Frances Perkins was galvanized by personally witnessing the horrifying Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911, in which 146 young workers died. From that time onward, she worked to create legislation that would provide safeguards for workers, going from New York’s Factory Investigation Commission to FDR’s Cabinet as secretary of labor from 1933 – 1945.
Almost 100 years after the Triangle fire, the issue of worker safety is still in the news, most recently with the tragedies at the Massey mine in West Virginia and the British Petroleum oil rig blast.
Teresa Ghilarducci, director of the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis at the New School for Social Research and speaker at the Frances Perkins Center’s 2009 conference, “The New New Deal,” has written several articles for the Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog, “Brainstorm,” about these recent disasters. In Who Needs Pesky Unions, Ghilarducci wrote:
All the recent disasters are in non-union mines. Union muscle make companies work better and safer. One reason is that, in union contracts, mine workers are protected from being disciplined if they stop work because of unsafe conditions. If a union miner says, “Hey, the belt is about to catch fire — I’m getting out of here,” he (or she) can’t be fired.
Humans in the 20th century learned to mine coal without carnage. Britain does it, Germany does it, and other countries do too. In Europe and Japan, computer sensors detect methane buildup and mining companies have to hire safety officers who are in their own union and who only monitor safety, not production. In American mines, the supervisors have to monitor safety and be responsible for production. Guess what goal is number one!?
And in More Energy Workers Killed, she wrote:
The causes of these deaths are not freak gassy build ups—as if the earth violently struck back at humans for using fossil fuels…
The cause of worker deaths is a plain old economic deal. The government made a deal that BP and Massey Coal can operate in the United States without adequate precautions for making the workplace tolerably safe.
If Frances Perkins were alive, she’d be voicing her outrage along with Ghilarducci. It’s shocking that the U.S. is far behind other countries in protecting our workers.