From the Triangle Fire through Madison Wisconsin: What is to be done?

Categories: Letters From Leadership
By Stuart Appelbaum

(This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and is posted here with permission of the author.)

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire that took place in New York City a century ago is now being memorialized in programs across the country. It took that fire on March 25, 1911, and the deaths of 146 innocent garment workers – mostly women, mostly Jewish, mostly immigrants – to bring about meaningful safety regulations, and to respect the call of workers struggling to secure the benefits of union membership. Many of our grandparents and great-grandparents played a critical role in building a strong and vibrant labor movement with the hope that it would endure and remain a permanent feature of American life. Through their actions and their struggle, our lives and the lives of most Americans were made better. Today, those hard-fought gains are under threat in communities across the United States.

What has emerged in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and across America is an attack against working men and women in both the public and private sector. The targets are the public employees now, but their intention is to come after all unionized workers.

The federal government, using taxpayer money, bailed out the banks and saved Wall Street. Now, corporate leaders and the elected officials they support are saying thank you by demanding tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and budgets balanced on the backs of working people – including many in the Jewish community. It’s a perverse form of gratitude.

The budget deficits cited to rationalize the attacks on public service workers’ collective bargaining rights are nothing more than a diversion: the real aim is to debilitate the labor movement state by state, for political, not economic, ends, and in doing so, curtail fundamental rights for all working people. That is why all of us need to speak up, now.

Fortunately, the latest opinion polls show that a vast majority of Americans continue to support the legal right of working people to be represented by the union of their choice, and to engage in collective bargaining. But as caring Jews, as thoughtful Americans, we must not become complacent – we must continue to speak out against the Governor of Wisconsin and others of his ilk trying to dismantle the unions founded by our  forefathers and foremothers and erode the workplace protections they fought so hard to achieve.

Many Jewish texts, from the Torah through the Talmud, deal specifically with the treatment of workers. The Torah urges “justice, justice, shall you pursue.” There is, then, a deeply moral, historical and theological basis for our efforts to close the widening gap between the rich and poor, and to prevent growing economic instability that will be detrimental for all Americans. This demands that we strengthen, not weaken, private and public sector unions to ensure that current and aspiring middle class Americans attain a decent standard of living and greater economic security.

The history of the American Jewish community is one of upward mobility and expanding economic opportunity. But upward mobility and shared prosperity cannot be achieved by lowering job standards and pitting workers against each other – which is what some would like to do. The artificial divisions that are part of the attack against organized labor must be challenged – by unions and their community allies as well. The Jewish Labor Committee is proud of our work to bring the Jewish community and the labor movement together in common cause – and we invite you to join us. If not now, when?

Durable coalitions that include organized labor and the organized Jewish community need to support policies that will boost overall working conditions and lift up workers who are the least well-off. We know from our own experience that the middle class was built not by making jobs worse but making jobs better: unions fought hard to raise standards across industries and occupations, and we were all better off for it.

Remembering what Jews once did and continue to do for working people and for a strong American economy should make us hopeful about our ability to safeguard a society that promotes justice, and ensures equality and fairness for all.

It took that terrible fire a century ago to shock many into finally accepting the need for reform, and to defend the interests of workers. Solidarity with garment workers, and among workers of diverse kinds, became a daily bond that fortified our own communities. We must remember this today as we remember those who perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire 100 years ago, and now honor the courageous men and women of Wisconsin, and all working people whose basic rights are under attack.

About Stuart Applebaum

Stuart Appelbaum is the President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and President of the Jewish Labor Committee.
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