Is job market turmoil shades of Triangle Fire, 112 year ago?
On March 25, 1911, my Great Aunt Fannie went to work in a high-rise garment factory in New York City.
The workday ended with Fannie Lansner jumping from a ninth-floor window to avoid the scorching flames that killed her and 145 coworkers.
The workplace horror known as the Triangle Fire became a rallying moment in America’s labor movement. The revolution greatly bettered the workplace in terms of routines, compensation and safety.
Just think about why Great Aunt Fannie was on the job on that fateful Saturday. Because in 1911, a six-day workweek was a common requirement.
So let me honor my great aunt’s memory with a history lesson that shows us the enduring struggle between worker and boss.
At the start of the 20th century, sweatshops like the one run by Triangle Waist Co. took advantage of an ample supply of young, immigrant female workers. As one could expect, bosses didn’t take kindly to unhappy workers.
Two years earlier, New York employers throttled a large garment workers’ strike. Just the day before the fire, New York courts sided with industry leaders, ruling that new laws protecting workers injured on the job were unconstitutional.
But the power pendulum swung swiftly to the worker’s side after the Triangle fire. The political uproar from the fiery deaths can be tied to numerous workplace innovations such as child labor laws, shorter workweeks and building codes. And one could even argue the fire’s political fallout includes the creation of Social Security retirement benefits.
On this 112th anniversary of this workplace tragedy that killed my grandfather’s sister, a 21-year-old immigrant from Lithuania, you can see worker discontentment growing into a 21st-century kind of worker revolt.
The power index
Let me attempt to measure swings in worker power with the Great Aunt Fannie Index, tracking government data on national trends in labor participation, quitting, unionism and the premium paid to those who switch jobs.
My trusty spreadsheet tells me the Great Aunt Fannie Index, which looks back as far as 2001, shows bosses gaining control of workplace power from the start of the century through the Great Recession. By 2012, worker power was down 9% from the index’s start.
Since then, workers have regained their resolve, as the index grew in nine of the past 10 years – especially in the pandemic era. A huge 6% jump in 2021 brought the index back above 2001’s level. An additional, small increase last year created a new high for this worker yardstick.
Life-altering events such as the Triangle Fire and the pandemic seem to get people rethinking the value of a job.
Today’s workplace is far more fluid than when Fannie was helping create “shirtwaists” – the hot fashion of her day, much like the modern blouse.
Ponder two measures of worker displeasure: folks who are out of the workplace or those who quit.
I’ll call this the “out of work(place) rate” – the inverse of the labor participation measurement that tracks the share of working-age people on the job or seeking employment.
Back in 2001, just 33% of Americans who could be working were not. I say “just” because by 2020-21, that had risen to 38.7%. This out-of-work(place) benchmark fell slightly to 37.8% last year.
And today’s job market turmoil includes a growing tide of quitters. Last year, 50.5 million Americans told the boss “goodbye” – 45% above voluntary exits of 2001.
I’m betting Great Aunt Fannie would be sad to see how 21st-century corporate bosses have largely thwarted the union movement that gained great traction after the Triangle Fire.
Yes, union membership last year rose by 273,000, the largest gain since 2008. Still, the 14.3 million members in 2022 were 2 million below 2000 – a 13% drop.
As a result, organized labor’s share of U.S. workers fell to 10.1% last year, down from 13.4% in 2000 and almost half of 1983’s 20.1%, the year current union data tracking began.
The labor movement’s drop is steepest in private industry where unions had 7.22 million members last year. That’s off 1.9 million or 21% from 2000.
So union membership equaled 6% of all private-industry jobs last year, down from 9% in 2000.
The pandemic got many workers to rethink what a job is really worth.
For bosses, folks not returning to the workforce has created a staffing shortage. That’s forced many salaries higher. Let’s compare 2000 and 2022 pay patterns from a national study by the Atlanta Fed.
Overall U.S. wages started the 21st century with a 5% one-year increase. Those increases jumped to 5.3% in 2022. But don’t forget raises in the Great Recession mess of 2011 dropped to 1.9%.
Look at the turnabout in what U.S. bosses have to do to attract workers. Wages of “job switchers” rose 5.9% in 2000 and 6.4% last year. But it was as low as 1.8% in 2010.
And ponder some of the job market’s most vulnerable workers – those near the bottom of the pay spectrum like early 20th-century garment workers.
The nation’s bottom-quarter wage grew 5.6% in 2000. Those raises fell under 2% from 2011 to 2014. But the lowest pay increased by 6.8% last year.
Great Aunt Fannie might actually cheer 21st-century bosses, who are once again paying up for talent.
Jonathan Lansner is the business columnist for the Southern California News Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org