Almost exactly a century ago, on March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory went up in flames, killing 146 people, mostly immigrant women workers. The management had locked exit doors and stairwells to prevent workers from leaving early. As a result, workers trying to escape the fire were forced to jump from as high as the tenth floor, or simply to wait and smolder to death.
At a gathering in the Metropolitan Opera House a few days after the fire, labor organizer Rose Schneiderman rallied the crowd with the following words:
Every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us… I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves.
Schneiderman understood that more was at stake in the days following the catastrophe than fire safety regulations. Instead, she argued that only a strong union movement would guarantee workers a safe and dignified workplace in the long run.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is most often remembered as galvanizing the passage of a series of crucial laws regarding workplace health and safety. But the episode also points to the necessity of a strong union movement and the dangers of doing without a union.
For two years preceding the fire, shirtwaist workers, led by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), had been organizing for better wages and working conditions. The group had tried, unsuccessfully, to penetrate the Triangle factory. Who knows whether the disaster might have been averted if the workers there had been able to bargain collectively for safer conditions. Following the disaster, it was the ILGWU that led the charge to implement stronger safety legislation.
Now, 100 years later, public workers in Wisconsin and around the country are standing up to the largest-scale attack on American workers in recent history. Using the economic crisis as a pretext, and with financing from billionaire businessmen, Governor Scott Walker and others are trying to strip public unions of their collective bargaining power.
This debate is not about trying to balance state budgets. This debate is about the future of American labor.
Contrary to what current rhetoric might have us believe, union pension funds are not bankrupting state governments. Pensions cost, on average, less than four percent of state budgets. As long as the economy remained stable, pension investments grew steadily, and states were able to make good on their commitment. When the economy crashed, these investments—like all others—lost money. When the economy rises again, these investments will rise as well. Pensions did not cause the economic collapse—they are merely a victim of that collapse, like so many of our personal retirement and savings funds.
As for those overpaid, underworked public workers. Research actually shows that public workers are slightly better educated, and work more hours than private sector workers. The salaries of these workers are somewhat less than the salaries of similarly-educated workers in the private sector. Many of these public servants accept a salary cut in order to teach our children, keep our streets safe, and maintain public services.
If Governor Walker succeeds in his attempt to destroy public unions in Wisconsin—and if other states follow suit—we can expect to see the salaries of public workers drop precipitously. We can expect talented teachers, government employees, and police officers leave the field for better-paying jobs in the private sector. We can expect a wholesale disregard for health and safety precautions. We can expect tax dollars to pay top rate for emergency care for public workers who lack health insurance, and therefore go without preventative care. We can expect retiring public workers to end up dependent on public and private financial support.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, one of the most influential Jewish thinkers of the early twentieth century, described unions as follows:
Within the workers’ organization, which is formed for the purpose of guarding and protecting the work conditions, there is an aspect of righteousness and uprightness and tikkun olam… For the unorganized worker works under worse conditions—both in regard to wages and in regard to working hours, etc. And this is likely to make working conditions worse in general.
In invoking the category of tikkun olam, Kook refers not to the modern use of this phrase to mean “social justice,” but rather to the ancient rabbinic understanding of this term. The Talmud applies this phrase to situations in which a legal loophole must be closed in order to maintain the proper functioning of society. For example, tikkun olam justifies forbidding certain divorce practices that may leave a woman unsure whether she is single or married. Hillel invokes this phrase to make change to lending law for the purpose of maintaining a stable economic system.
In applying the term tikkun olam to the labor movement, Kook teaches us that unions are the most effective means of guaranteeing a labor system that works. Unions (like any other institution) may not be perfect. There may be some situations in which non-union workers earn decent salaries and enjoy good working conditions. But, in general, unions are the best way for workers maintain the power to protect themselves from the whims of their employers.
In a New York Times article about the Wisconsin debate, an occupational therapist (whose family income had dropped by about a third since the beginning of the economic collapse) expressed her opposition to unions by saying, “I don’t get to bargain in my job, either.” This is one of the saddest statements I have seen about the state of American workers. Instead of dreaming of building a union that will help her to raise her salary and restore her lost retirement benefits, this woman has resigned herself to the reality that workers must be powerless.
Governor Walker and his billionaire supporters are on the verge of destroying the labor movement in America. If that happens, workers will lose most negotiating power, wages will fall, and many more of us will lose our health insurance and other benefits. If Rose Schneiderman were here today, she would tell us, “It’s up to us to save ourselves.”