Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Frances Perkins’

The Lessons of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Are Still Relevant 107 Years Later

Monday, March 26th, 2018

On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. Firefighters arrived at the scene, but their ladders weren’t tall enough to reach the impacted area. Trapped inside because the owners had locked the fire escape exit doors, workers jumped to their deaths. Thirty minutes later, the fire was over, and 146 of the 500 workers—mostly young women—were dead.

Many of us have read about the tragic Triangle fire in school textbooks. But the fire alone wasn’t what made the shirtwaist makers such a focal point for worker safety. In fact, workplace deaths weren’t uncommon at the time. It is estimated that more than 100 workers died every day on the job around 1911.

A week after the fire, Anne Morgan and Alva Belmont hosted a meeting at the Metropolitan Opera House to demand action on fire safety, and people of all backgrounds packed the hall. A few days later, more than 350,000 people participated in a funeral march for those lost at Triangle.

Three months later, responding to pressure from activists, New York’s governor signed a law creating the Factory Investigating Commission, which had unprecedented powers. The commission investigated nearly 2,000 factories in dozens of industries and, with the help of such workers’ rights advocates as Frances Perkins, enacted eight laws covering fire safety, factory inspections, and sanitation and employment rules for women and children. The following year, they pushed for 25 more laws—entirely revamping New York State’s labor protections and creating a state Department of Labor to enforce them. During the Roosevelt administration, Perkins and Robert Wagner (who chaired the commission) helped create the nation’s most sweeping worker protections through the New Deal, including the National Labor Relations Act.

The shirtwaist makers’ story inspired hundreds of activists across the state and the nation to push for fundamental reforms. And while there have been successes along the way, the problems that led to the Triangle fire are still present today. It was just five years ago, for instance, that the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh killed more than 1,100 garment workers.

As worker health and safety continues to be a significant issue both in the United States and abroad, the AFL-CIO took a strong stand at our 2017 Convention, passing a resolution on worker safety:

The right to a safe job is a fundamental worker right and a core union value. Every worker should be able to go to work and return home safely at the end of the day.

Throughout our entire history, through organizing, bargaining, education, legislation and mobilization, working people and their unions have fought for safe and healthful working conditions to protect workers from injury, illnesses and death. We have made real progress, winning strong laws and protections that have made jobs safer and saved workers’ lives.

Over the years, our fight has gotten harder as employers’ opposition to workers’ rights and protections has grown, and attacks on unions have intensified. We haven’t backed down. Most recently, after decades-long struggles, joining with allies we won groundbreaking standards to protect workers from silica, beryllium and coal dust, and stronger protections for workers to report injuries and exercise other safety and health rights.

Now all these hard-won gains are threatened. President Trump and many Republicans in Congress have launched an aggressive assault on worker protections.

The worker protections under assault include:

  • Trump’s proposed fiscal year 2019 budget cuts funding for the Department of Labor by 21%, including a 40% cut in job training for low-income adults, youth, and dislocated workers and the elimination of the Labor Department’s employment program for older workers.
  • The budget also proposes to cut the Occupational Safety and Health Administration budget, eliminate OSHA’s worker training program and cut funding for coal mine enforcement, while proposing a 22% increase for the Office of Labor-Management Standards’ oversight of unions.
  • The budget also proposes to slash the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s job safety research budget by 40%, to move NIOSH to the National Institutes of Health from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and to remove the World Trade Center Health Program from NIOSH’s direction.
  • OSHA delayed the effective date of the final beryllium standard originally issued in January 2017. Then it delayed enforcement of the standard until May 11, 2018. In June 2017, OSHA proposed to weaken the beryllium rule as it applies to the construction and maritime industries.
  • OSHA delayed enforcement of the silica standard in construction, which in December was fully upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
  • OSHA delayed the requirement for employers to electronically report summary injury and illness information to the agency set to go into effect on July 1, 2017, until December 31, 2017. OSHA has announced it intends to issue a proposal to revise or revoke some provisions of the rule.
  • OSHA withdrew its policy that gave nonunion workers the right to have a representative participate in OSHA enforcement inspections on their behalf.
  • The Mine Safety and Health Administration delayed the mine examination rule for metal and nonmetal mines from May 23, 2017, until Oct. 2, 2017, and then again until March 2, 2018. MSHA also proposed weakening changes to the rule, including delaying mine inspections until after work has begun, instead of before work commences.
  • In November 2017, MSHA announced it would revisit the 2014 Coal Dust standard to examine its effectiveness and whether it should be modified to be less burdensome on industry. This comes at the same time NIOSH reported 400 cases of advanced black lung found by three clinics in Kentucky.
  • OSHA withdrew over a dozen rules from the regulatory agenda, including standards on combustible dust, styrene, 1-bromopropane, noise in construction and an update of permissible exposure limits.
  • The agency also suspended work on critical OSHA standards on workplace violence, infectious diseases, process safety management and emergency preparedness.
  • MSHA withdrew rules on civil penalties and refuge alternatives in coal mines from the regulatory agenda and suspended work on new standards on silica and proximity detection systems for mobile mining equipment.

The Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy took place 107 years ago today. We have a long way to go to make sure that we prevent the next such tragedy and keep working people safe and healthy.

Help Wanted: A Secretary of Labor Who Cares About Workers

Tuesday, October 28th, 2008

We need a Labor Secretary in the mold of Francis Perkins, whose top priority was to help the working man.

In recent days, colleagues have asked me to write about the near-collapse of the economy. My first response was to decline — recognizing all too well that I, like most of our nation’s leaders, was not entirely clear about what was going on. I’ve always been a big believer that wisdom is about knowing when to keep your mouth shut (or fingers away from the keyboard). As Proverbs 17:28 says, “Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is counted wise. When he shuts his lips, he is thought to be discerning.”

Although I must admit that I am still not completely clear about what all has occurred and has not occurred, I am more convinced than ever that we need a Secretary of Labor who cares about workers and who will at least try to address issues faced by workers. Unfortunately for the nation, we have a Secretary of Labor who is Missing in Action.

When the unemployment figures came out last week, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao issued a one-sentence statement: “Today’s employment report provides further evidence of the need for the House of Representatives to pass an economic rescue package today, before it adjourns, which will protect Main Street America and mitigate further job loss,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao. That’s it. That’s all she could muster on the subject.

The day before, she’d given a lengthy speech to the Chamber of Commerce decrying the “Europeanization” of the workplace and denigrating unions. Meanwhile, her Wage and Hour Administrator, Alexander Passantino, claims the Division is doing a great job enforcing wage and hour laws. I’m sure the Education and Training Administrator says the agency is doing a great job there too. Throughout Chao’s speeches over the last year she’s been claiming what a great job the Bush Administration is doing for working people. Well, the emperor has no clothes.

In the midst of the economic meltdown, dramatically rising unemployment figures, military-style immigration raids in workplaces, employers stealing wages like there’s no tomorrow, young people unprepared for today’s jobs — let alone tomorrow’s — and assaults against unions and the right to organize at an all-time high, we need a Secretary of Labor who sees it as his or her job to protect workers. The Secretary of Labor must be the preacher in the bully pulpit for better working conditions for all the nation’s workers. Even if she can’t do anything, she could reach out and talk with workers.

Frances Perkins.

Frances Perkins was the Secretary of Labor appointed by Franklin D Roosevelt in 1932 to help him address the economic crisis left him by eight years of Coolidge and Hoover leadership.

She came to Washington, D.C. with a mission — in her words, to serve God, FDR and the working man. She came with a vision. She wanted to get people back to work, pass national standards for wage payment, and establish a social security system. She and her colleagues created the jobs programs that built many of our nation’s parks and bridges, she passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, the most comprehensive wage protection law in the nation, and she helped design the Social Security System.

Learning from the lessons of Frances Perkins, here’s what the new Secretary of Labor should do:

First, advocate stopping the workplace immigration raids. When Frances Perkins took over, the Department of Labor was responsible for workplace raids and she stopped them immediately. They were wrong then and they are wrong today.

Although Homeland Security, not Labor, has jurisdiction for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Labor Secretary should speak forcefully against this intimidation of workers that is a gross waste of taxpayer money.

Second, enforce the wage and hour laws in meaningful ways. Employers are stealing billions of dollars annually from the paychecks of millions of workers. Wage theft is a national crisis and the Department of Labor is asleep at the wheel. Just as an unregulated banking industry has brought forth catastrophe, unregulated workplaces have enabled employers to steal wages from workers on a mass scale. In 1941, Frances Perkins had 1,500 investigators in the field visiting 12 percent of the country’s workplaces to ensure that employers were paying people legally. Today, with more than 10 times as many workers covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, there are half as many investigators. Employers know that the chances of getting caught stealing wages is minuscule and that if they are caught, the consequences are insignificant. The Secretary must go after wage theft. What better economic stimulus for the society than workers getting the wages they are owed and spending them in their communities?

Third, lead the charge in supporting unemployed workers. Unemployment insurance should be available widely to workers and job creation strategies should be pursued aggressively both through public incentives for private job creation and public jobs programs. Let’s create those green jobs everyone is talking about.

Fourth, commit to developing the 21st-century supports America’s workers need. During Perkins’s time, she focused on putting in place social security for America’s workers. Today, we need a national health care program. Forty-seven million workers and their families without health care is not in the best interest of workers or the nation as a whole. The Secretary of Labor should play a role in guaranteeing health care to all Americans.

Fifth, support the fundamental rights of all workers to organize into unions of their choice. Although Perkins wasn’t the first choice of labor unions for secretary, she overcame their hesitations with her steadfast support for workers’ rights to organize in the workplace. Elaine Chao, in contrast, has used her public voice to attack the Employee Free Choice Act, the most significant labor law reform to come along in decades.

When the economy is in shambles, it is America’s workers who take the biggest hit. Perhaps in the coming weeks and months, we will all understand better what has happened to our economy. But as we move forward as a nation in addressing the crisis, we need a Secretary of Labor who knows workers, cares for their concerns and speaks up for them. Our current Secretary of Labor is missing in action. We need to put the Labor back in Secretary of Labor.

About the Author: Kim Bobo, Founder and Executive Director of Interfaith Worker Justice, writes the “Dispatches from the Workplace” column for the online magazine Religion Dispatches. She is the author of Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid — And What We Can Do About It (forthcoming in December from the New Press) and the co-author of Organizing for Social Change, the best-selling manual on progressive activism in the U.S.

This article originally appeared on the God’s Politics Blog (www.godspolitics.com).

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