103 years later: profits are STILL more important than people

triangle_shirtwaist

Cartoon refers to the Triangle fire and depicts a woman weeping over a grave, and asks the reader: "How soon will they be all forgotten?"Today marks the 103rd anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, when 146 garment workers were trapped behind locked doors.  Some of the young women burned to death; others died of smoke inhalation; still others jumped out of windows to certain death.

The good news is: this year even some mainstream media outlets are remembering the anniversary.

The bad news is: workers are still dying on the jobBangladeshChina … Pakistan … Nigeria… Italy

… even, still, here in the United States.  About 150 American workers die each day from workplace accidents or occupational illness.  (Yes, you did read that right: 150 each day.  But since they don’t die in the same place, from the same thing, these deaths don’t make the headlines.)

When will we stop thinking of profit margins as more important than people?

[Be warned: this video is graphic and may be disturbing]

Labor Rights Are Human Rights (Blog Action Day 2013)

Triangle Fire

Today is ‘Blog Action Day’.  Once a year thousands of bloggers around the world come together to bring awareness to one common theme in their own special way.  This year the Blog Action Day is focused on ‘human rights’.   Below is my post for this year’s event.

 

Labor Rights Are Human Rights

Everyone should have the right to work in a safe place. Safety in the workplace is one of the biggest issues facing workers around the world.  There are too many examples of workers being hurt or killed on the job.  Unsafe working conditions are just one of the reasons workers have always turned to unions.

In the early days of the industrial revolution corporations were only focused on one thing, profits.  Many of these jobs were in the factories and mills, producing textiles.  They would pack hundreds people in rooms with little to no space to move.  These workers, mostly women and children, would be forced to work for 16 hours a day.

The perfect example of this was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. March 25th of 1911 started like any other day for hundreds of women at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory.  Over 500 workers piled in to work early in the morning and began their 16-hour day.

Around 4pm a fire broke out on the sixth floor of the Asch building. The seventh floor was the main manufacturing floor where the majority of the workers were located.  The sixth floor was used to store rolls of fabric.  It did not take long for the entire sixth floor to be engulfed in flames.

Triangle FireTo protect themselves from theft the mill owners decided to lock all the exits on the manufacturing floor.  This prevented the workers from being able to escape the rapidly growing fire.  To escape the fire, workers jumped from seventh floor windows.  Many of them knew they would probably not survive the fall, but they knew they would never survive the fire.

When the fire was finally put out, 146 people lost their lives in this devastating fire. 

Workers Protest after Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

Workers Protest after Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

After the fire, workers in other textile mills joined together with union organizers to fight for better safety regulations.  These regulations mandated maximum room occupancy, fire extinguishers, and escape plans.

Many people know the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.  In the United States it became a driving force for labor rights and workplace safety for decades.  Unfortunately the United States cannot regulate other companies.

Hasan Raza/Associated Press

Hasan Raza/Associated Press

In November of 2012 over 100 workers lost their lives in a textile factory in Bangladesh. The fire was eerily similar to the Triangle fire.  Workers were trapped inside with no way to escape.   Fire inspectors actually found that none of the emergency exits opened to the outside.

Once again we see that corporations are more interested in profits than worker’s safety.  It begs the question, what is a human’s life worth?

This is where labor and human rights merge.  Labor has always put workers safety above all else.   Thanks to labor we now have regulations and an entire government agency (OSHA) devoted to protecting workers.

We have much more to do.  Organizations like Global Labor and Human Rights Organization are focused protecting human rights through strong labor rights.

“As workers across the developing world fight for their right to work in dignity, in healthy and safe workplaces, to earn a living wage and to organize independent unions, the Institute will provide solidarity and international visibility to support their efforts, and we will continue to demand that corporations be held legally accountable to respect core internationally recognized worker rights standards.”
From the Global Labor and Human Rights

Workers rights are human rights. Stronger organized labor will lead to higher regard for human rights in the workplace.

 

For more information about Blog Action Day click here

The Cost of Cheap Clothing

Hasan Raza/Associated Press

 

Hasan Raza/Associated Press

More than 100 people have died in a fire at a nine-story garment factory outside Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Most of the workers who died were on the first and second floors and were killed, fire officials said, because none of the exits opened to the outside.

Sound familiar?  About a century ago, 146 garment workers were killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City.  [This video includes images of a 2010 fire in a different Bangladesh garment factory. Be warned the video is graphic and may be disturbing]

The Bangladesh factory that burned yesterday employed about 1,500 workers, making T-shirts, polo shorts and fleece jackets. It had sales of $35 million a year.

Babul Akhter, president of the Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Workers’ Federation, said mid-level management of the garment factories are mostly concerned with how many clothes can be produced and forget the safety issues.

Bangladesh garment industry workers have been battling for union rights for years.  The fight is becoming increasingly violent. Just eight months ago, the “tortured body” of an organizer for the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity was found near the police station of a city outside Dhaka.

Read how the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire transformed American worksites here.

Read more about efforts to improve working conditions in Bangladesh here.

And when you are shopping this holiday season, think about the true cost of what you’re buying.  According to press reports and labor activists, the factory that burned yesterday makes clothing for Walmart, as well as other retailers.

 

 

Unions: Showing The True Power of We

Bread and Roses Strikers

Today is ‘Blog Action Day’.  Once a year bloggers, like myself, focus their efforts to promoting one single idea.  This year the message is ‘The Power of We’.  The irony is that the Power of We is a majority of what I talk about.

Unions are the epitome of people working as one.  If one man stand in opposition nobody notices. When 1000 people stand together on a strike line people notice.  People have been working together to better our working conditions, wages, and communities for over a hundred years.

It began in the mills where children were forced to work for 14 hours a day for pennies. It was labor unions who brought this to national attention.  This set the stage for legislators to craft legislation that would protect all workers.  Now we have child labor laws, OSHA regulations, and minimum wage laws.  All of these can be traced back to a labor union and labor actions.

Take for example the Bread and Roses strike of 1912.  The workers, mostly women and children,  at the textile mills in Lawrence Massachusetts walked off the job in the middle of winter to bring attention to the appalling working conditions and wages.  The were fighting for a living wage. A wage that would give them ‘bread and roses too’.   Not long after the strike ended, Massachusetts became the first state in the Nation to pass child labor laws. They mandated strict policies for minimum age and maximum working hours for the thousands of children in working in Massachusetts Mills.

NYC Police watch as the fire consumes the building

Another very famous example is the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in 1911.  This is the true story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company and the 150 people who lost their lives due to completely unregulated textile industry.  The fire which started on the seventh floor, one floor below the main manufacturing floor,  quickly consumed the building.  Prior to the fire the company owners feared the women would steal fabric from the factory so they locked all the exits except one. This way the managers could watch as workers left to make sure they were not stealing.  As the fire raged upward the workers soon found out that the doors were locked and they were trapped.  In one of the most gruesome moments in American history, women trying to escape the fire, jumped from the eight floor to their death.

Labor Unions rise up together after Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

After the fire, labor unions in New York City were in outrage. They blamed the factory owners for the deaths of all of these workers.  Over 100,000 people filled the streets near the burned down building demanding answers. Their outrage went right to City Hall, where legislators crafted legislation to ensure that factories had adequate working space, fire extinguishers, and emergency exits that would never be locked.

Locked Out Workers from American Crystal Sugar

Labor Unions are still on the front lines today, fighting for the workers, and the communities they live in.  Here in New Hampshire were successfully fought back Right To Work (for less) legislation that has been proven to lower wages and increase poverty rates.  Teachers in Chicago just won an epic battle for the children of the Chicago School Districts. They fought for smaller class sizes, better quality books, and teaching materials.  Now the AFL-CIO is working to bring awareness to the American Crystal Sugar Lockout in Minnesota.  Workers at American Crystal Sugar have been locked out of their jobs for over a year now.

Workers standing together as one is the true ‘POWER OF WE’!