A Crucial Workers’ Rights History Lesson

In light of what has been happening in Madison, WI, and all over various states within this country, I will pause temporarily in musical writeups and commemorate a very important anniversary, both for workers all over the country, and for my city in particular.

One hundred years ago today, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught fire.There were many very grisly deaths. All of which would’ve been prevented 100%, had the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory given some thought about their employees.

Consider the time. Last century. This was still the Gilded Age, right before the Roaring Twenties, where prosperity for American companies was only beginning. The owners of the companies, much like the owners of major corporations of today, are concerned with getting the most work product for the dollars – or, as in this case, cents – paid to their employees. But back then, the industrialization of the garment world was still in progress. And so, the workers came into play.

Also consider that it was last century’s living and working conditions. There was no air-conditioning, that wouldn’t come along until 1927, and wouldn’t grow cheap enough to put into every household until at least two decades later. There were little to no background checks for immigration status, credit, etc. There were no computers. Hell, for what that’s worth, it was a good thing if the sewing machines in garment factories were up-to-date. And the women working at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were comprised of mostly immigrants, and poor women looking for a way to make ends meet.

Their workday was nine hours daily, including weekends.

Their pay was a pittance.

And they kept those jobs. Why? This was the life of the time. This was the only way to make the money to survive. If a woman wanted to put food on the family table, whether or not she had a working husband or a husband at all, this was the job climate of the time: work until you collapse, receive a salary that may or may not be enough, and hope that one day it gets better.

The owners of the factory wanted to, like many garment owners of the time, prevent theft. So what did they do? They locked the fire escapes, and locked the workers in. Because hey, if you keep them there, they would keep working, right? And they won’t steal, because the foremen could always search them, right?

Well, also think of it this way: this was a factory. With engines. Engines that, back at the time, would run very hot, without appropriate cooling systems.

Whether or not the fire was started by an errant cigarette butt, by a match, or by an engine that had gone too hot is, to this day, unknown. But what is known, and documented by photographs, eyewitnesses, and over a hundred tombstones, is that a fire broke out on the 9th floor, and one of the exits to the factory was locked to prevent theft.

What happened next is also well-documented. Workers tried their best to escape by the elevator, while it operated, and the elevator operators continued going up and down until it was impossible to continue going up. After which, the workers tried to escape by jumping down the elevator shafts. They died.

While one of the exits – down to Greene Street; Washington Place was the locked-up fire exit – was still operable, workers tried to escape by that route. Many did, and continued to go back for the others. Then the exit became unusable, because of smoke, fire, and debris. The workers then went up to the roof. Some stayed trapped there, until help arrived. Others jumped down to escape. 62 people were counted as those who jumped. They died.

Total death toll: 146.

And think about this: this could have been prevented, had the owners of the factory, back then, thought to not lock the fire escape, and to create safer working conditions for their employees.

The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union has protested the working conditions relentlessly after that incident. It was plain and clear even back in those times that all of those deaths could have been prevented. And this was not all that long after Upton Sinclair’s classic The Jungle came out, detailing the unsanitary and deeply unsafe working conditions at meat factories. Coupled with these, the unions have united in a single quest: workers’ rights. No extravagances, just simple things: regular work hours, holiday and vacation time, safe working conditions, and some sort of protection for instances of injury on the job.

Do you notice a common theme here?

This is exactly what the workers of today are after as well. This is exactly what has led to the creation of workers’ compensation in states. This is exactly what some workers, particularly unionized workers, are still fighting for.

Think about your own job now. You have an eight-hour, 9-5 workday. Paid lunch. Paid overtime. You have paid vacation. Paid sick time. Paid personal time. Maybe health insurance, if your employer offers it. And you know that you have a right to all those things. But know this: people in factories, power plants, construction sites, meatpacking plants, shipyards, and slums were dying for years to make sure that you have those rights. And those people, and in some cases their children, were union workers. That is what unions protect: the right to that eight-hour workday. The right to have a paid lunch. The right to get reimbursed for overtime on the job.

The news of Madison, WI anti-union regulations have swept the country, and united people in their protests thereof. Public union employees are people that you and I see every day: policemen, firefighters, nurses, public-hospital physicians, crossing guards, teachers, construction workers on public transit systems, bus drivers, train operators. They are unionized in order to protect their rights on the job. Because we have already seen that every time state budgets get revised, their jobs get slashed.

If you have a pension as a part of your job, then the EMT who takes your relative or you to the ER should have one too.

And if you work in an office, you have the right to be safe in your office building, to have clearly marked and operating fire exits, and to be paid a fair wage for the work you do. Very much like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory employees. But back then, and in some cases even right now, some employers disagree with that sentiment.

One hundred years to the day had passed since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and the lessons have not changed. The main lesson of them all remains strong: it’s the people at the bottom, the people doing the gruntwork, that drive this country, and they have driven this country for years. Their rights supersede all and any profit margins, because without them, there is no profit margin.

As the GOP rolls out more and more anti-worker legislation in an attempt to make something stick, remember this tried-and-true saying:

“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

In Memoriam: the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, 3/25/1911.

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One thought on “A Crucial Workers’ Rights History Lesson

  1. i’m pro-union, always have been, always will be. i was a shop steward for the Teamsters when i worked at UPS. i was there when we went on strike, i was a strike line captain. we struck for 10 days before the company caved and gave us what we wanted. we had a very strong Local, and some tremendous leaders in our local, and they were very vigilant, nothing got past them, and they fought hard to ensure we got what we wanted. i got to a point where i memorized the contract we had, and carried a copy of it in my back pocket at all times. i even had a blue and gold teamsters jacket, which management hated. when i’d wear it, they;d step aside. one manager and i got to have a good working relationship. before any grievances were filed, he’d take me aside, and he’d say “we have a problem that could turn into a grievance, can we talk?” and we’d go in the office, and we’d discuss what happened. then, i’d go get the employee in question, and bring him or her into the office, and we’d talk things over. if at that point, i disagreed with, or felt that we weren’t getting anywhere, then at that point, it would turn into a grievance. i won every grievance i ever handled, except one. i lost that one, simply because of the wording in the grievance. but, after that, i learned to be more careful with how i worded my grievances. if you want to watch some really excellent movies about unions, watch:
    “Norma Rae”; “Hoffa”; “Harlan County, U.S.A.”(this is about the miner’s strike back in the late 1800’s, early 1900’s); “American Dream”(this is about the Hormel Foods Strike back in the 1980’s). a lot of people say “unions are not worth anything”, which, to me, is a cop-out, simply because those people did not stand for themselves within the union, and did nothing to ensure the leadership was accountable to the members. YOU as a union member need to make your voice heard, don’t expect everything within the union to be done for you, YOU have to take some action, and get involved in your local. know who your business agents are, know who the local leadership is, make friends with them, stay active. if you don’t like how things are going within the local, and you feel that you are not being represented, DO SOMETHING. run for office, if you feel so inclined, but NEVER sit on your ass, and just expect things. it does NOT work that way. get involved with union organizing, get involved with fundraisers for your local, do what you can to be visible, so people know who you are. be a vigilant union member, get to know your contract, ASK QUESTIONS!!! if you sit back and complain about your union, there’s things you can do to improve the local!

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