Historical Look at How Wisconsin Lost Its Progressivism

(Following is an executive summary of a paper presented by Ken Germanson on Oct. 24 at the North American Labor History Conference in Detroit.  The full document is available here.)

It was tragically ironic: the year 2011 marked the 100th Anniversary of the passage in Wisconsin of pioneering, progressive, pro-worker legislation; it also became the year in which one of the most regressive, anti-labor laws would be passed – the infamous Act 10 that virtually ended the right of public employees to collectively bargain. Four years later, in March of 2015, the Wisconsin Legislature passed the so-called right-to-work law, followed by cutting back on the protections of the state’s David-Bacon Act covering construction trades unions.

This paper will seek to put some perspective on how that change occurred; it will seek to explain how a state that passed the nation’s first, lasting workers compensation law in 1911 and also passed the first full-fledged public employee collective bargaining law in 1959 would in 2011 and 2015 take away basic worker rights that would likely result in robbing them of much hope for a rewarding life of work.

Wisconsin had been viewed as a beacon of progressive laws, such as being one of the first to provide for election-day voter registration. National pundits have declared it a so-called Blue State that had not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988.   We will look at how Wisconsin has joined the once-union-strong Rust Belt states like Michigan to become “open shop” states.

There are five basic reasons for the State’s abrupt turn against workers and unions:

  1. The state has a split political personality; historically most of the counties in the state have voted Republican while the more urban, industrial areas have been Democratic. The split has always been there, even though the nature of the two parties has changed through the years.
  2. The flight of industry to the South and later out of the country took away the state’s heavy concentrations of manufacturing bringing about the loss of union membership.
  3. The mobilization of antiunion efforts by big business has grown more intense and effective in recent years, both in their handling of workers and in public education campaigns.
  4. The stealth campaign waged by Governor Walker hid his true anti-worker agenda, making it possible to spring the damaging legislation on an unsuspecting public and labor movement.
  5. Finally, the failure of the state’s labor unions throughout the years to mount an effective campaign to counter the growing antiunionism.

Wisconsin labor, however, is more determined than ever to rebound; its leaders are open to new ideas to make it happen. As one said, “We are awakened. We are like roaches: we will come back.”

(See full document here.)

LABOR DAY 2015: Reflections

President Roosevelt signing the National Labor Relations Act into law on July 5, 1935, with Labor Secretary Frances Perkins looking on.

President Roosevelt signing the National Labor Relations Act into law on July 5, 1935, with Labor Secretary Frances Perkins looking on.

It’s with a somewhat heavy heart that we’ll be enjoying the camaraderie of our brother and sister union members at Milwaukee’s Laborfest on the lakefront this year.

As has been the case in recent Labor Day celebrations, it’s expected the marchers in the Annual Labor Day parade will be fewer in number and the crowd coming to Summerfest grounds afterwards may be somewhat reduced. That will be the disheartening reality of the current state of unionism in this once strong Union town.

The will be some hopeful signs, however, in the enthusiasm shown by the brothers and sisters in the 2015 marches.  What has been remarkable during this downturn in union membership is the increase in the determination and solidarity among those union members who still are active.  They will be joined by many who are not union members, including a large number of retired unionists or current workers in nonunion plants who once labored in union shops that closed up in the flight of industry from our city during the last 35 years.

The year 2015 marks the 80th Anniversary of the Wagner Act (or National Labor Relations Act – NLRA) that brought about the right for workers to organize and bargain collectively; it also required employers to bargain in “good faith” with the union.  It was an historic piece of legislation, often called “Labor’s Magna Charta,” and it brought about a sudden growth in unionism.  In Milwaukee, every major manufacturer – except one – became union shops.  Similar levels of union growth were duplicated in the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest.  Union strength grew, and few politicians could get elected without labor’s support.

Through the years, new anti-labor laws like the Taft-Hartley and Landrum-Griffin acts of 1947 and 1959 respectively diluted the Wagner Act.  Courts chipped away at the Wagner Act, as well, weakening enforcement by the NLRB, making it almost impossible to organize any employer who was determined to remain non-union.  Efforts to bring about positive  labor law reform got lip-service from friendly politicians, but little else.

Add into the mix the growing tendency of employers to pull out all stops to block unionism and to challenge the existence of what unions remained.  Furthermore, enemy politicians helped to fuel arguments that put unions into an unfavorable light.  Witness the lies heaped upon unionists in Wisconsin as they fought to resist Governor Scott Walker’s anti-union Act 10 in 2011: Walker portrayed teachers as overpaid and underworked and wrongly claimed the more than 100,000 demonstrators who filled Madison streets during the frigid winter of 2011 were “thugs and outsiders.”

As we watched the once-strong labor movement grow more powerless, we found it easy to become disheartened.

Yet, there are signs that there’s a light shining in this dark tunnel of working class despair.  The increased determination in the few unionists remaining may show that there are seeds for growth.  The efforts to organize fast food places and retail establishments show promise, even with slow progress.  There’s an openness among labor leaders – and just ordinary dues-payers – to exploring new ways to do things.

Labor, too, is finding new allies, such as the fledgling Wisconsin Jobs Now campaign that embraces dramatic ways to organize law-wage workers.  Success with such efforts, however, may require labor unions to search out new forms of structure, including finding the ways and means to provide representation for workers even where there is no formal labor contract.

President Obama has failed labor several times during his tenure; consider his lukewarm response to labor law reform and his decision not to show up to support Wisconsin workers in the 2011 uprising.  Yet, he’s been responsive in other ways that fail to get much press; his appointment of new members of the National Labor Relations Board has already paid off with a recent ruling that may take away the right of employers to use temporary employment services to avoid unionization.

Also, he has spoken out for increasing the minimum wage, but with Republican control of Congress, that doesn’t seem to be gaining much steam.

The reality is that workers can’t depend upon the politicians to bring about the changes that are needed to bring about living wages and safe and decent workplaces.  Working people must get together to organize to “force” change.  Even the Wagner Act wouldn’t have passed in 1935 without the many strikes and job actions that occurred in the early 1930s.

As we join our friends and allies on Monday at Laborfest, we hope our heavy hearts will be lifted as we see that there’s a new spirit of working class collectivism rising.  Let’s hope that’s the case.  Ken Germanson, Sept. 5,  2015


Sen. Johnson: Have you the courage?

An Open Letter to Sen. Ron Johnson:

Every so often a legislator gets a chance to take a courageous step forward.  Now is YOUR time to make that act of fortitude.

Please remove the shackles of conformity that have linked you to the current Republican Party’s view that it must scuttle President Obama’s nuclear arms agreement between our allies and Iran.

We know you may feel that your political future calls upon you to join in the cacophony of outlandish comments from many of your colleagues and claim that the agreement is a betrayal of Israel or a surrender similar to that occurring in Munich in 1938.  We believe that you as a successful businessman certainly know that it’s important to make decisions based upon facts and evidence, rather than upon wild rantings.

As a retired labor negotiator, I know that the “perfect deal” is never possible, but that a deal that offers both sides hope for a better future is good for both sides.  This deal provides just that.

The Iranian citizens, according to reports, are dancing in the streets knowing that crippling economic sanctions will be lifted; as a people, they are eager to embrace Western cultures.  Certainly, the U.S. business community may benefit in the long run by opening up new markets.  It’s possible that through such economic interchange that the Iranian aggressive nature will be blunted.

For the U.S. and its allies, it means greater assurances that Iranian nuclear arms development will not only be reversed, but held off for at least ten years; by then it’s highly possible that Iran’s desire to continue a costly nuclear arms program may be greatly weakened.

Of course, you must look at the negatives of the deal:  Will the International arms inspectors miss some secretive nuclear arms location?  Can we trust Iran?  The Obama Administration and our allies are convinced that these concerns can be met.   You’re right to study these questions.

I urge you to examine the terms closely and hope you will come to the same conclusion that I have:  on balance, the Iran deal offers a chance for longterm peace and for decreased chances of nuclear war.

My personal political hero is Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld who in 1892 pardoned the three remaining prisoners who were awaiting execution on framed-up charges of participating in the bombing deaths of eight persons in the Haymarket Event of May 4, 1886.  Even as a stanch pro-business governor, he acted to pardon the three “leftists” because he was convinced they were unfairly charged and convicted.  He acted, even though he was aware the action might cost him re-election.  It did.

I doubt your action in defying conventional Republican orthodoxy in approving the Iran deal will cost you re-election; polls show wide support for the deal.  Yet, I know the pressures from your Republican colleagues will be great to follow the party-line.

Please put aside any temptation to engage in political, divisive rhetoric; study the bill and we hope you’ll agree with us that “yes” is best and have the courage to say so to your constituents in Wisconsin.

Thank you.

Kenneth A. Germanson, Aug. 3, 2015

Wisconsinites need not be smug about racism in South

For years, northerners, such as those of us in Milwaukee, have always had a superior attitude about our racism when we think about places like South Carolina, where the confederate flag – and its symbols of slavery – for years flew proudly.

We have nothing to be smug about; racism still reigns in the State of Wisconsin.

Just a few examples from some recent personal experiences:

An African-American teacher who lives two blocks east of me in our once historically  white Milwaukee neighborhood  told me that she experienced the usual hateful racist artifacts being placed on her property after she moved in five years ago. It was a next door neighbor who was unmoved by her efforts to keep her lawn mowed and snow shoveled well above the typical standards of the neighborhood.  To be honest, her lawn is much neater than mine.  Finally, she called the police who set the man straight; to his credit, he backed off.

A friend told that he was called a “n—— lover” in an argument with a neighbor on the Northern Wisconsin lake where he and his wife had purchased an older home and were fixing it up. His sin, in the neighbor’s eyes, was that he took a nephew (an adopted nine-year-old Ethiopian boy) fishing.

While our politicians and public officials never use racist terms outwardly, there are still plenty of our neighbors in this state who do so regularly. Some will avoid openly racist terms, but soon their language will be populated with euphemisms that seek to hide their true racist feelings.

Obviously, there’s still a need to attack racism in our community. – Ken Germanson, July 21, 2015.

The fight for unions is everyone’s fight

It’s time to revisit Pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous quote:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.Niemoller

Niemoller (1892-1984) first made this statement in 1946 after he was freed from a Nazi prison where he had been held since 1937, and he repeated it in many versions since then, mainly to urge people to break out of their apathy and get involved when groups are being persecuted.

One thing is certain and that is that in the various versions trade unionists were often listed as groups being targeted for destruction. Niemoller at first supported Adolf Hitler’s NazI party, but soon left it when he realized its true purpose; in a sense, his famous quote became his own penance for his earlier actions.

It’s ironic that the Nazi (the National Socialist Workers Party) proclaimed to be a party for the workers and the downtrodden; in doing so, they fooled many into supporting their earlier goals. And yes, free trade unions were among the first to be destroyed, being outlawed in January, 1934, one year after the Nazis took control. In the place of the traditional unions, the Nazis established the German Labour Front in which all workers in larger workplaces were expected to join; while union membership was nominally voluntary, those who failed to join the state-sponsored unions were looked upon to be suspicious. The Labour Front’s main purpose was to serve the Fatherland, not to protect the rights of its worker members.

Many union supporters compared Scott Walker’s action in passing Act 10 with the actions of Hitler; Walker supporters roundly criticized such comparisons with the man responsible for butchering six million Jews and causing the carnage of World War II. Also, many rightwingers claimed Hitler favored unions, as shown by his establishment of the Labour Front. They were, of course, dead wrong; the Labour Front was a tool of the Nazi regime, not a free trade union capable of questioning actions of the Nazis.

Thus, the comparison of Walker’s actions with those of Adolf Hitler’s in killing the free trade union movement is chillingly accurate.   (Certainly, no one would claim Walker or others like him would exterminate millions as Hitler’s Nazis did.)

Today, trade unionists are being assaulted by a cohort of right-wing politicians (i.e. Scott Walker in Wisconsin) and their Big Business allies. Make no mistake about it: Walker’s key purpose in offering Act 10 (the law passed in 2011 to ban most collective bargaining rights for public workers) was not to save taxpayer dollars but to weaken, if not kill, an effective trade union movement in Wisconsin. His success in such anti-union legislation has made him a hero among big business and rightwingers alike.

Since less than 10% of workers today are in union jobs, there’s a tendency to read this and say, “so what?” It doesn’t matter to me.

As Pastor Niemoller’s words so eloquently tell us: it should matter to workers and to all persons who believe in democracy.

Labor unions in the United States are “free” organizations; outside of following a few procedural rules that require them to be democratically run, they are free to advocate and take actions, regardless what the government may like. If they don’t like an action of government, they are free to campaign against it.

Right now, the labor movement represents the ONLY relatively powerful institution blocking their way to turning our government over to the whims and ambitions of Big Business or the one percent. To weaken labor is to help lead the way to a government run by and for the privileged few. Can fascism be far behind?

Authoritarian regimes, like Stalin’s Russia, routinely ban free trade unions, mainly to weaken one of the few institutions capable of opposing their rule. Even in today’s Russia where trade unions enjoy greater freedoms than in the past Soviet Union times, President Vladimir Putin is beginning to crack down on some of those freedoms, precisely for the fear that they would oppose his increasingly dictatorial rule.

Yes, Labor unions remain a bulwark of democracy.

Secret GOP Right-to-Work love potion

Maybe it was the drag of the long debate, but Republicans supporting the right-to-work law used some weird arguments.

“It’s for your own good,” they said over and over again to the union members and the Democratic legislators who opposed the bill as the debate continued in the Wisconsin Assembly overnight into Friday morning. (March 5 – 6)

Once you weed out the freeloaders, your unions will be stronger because the members who will be left will be dedicated “true believers,” argued another Republican. As that occurs, he said, unions will become more effective and as a result workers will rush to join. And, he added, employers will be eager to sign contracts with the strong unions because they will provide a skilled and dedicated workforce.

You continued to hear Republicans say that unions are “good” and they wanted them to thrive; for a while, it sounded as if they were speaking at a labor union convention.

One Republican let the cat out of the bag, however, when he admitted to seeing how effective his union had been in representing him back in his younger days. Yet, he felt he shouldn’t have been “forced” to join and pay membership fees to cover the costs of providing such help. The ultimate “freeloader!”

So there, unionists, you can close down your rallies around the State Capitol and stand outside to applaud how friendly the Republican legislators can be to you. Just drink down their potion of goodwill and enjoy the results.

If unionists accept such logic, will it not be much like the innocent college freshman girl who was offered a drink made especially for her by a fraternity boy at her first party on campus? The last thing she heard that night was, “Here, drink it, you’ll like it.”

And you know what happened to her!

Ken Germanson, March 6, 2015

Corporate greed set stage for Triangle Shirtwaist Fire


This essay, written by Makena Easker, a sophomore student at Durand HEaskerigh School, was entered into the 2014 National History Day competition.  It is reproduced since it brought the meaning of the 103 year old Triangle Fire into the present day, and to represent many of the efforts of young people who participate in the Society’s various “Labor History in the Schools” projects. Makena presented her paper at the May meeting of the Western Central Area Labor Council at Eau Claire in May 2014. Also presented was a video of by Sarah Vetsch, entitled, “Fight for Rights, Failing in Responsibility: Conflict and Casualty in the Copper County Strike of 1913.”  The students were joined by their parents.   


In 1911, William Howard Taft was serving his first term. The Philadelphia A’s had beaten the Chicago Cubs in the previous World Series and the dance, the tango, was trending throughout the nation.

Also during this year, on March 25, in New York City, a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The doors were locked to prevent theft, so leaving the building was difficult. For many workers trapped inside, their only means of escape was by jumping out of the windows. A survivor, Pauline Cuoio Pepe, later discussed the event with a man compiling stories about the fire into a book:

“I saw the people throwing themselves out the window. I wouldn’t dare. I didn’t have the courage…We were all torn to pieces. My hair was a mess. My coat was torn. I had no pocketbook or nothing. When my mother saw me, she thought somebody got ahold of me and was killing me… We were also angry. “What the hell did they close the door for? What did they think we’re going out with? What are we gonna do, steal a shirtwaist? Who the heck wanted a shirtwaist?”(Kisselhoff 325). *

These were thoughts shared by many of those trapped inside the ill-fated Triangle Factory. Nevertheless, the fire’s influence in history will not soon be forgotten. Even though strides have been taken to improve factory conditions, including the creation of the Factory Investigation Commission and later OSHA, many workers’ rights are still overlooked; it is our generation’s responsibility to change that. To fully understand this statement, however, it is necessary to start at the beginning of this tragic tale.

Background Information

Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were immigrants from Russia who arrived in the United States during the early 1890s. They met and started a business together based on Blanck’s business sense and Harris’ industry expertise. In 1900, they opened the Triangle Waist Company on Wooster Street. The products they produced were shirtwaists, loose fitting tops styled after menswear. They were more liberating than Victorian style bodices, and, therefore, popular with female workers in New York [Refer to Appendix A]. The men priced them “modestly” at $3 each, which is over $70 today (U.S. Department of Labor n. pag.). In 1902, the pair moved the company to the ninth floor of the new Asch building. The tables were arranged so conversation would be minimized among workers [Refer to Appendix B]. This was done in an attempt to increase productivity. After four years, they expanded to the eighth floor and again in 1908, when sales hit $1 million, to the tenth floor.

The success experienced by the factory owners allowed for them to move from their cramped apartments to large brownstones that overlooked the Hudson River. Harris had four servants, and Blanck had five. They arrived to work in chauffeured cars. Additional shirtwaist factories were opened in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Blanck partnered with his brothers and opened more around the country. With all of these factories the men operated, they were producing more than 1,000 shirtwaists a day. They were given the nickname “Shirtwaist Kings.” Little did they know, over 100 years later, they would earn another nickname: The Fourth Worst Bosses of all Time (Gibson n. pag.).

The majority of the workers were young immigrants – Italian, Russian, Hungarian, and German – who didn’t speak English (“141 Men” 1). In time, they began to feel like the machines they worked with. Morris Rosenfeld, a Yiddish poet living in the early 1900s, described this feeling in his poem, “In the Factory”: “And void is my soul,” He complained. “I am but a machine. I work and I work and I work, never ceasing.” In order to retain high profit levels, it was necessary to produce the cheapest shirtwaist in the largest quantity. The production team worked long hours for little pay. Some journalists during the late 1800s and early 1900s recognized factories with similar conditions. Wirt Sikes, a popular social reformer, was one of these news reporters and described a factory he toured in his 1868 testimonial, “Among the Poor Girls”: “The room is crowded with girls and women, most of whom are pale and attenuated, and are being robbed of life slowly and surely. The rose which should bloom in their cheeks has vanished long ago. The sparkle has gone out of their eyes…they breathe an atmosphere of death” (Stein 12-13). Young girls who should have been celebrating life were, instead, packed into rooms and drained of their vitality. Additionally, security was tight. A foreman monitored the workforce during the day and inspected workers’ bags as they left at night. Blanck ordered the secondary exit door to be locked.

Eventually, in November of 1909, the workers could not take the cruelty anymore. They went on strike, and the owners took the walkout as a “personal attack.” Harris and Blanck hired policemen and brutes to beat, reprimand, and cause panic among demonstrators. Finally, after a few months, the owners agreed to allow shorter hours and higher wages, yet they still refused a union.

About a year later, on March 25, 1911, at 4:40 P.M., a fire started in the northeast corner of the eighth floor. A lighted match was thrown into clippings near oil cans (“Crowd” 1). While smoking was prohibited, it was constantly indulged. There was no explosion, but the blaze still spread quickly. Soon, the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors were engulfed in flames. Some workers escaped by running down the stairs; however, that avenue was eventually cut off by the fire. Others survived by getting rides with Caspar Mortillalo and Joseph Zito on elevators. Zito said, afterwards, that he saved over 100 (“Blame” 2). This, combined with the firemen’s futile efforts to put out the fire, left many girls still trapped in the building. These girls rushed to the windows and looked down at Green Street, 100 feet below them. After the first girl jumped, they all began to drop. The crowd below watched in horror. They yelled, “Don’t jump!” Their shouting did nothing [Refer to Appendix C]. William Shephard described what he experienced while on the telephone: “I learned a new sound – a more horrible sound than description can picture. It was the thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk. Thud-dead, thud-dead, thud-dead, thud-dead” (Shephard n. pag.). One body was referred to as “A mass of ashes, with blood congealed on what had probably been the neck” (“Sad” 1). It was a gruesome, painful end for all victims. The fire net did not save over one or two (“Stories of Survivors” 1). The trapped girls did not have chance.

The day after, 50,000 watched the ruins. Starting at 6:00 A.M., 500 frantic men and women demanded to be let in at the gate of the improvised morgue (“Crowd” 1). The covered pier of the Charities Dock served as a gathering place for mourners and curious onlookers [Refer to Appendix D]. The bodies were arranged by degree of likeliness to humanity. All those seemingly beyond recognition were near the end of the line. The last forty coffins contained bodies that the authorities said would probably prove impossible of identification (“Sad” 1). The women rushed about moaning and crying, tearing out their hair. At the end of the day, on March 26, fifty-five remained unidentified.

The papers reported the death toll was anywhere from 145 to 147 people. Of course, since the owners had escaped unscathed by the fire, they were put on trial for manslaughter in the first and second degrees. They testified that the doors were never locked, yet witnesses reported otherwise. Robert Wolfson, who had worked for the company for almost ten years, swore that Harris purposefully locked the doors. After the fire, Harris reportedly said, “The dead ones are dead and will be buried. The live ones are alive and they will have to live. Sure the doors were locked; I wouldn’t let them rob my fortune” (“Triangle Fire Case” 1). When asked why every employee had to leave the factory by the Greene Street exit, he responded that it was to prevent theft. He went on to talk about how he had discovered over ten shirtwaists were stolen in 1908. The prosecutor asked the magnitude of losses. Harris quietly admitted it would not be more than $25 a year (Hoenig n. pag.). Nearly a year following the fire, the court brought in the startling verdict of not guilty. The judge was pleased with the jurors’ decision, yet the public was mortified. Despite the shockwaves sent out by the fire, the owners did not learn their lesson. In the summer of 1913, Blanck was arrested for locking a door during work hours. The despicable pair also filed insurance claims far exceeding their losses, receiving $60,000 above documented damages (Hoenig n. pag.). The men were greedy, selfish, and materialistic murderers.

Efforts to Preserve Peoples’ Rights

There was one good thing that came from the fire, though. The district attorney foretold it in March of 1911. “I have no doubt that this disaster will lead to a general investigation as to the conditions existing in factories in this city” (“Blame” 2). His prediction came true. Union ranks swelled from 30,000 in 1909 to 250,000 in 1913 (Hoenig n. pag.). In 1912, the Factory Investigating Commission, headed by Robert F. Wagner and Alfred E. Smith, was created. The commission examined thousands of workplaces in small and large industries. It served as a model for the rest of the nation. One organization formed in the Factory Investigating Commission’s footsteps was the Bureau of Fire Prevention in May of 1913. In the past hundred years, the bureau has saved innumerable lives by imposing fire safety codes and remains to be the driving force behind new initiatives. In the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt passed a series of programs, known as the New Deal, to stabilize the economy during the Great Depression. These reforms won safer factories and shorter hours for garment workers. After many years of founding progressive organizations, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration was established in 1970. OSHA, an agency of the Department of Labor, is charged with the enforcement of safety and health legislation. The fire emboldened the call for workers’ rights and, for the most part, it seemed as if the lives of workers could not get much safer. Employers began recognizing and acting upon their responsibilities to provide a secure work environment.

Though many believe the resulted labor legislation from the fire has created ideal workplaces throughout the globe, this is simply not true. “Dozens of ordinary workers die in a fire, making the shirts ordinary Americans will wear on their backs. Doors were locked. Some succumbed to smoke. Others jumped several stories to their deaths in a desperate, inevitably fatal, bid to evade the flames. But this wasn’t New York, 1911. This was Bangladesh, 2010” (O’Neill 24). Rory O’Neill, writer and professor, put everything into perspective with the opening sentence to his essay. However, Bangladesh is not the only country where disasters like this occur. Similar stories are told in nations such as China, Pakistan, Philippines, Nicaragua, and Cambodia. “In 2010,” O’Neill went on, “British oil multinational BP, operating in U.S. waters, saw its reputation torn to shreds as a result of its thirst for deep sea oil dollars. Eleven workers died and the Gulf of Mexico was coated in a toxic smear” (O’Neill 24). O’Neill told another story that sounded familiar. “In 1988, U.S. oil multinational Occidental, operating in British waters, was the villain behind the Piper Alpha rig explosion. While 167 workers died, Occidental escaped unscathed” (O’Neill 24). Accidents where neglecting CEOs evade consequences unearth feelings of frustration and injustice, but they tend to occur the most frequently.

As much as Americans would like to believe that tragedies such as these only exist outside of the United States, the facts show otherwise. Tom O’Connor, Executive Director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, made this clear in his essay. “Some 15 workers still lose their lives every day on the job from injuries – and many more from long-latent illnesses” (16). One example of a long-latent illness is exposure to silica dust, which continues to claim the lives of hundreds of workers each year. Wal-Mart was sued in the past decade for routinely locking their night-shift workers in their stores to prevent theft. Steven Greenhouse published an article in The New York Times about the company’s hazardous practices.

For more than 15 years, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer, has locked in overnight employees at some of its Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores. It is a policy that many employees say has created disconcerting situations, such as when a worker in Indiana suffered a heart attack, when hurricanes hit in Florida and when workers’ wives have gone into labor (1).

Car wash workers had severe chemical burns and California’s pesticide-soaked fields cause immigrants to bake to death. Just like during the days of the Triangle fire, immigrants are being taken advantage of due to their needs for jobs. Twenty-nine workers died in the 2010 Massey Energy underground mine explosion in Montcoal, West Virginia (Romney 15). In 2013, information was released concerning Massey’s CEO’s advanced warnings of surprise federal inspections. This way, he could afford to have his mines in poor conditions until he knew an examination was scheduled. Other reports of carelessness include a construction worker with no harness falling to his death and an eighteen year old buried alive in a collapsed trench. Wisconsin is not picture-perfect either. The United Students against Sweatshops (USAS) forced UW-Madison to cancel its contract with Nike due to labor violations in Nike’s Honduran plants. “These incidents happen daily across the U.S. and each one is the sort of hazard that we have known about since the days of the Triangle fire, for which simple preventable measures are easily available,” said O’Connor. “Yet they keep happening, day after day, year after year” (16). While the aftermath of the Triangle fire had a large impact on history, it was obviously too inadequate to prevent the disregard of basic human rights.

It has been the goal of many committees across the world to reduce the chances of death and injury in the workplace, but their efforts are not enough. Tragedies that sound so similar to that of the Triangle Fire happen too often in the U.S. and the world. Despite how dismal this sounds, hope is not lost. There are ways to fix this problem. Laws can be passed, relief funds can be donated, and organizations can be created. In the words of Jeanne Stellman, professor and lecturer at Columbia University, “The best homage we can pay to the young women and men who died in the Triangle fire is to redouble efforts to prevent the needless toll of occupational hazards that don’t blaze behind chained doors but plague the lives of working men and women every day” (23).  

(Note this essay is available, along with an annotated appendix that lists the sources and a bibliography, at the Wisconsin Labor History Society website: http://wisconsinlaborhistory.org.)