A Labor Lesson  

This has been cross posted at Dailykos.

I've been a little dismayed of late while both reading this site in relation to the Labor Movement and talking to my 14 year old daughter.

First, let's address my issue with some progressives:There are a number of well meaning progressives on this site who either don't understand the labor movement or based on their own anecdotal experiences, think that unions are at best a thing of the past and at worse, corrupt and outlived their necessity.

Second, There's my daughter's education
I've been vexed lately also with my daughter's education in both women's rights issues and labor in general. It's disheartening to realize that my daughter only knows about Rose (Rachel) Scheiderman from discussions with me.

So, after suffering through both the ill-informed view points of a few members on this site and also my daughter's poor labor history education, I decided that enough was enough. Time to take the Donkey by the tail and get some learnin' on!

So, my intent in this series is to remember important moments in labor history, impart those moments to my daughter, and to also make sure that other progressives can learn from this series.
So, here we go:

In 5th grade, I learned about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire from Ms. MacMahon. She was an otherwise unremarkable teacher. I remember how much she loved fashionable shoes and how little she cared for my cousin Joey (since he has actually served time for stealing a car and other similar activities, I'll give her that one). I remember that she clopped around the school in "cloggs" which were the in thing in the early 80's. She had dark "big" hair also very 80ish. She even wore pants, virtually unheard of in my rural Ohio township.

All in all, Ms. MacMahon was nothing to write home about, at least not for me. Then, she had us open our social studies book.

Now, I hated social studies. It was the most boring, stupidest subject ever! I really hated it and it was also my worst subject. Social Studies was terrible, until Ms. MacMahon opened that book that day.

She began the lesson reading just a little exerpt from our history book. I noticed her voice cracking, her eyes welling up, and most of all, I remember that she had to stop and put the book down.


She was on the part about how women were trapped in the factory behind iron bars, locked doors on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors, burning to death. A silence fell over the class. I sat there, eyes fixed upon her. I remember that she grabbed a kleenex and dabbed her dark eyes. I don't remember her starting again. I don't remember anything else from that moment. At this moment, all I knew was no woman could ever suffer the way these girls and women had. No worker should ever be put in this position ever again.

I can't separate the moment from the teacher. It's burned into me the way the images on the paper still are of dangling arms from the upper stories of the building. Ms. MacMahon was passionate about the fate of the women in that factory. It is this moment that I so often come back to and reflect about my own feelings about the labor movement.

My daughter hasn't had this experience yet. She's learned nothing about the labor movement in school. Lessons from the Red Scares to the Fire, all of it just hasn't been taught in her schools. To me, this is a deeply troubling problem with no solution I can see as we continue to teach the test.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Most of the victims were suffocated or burned to death within the building, but some who fought their way to the windows and leaped met death as surely, but perhaps more quickly, on the pavements below.
The victims are now lying at the Morgue waiting for some one to identify them by a tooth or the remains of a burned shoe were mostly girls of from 16 to 23 years of age.

The articles that appeared in the New York papers paint a grizzly site of bodies fused together and of survivors who later died after being burried under the bodies of those who had jumped.

The workers, mostly women, had formed a union after a mass walk out and strike in 1909, it wasn't enough. The owners of the building perpetuated the low pay and poor conditions through their use of subcontractors:

Even though many workers toiled under one roof in the Asch building, owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the owners subcontracted much work to individuals who hired the hands and pocketed a portion of the profits. Subcontractors could pay the workers whatever rates they wanted, often extremely low. The owners supposedly never knew the rates paid to the workers, nor did they know exactly how many workers were employed at their factory at any given point. Such a system led to exploitation.

It's at this point I think I need to point out that things are better than they were in 1911; Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, voting rights for women, minorities and 18 year olds, etc... What isn't much better is how primarily women are forced to work in unsafe conditions for little to no wages when they are paid. Unfortunately, this is a global problem.

The tragedy that is the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was avoidable. The problem boils down to greed. The building owners their subcontractors did not value the work or the workers. The doors were locked and windows barred to keep workers in without breaks for an average of 14 hours a day. The floor was littered with material, clothing and fibers, all of which were flammable and above all the workers hung clothing, all of this choking the air they were breathing.

At a memorial service, Rose Schneiderman spoke of the conditions for working women:

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.

But how does a horrible tragedy from 1911 have anything to do with today?

Simply put, the work isn't done.

Cheap labor or the pursuit of cheaper labor continues to fill the pockets of Wal-Mart executives. The pursuit of cheap labor at Smithfield has caused racial tensions in the company's efforts to pit worker against worker.

There have been some positive recent actions in the Senate to establish Fair Trade as well as Equity in forming unions.

EFCA (Employee Fair Choice Act) came up for a vote this past summer, coming closer to passing then I even tought possible. Also this year, Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) was a sponsor with Senators Dorgan (D-ND) and Graham (R-SC) in introducing the Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act.

Today, I thank Ms. MacMahon for the memory and the very deep lesson she taught me that day, what solidarity looks like. A lesson I'll be teaching my daughter since this lesson isn't now being taught in our schools.

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