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110 years ago, Triangle Fire boosted U.S. labor movement



My Great Aunt Fannie Lansner came to the end of her six-day workweek on Saturday, March 25, 1911 at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

She never came home, one of 146 victims of the shameful New York City workplace fire known by the site’s name — a preventable tragedy that turbo-charged the nation’s labor movement.

The sister of my paternal grandfather, this Lithuanian immigrant was just 21 when she died 110 years ago — first helping coworkers to safety then forced to leap out of a high-rise window to avoid the flames. She had toiled in a garment factory built out of reach of the city fire ladders, without adequate fire protection or emergency exits.

Work was tough and poorly compensated, and the factory owners had recently defeated a unionization effort. The two men were acquitted of criminal charges related to the fire.

So every year at this time I honor Great Aunt Fannie’s memory with a column noting what it takes to improve the American workplace.

The Triangle deaths became a rallying cry for the nation’s fledgling labor unions and created a national push for fair compensation, workplace safety laws and building codes. The surge for change made political heroes from the likes of future president Franklin Roosevelt to Frances Perkins, who would become the nation’s first female cabinet member as labor secretary under Roosevelt.

And there was unionist Rose Schneiderman — who also helped New York women get the right to vote and was a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union — who said at a protest shortly after the fire, “The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred! There are so many of us for one job, it matters little if 140-odd are burned to death.”

Great Aunt Fannie, I believe, would be pleased with how the workplace has evolved. Better pay within a 40-hour, five-day workweek would certainly be a welcome improvement. Yes, I know, fewer and fewer folks work that little these days.

Employment’s fringe benefits — not always perfect for some employees — would cheer her, too.

But what would Great Aunt Fannie think about the state of a worker’s rights or the union movement? And what of jobs in the pandemic era — if one was lucky enough to keep one or survive the health risks involved?

Coronavirus throttled the national and state job market by varying degrees. Union membership statistics are one yardstick to gauge how workers fared.

Just ponder what my trusty spreadsheet found in data from, which tracks organized labor’s impact. Looking at the nation’s 50 largest job markets, the pandemic year’s unprecedented employment upheaval pushed the share of union members up by a half-percentage point to 11.4% last year.

But that was awkward growth: Organized labor lost 3% of its membership in 2020, while all other employment fell 8% in the year.

These patterns were by no means universal. Organized labor lost 8% of its members at companies in the 50 metros where 6.7% of jobs are unionized. In government, where 40% of workers are in unions, labor lost just 2% of its members.

You see mixed patterns like this in California’s six giant job markets among this group of 50 metros, ranked in what you might find as surprising union clout.

Inland Empire

Did you know that Riverside and San Bernardino counties have organized labor’s largest share of workers in the nation?

Last year’s 366,668 union membership was down 8% vs. 2019. But non-union jobs fell 10% in the year. That’s how this region’s union share of the workforce rose a half-percentage point to 22.7%.

Private industry? Helped by the region’s heavily unionized logistics industries, Inland Empire companies have 203,633 members equal to 15% of all private industry jobs. That’s also the top share in the U.S.

Public sector? Unions have 163,036 government members — translating to 61.7% of all government workers, ranking No. 7.


The state capitol’s share of union members is the nation’s second-highest.

Last year’s 208,327 union membership ranked No. 12 nationally and was up 14% vs. 2019. But non-union jobs fell 15% so the union share hit 22.4% members — just behind the Inland Empire — and was up from 17.6% in 2019.

Private industry? 84,277 members were 11.8% of all company work — No. 3 share — vs. 8.2% in 2019.

Public sector? 124,050 members were 58% of government jobs — No. 9 — vs. 51.5% in 2019.

San Francisco

The metro on the bay ranks No. 11 for union clout.

Last year’s 309,664 union membership ranked No. 6 nationally and was down 4% vs. 2019. Non-union jobs dropped 3%. So organized labor’s workforce share was 14.3% — No. 11 nationally — and down from 14.5% in 2019.

Private industry? 170,985 members equal 9% of jobs — a share ranked No. 12 — vs. 9.7% in 2019.

Public-sector? 138,679 members were 52.8% of government jobs — No. 15 — vs. 53.4% in 2019.

LA-Orange County

Last year’s 659,426 union members were the second-largest group among the 50 big markets.

But that was off 15% vs. 2019 — bigger losses than what non-members suffered in an 11% drop.

Organized labor’s share of the L.A.-O.C. workforce was 13.3% — No. 16 among the 50 — and down from 13.7% in 2019.

Private industry? 316,244 members were 7.4% of jobs — No. 19 share — vs. 8% in 2019.

Public-sector? 343,181 members equaled 50.6% of government workers — No. 16 share — vs. 54.3% in 2019.

San Diego

Last year’s 143,711 union members ranked No. 17 among the 50 — up 0.4% vs. 2019. Non-union jobs fell 14% in a year.

That translates to an 11.4% union share — a mid-range No. 24 ranking — up from 10% in 2019.

Private industry? 64,233 members were 6.2% of jobs — No. 22 of 50 — vs. 6.1% in 2019.

Public-sector? 79,478 members translate to 37% of the workforce — No. 23 — vs. 34.7% in 2019.

San Jose

Organized labor’s smallest penetration among California’s largest job markets still ranks middle-of-the-pack nationally.

Last year’s 93,245 union members ranked No. 29 — up 10% vs. 2019. Non-union jobs? Fell 4% in a year.

That put unions’ share at 10.3% — No. 27 nationally — and up from 9.1% in 2019.

Private industry? 47,026 members are 5.8% of all company employees — No. 25 share — vs. 5.1% in 2019.

Public-sector? 46,219 members were 49% of government jobs — No. 19 — vs. 47.3% in 2019.

Jonathan Lansner is business columnist for the Southern California News Group. He can be reached at


Source: Orange County Register

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