Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

On March 25, 1911, fire broke out on the 8th floor of the building on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, just off Washington Square Park. Within half an hour, the fire was out, but 146 mostly young women were dead. Many had plunged to their deaths from the windows of the 9th floor, choosing this quick end rather than burning.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was a sweatshop. Women worked with their elbows practically touching, as long as 16 hours a day, 6 days a week, for about $5 a week, making the shirtwaists that were such a liberating garment for so many women. The Triangle's owners were fiercely anti-union. They were also not interested in basic safety measures, such as sprinklers or fire drills. Several of the exit doors were kept locked to "prevent theft." (the women reported having to endure their bags being checked on leaving every evening, to be sure they weren't absconding with fabric scraps) The fire escape not only wasn't strong enough to handle a mass exodus, it didn't even reach the sidewalk.

You can read all about the fire and the impact it had on American workers, factories, legislation, and the psyche in David von Drehle's book, Triangle, the Fire That Changed America. It's a story that needs telling again and again, because we're in serious danger of spinning back to the mentality and practices that started the fire.

I work at the Writers Room on Astor Place, a few blocks from where the Triangle was housed. On Friday, March 25, I attended the ceremony marking the centennial, making comments on Twitter and taking pictures with my iPhone.

The march began down Broadway, with a steady drumbeat and many members of labor unions and the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition. As they have done every year since the fire, people carried shirtwaists with a ribbon bearing each worker's name. This year, for the first time, all 146 were named, thanks to the assiduous efforts of historian Michael Hirsch, who uncovered the identities of the six unknown victims.

We gathered outside the building, now part of New York University. You can see the banners hanging from the windows where the women jumped:

Here is a picture of the shirtwaists, with the banners in the background:

Many members of unions carried signs with the name and age of a Triangle victim:

Despite being a cold day, the crowd was huge and enthusiastic. This picture does not do it justice:

There were a number of speakers, many either leaders or members of unions. I didn't keep track of names, but here are some of the quotes that stood out for me:

"Let us continue to honor the dead and fight like hell for the living."

"The most important tribute to the victim is not words but DEEDS."

"May we never lose our sense of outrage at the injustices around us."

"This is a fundamental choice between what is wrong and what is right." - that was from a Wisconsin teacher and union leader. I was pleased that there was much talk of Wisconsin, and that the Jumbotron ran photos of the union protests there. The teacher told us how Wisconsin, traditionally so progressive, was the first state to pass worker compensation laws - in 1911, the year of the fire.

After the speeches, a bagpiper played "Amazing Grace" and the ladder from a fire truck on Greene Street was slowly raised to the 7th floor, showing us the other aspect of the day's tragedy - that though the NYFD arrived quickly, their ladders were too short to save the workers trapped on the 9th floor (the executives on the 10th floor escaped via the roof):

Each name was then read. A bell rang after each name and a flower was laid. I wept.

All the shirtwaists were laid across the street:

This was the firefighter who rang the bell, with the individual flowers before the podium. The orange bouquet is for Bangladeshi workers killed in a similar fire:

In one of the few visual examples that could be given of what Triangle helped to change for the better, the NYFD showed us how today, many of the workers could be saved:

Honor the dead. Fight like hell for the living.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

It Was 630 Years Ago Today...

Maybe the trouble with the ongoing clashes between unions and union-busters is that the busters feel they have nothing to lose. What can the protesters possibly do to them? The same sentiment existed at the start of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 – and the unyielding government got a surprise.

Society-changing events are usually precipitated by a disaster, and disasters don't come much bigger than the Black Death, which swept through England in 1348 and decimated roughly a third of the population. The surviving peasants saw that the crisis had created an opportunity. There was now a labor shortage, which gave them unheard-of leverage. If a peasant's own lord wouldn't pay a fair wage, he could accept a neighboring lord's better offer. Although the feudal system forbade such peasant-poaching, the peasants now held the cards.

Big business and government were displeased, and enacted first the Ordinance of Labourers in 1349 and the Statute of Labourers in 1351 to maintain the status quo. The laws stated that peasants were not allowed to move around in search of a better wage, bargain collectively, or refuse to work. Additionally, wages had to be fixed at 1346 levels.

The demand for labor put peasants and landowners in the unique position of working together to work around the two statutes. As long as the laws remained on the books, however, the feudal system stood firm. The peasants, having seen tantalizing possibilities, were bitter.

Grumbles turned into rumbles with impositions of poll taxes. The government, being engaged in the costly Hundred Years War with France, needed cash. War was traditionally funded by landowners, but the lords wanted to save money. John of Gaunt, de facto ruler during Richard II's minority, came up with the bright idea of making the peasants share the burden, charging a tax per head in 1377. It worked a treat and was repeated several times. This wasn't a bother for the lords, but brutalizing on the peasantry. The odd exemptions were little help. An unmarried woman could claim an exemption if she was a virgin, but had to undergo an inspection by the tax collectors for it to be allowed.

The 1381 poll tax levied a flat rate that was more than twice the amount of the previous duty. The peasants were enraged. A protest that swelled to 60,000 strong marched on London, following their leaders Wat Tyler, Jack Straw, and the radical priest John Ball. The latter had become famous for composing this ditty: "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" He earned even fewer friends in the upper classes when he said: "How can [the landowners] claim to prove that they be lords more than us, save by making us produce and grow the wealth that they do spend?"

Today's Republicans should count themselves lucky – the 14th century protesters burned down John of Gaunt's palace, along with several other important homes.

At this point, the king agreed to negotiate. The rebels, first pledging their allegiance to the king, asked for labor contracts, the right to rent land at a reasonable cost, and an end to feudalism. The king conceded. Unfortunately, the peasants then overplayed their hand by tracking down the Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury and cutting off their heads. At a meeting the next day, the king's men expressed their dissatisfaction with this turn by killing Wat Tyler.

This breakdown in labor relations had the effect of dispersing the peasants and eventually killing the protest leaders. Despite several other uprisings around the country – horse-borne social media being surprisingly effective – the government soon regained control. The king then announced that all his promises were revoked because he had made them under pressure.

King & Co. proclaimed a triumph for the rights of landowners, but he was only half-right. The poll tax was never raised again, and feudalism's end was accelerated. Furthermore, it was recognized that the peasants had rebelled less because they wanted a more equitable slice of pie than because they wanted equity, full stop. The days of accepting one's lot as a vassal were over.

Today's protesters will probably eschew burnings and beheadings. But the union-busters preparing to welcome the 19th century might take a minute before donning their bowler hats. Right now, people are mad. Sooner or later, they're going to get even.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

International Women's Day: Remembering the Ladies

In 1911, when the first International Women's Day was celebrated, it was still illegal for women to vote in most parts of the world. The suffrage movement was met with scorn and ridicule, even from many women, and the labor movement was seen as something akin to treason.

It was the labor movement that helped prompt the first International Women's Day. You can read about its history here. Women and men campaigned for women's rights to work, vote, and hold public office, among other things. We are right to congratulate them and ourselves for having accomplished these rights throughout a great deal of the world. These were historic impossibilities, till they became possible.

Then again, there is that old saying, "A woman's work is never done." A saying that continues to be infuriatingly accurate when it comes to fighting for women's genuine equality.

Take the labor movement. While the current Republican war on labor was presumably not planned to coincide with the centennial of International Women's Day or the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, it is striking that such attacks are coming now, when we might be most attuned to the historical correlations. The push for organized labor began with people who were marginalized. The sweatshops are now mostly overseas, but teaching, a profession historically dominated by women – and commensurately underpaid and under-respected – is now being marginalized in a manner that should be appalling to all observers.

Labor unions are comprised of both men and women, but the impetus remains the same: strip a group of its voice, and you strip it of its power. Historically, you'd be hard-pressed to find a government that was willing to give women power, much less equality. Even after the American Revolution, when Abigail Adams exhorted her husband John to "Remember the ladies," he basically said, "Yes, dear" and then participated in the creation of a new government that hung out a sign saying "No Girls Allowed." This, even after women had thrown their efforts into the fight for independence.

Some things don't change – after the terrific uprising in Egypt, a committee to create a new constitution is comprised solely of men. Jordan's Queen Noor notes here that women's rights are often among the first things to be compromised on when a new government is establishing itself. We, and our concerns, are still seen as frivolous.

To say nothing of worthy of derision. Time and again, when women have spoken up for themselves, the male response is to laugh. Note the jeers and "comic" insults hurled at women marching for suffrage in 1913.

Maybe this is why feminists are accused of not having a sense of humor?

Then again, we've proven that not letting the jeers stop us is one way to gain our point.

So this is what we have to remember – don't let the derision get us down, don't forget our past, and don't stop fighting for what we still need to achieve.

And finally, as "M" puts it to James Bond, but really to us all – don't stop asking if we are equal:

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Triangle and Circular History

There was an interesting convergence of events this last week when the final six victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire were identified on this, the centennial year of the event, while the unions who fought so hard to prevent such an event ever occurring again are taking a terrible beating.

Corporations and conservative politicians have hated unions from the beginning. For all that America claims to have no entrenched class system, unions have traditionally been the only real means by which ordinary workers could look the status quo in the eye and say: "We're just as human as you – treat us that way."

From their inception, unions were perceived – not without some veracity – as a challenge to the wealth and political structure of the United States. Laissez-faire capitalism was the guiding economic force in the country and immigrants, deemed lucky just to be allowed to be in this promised land and have a job, were supposed to succeed by dint of their hard work and earned luck or accept their fate without complaint. Wealth, property, and liberty were entwined in the psyche and treated with a religious fervor, so that when the unions were perceived as attacking all three, they were seen as both anti-American and godless. This attitude was reflected by a judge during the 1909 "Uprising of 20,000" strike, when he said: “You are striking against God and Nature, whose law is that man shall earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. You are on strike against God!”

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which employed 500 workers, mostly young immigrant women, was not unionized. The women worked long hours in abusive and unsanitary conditions for a pittance. When fire broke out late in the afternoon on Saturday, March 25, 146 of the workers were killed. There were no laws that said sprinklers must be installed, or doors kept unlocked, or fire drills held. If businesses wanted to spend the money to establish safety measures, that was their prerogative, but to do so was considered at best a moral imperative.

The fire proved to workers that if they were going to be safe, they must band together and take care of themselves. Now, the state stepped in as well and created safety standards and laws to uphold said standards. Businesses may not have been thrilled with the new regulations, but those that complied did not exactly descend into poverty. Neither did hiring union workers turn them all out of their mansions.

Unions brought poorer people into stable lives and the political process. It wasn't enough just to vote – which, during the mass strike of 1909, women could not – the power of a group was necessary to effect change. Unions gave the majority a loud, powerful voice.

Which is why they are still despised by the corporate power structure. The same people delighted to extol American economic dominance during the postwar era neglect to mention that this was achieved in large part through regulatory laws and unions.

Not that unions are exemplary. Even plenty of union members will be quick to acknowledge otherwise. Like any other business model, some flexibility and adaptability are necessary to flourish. But when Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin wants to take away collective bargaining rights, and Speaker Boehner says unions have "a machine gun" held to the heads of local officials, this is asking that unions bend backwards all the way to the 19th century.

And by the way, history shows that by and large, businesses left to their own devices prefer not to self-regulate.

Corporations have undercut a lot of workers by crying poor and sending their business to the poor around the world, but they shouldn't count on that party lasting forever. The uprisings in the Middle East are going to cause reverberations. Once more people see that they can demand better and then get it, nothing will stop them.

Till then, Jon Stewart wraps up a history lesson in a funny and disturbing bow:
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