By Stephen Spratt
This week marks the 100th anniversary of a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York that killed 146 people, mainly young women and nearly all immigrant workers. Many were trapped in the flames because of an exit door being locked, or fell to their deaths from a broken fire-escape.
As described in The Economist, workers from the factory had been involved in a city-wide protest the previous year, where 20,000 garment sector workers went on strike for the right to union recognition, better working conditions and pay. This did not succeed, but the fire triggered a wave of reforms, with comprehensive new laws on labour rights and health and safety being enacted within a few years. This legislation became a template for other states and provided a basis for the New Deal in the 1930s. The Economist quotes Frances Perkins, Roosevelt’s Labor Secretary, as saying that March 25th 1911 was the day the New Deal began.
It is strange then that the anniversary of this event should coincide with moves in Wisconsin to remove the right to collective bargaining for public sector workers, with 100,000 people taking to the streets last week, and the Governor suggesting that the National Guard may be used to quash dissent.
Along with China, India and Mexico, the US is one of 23 countries that have not ratified the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Convention 98 on the right to collective bargaining. Unfortunately, the fight for decent and humane labour rights is far from won it seems. When even the Economist – not exactly a publication of the hard left – argues that this week’s anniversary should ‘remind America why unions were needed’, those working in development should do likewise.
Fundamental and universal labour rights are not a luxury to be considered once a certain income threshold has been reached, or ditched when fiscal constraints bite. As well as being a safeguard of basic human dignity and a foundation of development, they can be a matter of life and death. The Economist succinctly concludes: “A hundred years ago 400,000 people attended the memorial service for those who died, in part, because they could not unionise.”