collective bargaining rights of unions. Though the Triangle Shirtwaist fire exposed a situation far more exploitative and dangerous than the one at Wisconsin appears to be, the mostly progressive opinions expressed below shower heaps of praise on the America's enduring union model, and frame the event as a call to arms:
- It Would be a Second Tragedy to Return to 'Darker Ages' writes historian and CNN contributor, Steve Fraser. He writes of the Wisconsin connection: "True, no one is yet proposing to repeal the Fair Labor Standards Act or abolish occupational health and safety regulations. Still, to chip away at one of the great achievements of 20th-century American democracy by curtailing the right to collective bargaining is to take a dangerous step backward in time.Those 146 men and women died in part because they had been denied a voice in determining the basic conditions of their working lives. Their deaths were redeemed by an aroused citizenry that had come to realize that such a right was a matter of life and death and of human dignity."
- Have We Forgotten the Tragic Lessons? asks Richard Greenwald at the liberal In These Times magazine. "This year alone, 5,000 workers will loose their lives on the jobs. Many of these deaths are preventable, through better and more rigorous enforcement of current laws. Mine disasters, oil rig explosions and construction workers falling to their death are all too common. In postmortem investigations, we find that regulations were either inadequate or simply not enforced. We have slashed the budgets of regulatory agencies to the point that they can not function. How many more workers need to die before we come to our senses?"
- We Still Hear Business Owners 'Dire Predictions' When More Regulation Is Debated writes Peter Dreier and Donald Cohen at The New Republic. The authors note that "whenever reformers seek to use government" to protect consumers, businesses still inevitably balk. "For example, the disasters last year that killed 29 miners at Upper Big Branch and eleven oil rig workers in the Gulf could have been avoided had lawmakers resisted lobbying by mine owners and BP to weaken safety regulations," they write.
- 'The Triangle Factory Owners Were Vehemently Anti-Union' blogs David Dayen at the progressive site FireDogLake: "[The factory owners] got the police to arrest their striking workers. They hired thugs to beat up protesters on the picket line. They resisted accountability for safety during a 13-week strike two years before the fire, and resisted accountability for the fire long afterwards. They even got away with little more than a small fine in the aftermath. But the cause, and worker solidarity, endured."
- The Fight Continues for Women Workers finds Huffington Post contributor Brigid O'Farrell, who frames the Wisconsin governor's legislation as an "attack" on working women. "Through their unions they have secured decent wages, reasonable benefits, ways to resolve grievances, and some security for their retirement. Yet they are being criticized and their rights taken away for economic problems they didn't create...Wisconsin government could be a model of a democratic workplace, rather than a leader in an effort to dismantle workers' rights. The women of Wisconsin are joining the spirit of their sisters in the Triangle Fire and they are fighting back. They need our support. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, 'We can't just talk, we have got to act.'"
Pictured Above: city officials place Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire victims in coffins