Many of you will claim that labor unions are responsible for the wholesale demise of business in the U.S. (Just look at the situation with Hostess!) Unions typically make silly, stupid, unreasonable demands…until management finally gives up and says, “Enough!” and moves the company right out of the country…to someplace where people will produce the exact same goods far more cheaply. Hey, that’s business in a global economy! Yup, fair is fair.
Some will grudgingly agree that unions may have been necessary “once,” but surely their usefulness is past and their viability is long gone. Companies know they have to treat their employees right, right? Here in the U.S. we already have the best working conditions in the world, and companies know they must pay a competitive, livable wage. So why do unions still exist? Shouldn’t they be outlawed or something?
That’s probably what many of you think. That’s probably what Walmart thinks too. You know Walmart: That’s the company that decided it was more efficient to have some of the clothes they sell made in Bangladesh. Hey, they’re always starving over there…even George Harrison’s 1971 benefit concert did little-to-nothing to fundamentally change anything in that country. So if Walmart can have clothes made in Bangladesh…great! Right?
Right. Except. Except that a fire broke out in a garment factory in Bangladesh this week, and 124 people died because the fire exits were either non-existent or blocked and people couldn’t get out.
Walmart, Sears and Disney all had clothing made in that factory. But they cleverly had enough plausible deniability to distance themselves from the actual process of manufacturing. Well, we did not contract directly with that company. In fact, we directed our suppliers to not use that company! Which is exactly what Walmart actually claimed. Left unsaid was, But you know…we don’t really monitor such things closely as long as we get the product for the right price. And how could we! Bangladesh is soooo far away from Bentonville, Arkansas.
Those damn unions! If not for those damn unions we'd still be making clothes in the U.S.!
Well this is what we get – this is the high cost of low prices. It might be easy for some Americans to shrug it off and say, “Hey, that would not happen in America.”
But it did. Triangle Shirtwaist Company, anyone? Ring a bell? Probably not, because it was 100 years ago. (A hundred and one, actually.)
Just after the turn of the 20th Century, New York City was a hub of manufacturing, including clothing. The Triangle Waist Company made women’s blouses that were called “shirtwaists” back then, don’t ask me why. The company occupied the top three floors of a huge 10-story factory in lower Manhattan. The employees, mostly young women, worked nine-hour days from Monday through Friday, and a seven-hour day on Saturday. They made a maximum of about $12/week.
In March of 1911 a fire broke out on the eighth floor of the factory. There were no fire alarms, no sprinklers, no fire-hoses…and so the fire got completely out of control before people on the two upper floors even realized what was happening. Emergency exits were locked, ostensibly to prevent stealing by employees. There was one rickety fire escape which quickly warped and collapsed due to the heat of the fire, sending as many as 20 people to their death. When the NYFD arrived, the ladders on their trucks were not tall enough to reach the floors that were burning. In all, 146 people died.
The Triangle Waist Company fire led directly to better, more strict regulations concerning worker safety in factories. It also led to the growth of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, which worked hard for better treatment of employees in both compensation and working conditions.
Well, screw that! Manufacturers simply moved their factories out of high-profile places like New York City, to other locations where people would work more cheaply, would be happy to have any job at all, where there were no pesky labor unions and where government oversight and scrutiny was not so…let’s say “intense.” Places like Central America. And Bangladesh.
And so a couple of days ago, 100 years after the Triangle Waist Company fire, there was another fire, this time in a garment factory in Bangladesh in which 124 people were killed.
Boy, we’ve learned a lot in 100 years, huh? But this is what we get. This is what we get when we, as Americans willingly accept the “fact” that companies should be allowed to produce their goods wherever they can do it the most cheaply, and then ship those goods to us with no restrictions. This is what we get when we do not hold companies like Walmart and Sears and Disney directly accountable, and morally and financially responsible for disasters like this. We should be ashamed of ourselves, but we’re not. Not as long as we can get that Disney-branded jacket for our kids at a cheap price or that $6 sweatshirt from Walmart.
We see how corporations act when they are left to make up the rules on their own. We saw it in lower Manhattan in 1911. And we just saw it again this month in 2012 in Bangladesh.
Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.
WIKIPEDIA: Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire