Friday, March 25, 2011
As Jeff noted yesterday, today is the 100th anniversary of the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. It was the largest industrial accident in NYC history, and I think remains the second largest industrial accident in U.S. history.
With this anniversary come a number of excellent documentaries on the subject. Earlier this month, PBS's American Experience series (from WGBH in Boston) explored the fire, and you can watch that program and access many original materials here. HBO also has a documentary on the fire, and its website provides links to useful resources as well. For more in the way of documents, if you're interested, check out Cornell's ILR School site devoted to the fire, and UMKC has documents from the trial of the factory owners as part of its famous trial series online. The tragedy helped to mobilize people to push harder for protective labor legislation in New York and across the country, efforts that had already been underway, but which gained significantly greater momentum.
This anniversary is particularly interesting juxtaposed against today's current labor climate. We have the examples of the recent legislative efforts to strip public workers of collective bargaining rights in a number of states, but most visibly in Wisconsin. And in my own current state of Missouri, there seems an outright revolution in the works. We have a movement called "Fix the 6," proposed by business interests in the state. The program touches on some tax and broader tort reform issues, but primarily focuses on employment. The legislative agenda seeks to limit awards and make it harder for employees to get to trial in employment discrimination cases (h/t Erin Clark, for links to a summary of the legislation and this anti-legislation video), to roll back whistleblower protections (h/t Roger Goldman for the link to this article), and to repeal automatic increases to the minimum wage to keep pace with inflation. In addition to these, there was a bill to make union security clauses in collective bargaining agreements illegal--the so-called right to work legislation. While the right to work bill stalled in the Missouri Senate, the discrimination legislation has passed the House, and the whistleblower legislation has passed the Senate.
I'm struck, as likely many readers of this blog are, by all of this movement, much of it flying in the face of opinion polls, and wonder, why now and what does it mean? All of these bills are labeled as making our state more competitive for industry--as job-creating measures. Has the Great Recession made legislators think that workers (or seeking-work-ers) are so desperate that they will vote against their self interest in one sense--we often do, so maybe that's right--in the hopes that the resulting largesse to company profits will trickle down to them? Is this the kind of race to the bottom that might demonstrate that Brandeis' notion of states-as-laboratories has serious limitations at least when it comes to measuring justice values against scarce economic resources?
Are these multi-layered efforts going on in other states too? I'd love to hear about it or your thoughts in the comments.