How different would things be if there were no unions? What would life be like if there were no organizations to represent workers and speak on their behalf? Such a world is largely hypothetical these days, but 100 years ago today, we received a terrifying example.
Turn back the clock on New York City’s garment district to around the year 1900.
“The average work week was 84 hours, 12 hours every day of the week,” said Ellen Rothman with the Jewish Women’s Archive in Brookline, Mass. “During the busy season, the grinding hum of sewing machines never entirely ceased day or night.”
Conditions had begun to improve by 1911, but just slightly. On March 25th of that year, fire erupted at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in lower Manhattan. It was one of the worst workplace disasters in American history: 146 people died, mostly teenage girls and women, immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe and Italians.
Workers had few rights at the time. Garment factories were crowed, noisy and hot. Bathroom breaks were monitored. Workers had their bags inspected when they left for the day. When fire broke out at the Triangle Factory, the exits were locked to prevent theft.
“In trying to escape, there was no choice: be burned alive, or jump. And most of them jumped. And everyone who jumped died,” said Rothman.The New York Times has published a series of articles and posts on the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. If you want to know what life would be like with zero regulation, if the government kept its nose completely out of private industry, have a look. Other people may be more sanguine about letting corporations police themselves. I just wonder how much concern a business would truly have for its workforce when left to its own devices while pursuing the natural goal of any business — maximum profits.
This isn't just an American problem, either. Any business, regardless of location, will get away with whatever it can.
Garment jobs have been shifting to lower-cost operations in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Asia for decades, as have dangerous working conditions.
“Effectively what we have done is exported our sweatshops and exported our factory fires,” said Robert Ross at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. And it’s as if the 1911 conditions had been lifted up by an evil hand and dropped into Bangladesh.”
According to the Bangladeshi government’s Fire Service and Civil Defense Department, 414 garment workers were killed in at least 213 factory fires between the years 2006 and 2009. Last year, 191 people were killed in Bangladesh in a reported 20 incidents, according to Ross’ research. Last December, a fire killed at least 25 people in a garment factory there.
“And the pattern is disturbingly uniform,” said Ross. “The shops are often in high rise buildings, just like the Triangle. The pattern is that an electrical fire starts, and then without adequate, or any fire escapes, without sprinkler systems, the workers surge to get out. And in factory after factory, the newspapers report locked gates and locked doors. It’s a horrific duplication of what we earlier experienced.”Something to keep in mind the next time someone tells you the country — any country — would be better off without workers' unions.