News reports tell us that more than 500 people have now died and more than 2,500 were injured in Savar, Bangladesh, while the toll in West, Texas stands at 15 dead and over 200 injured. Behind these two disasters is a common thread of greed -- and a common need for unionized resistance.
"It was like a nuclear bomb went off," said the mayor as a mushroom cloud soared above his tiny Texas town. The explosion "ripped through three feet of concrete floor slab and then tore apart 10 additional feet of earth," scattering the wreckage more than 1,000 feet and leaving a blast crater 93 feet wide.
This was the second mushroom cloud to be seen over Texas in recent years. The first was also a workplace explosion, at an oil refinery.
Bystanders weren't safe in Bangladesh, either. The Savar building collapsed during rush hour, hurling debris through the air while crushing and killing hundreds of the workers inside.
The Whole Story
News reports offer information, but don't tell the whole story. There's an underlying theme behind the barrage of words and images from the fertilizer plant explosion and the collapse of a textile factory, and it's this: When one worker is unsafe anywhere, we're all unsafe everywhere.
One word that's conspicuously absent from these news account is "union." Without it, this story of death and disaster will be repeated, again and again and again.
These aren't just stories about strangers. The Texas plant endangered us all with lax security which failed to safeguard highly explosive materials used by terrorists like Tim McVeigh, and permitted the repeated theft of chemicals used to make methamphetamines.
The Texas plant was surrounded by a school, a retirement home, and private residences. The explosion ripped the roofs from some of those homes and the elementary school, and lawsuits are already being filed by the plant's newly homeless neighbors.
And the Savar story is as close to us as the clothes on our backs. The factory manufactured clothing for American distributors that included Benetton, Joe Fresh, The Children's Place, Primark, Monsoon, and DressBarn.
The Texas Attorney General's Office brags about its "Right to Work" laws, which became "Right to Die" laws last week. Union membership in Texas is roughly half the national average, and the national figure has been declining precipitously for far too long.
Trade union activity in Bangladesh was suspended for two years in 2006 when the government declared a "state of emergency," and its unions are frequently cozy with political parties. They possess neither the strength nor the independence to fight for workplace wages and safety.
The workers in Savar weren't just endangered. They were underpaid, working 14 or more hours a day and yet still living in deprivation. As "War On Want" documents, 3.5 million garment workers in Bangladesh subsist on poverty wages while laboring in 4,825 factories. More than 85 percent of them are women.
Pope Francis correctly described their condition as "slavery," adding that their employer's behavior "goes against God."