Friday, March 25, 2011

United We Bargain, Divided We Beg

Welcome to "The Gods Are Bored." Tonight we have lit the Shrine of the Mists to honor the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that occurred 100 years ago today.

This workforce of primarily immigrant women had tried to unionize in 1909, but wily bosses caused rifts between the workers, who came from various ethnic and religious backgrounds. The employees of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory worked 10-hour days from Monday through Friday and a half day on Saturday. Most of them were women, because the wage they earned was not enough to live on. They could only contribute to family incomes. They couldn't support themselves -- even with those hours.

When the fire occurred, the exit doors were locked. The product being made -- cotton shirts -- was highly combustible. You jumped, or you fried. Either way, you died.

Much more so than the efforts of the "hillbillies" down in the coal mines, this tragedy in the heart of New York City galvanized the organized labor movement and was often cited when advances were made in shortening the work week and in providing safety standards for workers.

On this of all days we should pause for a moment and consider the benefits of collective bargaining.

They say that Communism destroys incentive. Well, left to its own devices, Capitalism does the same. When you are only paid if you're healthy enough to work, when you can never hope to stop working until you die, and when you have no share in the profits of your employer, you might become a tad frustrated by your lot in life. The only incentive left to you is to cut corners on the job or, like old Fagin in Oliver Twist, find a more lucrative line of work.

Public sector employees are not a bunch of greedy divas trying to drive state budgets into the abyss. These unions are made up of men and women who want decent (not grandiose) wages and sufficient (not excessive) benefits. Many public sector employees are intelligent enough to be willing to bargain for fair contracts that will help keep budget deficits in check. At the same time, to expect any unionized employee to shoulder the burden of balancing a state budget while the state's wealthiest citizens don't get tax increases is ... what's the word? ... demoralizing. It stifles incentive. And the last thing you want to see coming up your driveway when your house is on fire is a demoralized firefighter.

It is in no one's interest reduce the pay and benefits to the people who teach our children, who protect us, who watch what's being dumped into the streams and rivers. Public sector employees might not be poor immigrants crammed into a sweatshop, but they do produce a product: our future.

In honor of the many people who have died fighting for unions, please keep your heart open to the notion of collective bargaining. No one is trying to become a millionaire off a union contract. But trust me to death on this one: a reduction of pay and/or benefits in public schools will have a catastrophic effect on education in this country. There's nothing more dangerous than a sick teacher who will do anything to hold onto her job.

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2 Comments:

At March 25, 2011 , Blogger Lavanah said...

We have long taught American history by the Great Man theory. We teach of Andrew Carnegie and his libraries, but children don't hear about the ordering of the Pinkertons to fire on striking steel workers. We don't teach about Labor. Two generations since the Triangle Fire have grown up expecting weekends off, health insurance, paid vacations and retirement benefits. But they weren't taught how those benefits came to be expected, what those benefits cost the earlier generations. All they heard was the Horatio Alger myths, and so they stood by or actively helped to weaken unions and group negotiation in this nation. And now we are all suffering.

 
At March 26, 2011 , Anonymous Pitch313 said...

A corporation is an organizational, operational, and economic collectivity. It is not a single person acting without reference to collective goals and corporate policies.

I find the notion that workers must act towards and within corporations (collective entities) entirely as isolates, as if a worker shares no common interests with other workers in the corporation, challenging.

It's sorta like telling workers that, once they have fabricated chains, they each must chain themselves to their work place and never notice that they are chained to the corporation's exclusive benefit.

 

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