Remembering Women’s History Month and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, New Deal 2.0 tells the surprising story of how women became citizens — and how their economic lives have evolved along with their rights. Brigid O'Farrell urges Republicans like Scott Walker to listen to the women following in the footsteps of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory strikers and Eleanor Roosevelt.
For Women's History Month this year, thousands of people around the country are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Fire. On Saturday, March 25, 1911, flames engulfed a sweatshop just off of Washington Square, in New York City, where women's shirtwaist blouses were made. One hundred and forty-six workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian girls, were burned to death by the fire or jumped to their deaths to escape. Doors were locked and the fire ladders couldn't reach the top floors of the burning building. Women died at their sewing machines, but they didn't have the right to vote in elections. The fire was an historic turning point for the country. The movement for social justice took on new urgency. Workplace safety legislation became a reality, the union movement gained momentum, and eventually women won the right to vote.
March is a time to celebrate the progress that women have made since the Triangle Fire, but there is also reason to pause and consider the fight that continues. We need only turn to Wisconsin. Governor Walker's outright attack on unions is, indeed, a fundamental attack on working women. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over half of state workers and 61% of city workers are women. Thirty-one percent of state workers and 42% of local government workers belong to unions. They earn better wages than those who are not union members and the pay gap between women and men is smaller among union members.
These employees are our elementary school teachers, university professors, nurses, social workers, secretaries, and administrative assistants. They are women who are critical to making our cities work and who help turn our towns into livable communities for our families. Through their unions they have secured decent wages, reasonable benefits, ways to resolve grievances, and some security for their retirement. Yet they are being criticized and their rights taken away for economic problems they didn't create.
We can learn from Eleanor Roosevelt. She believed that all workers had a right to a voice at work. Legislation and unionization were the only two ways to protect workers, and she thought joining a union was the best way for women to improve their working lives. For her, workers' rights were human rights, and it is this basic right to have a voice at work that is being lost in Wisconsin.
Eleanor Roosevelt gave careful consideration to her positions. President Roosevelt was skeptical of public-sector unions, though definitely not anti-union as some conservatives have suggested, and his wife struggled with the issue in her newspaper column "My Day" after his death. In the 1950s, as public employee unions began to organize and grow more rapidly, however, she was shocked when a city police commissioner refused to meet with a workers' grievance committee. She acknowledged budget problems, but asked if "any workers should be kept at starvation wages?"
By the late 1950s, she concluded that unionization in the public sector was necessary because employers in the public sector were little different from those in the private sector, refusing to listen to workers and treat them fairly. "Employees who are quite evidently not receiving a living wage and are dissatisfied with their conditions of work," she wrote, "would simply be slaves if they were obliged to work on without being able to reach their employers with their complaints and demand negotiation."
When teachers went on strike in New York City in 1962, shortly before her death, she wrote that there was no "method of complaint and adjustment that could take the place of collective bargaining with the ultimate possibility of a strike." She concluded that "Under the present set-up teachers have no other recourse but to strike to draw attention to their legitimate complaints." Female public employees in Wisconsin followed Roosevelt's advise and joined unions.
Governor Walker should listen to Eleanor Roosevelt. He would learn that his time might be more productively spent cooperating with the women who teach our children and care for the sick and meet the needs of the public everyday. He could learn to solicit their ideas on how to improve services and reduce costs, then negotiate solutions. Wisconsin government could be a model of a democratic workplace, rather than a leader in an effort to dismantle workers' rights. The women of Wisconsin are joining the spirit of their sisters in the Triangle Fire and they are fighting back. They need our support. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, "We can't just talk, we have got to act."
Brigid O’Farrell is an independent scholar whose new book is She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker, Cornell University Press.