In their attempt to strip public employees of their right to organize Governor Walker and the Republican dominated legislature have attacked public employees as slobs and attempted to divide us from the private sector workers that we serve. They have tried to rewrite history, a history written in the blood of workers who died because they did not have a voice on the job and who sacrificed their lives fighting for the right to be represented by a union.
As public servants fight to protect our rights we should never forget the debt we owe to those who preceded us like the 146 workers, mostly teenage Jewish and Italian immigrant girls, who perished in the Triangle Waist Shirt factory fire in New York City (NYC) one hundred years ago on March 25, 1911.
The Triangle factory was a militantly anti-union operation. Hundreds of girls and women working 12 to 16 hours a day earned $5 a week or less to help dress Americans in the white gauzy blouses called shirt waists. (New York Times, March, 25, 2011)
Factory foremen locked the exit doors to keep workers from taking breaks and stealing scraps of fabric and to keep union organizers out. Other doors only opened inward and were blocked during the fire by the stampede of workers struggling to escape. The fire started on the 9th floor and swept through the factory on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors. Within a half hour, 146 workers, all but 23 women, had died. 90 jumped to their deaths through the 9th floor windows. The others perished in the flames.
The largest public funeral march in the New York City’s history, more than 100,000 people, was held a few days later. Another 250,000 lined the route. Their grief built support for the right of garment workers to unionize. An enraged public demanded that industrial abuses be regulated.
Three weeks before the fire, NYC’s Fire Commissioner ordered sprinklers installed in the Shirt Waist factory. But the owners refused. Industry spokesman indignantly accused the Fire Department of seeking to force the use of cumbersome and costly‟ apparatus“ and warned that the new laws would drive “manufacturers out of the city and state of New York.” The New York Herald supported the owners claiming the order amounted to “„a confiscation of property…‟ (Stein, Triangle Fire, p. 25-26)
Following the fire Mr. H. F. J. Porter, a fire prevention expert who in 1909 had advised Triangle to organize fire drills, told the New York Times: “The neglect of factory owners in the matter of the safety of their employees is absolutely criminal. One man whom I advised to install a fire drill replied to me: “Let em burn. They’re a lot of cattle anyway.‟” (Stein, p. 29.)
Only a year before the fire, the Triangle workers had led a general strike of 20,000 to 40,000 garment workers demanding union recognition and fire safety regulations. Most of the city’s factories agreed to the demands of the Women’s Trade Union League. Triangle’s owners refused. A year later 146 workers were dead.
A surviving Triangle worker, Rose Sabran, said of that defeat: “If the union had won we would have been safe. Two of our demands were for adequate fire escapes and for open doors from the factories to the streets. But the bosses defeated us and we didn’t get the open doors or better fire escapes. So our friends are dead.” (Stein, p. 18)
Following this the fire, garment workers throughout the country, including in Milwaukee’s sweatshops, organized. In NYC the Factory Investigating Committee was established and succeeded in getting fire, sanitation, child labor and occupational health and safety regulations passed. Yet New York’s business leaders, like Wisconsin’s corporate leadership today, opposed the legislation, hysterically insisting that that changes to the fire code would mean “the wiping out of industry in this state.” They wanted to keep New York City, in the words of Wisconsin current Governor, “open for business”
George W. Olvany, the special counsel to the Real Estate Board could have been speaking for the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) when he wrote: “The owners of real property are becoming terrified by the number of laws which have been enacted affecting real property…This compels the owner to expend…large sums of money, which…are absolutely needless and useless.”
( Op-ed by: “The Fire Hazard in Big Buildings,” NYT. May 3, 1914)
Laurence M. D. McGuire president of the Real Estate Board also weighed in declaring:”….The experience of the past proves conclusively that the best government is the least possible government, that the unfettered initiative of the individual is the force that makes a country great and that this initiative should never be bound…” (FIC Fourth Report, 1915, Vol. 1, p 76-83)
These are the same arguments used by the WMC and Governor Walker today in their fight to destroy public sector unions, cut corporate taxes and eliminate workplace, consumer and environmental regulations
Walker and company hope we will forget what the American workplace was like before we had unions, labor laws and public employees to enforce those laws.
They want us to forget about the 146 women who died in the Triangle fire because it was too expensive to install fire escapes and sprinklers and set up fire drills.
They want us to forget that unions civilized the American workplace by ensuring that workers have a voice at work.
As we fight to protect our right to organize, let’s honor the sacrifice of the Triangle Factory workers whose terrifying and horrible deaths we remember this week.