The needler in the haystack.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and lessons for working people today

To the 146 locked in to the 9th floor workshop,
the choice was whether to die by burning...
Many Plainfielders will today mark the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, in which 146 immigrant workers, mostly teenage girls and young women, died in an inferno that swept through their locked 9th-floor workshop.

The only choice given these workers by their employers was whether to die by burning or by jumping.

...or by jumping.

A wave of reform of workplace safety and working conditions was sparked by the tragedy.

One hundred years later, working families are again under assault, this time blamed for conditions which are not entirely of their creating.

Public employees are now blamed for the outcomes of decisions made by their public employers decades ago. Time was when public service meant lower-than-competitive wages, sweetened by the public employers with pension and benefits promises.

The fact that those promises were made and relied on is not the fault of the workers, nor is the fact that Legislatures and governors of both parties failed to adequately fund the obligations they undertook.

Working families across America are paying attention once again as their jobs and their social contract come under attack, from the very people whose obligations have been mostly ignored.

Once again, are the only choices left to them to die by burning or by jumping?

Cartoon from the collection of the Tamiment Library, New York University.


Anonymous said...

That's all well and good, except that union's of today don't want to settle for trading salary for long term benefits - they want it all. Pay that is on par with competitive wages as well as huge pension and benefits packages.

Anonymous said...

It's not only because the various pension funds were not properly funded, but that the pensions became too lavish and pensioners get to retire much too early. How much more can taxpayers bear? How much?

Reform is needed. I don't see that as being an attack on public workers.

Anonymous said...

exactly people with pensions seem to think that even though they may have been "guaranteed" something, when the economy takes a tumble...and the world...simply changes a few decades later sometimes those guarantees...just aren't guaranteed - much like "free checking for life" really never is;-)

Anonymous said...

As a descendant of a fire survivor (my grandmother was pregnant with my father when she escaped) I would hope that today is used to focus on the many throughout the world who still work in similar conditions and not on the American unions who always seem to want more. That would be the correct way to honor those who died.

Prof. Williams said...


Thank you for this remembrance. I read two books on this horrific event when I was a youth, and also saw a documentary. As it happens, my students were perusing Jacob Riis's "How the Other Half Lives" this week as we discuss fin de siecle working conditions.


Anonymous said...

Dan's post was not "in remembrance", but was a blatant emotional blackmail attempt to garner support of public unions.

Nat Singleton said...

To: Anon-1 & Anon-2 at 3/25/11, 6:30 AM; Anon-3 3/25/11, 8:59 AM
What is it with you guys? Don’t any of you do any research before you open your respective mouths or is it just ready, shoot, aim. Here are some facts. They show that none of you know what you are talking about. Now, if you have information to the contrary, publish it or at least tell us where to find it. Take the time to educate yourself.

‘Out of Balance

Employees of state & local government earn an average of 11% and 12% less, respectively, than comparable private sector employees. An analysis spanning two decades shows the pay gap between public and private sector employees has widened in recent years.
These findings are contained in a new report, "Out of Balance? Comparing Public and Private Sector Compensation Over 20 Years"commissioned by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence(Center) and the National Institute on Retirement Security (NIRS). The co-authors are Dr. Keith Bender, Associate Professor, Dept. of Economics, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Dr. John Heywood, Distinguished Professor, Dept. of Economics, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Download the full report here.
READ CNN MONEY coverage of the study here.
The study provides an original analysis of data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and finds that:
• Jobs in the public sector typically require more education than private sector positions. Thus, state and local employees are twice as likely to hold a college degree or higher as compared to private sector employees. Only 23% of private sector employees have completed college as compared to about 48% in the public sector.
• Wages and salaries of state and local employees are lower than those for private sector employees with comparable earnings determinants such as education and work experience. State workers typically earn 11% less and local workers 12% less.
• During the last 15 years, the pay gap has grown - earnings for state and local workers have generally declined relative to comparable private sector employees.
• The pattern of declining relative earnings remains true in most of the large states examined in the study, although there does exist some state level variation.
• Benefits make up a slightly larger share of compensation for the state and local sector. But even after accounting for the value of retirement, healthcare, and other benefits, state and local employees earn less than private sector counterparts. On average, total compensation is 6.8% lower for state employees and 7.4% lower for local employees than for comparable private sector employees.’