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On a Solemn Anniversary, Remembering the Importance of Unions

On a Solemn Anniversary, Remembering the Importance of Unions

Today, on the 103rd anniversary of the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, we recall how in 18 minutes, a fire took the lives of 146 Jewish and Italian immigrants. This infamous event reminds us that as Jews, “it is our pride and our glory that we are kind to those who work for us” and must support the strong institutions that protect the most vulnerable workers (Sefer HaChinuch).

Ignited by a stray cigarette or a spark from a machine, it's not hard to see how the fire quickly took the lives of 146 workers - the vast majority women, some as young as 14. The factory was packed densely with workers, highly flammable scraps piled six feet high and the emergency staircase was locked to prevent unauthorized breaks. Firefighters arrived to discover their ladders were too short to reach the factory on the ninth floor and watched as workers jumped to their death, instead of falling victim to the flames.

A coincidental witness to the fire was Francis Perkins, then the executive secretary of the National Consumers League and later U.S. Security of Labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the aftermath of the fire, Perkins, along with - largely Jewish - unions including the National Women's Trade Union League and International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, began pushing for much stricter safety regulations. Soon after, the New York state legislature created the Factory Investigating Commission to research and recommend legislative means to prevent future tragedies like the fire. Eventually, the commission pushed through a staggering 36 bills broadening regulation of child labor, building codes and minimum wage, and granting broader enforcement powers to the New York Department of Labor.  Many of these bills were models for New Deal legislation that Perkins later helped implement. Perkins herself, described the fire as “the day the New Deal began.”

Common sense safety regulations are extremely important, but these regulations do not get created on their own. For the last century, unions have been a crucial force behind improving the working conditions for all Americans. But in many non-union work places, abuses of labor laws are still all too common. Just last week, the owner of seven McDonalds’ franchises settled a $500,000 suit with 1,600 employees for having employees work off-the-clock hours and not paying overtime. But while many have declared unions a dying institution and have attempted to eliminate unions, unions are fighting back with a growing movement to unionize fast food restaurants and fight for a starting wage of $15 an hour.

As we remember our ancestors lost in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, we must remember the importance of labor unions to the Jewish people and to newer immigrants to this country currently trying to live the American dream.

Howie Levine is a 2013-2014 Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He is originally from St. Paul, MN, where he is a member of Mt. Zion Temple. He graduated from Tufts University.

Howie Levine
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