In honor of Jobs Week on AOL Jobs, I want to speak up in praise of an entity that has taken a beating this year – the labor union. Anti-union sentiment has spread from state to state, and union busting has become popular under the banner of money savings. Before your billionaire CEO convinces you that labor unions are bad, please don't forget what life was like in the bad old days before unions.
Maybe you don't remember the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory from your American History classes. I'll remind you. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was a sweatshop. Women and children, mostly immigrants, worked for terrible wages in terrible conditions. When a fire broke out, they couldn't escape because the employer had locked them in. Wouldn't want employees to take breaks or anything, would you? The employer said it was to stop theft. The fire escapes had collapsed and the elevators stopped working in the 10-story building. One hundred forty six workers died that day in 1911, many as young as 14. It was, until 9/11, the worst tragedy in New York history.
In a speech about the tragedy, explaining what lessons workers needed to learn from it, Rose Schneiderman said:
I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting.
The old Inquisition had its rack and its thumbscrews and its instruments of torture with iron teeth. We know what these things are today; the iron teeth are our necessities, the thumbscrews are the high-powered and swift machinery close to which we must work, and the rack is here in the firetrap structures that will destroy us the minute they catch on fire.
This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death.
We have tried you citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift. But 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. Public officials have only words of warning to us--warning that we must be intensely peaceable, and they have the workhouse just back of all their warnings. The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable.
I can't talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.
As a result of this terrible tragedy, New York strengthened its labor laws. An investigation showed 200 factories had equally dangerous conditions for workers.
Before the labor movement, it wasn't uncommon for sweatshops to engage in human trafficking. Workers in coal mines, factories, farms and many other workplaces were sometimes forced to work while getting further and further in debt. Many workers were paid in company "scrip" that they could use only at the company store. They could never save for their families and never hope for a better life. Children had to work starting very young, to help support their families, with no opportunity to go to school.
The next time you hear someone knock the labor movement and say unions aren't necessary, please remember that, without unions, our workers would not have these benefits we take for granted:
- Minimum wage
- Overtime pay
- Safety standards/OSHA
- Paid vacation
- Sick days
- Child labor laws
- 40-hour work week
- Health benefits
- Unemployment compensation
Now that your job (or old job) doesn't look half as bad anymore, make sure you thank union leaders for the rights you take for granted. Think they can't take away those rights? Then you aren't paying attention. Wake up, before it's too late.
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