Later this month, we will mark the 100 year anniversary of New York's horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, an event that claimed the lives of 146 garment workers - young girls and women - who had been locked in the sweatshop to prevent theft. Most died in stairwells, jumping down the single elevator shaft, or by hurtling themselves from 9th story windows in desperate attempts to escape the fire. PBS recently ran a special on this disaster. (If you missed it, you can watch online: Triangle Fire). My colleague Jon Coppelman has also written about the fire in his post The Original "No Exit".
This fire was a watershed event that galvanized the nation. It occurred in an era where there were no regulations or labor protections. Workers often worked 12 hour shifts, 7 days a week. There were no child labor laws or safety mandates. Ironically, the day before the Triangle Fire, New York courts had struck down the state's first compulsory workers compensation law as unconstitutional.
This tragedy, along with some of the horrific mine disasters that resulted in wholesale loss of life, were catalysts which led to the enactment of various worker protections - including statutory workers' compensation.
Meanwhile, today in Wisconsin ...
We think this bit of history is an important backdrop to what's going on in Wisconsin today.
Wisconsin has the distinction of being the first state in the union to have enacted a workers' compensation law that survived legal challenge in May of 1911. In fact, the state of Wisconsin has a long, storied and sometimes bloody history of being on the front lines for worker rights. Workers and labor unions were in the forefront of the fight for the 8-hour day and the 40-hour work week. In 1932, Wisconsin was the first state to enact unemployment compensation.
To any who know this history, it comes as no surprise that, once again, Wisconsin is on the front lines in the battle for labor's future.
It's the budget, stupid - or is it?
The ostensible issue, according to Governor Walker, is that the state of Wisconsin is broke and a large part of the problem lies with overly generous benefit packages of public workers - teachers, prison guards and the like - which are said to be crippling the state. He called on unions to do their part and to make a sacrifice for the greater good.
All that might be well and good. The unions have indicated their willingness to take a financial haircut. But the part of Governor Walker's Budget Repair Bill that is going over somewhat less well is a call for the elimination of collective bargaining -- and therein lies the rub.
With a Republican majority in Wisconsin's House and Senate, the bill was all but a given until the Democratic senate contingent fled the state to prevent a vote. Since that time, there have been massive protests over three weeks and the so-called Fab 14 remain holed up in un-named Illinois' hotels. And there has been no shortage of drama in this story: an embarrassing and revelatory 20-minute prank call to Governor Walker from an impersonator of corporate financier David Koch; and a sheriff's refusal to play the role of "palace guard", among other things.
Part of national union busting agenda?
Critics of Walker's Budget Repair Bill say that the issue is not about budget balancing or overly generous benefits, but an ideological push to eliminate or curtail public unions - in a phrase, union busting. Opponents say that this is a corporate-funded campaign to eliminate public unions in Wisconsin and other states, and to privatize many institutions that are currently staffed by public workers. No less a staunch Republican than former Congressman and now host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe" program, Joe Scarborough, has publicly called Governor Walker's actions, "Un-American."
In Wisconsin, suspicions are high because Koch enterprises funded a large part of Walkers gubernatorial campaign. The fact that the budget bill contains a provision authorizing Walker to conduct no-bid sales of some state properties also heightens suspicion. Many are troubled by his plans for privatization of some public services. In his prior role as Milwaukee County Executive, Walker also used budget emergency as a justification for privatizing security guards, a move that proved less than successful.
Other states have also embarked on this path: Ohio may be making more headway in curtailing unions. In Indiana, Democratic legislators have followed Wisconsin's lead and left the state to postpone a vote. In Rhode Island, nearly 2000 teachers have been dismissed. Other states may be contemplating similar measures, although some may be a bit shy of action given the shifting public sentiment, which favors retention of collective bargaining and has given Walker a black eye - to a point where voters say they would not elect him again if they had a do-over. (see Wisconsin Public Research, Rasmussen, USA Today/Gallup, Public Policy Polling and various other polls. )
It's uncertain what will happen in the next chapters, but we will be watching. It is clear this is another watershed point in labor history, a public policy fork in the road, perhaps the beginning of the end of the movement that was propelled into mainstream America by that terrible fire 100 years ago. While polling indicates that sentiment is currently on the side of the teachers in this dispute, the future of public unions is under serious threat. Is the role of unions obsolete? Has the public dialogue achieved an equilibrium between the rights of workers and those of management?
At Lynch Ryan, we have great respect for unions, which have historically played a critical check-and-balance role in labor-management power dynamics. They have also been in the forefront of the fight for worker safety and other worker protections. We also admire and respect many employers we have been privileged to work for who are perceptive and wise enough to manage their companies so well that unions are not needed. We'd like to say that all employers are this enlightened and do not need union checks and balances to do the right thing, but unfortunately our experience tells us that this is not always the case.