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March 23, 2011

What Are Unions Good For?

There has been a good deal of talk recently about the public value of unions, much of it framed in the euphemistic language of “right to work” laws and the alleged unfairness of “collective bargaining.”  There is probably something to be said about how unions have occasionally exploited the power of collective bargaining in ways that may not always be in the public interest, but as Hariman pointed out recently, corporations are no less collective bargaining agents representing the special interests of owners and shareholders.  And so it hardly seems reasonable to single out unions as singularly or generically problematic in this regard.  But since we are approaching the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, there might be a different point worth making.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (TSF) was on the 8th-10th floors of the Asch Building near Manhattan’s Washington Square.  The TSF was what we would today call a sweatshop and the working conditions were oppressive.  The vast majority of the 500 employees were teenage girls, most of them recent immigrants who spoke little or no English.  At 4:45 p.m. on March 25th, just short of quitting time, a fire broke out and spread quickly.  There were two descending stairwells, but one was quickly blocked by flames and the second was locked to avoid theft.  Some packed themselves onto the sole working fire escape which quickly collapsed under the extreme weight (and in any case apparently led nowhere), others jumped down an elevator shaft or made their way to the roof of the building only to jump to their death 135 feet below.  When all was said and done 148 people—129 women and 19 men—were dead.  The owners were indicted on charges of manslaughter, but subsequently acquitted.  Two years later they lost a civil suit which compensated each family $75.00 for the loss of their loved one.  The owners were compensated by their insurance company in excess of their reported losses and in the amount of $400 per death.

The final cause of the fire was never determined, but what the photographic record made palpably clear (herehere, and here) was that the health and safety conditions of the TSF were wholly inadequate.  And this was doubly tragic since groups like the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Women’s Trade Union League had been advocating for better working conditions and protective safety legislation for several years. Following this tragedy they redoubled their efforts in both lobbying for reforms and monitoring the safety conditions within the garment industry.  Things did not change immediately, as industry leaders continued to argue that stringent safety codes would wipe them out of business—an argument that seems to persist in contemporary times—but it is hard to imagine that without the efforts of union organizations that things would have changed very much … or at all.

As we debate the value of unions in the days and weeks ahead we are well advised to recall the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and the need that workers have for a collective voice in representing their interests, particularly in the face of efforts to castigate unions as little more than selfish, greedy operations.  And to the extent that any of that interest speaks to questions of health and safety we need to recognize the especially important watchdog, public interest that is being served.

– John Lucaites

Photo Credit: Brown Brothers/Kheel Center. // Cross-posted from No Caption Needed.

  • Jack London

    “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to after it with a club.”

  • TruGal

    I’ve seen many documentaries about this fire, but the one on HBO* is spectacularly moving. And VERY timely, given all this anti-union nonsense in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

  • glen

    I learned about this incident when I was a child, from a history book. It horrified me then, and still does now.

  • George Mokray

    Frances Perkins, first woman in the Cabinet as FDR’s Secretary of Labor, was a witness to the Triangle Shirtwaist fire: “I shall never forget the frozen horror that came across as we stood with our hands on our throats watching that horrible sight, knowing that there was no help.”

    She said that the New Deal began there.

    Francis Perkins Center ( continues her work. Her portrait is in one of the panels of the mural that Maine’s Governor LePage wants to remove from the state Department of Labor.

  • Irina Brothers

    I always supported unions–until I was virtually forced to join one. I worked at an employer where the union gained the “right” to extract union dues from an increasing number of positions; that was this white collar/clerical/office worker union’s goal and purpose. Whether you joined or not, if your “position” was a unionized one, you paid dues. This union constantly actioned for longer vacations, more positions on their rosters, and lower premiums on health benefits. Their bargaining rights for access to the middle class did not interest me, but I had little choice. Despite this negative experience, I believe in unions. I just hope that the option to join or not join is always available. Don’t stand too close to the entitled, greedy unions–you may get sucked in. They have given labor unions a bad name..!

  • anonymous

    You people realize using an example from 1911 when talking about what unions are good for TODAY is pointless and pretty stupid right? There are laws that would prevent something like this today, unions would have nothing to do with it. I mean cause fuck England right? We shouldn’t be friends with them, they once used us as a source for raw material and gave us no representation in their parliment

    • Anon

      Yeah, those laws on health and safety regulations have done wonders for Massey Energy.

  • tinwoman

    Sadly, the mural in Maine that the Republican governor wants to destroy memorializes this event in one of its panels. Shows “how far we’ve come”.

  • Reece Chenault

    Remarkably, human beings have retained one ability throughout their history: an inability to see the forest for the trees.

    Labor unions are NOT just for fires, real or figurative. The real rights are only defendable while first gained ages ago, not in this America. You won’t show up for an action? It took double or triple that to get people to stop hiring children.

  • 5 1 911 Life & Labor
  • Annamari Wyon

    Industry = big business! Big business can easily get out of control (since the government doesn’t own them) and monopolies can form, like in the latter half of the 19th century when there were a bunch of monopolies in businesses like J.P Morgan Banks and and Carnagaie steel and Rockafeller Oil. The Unions regulate these businesses to make sure they don’t get out of control again, to make sure they aren’t over working their laborers, fair wage/work days etc…!


    Prepare to go behind the scenes to the most coveted underground and OVERPAID world of pompous super affiliates on the planet… banking up to 40 MILLION per month online.

    Then picture how much money you could be banking…

    if you knew exactly who these super affiliates are?

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