From fires to tornadoes, history has shown we need unions to help keep workers safe

In 1911 our nation suffered one of the worst industrial tragedies in our history. The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire claimed the lives of 146 garment workers, mainly Jewish and Italian immigrant women and girls. Locked inside the New York factory, many plunged through the tall windows to their deaths to escape the smoke and flames.

Workers were locked behind factory doors to prevent them from taking unauthorized breaks. Such appalling conditions seem unthinkable today. Yet the recent horrors suffered by workers in a tornado that destroyed a Kentucky candle factory and an Amazon warehouse in Illinois reminds us that history has a way of repeating itself.

As the catastrophic storm rolled in, supervisors at the Mayfield, Ky. Candle factory threatens to fire workers who wanted to leave their shifts, the workers reported. “It’s a normal working day,” insisted a manager. Eight workers died in the tragedy, and dozens more are buried alive under the rubble of the collapsed factory.

Disturbingly similar accounts have emerged from an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Ill., Which was also demolished in the storm. As the calamity approached, one of six workers who died in the disaster texted a loved one saying, “Amazon won’t let us go.

As with the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, workers in Kentucky and Illinois were faced with a terrible choice: they were forced to risk losing their jobs right before the holidays or playing Russian roulette with their lives.

Unfortunately, workplace fatalities are less of an anomaly than you might think. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4,764 workers died on the job in 2020. Often these fatalities could have been prevented with proper training, safety equipment or other protection in the workplace.

The Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA), passed by Congress in 1970, states that all workers have the right to a safe workplace. These recent tragedies are a grim reminder that OSHA is far from achieving its goal.

Clearly, much remains to be done to improve the occupational health and safety of workers. Stricter regulations, tighter enforcement of existing laws, and more rigorous workplace safety training programs would all be steps in the right direction.

Perhaps the best way to improve safety is to make it easier for workers to organize.

Unionized workers can resolve safety concerns through collective bargaining. Unlike “at will” employees, union workers cannot be dismissed for any reason. Managers must adhere to a standard of “just cause” when dealing with disciplinary action, which would have covered workers in Kentucky and Illinois who wanted to flee the catastrophic storm.

Unionized workers are also more likely to speak against workplace hazards than their non-union counterparts or take collective action to protect themselves.

Last summer, when temperatures in the Pacific Northwest soared to 108 degrees, immigrant warehouse workers from Kent, members of Teamsters Local 117, spoke out against the extreme heat in their workplaces. Despite their protests, managers refused to turn on the air conditioning in the break room or ventilate the warehouse. The workers contacted their union representative, who confronted the employer and resolved the issue. No one died of heat exhaustion that day, and no one was fired for asserting their rights.

In a study published in the journal BMJ Occupational & Environmental Medicine in 2018, researchers concluded that a 1% decrease in unionization resulted in a 5% increase in workplace fatalities.

While unions cannot solve every problem at work, they are the best way to fend off the runaway power of corporations that often prioritize profit over safety.

In 1909, shortly before the Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy, 20,000 workers braved a three-month strike that forced employers to improve working conditions in New York’s garment district. The catastrophic fire at the non-union Triangle factory a year and a half later led to further improvements in the industry. The unions succeeded in pushing through workplace safety laws and the International Union of Ladies’ Garment Workers (ILGWU) gained in power and influence.

Like over a century ago, sweeping federal legislation is now needed to protect and empower workers, especially given the colossal threats of future pandemics and climate change. It will not be easy as many of our country’s largest employers oppose unions and invest their vast resources in trying to silence workers.

But workers don’t have to wait for Congress to act to form a union. Organizing your workplace now can lead to better wages, benefits, and a strong collective voice. It might even save your life in the next disaster.

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