The annual commemoration of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire every March is a teachable moment for students about the importance of labor unions. Workers were trapped on two floors when fire broke out because the company had locked doors to prevent theft. Many workers leapt from windows to their deaths. Others were found huddled against doors.
In the embers of that tragedy in which 146 workers died — mostly immigrant women and girls — many movements were born or reinvigorated. Women seized the moment to press for equity and suffrage, and immigrants realized the power they had to demand change in their new country. Labor unions, which before had met violence and arrest by hired guns when they organized against unsafe conditions at many factories, now had the attention of the nation.
More than 100 years after the Triangle tragedy, women and immigrants are again mobilizing in the streets in the face of a hostile president and his administration. And labor unions are once again in the crosshairs.
Last year, the Friedrichs case, which sought to deprive public-sector unions of fair-share fees collected from workers who don’t become members, fell apart when it reached the U.S. Supreme Court because the death of Justice Antonin Scalia left the high court in a 4-4 deadlock. But Janus v. AFSCME, a new lawsuit to diminish the power of unions by eliminating the fees, may reach the Supreme Court by the fall. If a conservative majority returns to the Supreme Court, unions, once again, will face a grave threat.
But unlike last year, people are paying more attention to politics than they have in decades and more are taking to the streets in protest. Now is the time to remind the public that unions — in their demands for better wages and benefits, a five-day week, safe workplaces and respect for workers— also created the middle class.
No economic revival helps Trump’s white, working-class base without the labor movement to make sure all working people get their fair share.