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Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Triangle Fire, Maine's New Governor and Senator Mark Jansen

Okay, friends, bare with me.  I like to keep these posts short, but this could be a long one.  This week, particularly has seen many things converging at one time.

First, there was March 25, the hundred year anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.
146 people died within the space of 15 minutes that day, mostly the young teen-aged girls who worked in the factory.

Working conditions in that factory were terrible to start with -- long hours, low pay, no safety precautions.  Other similar factories had become unionized by this time.  But not the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.  Its owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris  led the opposition to union organizing.  So their workers continued in  sweatshop conditions without reasonable safety precautions.

Even worse, the young girls who worked in this factory were locked in every day.  Yes, the owners were so fearful of the workers stealing scraps of cloth that they locked them in; the young women were then searched before they left for the day.  In trial, it was revealed that the owners lost a mere $15. a season to theft.  That was why those young women were locked in that day.  That was why they died.

A young New York Social worker, Frances Perkins, was one of the horrified New Yorkers who witnessed this scene -- and the teen-aged girls who went up in flames or leapt to their deaths.  Instead of just saying tsk, tsk, she took action.  She pushed the New York State legislative leaders, assemblyman Al Smith and State Senator Robert Wagner, to head an investigative committee. The legislature then made sweeping changes.  New laws governed workplace safety, wages, hours, and working conditions.

A step forward for the workers in this country.

Francis Perkins later became the first woman on a presidential cabinet when FDR appointed her to be his Labor Secretary.  Together, they brought much-needed changes to America's working men and women.

Well, another thing happened this week.  Maine's Governor Paul LePage ordered the removal of a 36' mural in the Department of Labor. "The mural depicts the brave (and often bloody) struggles of Maine's workers in achieving living wages, establishing a 5-day work-week, and eliminating child labor." (Susan Fagin in a letter to the editor).  Seems this new Republican governor not only wants to metaphorically give hard working men and women a punch to the gut by removing a mural that honors them, he wants to change the names of the conference rooms as well.  One of those rooms was named after Francis Perkins.  Yes, the Francis Perkins who saw to it that those young women did not die in vain and that laws were put into place to protect workers.  He wants her name taken off that conference room.

And what happened back here in Michigan?  Senator Mark Jansen introduced legislation to eliminate MIOSHA,  the agency that monitors workplace safety.  He doesn't want to improve it.  He doesn't want to make it less onerous.  He wants to eliminate it.  Maybe this pro-life Republican Senator would be happy to see us return to the days young women lost their lives unnecessarily in tragic fires.  His callous attitude toward the lives of working men and women cheapens the very movement that claims to promote the sanctity of life.

So these three things converged this week:  anniversary of the New York Triangle Shirtwaist fire, Maine governor wanting to erase that part of history that gave meaning to those young women's lost lives, and a Michigan State Senator wanting to eliminate the department put in place to keep workers safe.  I believe these three taken together can serve as a warning to us.  If we don't stand up and fight for workers' rights, they will be gone before we know it.  Those who stood up for working men and women, instead of being honored as heroes, will be erased from history.  And we could go back to the days when owners locked their workers in, lest the owners lose a few cents.

If this coordinated attack on workers' rights doesn't get Americans to vote in the next election, I don't know what will.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the post. Interesting juxtapositions. I would be glad to "bear" with you on this but refuse to "bare" myself with you> ha ha!