By Fred Goldenberg, Local columnist
---- — The youngest was a girl of 14 and the oldest was a woman of 43.
In all, 146 shirt makers perished in the flames that engulfed the top floors that the shirt factory occupied in the building. Because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits — a common practice at the time to prevent pilferage and unauthorized breaks — many of the workers who could not escape the burning building jumped from the eighth, ninth and tenth floors to the streets below.
The above isn't a description of the recent fires that broke out at garment factories in Pakistan and India, where more than 400 workers perished, but in New York City 100 years ago at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Although 100 years apart, the similarities are staggering, not by the numbers killed, although they too were similar, but in the reason so many perished: poor and hazardous working conditions in sweat shops designed for maximum production without regard to worker safety or health.
Because of the Triangle fire, legislation was passed to insure that this type of situation would never happen again in the United States. Until the World Trade Center terrorist attack, the Triangle fire was the largest loss of life on U.S. soil.
Championed by the labor movement, workers in the United States have been guaranteed safe working conditions so Triangle could never happen again. All Americans, union and non-union, have benefited from organized labor's continued fight with corporations over wages, benefits and safety.
The middle class was built on the shoulders of union negotiations and contracts hammered out in the boardrooms of America's largest corporations. Child labor laws, workers compensation, health benefits, vacations, 40-hour work weeks and decent wages are just a few of the benefits we all share because of the labor movement.
Over the years, unions have lost their luster and most of those in the workforce don't remember the battle on the overpass in 1937. In the 70 years that have passed since Ford goons attacked UAW's Walter Reuther, labor has championed the cause of the middle class and, based on current determination to destroy unionism in the U.S., it won.
This week Gov. Rick Snyder and his Republican cronies sold their soul for 30 pieces of silver. The governor has betrayed every voter in the state with his reversal on the Right-to-Work agenda of the far right and corporate America. Swearing that Right-to-Work wasn't on his agenda and vowing not to create a divisive atmosphere like that in Wisconsin, he rammed through legislation that is not only divisive, but takes a state that had been showing signs of recovery backwards.
Statistics show that workers' wages and benefits are the lowest in the 23 (Michigan is the 24th) Right-to-Work states. Even though there was job growth, the jobs that were created were poor-paying and came with no benefits.
Just look at Wal-Mart, whose employees aren't paid enough to be able to afford health care. Many are on government assistance programs just to be able to feed their families. This is the competitive market the Governor and his boys are ramming down our throats. You know — the guys who are the second-highest paid legislative body in the country.
Federal law already protects workers who opt out of belonging to a union if they so choose. Yep, if I work at a union shop and don't want to belong or pay dues, I can do so. Plus I still get the benefits and protections afforded all union employees. All I have to pay for is a prorated share of the contract negotiation costs.
Right-to-Work legislation has nothing to do with competitiveness or workers' rights. It's all about dragging us backward into a world of sweat shops and corporate greed. As Third World countries move forward and demand for better wages and benefits cuts into the pockets of CEOs of American corporations, thoughts of bringing jobs back home begin to play in their minds — but only if it's profitable.
Eliminating your competition, in this case labor unions, makes all the sense in the world.
Shame on you, Gov. Snyder, and all of your friends in Lansing.
Fred L. Goldenberg is a Certified Senior Advisor and the founder of Senior Benefit Solutions, LLC, a consumer and financial services organization in Traverse City. If you have any questions or comments about this article or any senior issue, he can be reached at 922-1010 or www.srbenefitsolutions.com.