We Didn’t Start the Fire

Triangle Factory fireThe rhetoric is loud and clear.  Somehow teacher and public workers unions are responsible for the Great Recession. Led by ranting governors from across the nation, the public actually believes such wise men in their high positions. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney recently stated, “Average government workers are now making $30,000 a year more than the average private sector-sector worker.” Maybe we should all work in Massachusetts because Governor Romney, obviously, knows something we don’t.

Governor Christ Christie, (New Jersey) has never tried to hide his contempt of teacher unions. All you have to do is go to YouTube and find a variety of videos of him sarcastically mocking teachers as if we are the perpetrators of some mass conspiracy to put down the lowly, privately employed worker. Governor John Kasich has also made some troubling statements about public unions. Even New York Governor Cuomo recently suggested that by freezing state-worker pay his state will be saved.

A recent Gallup poll and a 2010 Pew Research Poll show public support of unions is at less than 50%. Historically this is not unusual, as pollsters aptly point out. During times of national crisis the public tends to blame any institution of power including unions. However, the idea that public employees make more than their private sector counterparts is nothing more than a myth.  Jefferey H. Keefe of the Economic Policy institute states that, all things being equal, public employees still make 3.7% less than their private employee counterparts.

Lets’ be clear about this, public worker unions did not cause the economic shortfalls that most states face today, nor are they responsible for Americans losing their homes. Union leaders were not responsible for the banking crises or the greedy bonuses that were paid out to executives after the bailouts were awarded. There are no unions in banks.

Interestingly, since the recession hit full force two years ago, teacher unions have been more than willing to maintain current levels of pay. Many work without contracts and most look for grants to help make up budget shortfalls for supplies in the classroom. In Ohio, our reward for that could be legislation to limit our right to strike, despite the fact that the number of strikes have gone down and are shorter in duration since the collective bargaining laws have been passed.

Let’s also be clear that were it not for American Unions most American workers — not just union members — would not have improved working conditions monitored by the Occupational Safety and Health Act regulators. Most American workers now have eight-hour workdays, a minimum wage, unemployment insurance, and pension benefits.

As we approach the 100 year anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of New York City and the fourth highest loss of life from an industrial accident in U.S. history, we must remember the 146 young women and girls who died as a result of deplorable working conditions.

The garment workers at Triangle had actively sought to improve their working conditions, including the conditions that directly led to their deaths: broken fire escapes and managements’ practice of locking the doors to the stairwells and exits to keep workers from leaving early. After striking for for more than three months, workers at Triangle went back to work without a union agreement. Management never addressed their demands. But following their deaths, workers’ rights activists such as Francis Perkins pushed for comprehensive safety and workers’ compensation laws.

We know the truth. Now write your state representatives and spread the truth.

By Susan Ridgeway, Streetsboro Education Association

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