Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

100 Years After Triangle Fire, Unions Losing Support

March 25, 2011 marked the 100-year anniversary of the notorious Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Francis Perkins, later Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of labor, and the first woman appointed to a cabinet position, happened upon the scene of the fire as workers were jumping to their deaths in a futile effort to escape the blaze. Perkins later called that day “the day the New Deal began.” The industrial disaster, the deadliest in New York City’s history, caused the death of 146 garment workers. Perkins later served as chief investigator of the commission charged with investigating factory conditions statewide. Following on the commission’s findings, the New York State Legislature passed strong labor protections for women and children. While labor unions gradually gained strength over the following decades, Gallup and Roper opinion polls show substantial majorities opposing mandatory union membership and favoring federal government controls on unions. A July 1985 Pew Research poll found the public divided 46% to 47% in favorable to unfavorable views of unions. In subsequent years, however, support for unions rose, peaking at 63% positive in March 2001. More recently, however, unions have lost support among the public. A February 2011 survey found only 45% expressing a favorable view of labor unions — close to their lowest level in a quarter century — while 41% held an unfavorable view. Majorities, however, still see unions as having positive effects on the salary and benefits of covered workers (53%) as well as on working conditions for all American workers (51%). Read More