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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  1. Well done, well said, SJ. You know HBO has a doc called "Triangle: Remembering the Fire" on March 21. Got a screener I was about to pop in when I saw your blog.

  2. NYU is doing a series of rememberances re the Fire. There is a Colloquium of study that has been studying this issue all year long and will be presenting their findings and discoveries later in the month.

    I agree, with all that is going on in Wisconsin and other states right now is an ironic back drop to this event that changed the labor movement forever. Thirty six labor laws were passed as a result of this tragedy. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union was formed. To see all of this Union bashing, on the hundredth anniversary of this fire and National Women's History Month (March) is an insult at best. For the "Righteous" Wing who love to claim "history" and invoke "The Founding Fathers" every chance they can; they certainly have little sense of true history or the whole history, just their selective memories...

    Tim Schreier
    New York, NY