You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

A Fire Still Burning

The Editorial Board
May 6, 2011

Don’t Mourn, Organize

An Editorial

From the Summer, 2011 issue of Jewish Currents

ONE CENTURY AGO, IN A FACTORY ON THE LOWER EAST SIDE, 146 lives were lost in flames — “our dear ones, incinerated coals,” in the words of the sweatshop poet, Morris Rosenfeld, (in a Yiddish poem newly translated by Mickey Flacks [PDF]). Do we observe the March 25th anniversary of the Triangle Fire solely out of nostalgia for labor’s militant past, or because it holds some promise for the movement’s future? This year, the people of Madison, Wisconsin made the answer very clear.

Their governor cut taxes, and then demanded concessions from unions. The unions granted the concessions, but the governor had already taken out his flame-thrower. A thousand people turned out to create a firewall around their public unions’ collective bargaining rights — and then ten thousand, and then a hundred thousand. One could almost conjure the spirits of Clara Lemlich, or Rose Schneiderman...

To hear FDR’s Labor Secretary Frances Perkins tell it, the day of the Triangle Fire was “the day the New Deal began.” America finally understood that the value of the all-union “closed shop” was that it left the doors unlocked — and that the government has a key role to play in enforcing a new labor-capital deal. That deal, however, is now melting fast. The House Republicans have already thrust Medicare into the fire, and Social Security is bound and waiting its turn. Newt Gingrich has more than once declared that he wants to repeal the New Deal — and these days Gingrich may actually represent the left wing of the Republican Party.

ONE MILESTONE OF THE LABOR-CAPITAL MELTDOWN is to be found in another bleak anniversary, thirty years ago this August, when the thirteen thousand members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization went out on strike. Although PATCO had broken ranks with the labor movement to endorse Ronald Reagan, he showed them no mercy. Firing the strikers and decertifying their union, he legitimized the use of scabs and inaugurated a three-decade-long rout of organized labor.

In those three decades, union membership has fallen from 17.7 million, 20 percent of the work force, to 14.7 million (seven million of them in the public sector), 11.9 percent. Before the PATCO strike, there were on average 300 work stoppages involving at least a thousand workers every year between 1947 (when the Bureau of Labor Statistics began keeping track) and 1979. After the strike, the average plummeted to 36. Last year, amid the charred rubble of the economy, the people we once called the bosses enjoyed the second calmest year on record, with a mere eleven work stoppages. But work stoppages take other forms — as on the night of March 22nd-23rd, when two airplanes coming in for a landing could not contact the tower at Ronald Reagan National Airport — because the sole air traffic controller on duty, working his fourth straight overnight shift, had fallen asleep.

And where is today’s President, the one who spoke up for the workers of Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago during their December, 2008 factory occupation? (“They are absolutely right... what’s happening to them is reflective of what’s happening across this economy.”) Where is the President who campaigned with the promise to win card-check legislation that would facilitate union growth? Barack Obama’s been busy appointing a banker, William Daley, as his new chief of staff, and General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt — whose corporation enjoyed a $66 billion bail-out without paying a dime in taxes last year — as chair of the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness (on which only two of twenty-six members represent organized labor). The President is also busy amassing his reelection cash. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in 2008 he took in nearly $40 million from the finance, insurance, and real estate industries, while labor contributed a paltry $534,000 to his record-breaking haul. In the 2010 elections, labor was out-spent by business 15 to 1. The math doesn’t bode well for union influence. Nevertheless, SEIU’s associate general counsel has opposed campaign finance restrictions, while the AFL-CIO filed an amicus brief supporting the decision arrived at by the Supreme Court in Citizens United! When not fighting for the right of corporations to drown elections in money, our country’s leading unions are too often busy raiding each other’s members. This is today’s labor movement: divided, desperate, and begging to be ignored.

BUT NOT IN MADISON. As this issue of Jewish Currents went to press, a judge had issued a restraining order against the Wisconsin anti-union law, and activists announced that they had gathered enough signatures to subject two of eight Republican state senators to a recall election. [Now up to at least three, if not six. - Ed.] In Ohio, where the Republican-controlled state legislature has passed a bill that restricts collective bargaining even more drastically, the unions have promised a November ballot referendum to win back their bargaining rights. With 63 percent of Ohio’s voters backing collective bargaining for public workers, and 52 percent even believing they should have the right to strike, there’s hope that this effort will succeed.

It had better, because the dismantling of unions and the dismantling of the standard of living of the majority of Americans go hand in hand. President Obama can seek “bipartisanship” and the “moderate center” all he wants, but the rest of us are well advised to heed Rose Schneiderman, the key representative of labor in FDR’s “brain trust”, who protested the Triangle Fire with these words:

“I can’t talk fellowship to you... Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”