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Fire Union Head Speaks Up for Workers Rights

The following article is a transcript of the speech given by Brendan Keatley, president of the Stamford Professional Firefighters Association, at Monday’s “We Are One” rally in Stamford. The Daily Stamford welcomes the opinions of its readers. Please send opinion articles to reporter Anthony Buzzeo at tbuzzeo@mainstreetconnect.us .

I would like to thank all of you for attending this important rally to remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the tragic event that took place 43 years ago today.  While Dr. King is best known as our nation’s champion of civil rights, he was also a champion in advocating for the protection and rights of all working Americans.

Dr. King was assassinated while standing up for and supporting what might to us seem like a basic principle – the right for workers to collectively bargain with their employer. Forty-three years after Dr. King’s sacrifice, this very basic right of working men and women to be protected in the workplace is once again under assault.

Look at what is happening in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana. There is a movement fueled by corporate, Wall Street and right wing front groups to roll back the standard of living and protections for the middle class that working Americans and those like Dr. King have fought and died for over the last century.

On March 25, 2011, we commemorated the 100th anniversary of one of the most historic and tragic events in American labor history. One hundred years earlier a fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City cost 146 workers their lives.

Hundreds of mostly women and children were crammed into a sweatshop, working shoulder to shoulder, forced to toil in inhumane and unsafe work conditions. Within minutes of the fire igniting, most leaped nine floors to their death to avoid being burned to death.  It only took three or four minutes for an entire building floor to be engulfed in flames. These workers, who were considered barely one step above serfdom, worked from morning until night, six days a week, for a pittance in wages, laboring in unsafe working conditions with no human rights to speak of.

What arose from that tragedy of 100 years ago was the beginning of a viable national union movement that fought so that workers could be part of the American dream instead of being held in servitude to industrialists concerned only about their profits.

What it led to was ... basic safety standards for the workplace – national fire codes, building construction codes, anti-sweatshop laws and eventually reasonable working hours and fair wages.

Let me also mention that the New York City firefighters who responded to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, also worked under oppressive conditions in 1911. They were mandated to work seven days a week, 18 hours a day, 150 hours a week with only three hours a day for meals.

Only after they unionized in 1917 and received a contract in 1922 did the conditions improve for the firefighters ... to a workweek of just 84 hours per week.

Does anybody here seriously believe that corporate America, voluntarily and on its own, would have granted American workers the eight-hour workday, 40-hour workweek and a safe place to work were it not for American labor heroes – like the martyrs of the Triangle Fire or Dr. King?

Do we really want to go back to the America of 1911 when life revolved around the major industrialist ruling class and there was no middle class. I say no!

Our job is to continue to keep Stamford one of America’s safest big cities. Our role is to keep Stamford a great place to live and work, and we are accomplishing that despite all of the agency cuts and short staffing. It’s clear that Stamford’s public employees have been pitching in and doing their part in a major way.

Over the last few years we have heard a great deal of anti-worker rhetoric. Workers and retirees were blamed for the auto industry’s troubles and the CEOs were given a pass.

AIG, Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs and Bear Stearns, working in tandem, nearly brought the American economy to a standstill, and somehow they have managed to pin the blame on municipal unions and the dedicated workers who have toiled decades to earn their salaries, pensions and benefits. Enough is enough with the blame the workers rhetoric.  Thank you.

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