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A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

29 November 2012

Those Damn Unions

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


Michael Morris said...

It's a crazy world. I was thinking of that NY fire the other day when I heard about the Bangladesh fire. Corporations will go wherever the whole process is cheapest. That's economics and human nature.

I believe you are right it's our choice to buy from such companies. To vote with our wallets. If we do that then they will be more inclined to change their ways. Good luck getting the masses to do that. It's much easier to be outraged. I personally try to buy American products. I avoid Wal-Mart all together if I can.

Companies want to make the biggest profits for their shareholders. That's their responsibility and only a few companies feel they have a social responsibility too.

I think it's a little overboard to say that unions should exist or not. I think it's best left more or less alone. It wasn't just the unions that changed working conditions in America. Between them and the mudruckers stirring up public outrage things changed eventually. Some unions are still doing a good job, like the Airline Pilots Association. Some unions do demand a lot though.

I was listening to the radio today. On the news they talked about the fast food workers striking in New York because they were only getting paid minimum wage. I'm not sure what to say about that. At some level I want to be: That's what you get for working fast food. Go get a real job. That's a job for new workers or workers that can't go anywhere else. At the same time I realize that the cost of living is higher there than it is here. And if they raise the price of fast food workers they will probably higher fewer workers and raise the fast food prices (Not that that would be a bad thing).

I guess all that I'm getting at is that it's a tricky tight rope with no right answer.

Bob Barbanes: said...

Michael, I don't know what the solution is either. But if the Bangladesh fire happened in this country to a company that was contracted by Walmart, then Walmart should and would be held accountable. And so I believe they should be held accountable in this case too, despite the fact that the fire happened in some other place to some other people who just weren't lucky enough to be born and die in the U.S.

A lot of people feel negatively toward unions, but how many of us would go back to a time *before* the five-day, 40-hour workweek became the standard? That didn't come about due to the goodness of the heart or generosity of corporate heads.

On the other hand, although I'm normally a strong and proud union supporter, I'm not sure how I feel about the fast-food workers in NYC who want to organize. Not *everybody* needs a union. So I just don't know...

Michael Morris said...

I agree. If you don't know what's going on then you should be fired because you are not accountable. If you know what's going on and you let it happen you should be fired because you aren't responsible.

Andrew Girard said...

Cleveland Quarries Company South Amherst, Ohio
Union Grievencecman/ safetymen.
1974- local 765 steelworkers union.
Used to be a unionmans training had to do with his seniority ,you had to have wiskers and recomendations,both management and labor sat at a table and agreed as to needs of saftey, training and compesation! The testing was.regulated and repeated aw nessacery by anybody and if someone didn't get it his union rep. Made sure he understood out of his own time!
On the clock but out of other concerns!
Then came the inordiante focus on @ timestudy method! People became cogs and #s and dollar signs! Mamon won! It's bussiness for bussiness! The time for the allmost debaucle in Ohio and what's good about Wisconsin? Now the young aspire for AA buck with the thought that its to be Handed them! Pride of workmanship went with the thought of @ planned obsolecence"! Cheap throwaway in manufactured abundance instead of " fixability!
I will bring to ruin those ruining the earth! Who did I just quote? You wonder why no long lasting prosperity! Debate this! Get partisan,divide to committee,and just by all means fillabuster to inactivity!
At least some get what's wrong! The aforementioned scriptures are in place and you can debate the fullfillment! It's in the obvious " works"!