Recent news about Volkswagen in Tennessee voting against organizing with the United Auto Workers Union surprised me. Union membership has fallen dramatically and Union Bashing is a favorite activity of the Republican Party, and corporate interests in general. I name the GOP because they traditionally support corporate America over labor, and especially unions. I don’t know if there was intimidation involved or not, but it worries me that young people, who have difficulty finding meaningful work to support a family, seem to have no remembrance of what Unions have meant to working people. My surprise was augmented by watching the Triangle Fire on PBS, about the horrible working conditions women, men, boys, and young girls faced to simply feed themselves and pay for slum shelter.
Corporate America thought it was their right to pay whatever they wanted while they collected millions in profits. Millions in the 1800’s was mucho big bucks. No safety standards or any regulation of the thousands of factory workers who produced clothing, jewelry, pots, pans, you name it, existed. New York was the center of the garment industry.
The Triangle Fire, where 145 girls perished in a shirtwaist factory, kind of woke up the nation to the idea that working people should have some protections. The girls worked 7 days a week for 14 hours a day. They were not allowed to get up and get a drink of water, nor use the bathroom until lunch time, which they ate at their sewing machines. If they didn’t sew fast enough the boss would chastise them. If they made a mistake, it came off their meager pay. When fire broke out, the door to the street was kept locked so no one could sneak out for a moment, and they were trapped on the ninth floor. The bosses got out on the first packed, slow elevator. New York City FD ladders could only reached seven stories high. Those that got out on the fire escape, (some escaped,) until the fire escape fell to the ground under the weight.
The shirtwaist factories in NYC went on strike. The policemen who girls for striking, arrested them for striking, and falsely arrested them as prostitutes, were now faced with picking up the bodies of girls they had hassled before the strike was settled. The Triangle, did not go union like most of the other shirt waist factories, but Triangle did reduce hours and paid more money. No safety regulations applied to any of them.
I have a Free Riders Card which states:
I am opposed to all unions. Therefore, I am opposed to all the benefits unions have won through the years: paid vacations, sick leave, seniority rights, wage increases, pension and insurance plans, safety laws, workers compensation, Social Security, overtime, unemployment benefits and job security. I authorize my employer to withhold the amount of the union-won benefits from my paycheck and donate it to charity.
Unions are still needed. In the early 1970’s, when the protestors on the streets of Berkeley, were screaming at the cops and calling them PIGS, they were secretly smiling because Sheriff Houchins went to the Board of Supervisors to plead for overtime pay for Deputy Sheriffs, a first for the Department. The department later unionized and won modern benefits unavailable to them previously.
In the 1960’s, just before retirement, the company my father worked for, took many measures to get him to quit so he couldn’t collect his pension, including midnight phone calls to my mother, tacks under his tires, etc. My Dad walked into the administration office with both of his Sons-in-law, dressed in suits and ties carrying briefcases. He asked them to make a formal statement in front of them, never revealing they were not lawyers. The company quit their harassment and he got his pension.
Do we really learn from the past?