Who Says It’s Not About Destroying Unions?

Frances Perkins

Frances Perkins with steelworkers in 1933.

Triangle Shirtwaist Tragedy Centennial

The centennial commemoration of the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire in New York City, with the loss of 146 young women trapped in a factory that had blatantly ignored the meager safety legislation of the time, paradoxically raises the question of whether we are doomed to forget the past. The sight in 1911 of people leaping to their deaths from nine stories up made an indelible impression upon Frances Perkins, later Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of labor. As secretary of the National Consumers League, Perkins led the drive for reform. She later recalled that “the Triangle fire was a torch that lighted up the whole industrial scene.” Certainly, the tragedy spurred the growth of labor unions, and progressive work and safety legislation designed to protect and advance the rights of working people.

For those with a historical animus against the organizing and advancement of labor, the current strife in Wisconsin and other states offers a happy prospect for the resurrection of a dismal past of exploitation and the re-creation of a downtrodden working class. In Maine, the Republican governor ordered the removal of a mural depicting Maine’s labor history, as well as the renaming of the Frances Perkins Meeting Room in the state’s Labor Department building. Gov. Paul LePage, who supports a right-to-work bill, apparently heard some complaints from a few business organizations. In ordering the removal, the governor said he feared the mural “sends a message that we’re one-sided.” Perhaps on a national level, the Republicans will further rewrite history and remove Perkins’ name from the U.S. Department of Labor building in Washington.

Champions of Wisconsin’s progressive tradition—and much of what is called the “Wisconsin Idea”—are now reeling as the governor and Legislature seem determined to overthrow the past. Whether in polite country club conversation or in the angry voices of barroom exchanges, we have an atavistic, ugly strain of hostility toward public workers, and even the idea of unions, that arouses some of our most divisive political dialogue. U.S. House Republicans, by way of example, have proposed legislation that would deny food stamps to the children or relatives of any worker who strikes. Real budget hawks, those people.

Yet where and when have any candidates for public office declared and advocated such hostility and promised to destroy unions? Neither Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker nor his dutiful followers in the Legislature ever, ever openly called for the actions they are now taking. Theirs was a stealth campaign, one of calculated deceit.

Walker’s so-called “budget repair” legislation targeted and crippled the public employees’ unions, but none of the fiscal provisions have yet been passed—exposing the governor’s false flag. It is teachers unions that most arouse anti-union hostility. The idea that teachers should have any kind of equal bargaining status with public officials is simply unpalatable and unacceptable to many. Michelle Rhee, the darling of conservatives (for numerous odd reasons), enthusiastically has backed the right of collective bargaining for teachers.

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