Leonard Quart: It took a tragedy to prove need for unions

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NEW YORK >> Recently New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said the state would contribute $1.5 million for a memorial to the victims of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire. I am all in favor of a memorial, though the proposed idea of a steel panel reaching up to the ninth floor with the names of the 146 victims inscribed on a horizontal panel below may be too inflated a concept: the memorial as a self-conscious work of art becoming more significant than the lives that are being remembered.

I often pass the refurbished, landmarked building where the fire took place. The building, now part of the NYU campus, carries a small discreet plaque as a memorial to the fire's victims. Every year, Workers United/SEIU holds a commemoration of the fire, in coalition with NYC's Fire Department and a variety of other organizations. Descendants of the victims hold up banners with the names of the young women killed in the fire. This is followed by an FDNY bell tolling 146 times as each of the victims' names is read aloud.

The Triangle factory was located on the top three floors. It employed mostly young immigrant Italian and Jewish women who did not speak English. They worked 12 hours, six days a week for $15 in a building where access to the street was extremely limited by a narrow fire escape, one operative elevator, and stairways with padlocked doors.

The danger of fire in factories like Triangle was well known. But high levels of corruption in both the garment industry and city government generally ensured that no useful precautions would be taken. The Triangle owners already had a suspicious history of fires set in their factories to collect insurance. When the industry's workers led a strike in 1909 (the Uprising of the 20,000) demanding higher pay and shorter hours and unionization, most of the owners ultimately agreed, but the Triangle owners refused to budge on the seamstresses' biggest demand: the right to organize into unions.

The fire began in a rag bin, and many of the young women on the tenth floor, where there were no fire alarms or phones, were trapped in stairwells and were burned alive. Others plunged down the elevator shaft, while still others jumped to their death from the factory's windows. The company's owners on the top floor — Max Blanck and Isaac Harris — were notified by telephone of the fire and escaped by jumping to the roof of a nearby building.

Despite ample evidence that the owners had been totally negligent — they had never supplied the factory with effective firefighting equipment, because it would cost them money — a grand jury failed to indict them on manslaughter charges.

However, the Triangle fire changed government's role in the regulation of business. Government was pressured to institute laws to protect workers, enacting reform legislation that changed the building code, which began to require safety devices like fire alarms, sprinklers, and extinguishers in all factories. Other states followed New York's example.

No event better illustrated the need for unions — public as well as private — than the Triangle fire. Workers began to look toward unions to voice their concerns over safety and pay. The ILGWU was now able to turn its partial victory in the 1909 strike into a lasting triumph; within two years it had organized roughly 90 percent of the workers in the industry in New York City. It improved benefits in later contracts and obtained an unemployment insurance fund for its members in 1919.

I'm a supporter of unions. I grew up listening on a rickety record player to the late, lamented Pete Seeger singing in full voice "Solidarity Forever" and "Which Side Are You On?," and I'm a retiree member of PSC-CUNY, the college teachers' union. Yes, unions are imperfect. There are many corrupt union officials, and there are times when unions protect ineffective employees from being dismissed. But if you want higher wages being a union member makes a difference.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that a typical union worker made $970 a week in 2014 compared to $763 a week made by a non-union worker. In addition, other benefits are often more steady and predictable, including hours and job security, when governed by union contracts.

Fifty years ago, nearly a third of U.S. workers belonged to a union. Today, it's one in 10. Unions are a mere shell (except in the public sector) of what they once were. If unions had remained strong, middle class wages would have likely grown as they did in the post-war era and income inequality would have decreased.

Public sector unions have been under attack in the US. In New York State, where 71 percent of government workers are union members, my union has gone more than five years without a contract. The city is finally ready to settle, but Gov. Cuomo has continued to deny additional state funding for faculty raises.

I still, however, remain heartened by the words of the old union song, "Hold The Fort":

"Hold the fort, for we are coming,

Union hearts be strong.

Side by side we'll battle onward,

Victory will come."

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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