A world without unions

Eyewitness at the Triangle, William Shepherd:

I was walking through Washington Square when a puff of smoke issuing from the factory building caught my eye. I reached the building before the alarm was turned in. I saw every feature of the tragedy visible from outside the building. I learned a new sound–a more horrible sound than description can picture. It was the thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk.

Thud-dead, thud-dead, thud-dead, thud-dead. Sixty-two thud-deads. I call them that, because the sound and the thought of death came to me each time, at the same instant. There was plenty of chance to watch them as they came down. The height was eighty feet…

I even watched one girl falling. Waving her arms, trying to keep her body upright until the very instant she struck the sidewalk, she was trying to balance herself. Then came the thud–then a silent, unmoving pile of clothing and twisted, broken limbs…

One girl climbed onto the window sash. Those behind her tried to hold her back. Then she dropped into space. I didn’t notice whether those above watched her drop because I had turned away. Then came that first thud. I looked up, another girl was climbing onto the window sill; others were crowding behind her. She dropped. I watched her fall, and again the dreadful sound. Two windows away two girls were climbing onto the sill; they were fighting each other and crowding for air. Behind them I saw many screaming heads. They fell almost together, but I heard two distinct thuds. Then the flames burst out through the windows on the floor below them, and curled up into their faces.

The firemen began to raise a ladder. Others took out a life net and, while they were rushing to the sidewalk with it, two more girls shot down. The firemen held it under them; the bodies broke it; the grotesque simile of a dog jumping through a hoop struck me. Before they could move the net another girl’s body flashed through it…

As I looked up I saw a love affair in the midst of all the horror. A young man helped a girl to the window sill. Then he held her out, deliberately away from the building and let her drop. He seemed cool and calculating. He held out a second girl the same way and let her drop. Then he held out a third girl who did not resist. I noticed that. They were as unresisting as if he were helping them onto a streetcar instead of into eternity. Undoubtedly he saw that a terrible death awaited them in the flames, and his was only a terrible chivalry.

Then came the love amid the flames. He brought another girl to the window. Those of us who were looking saw her put her arms about him and kiss him. Then he held her out into space and dropped her. But quick as a flash he was on the window sill himself. His coat fluttered upward-the air filled his trouser legs. I could see that he wore tan shoes and hose. His hat remained on his head.

Thud-dead, thud-dead-together they went into eternity. I saw his face before they covered it. You could see in it that he was a real man. He had done his best…

I heard screams around the corner and hurried there. What I had seen before was not so terrible as what had followed. Up in the [ninth] floor girls were burning to death before our very eyes. They were jammed in the windows. No one was lucky enough to be able to jump, it seemed.

But, one by one, the jams broke. Down came the bodies in a shower, burning, smoking-flaming bodies, with disheveled hair trailing upward. They had fought each other to die by jumping instead of by fire.

The whole, sound, unharmed girls who had jumped on the other side of the building had tried to fall feet down. But these fire torches, suffering ones, fell inertly, only intent that death should come to them on the sidewalk instead of in the furnace behind them…

I looked upon the heap of dead bodies and I remembered these girls were the shirtwaist makers. I remembered their great strike of last year in which these same girls had demanded more sanitary conditions and more safety precautions in the shops. These dead bodies were the answer.

The story of the fire:

The Triangle Fire tragically illustrated that fire inspections and precautions were woefully inadequate at the time. Workers recounted their helpless efforts to open the ninth floor doors to the Washington Place stairs. They and many others afterwards believed they were deliberately locked– owners had frequently locked the exit doors in the past, claiming that workers stole materials. For all practical purposes, the ninth floor fire escape in the Asch Building led nowhere, certainly not to safety, and it bent under the weight of the factory workers trying to escape the inferno. Others waited at the windows for the rescue workers only to discover that the firefighters’ ladders were several stories too short and the water from the hoses could not reach the top floors. Many chose to jump to their deaths rather than to burn alive…

Workers flocked to union quarters to offer testimonies, support mobilization, and demand that Triangle owners Harris and Blanck be brought to trial. The role that strong unions could have in helping prevent such tragedies became clear. Workers organized in powerful unions would be more conscious of their rights and better able to obtain safe working conditions…

Harris and Blanck [the factory owners] were to continue their defiant attitude toward the authorities. Just a few days after the fire, the new premises of their factory had been found not to be fireproof, without fire escapes, and without adequate exits.

In August of 1913, Max Blanck was charged with locking one of the doors of his factory during working hours. Brought to court, he was fined twenty dollars, and the judge apologized to him for the imposition.

In December of 1913, the interior of his factory was found to be littered with rubbish piled six feet high, with scraps kept in non-regulation, flammable wicker baskets. This time, instead of a court appearance and a fine, he was served a stern warning.

Mr. H.F.J. Porter, quoted in Triangle Fire by Leon Stein

“The neglect of factory owners in the matter of 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.’ “

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17 Responses to A world without unions

  1. 1
    vesta44 says:

    I had to leave a chat room last night before I got into an argument with an online friend about the union-busting going on in Wisconsin. He seems to think it’s justified, that government workers’ benefits are too good (they’re better than the benefits of workers in the private sector), and says he knows this because he has 3 relatives that work for the government and their benefits are way better than his. I told him that maybe he needs union representation in order to improve his benefit package then, instead of saying union workers need to give up their benefits so that their benefits are more in line with his. He said I needed to quit listening to the unions and think for myself for a change – little does he know that the last 3 jobs I worked (before I became disabled and couldn’t work) there were no unions, no chance of ever getting a union, and the last time I belonged to a union was in 1976, and belonging to the IBEW didn’t save my job – when we went out on strike for more money, the plant owners closed the plant down and moved it out of town, just like they said they would do when the workers went out on strike 12 years before (who went out over 2/2/2 for 6 months and went back to work for 2/2/2 on a 3-year contract, my aunt worked there then). At that strike in 1964, the plant owners told the workers “you ever strike again, we will close this place down and move it somewhere else. we closed it down and moved here because of striking workers, we don’t have a problem with closing up shop and moving our business to somewhere where people appreciate having a job at whatever wages we decide to pay them.” I don’t know if the union could have kept the company from closing the plant or not, I was only 23 at the time and didn’t have a lot of experience with unions and what they could or couldn’t do. I do know that a lot of the union membership were very unhappy that while they were picketing the closed plant, Teamster truck drivers crossed the picket lines to haul out the equipment (so much for union solidarity, they said).
    So while my union experience was not a good one, I realize that that experience is the exception and not the rule, and that unions are necessary if we’re going to keep whatever gains we’ve made in the workforce because of them.

  2. 2
    Frowner says:

    It’s so terrible to me that we as a society can’t seem to learn from history, example, or other societies. There’s no reason for ordinary people (as opposed to the rich) to support smashing unions and taking away benefits, no reason at all. And yet it will take another brutal ten or twenty or thirty years of suffering and needless death before people get organized enough again to re-establish even such safety nets as we used to have. What will have to happen is that everyone will have to be ground down by suffering and catastrophe until they have nothing left to lose, and then they’ll turn and fight again. It is just unbearable.

  3. 3
    Sage says:

    Thank you for posting this – especially right after International Women’ Day.

  4. 4
    Erik D. says:

    Powerful stuff…I got to talk about the Triangle fire in history class…the teacher knew all about it of course, but I was the only student who had even heard of it. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that many people hadn’t heard of it though.

  5. 5
    WD says:

    Vesta 44 — I completely agree. Instead of complaining that government workers have better benefits –or benefits at all, people should be fighting to gain benefits at their current workplace. My auto mechanic told me we need to “get those unions under control or we’re going to be in big trouble.” I’m a teacher, and I told him if the unions in my state are broken the school system would be happy to pay me $20,000 a year, most of which would go to me buying health insurance for my kids. As such, I continued, I wouldn’t have money to get my car fixed and he would lose my business as well as most of his customers. He then complained that the price of him doing business is very high and that he pays over $4,000/month to Visa alone for the privilege of accepting credit cards. I gave him some facts, that Bank of America charges him those fees and pays from 11% to ZERO in taxes. I asked why he wasn’t out picketing Bank of America for gouging him and his business. he called me a liberal.

    I’m looking for a new mechanic. And he’ll blame the government workers when he goes out of business.

  6. 6
    Michelle the Red says:

    My mom worked for a department store in the 1970-80′s. When she started they were not union. She worked in the drapery pool. She had to raise her hand to go to the bathroom. Her male bosses could walk by and slap her ass at any time with no fear of reprisal. After a few years they organized and joined the Teamsters. That was in the mid 1970′s. After they became union, the boss could no longer slap anyone’s ass – they could, and did, file grievances. Sexual harassment wasn’t illegal until the 1990′s. They were ahead of the times – again. That’s another reason we need unions. BTW, my dad was UAW, mom was a Teamster; I’m an attorney. And I know who to fight for.

  7. 7
    Ben David says:

    Who is the equivalent of Harris and Blanck – the Triangle owners – in a public worker scenario?

    Taxpayers.

    It’s been well-documented: government workers unions bankroll sympathetic politicians, who then “negotiate” ever sweeter contracts – because in a public-works situation, “management” consists of politicians who don’t have to pay from their own pocket.

    This is fundamentally different from the oppositional character of the private sector.

    Even FDR realized that public workers do not have the same justification for unionization as private-sector workers.

  8. 8
    The Ghost of Victor Lustig says:

    It’s been well-documented:

    It is? Do you have actual sources for this? It actually sounds like something Brian Kilmeade pulled from Steve Doocy’s butt.

    government workers unions bankroll sympathetic politicians, who then “negotiate” ever sweeter contracts – because in a public-works situation, “management” consists of politicians who don’t have to pay from their own pocket.

    If this were actually true then you’d think that teachers, firemen, and other public workers would make even more than they do now.

    Unless you mean that public worker unions contribute to the campaigns of sympathetic politicians. Well, duh! So do private worker unions. The UAW certainly did when I was a member.

    But I don’t think that taxpayers fit as the analogue to Harris and Blanck. Harris and Blanck had direct and total control of conditions inside Triangle. They made the rules. Taxpayers don’t have direct or total control of conditions inside the schools, firehouses, police stations, and staff office buildings (anti-science Christian homophobes seem to be the exception to this rule). No, the analogues to Harris and Blanck are the politicians and high level functionaries like Scott Walker who have much more control over working conditions, pay, pensions, and benefits than any taxpayer or group of taxpayers could ever hope to gain.

    The taxpayers are more like stockholders if we want to compare apples to oranges and treat govt like a business.

    Now back when I was a public worker in Maryland I was able to observe firsthand how contracts were negotiated. It was very oppositional despite Ben David’s characterization to the contrary. In fact it was every bit as confrontational as the contract negotiations I observed as a union stewart working in a GM parts plant. The process was nearly identical.

    See corporate management when they negotiate with unions have to keep an eye on labor costs in order to keep their margins high. So they fight tooth and nail to keep pay and benefits low.

    Gov’t functionaries when they negotiate with public unions also have to keep an eye on labor costs because they are forced to work within a budget. They can’t just throw money and benefits around all willy-nilly no matter how much they might sympathize with the workers.

  9. 9
    TomDem55 says:

    Yes, the Triangle fire, and before the Triangle fire was the Triangle strike where the cops in NYC beat the striking girl workers and the owners paid prostitutes to beat the girl workers to a pulp
    YES we need Unions

  10. 10
    mythago says:

    vesta44 @1: This person is a friend? First he wants to be a crab in a bucket, then he accuses you of being a brainwashed idiot.

  11. 11
    vesta44 says:

    mythago – I thought he was a friend, but I normally don’t talk politics when I’m in my online game chat rooms (politics and religion are guaranteed to start fights). I haven’t talked to him since, he hasn’t been in the room when I’ve been in there playing the game, but if he says anything to me, I’m going to tell him he should be getting down on his knees and thanking the unions for his 40-hour work weeks, the fact that anything over that is overtime and gets paid at time-and-a-half, and that most employers offer some kind of benefits at all, even though they don’t have unions forcing them to do any of that any more – and if the Republicans have their way, all of those gains will be lost and workers will be working however many hours employers want them to work, at whatever wages employers want to pay, and with no fracking benefits at all, ever. We’ll be back to the days of sweatshops and no safety oversight and employers telling employees “don’t like it, too bad so sad sucks to be you, go find another job, if you can.” Yeah, not a world I want to live in, not at all.

  12. 12
    RonF says:

    Ghost:

    If this were actually true then you’d think that teachers, firemen, and other public workers would make even more than they do now.

    No, not really. There are limits even to politicians’ mendacity. Besides, they’ve got to save some money to pay off the contractors, lawyers, consultants, etc. that also contribute money to them (or that are related to them and want government jobs).

    Unless you mean that public worker unions contribute to the campaigns of sympathetic politicians. Well, duh! So do private worker unions. The UAW certainly did when I was a member.

    Yes. But private workers’ unions don’t negotiate their wages and working conditions with those same politicians.

    But I don’t think that taxpayers fit as the analogue to Harris and Blanck. Harris and Blanck had direct and total control of conditions inside Triangle. They made the rules. Taxpayers don’t have direct or total control of conditions inside the schools, firehouses, police stations, and staff office buildings .

    True.

    No, the analogues to Harris and Blanck are the politicians and high level functionaries like Scott Walker who have much more control over working conditions, pay, pensions, and benefits than any taxpayer or group of taxpayers could ever hope to gain.

    Also true. You have put your finger on the very problem here and are supporting the point. A private union negotiates with private management. In that scenario management controls those things and has to balance them against their own money. Money that the private union gets from private management is money that the private management can’t pay to themselves or use as working capital or business expenses. And the private union can’t influence who’s in management. Management is accountable to the stockholders and the board of directors, not the union members.

    But in a public union/politician scenario the politicians aren’t taking money out of their own pockets. The politicians don’t get less money if they give more money to the union members. In fact, they get MORE, because the unions then contribute to their campaigns, provide workers, etc. It’s a positive feedback loop with inadequate restraints.

    The taxpayers are more like stockholders if we want to compare apples to oranges and treat govt like a business.

    But in fact government is NOT a business – so we should not treat the government/public union relationship as if it is one.

    Gov’t functionaries when they negotiate with public unions also have to keep an eye on labor costs because they are forced to work within a budget. They can’t just throw money and benefits around all willy-nilly no matter how much they might sympathize with the workers.

    Sounds good. Unfortunately, actual facts contradict it. At the beginning of this year the individual income tax rate in Illinois was 3% of adjusted income. Now it’s 5.5%, nearly doubling over the previous rate, because the State of Illinois owes billions of dollars to the public workers’ pension funds, has failed to pay a lot of it’s vendors for up to 6 months, and would otherwise have to borrow money at junk bond rates to pay up.

    So, no – they HAVEN’T worked within a budget. They HAVE thrown money willy-nilly around. And now that they can’t avoid paying up, what they’ve done is to simply raise the price of government and force people to continue to buy it anyway.

  13. 13
    RonF says:

    vesta44:

    I don’t know if the union could have kept the company from closing the plant or not, I was only 23 at the time and didn’t have a lot of experience with unions and what they could or couldn’t do.

    Sure they could have. They could have not struck. When management tells you “Strike and we’ll move out of town and you’ll all lose your jobs”, and they have a history of doing just that, WTF did the union THINK was going to happen?

    This isn’t an argument against private unions. This is an argument for a smarter union that understands that sometimes there’s a gap between what you want and what you can get.

  14. Pingback: Unionless – Michael Alan Miller

  15. 14
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    Perhaps a different way of making the point:
    Unions give a lot of power to the workers. That power is needed in the case of private corporations, because
    (1) individuals who run corporations have–apparently–relatively few ethical qualms about treating workers poorly;

    (2) management has no duty to consider the workers’ interests; in fact, they have the reverse;

    (3) management has no external oversight;

    (4) management has no responsibility.

    Those simply aren’t the same for public sector unions.
    Most obviously, government is simultaneously in the role of providing for, and negotiating with, workers. Government as an entity bears an ethical and legal burden towards the citizens of the state. Government is also responsible for providing whatever safety nets exist.

    Government has accountability. Individuals can be removed from office; things can come up in election campaigns.

    Government has more oversight. Although I won’t be so naive as to presume nothing bad happens on the government’s watch, the reality is that it’s a hell of a lot easier to know what is going on inside government than it is to do with an entirely private company.

    Government isn’t a perfect employer. but it’s a much more perfect employer than is a private corporation, with vast improvements over the problems of private entities. That is why unions–designed to counter private entity excesses–are not appropriate in the public sphere.

  16. 15
    Elusis says:

    From cartoonist Eyeteeth, a relevant piece.

  17. Pingback: The 100th Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire | Polimicks