ONE hundred years ago today, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory went up in flames.
Lost in the chaos were 146 lives, most of them immigrant seamstresses from Italy and Eastern Europe, earning low wages for backbreaking piece work. These were invisible women, unnoticed by the rest of society because of their immigrant status and social class. The reason they perished that day was a function of that invisibility: no bargaining power, no workplace protections, few options.
I thought of those seamstresses, contemporaries of our great-grandmothers, as I watched the chaos unfold at Wisconsin's statehouse last month. Pundits of both the conservative and liberal persuasion attempted to draw a bright line down the center of the controversy and separate the pro-union workers from the anti-union governor.
As usually happens in this sound-bite society, union supporters got the better press. There was the artificial presumption that unions - regardless of their nature, purpose or membership - are good. That meant that anyone who opposed them, for whatever reason, was bad.
That simplistic interpretation of some very complicated facts does a particular disservice to the memory of the Triangle fire victims. In politicizing an issue that's much more nuanced than the pundits and the activists believe, they are missing the point of that long-ago tragedy. (And calling Gov. Scott Walker Hitler doesn't advance the debate.)
The women who died on March 25, 1911, died because they had no bargaining power. The conditions they labored under were in many cases inhuman, on the theory that employers should be free to set the conditions for employment.
It was the age of laissez-faire, and the minimum wage and limitations on work hours were still a generation away. And immigrants like the Italian and Jewish women at Triangle were even more vulnerable to exploitation. There was no one to tell the manager at Triangle that it was a crime to lock the exit doors during work hours, or that he needed to install a sprinkler system.
Organized labor served a legitimate and important purpose in those days, making sure the people on whose backs fortunes were being made had a say in the process. So those who paint all unions with a broad black brush are misguided, although there aren't too many of them left. It was primarily through collective bargaining that tragedies like Triangle were virtually eliminated. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is, in a sense, the great memorial to those doomed seamstresses.
But what started as a noble shield has been turned into a sword.
While unions did good things for their members and improved working conditions in blue-collar industries (the ones that built, fed and clothed the nation), the tactics used to obtain fair deals for the seamstresses and steel workers have now been manipulated by others with a more partisan agenda.
In many cases, those "others" work in the public sector, and their "collective bargaining" has been turned into a form of public bribery. By taking their members' dues and contributing big sums to the political campaigns of officials who - when elected - can sweeten their contracts, public-sector unions have gone from puppet to puppet master.
"A decent living" became a euphemism for bloated salaries and way-better-than-average perks at taxpayer expense. And tenure all of sorts has turned into immunity for the mediocre.
That's why I think the rhetoric that's come out of Wisconsin and spread to other states (but, I hope, not Pennsylvania) is a cynical misrepresentation of what the labor movement was meant to be. While it's good that people are no longer subject to the arbitrary mandates of the job market or the whims of employers, it's troubling that public workers are still in a position to make increasingly unreasonable demands in this depressed economy.
Unlike the voiceless women of Triangle Shirtwaist, the public employees in Wisconsin and elsewhere are screaming so loudly that they've drowned out the saner voices.
The union supporters who occupied the Wisconsin statehouse and carried signs of Scott Walker as Hitler are not the natural heirs of the immigrant seamstresses. Any attempt to create a connection between their issues and the struggles of those women insults the intelligence of anyone who ever delivered an honest day's work for a reasonable paycheck. The bloated benefits packages negotiated by politicians as a thank you to their union constituents have now been proven anachronistic in this hobbled economy.
The Triangle tragedy taught us an important lesson: People can't be treated like cogs in a sterile moneymaking machine.
But the upheaval in Wisconsin has taught us just the opposite: When unionism becomes the machine, it has to be stopped.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer. Email