This week is the 103 anniversary of the fire in New York at the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory. One hundred forty-six workers, most of them immigrant women, were trapped in a building that wasn’t supposed to be able to burn. Their choice was to jump or be burned alive. No unions or laws protected these workers. At that time, Big Business felt they needed no regulation. They knew what was best for their employees. The public outcry that followed this tragedy, along with a push from organized labor, led to safer working conditions and stricter building codes.
I paid my dues to the union for years, but I paid grudgingly. I saw those dollars being deducted automatically from my paycheck and would dream about all the things I could do with that money. If I didn’t pay my union dues I could by a car, buy a computer, go on a trip, and pay my bills. As a young teacher weighed down by college loans, I lived paycheck to paycheck. But as a teacher in Washington State, I had no choice, I paid the dues to the union, or that money was sent to a charity of my choosing.
Were those thousands of dollars paid out yearly to the Washington Education Association really worth it? Yes, of course they were.
You see the union negotiated my pay scale, my benefits, my work hours, and my class loads. They made sure that I was treated fairly and that my contract was honored by the administration of the districts I worked for. When we questioned hiring practices, the union was there to ensure that teachers were hired fairly. I didn’t always agree with union’s actions. The NEA would sometimes lobby for issues that I did not support. But I also had the choice to place my dues in the pool of money used only to lobby for education issues.
Now that I am in Germany, I have watched from afar the slow dismantling of organized labor in the United States. The NEA is being blamed for every problem in education. Some states are blocking unions, of any kind, from functioning. Organized labor is being linked to the downward spiral of the economy and the spread of communism. It most certainly is an affront to Democracy!
I just don’t get American’s fear of unions. And the recent labor war in Tennessee at a Volkswagen plant between Conservatives and the UAW makes absolutely no sense to me, or to most Germans.
Germany has numerous unions for a variety of professions and trades. Some labor unions lean to the left and some labor unions lean to the right. Organized labor is not linked to any specific party or voter base. In fact, German trade guilds date all the way back to the Middle Ages. Most German workers are not just part of a union though, they also participate in a Works Council.
A Works Council is made up of union and non-union members that work with the company or corporation management to ensure good working conditions, fair labor practices, and high product standards. The Works Council, which is elected by their peers, is there to make sure that good communication occurs between all levels within the work place.
Today my colleagues are struggling to get to work because of transportation strike. Few are complaining. When we are about to fly out on vacation and airport workers are striking, we deal with that too. I am thankful that I live in a country that values the worker. I am thankful that I live in a country where the Unions and Works Councils ensure that regulations are followed so we all are protected from tragedies like the fire at the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory.