Thursday, March 24, 2011

Bread and Roses

One hundred years ago today something approaching 500 people were coming to the end of a long workday Saturday in the Triangle Waist Company building down in lower Manhattan near Washington Square.March had been a busy month that year. The first U.S. federal cemetery with both Union and Rebel graves had opened in Missouri. Victor Berger had taken his seat in the U.S. Congress as the first socialist, while back on the 7th of the month 20,000 troops had been sent south to the Mexican border to keep an eye on those pesky revolutionaries. Willis Farnsworth patented the coin-operated locker in Petaluma, California, while on Broadway Ivan Caryll's musical "Pink Lady," had opened the previous week and a splendid new theatre, the Winter Garden, had opened just last Monday. So the people hard at work in the upper floors of the Triangle Company must have had a lot to talk about.

Most of them were girls and young women, as was customary in the "garment trade". They were employed sewing "shirtwaists", women's shirts or blouses. It was repetitive, niggling work, and the seamstresses were paid by the piece, meaning that they had to work as fast as possible, but would not be payed for flawed garments, meaning that they had to be exact and avoid mistakes.Like most factory workers at the time - like most factory workers from the time there HAD been factories - the gals at the Triangle shop made what they could, and that was damn little. There were lots of young women ready to take any job for any wage; the immigrant boats were full of them, coming from Russia, Italy, Germany, and much of Eastern Europe. The owners had a business to run, not a charity. Their business was business, and any worker who made trouble - or didn't make enough shirtwaists, was out on their ass.

So it was just another Saturday on the ninth floor of the Triangle Building, the Singer sewing machines clattering, the working girls probably exchanging a word or two, looking forward to quitting time and the next day off.And then the first young woman breathed in a faint scent of smoke.

The Sunday New York Times said later; "The building was fireproof and the owners had put their trust in that. In fact, after the flames had done their worst last night, the building hardly showed a sign. Only the stock within it and the girl employees were burned."And they burned.

Like candles. One hundred and forty-six of them.

Some preferred to break themselves on the street ninety feet below rather than die in flames. The single staircase was quickly blocked by fire, the wretched "fire escape" broke in a cascade of twisted metal and twisted bodies. When New York's Bravest arrived they found that their ladders, crafted for a smaller, lower New York City, could only reach the sixth floor. Dust, rags, cloth scraps, all took fire like kindling. The firebuckets were quickly emptied, the exits blocked by debris, or, after a while, by bodies.So the women burned, or jumped. And died, their skin blackened like burst sausages, their guts looped ropy and blue on the pavement, spilling from ripped skirts, brains seeping from shattered skulls. The dead carts hauled them off to the morgue, to be identified, or not, by bits of cloth, or broken jewelry, or shards of teeth.The city was shocked by the carnage. Hundreds of funerals, a day of mourning, reminded even the least involved what had happened. For those who continued to work in the business, Triangle reminded them like a punch in the face how close they skirted to disaster every day they punched on the clock.

The fire that consumed the working girls of the Triangle company set alight the garment workers unions that had been trying to organize the workers in New York for years. Rose Schneiderman of the ILGWU said later that;
"We have tried you citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable, the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us....I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement."
The State of New York tightened their fire safety inspections, and moved to change some of the rules that allowed the conditions of the Triangle fire. But not by much.

Even more insulting was the "trial" of the owners of the company for negligence and for locking all but a single exit door (to prevent pilferage, they said). They were acquitted within a month. Three years later the owners settled civil lawsuits for 75 bucks a corpse.Meanwhile they had gotten back in the shirtwaist business before April 1911 was out; their new factory was inspected later and found to be a wooden firetrap without fire escapes and a single exterior door. One of the Triangle owners, a character by the name of Max Blanck, was found guilty of again locking one of the doors of this factory during working hours and was fined twenty dollars.




The judge apologized to him for the hardship of the fine.

That same year an inspection of this workshop found it was "littered with rubbish piled six feet high, with scraps kept in non-regulation, flammable wicker baskets."

Max got a stern warning from Justice that time, you bet.


Why remember this hundred-year-old fire today?

Because we Americans have had it pretty soft for a long time.

Because we take a lot of things for granted; things like safe workplaces. Things like weekends, and free time. Things like clean air and water. Things like a living wage, and vacations, and retirement, and professional courtesy and honest dealings from employers and civil servants.

Because we forget that we didn't "get" these things. They weren't "given" to us. We didn't "earn" them.

They were taken from people like Max Blanck, who fought and squealed, who called in cops and soldiers and scabs and strikebreakers, who locked out and beat up and laid off, the people who fought them to get these things.Because we have forgotten that the Max Blancks don't forget; that they'd take all those things back, if they could, and that they will if they can.

Because we seem to think that unions are bad, that workers are bad, that protests are bad, that government is bad.

Because the unions themselves have forgotten that they aren't in this just for a fat paycheck and a featherbedding job. Because the unions once helped make the United States a land where a man could live a middle class life through the work of his hands, and that that was something WORTH fighting for. That jobs weren't just "given" from the wealthy factory owners, they were made by the men and women who worked at them.

Because we've forgotten that, while capital and industry have brought us goods and services, comfort, ease, and entertainment, it has also brought us Love Canal and thalidomide, the Dalkon Shield and Deepwater Horizon. Because we've forgotten that if corporations are people as people they are often psychopaths; unconcerned with human lives, divorced from any responsibility other than Making a Goddamn Buck.Because we had forgotten that America has become as strong as she has because her people were strong, her people have risen together more closely than the deep divide that separates the rulers and the ruled in many nations. And that this has not been because of the grace of the American ruling classes but largely because of a ruthless coalition of liberal aristocrats like the Roosevelts, muckraking journalists, socialists and even communists but most of all because of American workingmen and women who fought for roses along with their bread, for days of rest as well as workdays, for relief in sickness and age as well as wages for labor.

It is fashionable today to flip a hand at the notion of "organization", at the idea that Americans who are not in the two-yacht families, who cannot aspire to wealth or society, should stand together against those who are. "Class-warfare" is the sneer, from the very class that is winning that war. It is popular today to dismiss the sort of people who died on the streets of New York as the losers of this war; the casualties of the New Economy.But we have not been beaten. We have surrendered; we have chosen to give up rather than try to fight the standards of the developing countries, with their starvation wages and festering sewers of rivers and trashpiles in ravines, driving us into a race back down to the bottom.

And it may well be that the combination of foreign competition and domestic mediocrity are indeed spelling the end of the Era of American Industrialism. That we are fated to become two nations; a wealthy elite and a mass of beaten wage-slaves, clinging to an every-tightening gyre of falling pay and rising debts, shrinking services and growing costs, as the vulture of greed tears as our liver.But the real shame of it is that we have gone down without a fight. In our fever to "lower our taxes" and save pennies we have handed our masters billions. In our haste to "shrink government" we have gutted the agencies that inspect our food and secure our workplaces. In our frenzy to "grow the wealth" so it will "trickle down" we have made little tin gods of the Trumps and the Kochs,and the Max Blancks.

Perhaps this is all inevitable. Perhaps the living-wage factory job really is as dead as the dodo; killed off by low tariffs, low-wage competition, automation, greedy unions, greedy stockholders, high costs and deregulation.

If automation, layoffs and offshoring, corporate profits and our desperate need to fill the stores with disposable plastic crap continues to destroy living-wage work, yes, it WILL be inevitable. But even if it is...we have chosen to surrender without a real fight. And that is not just defeat. That is dishonor.

If we are headed towards a nation that consists of the rich and the unemployed, if in our greed and fecklessness we allow the oligarchy - that has always been a part of the makeup of the United States since its founding - grow great and become our future...on the way to that nation we will have to pass under the stony eyes of the dead women of 1911, in whose pitiless gaze we will see reflected the exact dimensions of our dishonor, the final diminution of our nation, and the precise misery of our fate.

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