Unions began in the United States soon after the civil war, in 1869 the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, but did not take hold until the early 1900’s. When a housing boom in the late 1800’s empowered plumbers, they affiliated with the Knights in several states. After the New Deal by Roosevelt, unions were given rights that allowed them to grow into the unions we see today.
In the battle between Republicans and Democrats, the idea of socialism and the New Deal are put up as an example of what is good or bad about our government. While excessive government does result in over-regulation and bureaucratic waste, unions and their power to negotiate with government entity rose out of the fact that many wealthy businessmen are comfortable increasing their profit margins by not providing a fair wage and working environment for the employees who earn the money for them.
By looking back at the way things were in the recent past, in the first half of the last century, before unions, we can see the incredible dangers we still face should we ever lose our focus and our unity. History proves that some wealthy business owners, left to their own devices, will happily sacrifice the quality of life, economic well-being, the health and safety, and the very lives of working people if it pads their profit margins. In each case, it was workers organizing and battling together that turned the tide.
We can start with wages. Early in the industrial era, workers were lucky if they could make enough to eat a meal occasionally. There were no minimum wage laws. In fact, many operators chose to pay workers not in cash but in company scrip, redeemable only at the company store. You worked for food, or you starved. That was the choice.
You also worked virtually every waking moment. Work days were not eight hours, but 14, 16, even 18 hours. Every day (seven days a week), without meal or rest breaks and without overtime pay.
Working conditions were appalling. Workers were commonly killed, injured and sickened by their workplace. Upton Sinclair wrote about the early slaughter houses in 1907. Workers walked on the back of the cattle using sledge hammers to fell the animals. When a worker was crushed or trampled, they were removed and replaced with another worker. The conditions he described spurred congress to pass many of the food safety laws we have today. But the focus was on our food, not the safety of the workers.
Government mandated health and safety standards didn’t exist. Workplaces were at the mercy of their employer. They often worked in filthy and polluted workplaces. Dangerous chemicals, hazardous machinery, and unsafe conditions were the norm. If a worker was injured, they would lose their income and their health. Young girls in the garment factories often died of lung ailments before they were 25. Workers were considered old if they reached 40.
Then, in 1911, 146 garment workers, mostly young women and girls, were killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire after some equipment ignited, because their employers had locked them in a room with no exit or fire escape. The fire started on the 8th floor. It is thought that a lit cigarette fell on some garment bundles. The fire ranged so quickly that charred remains of some of the girls were found at their sewing machines. Some of the girls on the eighth and ninth floor were able to escape through the elevator. Over 50 young women squeezed into an elevator made for 10. Eventually, the heat from the fire stopped the elevator. The women on the 10th floor went to the roof and escaped into the other building. The women on the ninth floor were not so lucky. Two of the exterior doors were locked from the outside. Perhaps to stop union activists. The open door opened inward, so could not open into the mass of panicked girls pushed against it. Each door had about 25 remains stacked against it when investigators entered the burned building.
Firetrucks could only reach the 6th floor with their water and ladders. Some of the girls tried to jump to the ladders, but they fell to the cement below. Many of the women fled to the fire escape, but it collapsed under their weight plummeting its contents 9 floors.
As the fire pushed through the 9th floor and raged up from the 8th floor, women began to jump from the windows. Spectators tried to catch them with blankets and clothes, but the velocity made them tear through the cloth. The firemans’ net was torn when a group of women jumped together. Finally, people could just watch while woman after woman came flailing out of the window until they hit the ground to lay motionless. The people surrounding the building watched helplessly through the windows that remained as women burned before their eyes. When the windows shattered from the heat, the burning women were thrown to the cement below still burning. Some of the girls were impaled on the fence surrounding the building. The over half of the young women were 13-16 years old. The entire fire took only 30 minutes.
Hundreds of people witnessed the fire and hundreds more recoiled at the pictures published in the papers. Just a year before these same women had gone on strike with other factory workers for safer and more sanitary conditions. Most of the striking workers returned to better work conditions, but the owner of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory had refused to correct workplace safety issues. The fire was their answer. The Tammany governor assigned a task force to investigate factory conditions in New York. The result was 52 new laws and regulations, including lower work hours, no children under 14 were allowed to work, fire exits, fire escapes, and more.
Children had been expected to work as well as part of the deal for a job; in the mines, in the fields, in the steel mills, and everywhere else their labor could reap extra profits for the owners.
Workers couldn’t afford and didn’t have access to health care. If you got sick or injured you were on your own. If you were too sick to work, you simply lost your job and your pay, then you starved. Sick pay as we know it today didn’t exist.
In fact, there was no safety net of any kind. You didn’t have health care. you couldn’t earn a pension. There were no such things as social security, unemployment insurance, or workers’ compensation.