How labor unions save lives

Labor unions didn’t just bring us Labor Day weekend but all weekends and, responding to tragedies, they organized for safer workplaces. 

In the early 20th century, workers died horribly in factories, mines and steel mills from badly designed machines and unsafe conditions. 

The sewing machines and cutting tables of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company were located on the eighth, ninth and tenth stories of a lower Manhattan building. When a fire broke out, it killed 146 girls and women, the youngest just 14 years old, who were working there in 1911. Workers could not escape because the owners had chained shut the doors leading to exit stairwells.

Bystanders were shocked by what they saw. Louis Waldman, a Ukranian immigrant just two years in the United States, observed a terrifying scene. 

Standing nearby, Waldman “looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp,” he wrote in his memoirs. “This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies.”

Speaking at a memorial a few weeks later, Rose Schneiderman of the Women’s Trade Union League and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, called for more than talk. 

There was no respect for workers’ humanity and dignity. Workplaces were firetraps with dangerous machinery, but, said Schneiderman, “Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred.” Unions’ efforts needed to be supported because “every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us,” she said

People acted. Schneiderman organized. Waldman became a labor lawyer and a member of the New York state assembly who fought for workers’ rights. Frances Perkins, another bystander to the fire and the awful deaths, was later Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of labor. 

During her time in the federal government, Perkins worked to improve wages, workers’ rights and safety, and helped create unemployment insurance and Social Security. Perkins also worked with Sen. Robert Wagner of New York to craft and pass the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. This law gave workers the right to form unions and bargain collectively. 

Union members walk in the Labor Day parade in Detroit on Monday. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Unions worked for higher wages and better benefits and pushed employers to make workplaces safer. They worked hard to create the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

Despite these laws, unions still matter for safety.

According to research by Michael Zoorob, there are more workplace fatalities in states with lower rates of unionization and so-called right-to-work laws, which make it harder for unions to organize and operate. Zoorob, a graduate student at Harvard, found that between 1992 and 2006, “a one-percentage point increase in the unionized workforce was associated with a 2.8% decline in the rate of occupational fatalities. In addition, “by weakening unions, right to work legislation has been associated with about a 14% increase in the rate of occupational fatalities.” 

Pledging to “drain the swamp,” President Donald Trump ran as a populist in 2016 but the Trump administration is undermining processes and rules that protect people on the job. 

According to an analysis of government data by the National Employment Law Project, safety inspections and enforcement declined each year that Trump has been president.

And, in the middle of the government shutdown earlier this year, the Trump administration overturned a regulation that required detailed, rapidly submitted reports of workers being hurt on the job. Without this, it’s harder for OSHA to focus on workplaces where injuries are occurring and make them safer.

For better workplaces and wages and the dignity of work, unions matter, and so does who runs government.


Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.