Thursday, March 24, 2011

The event was beyond horrible, but Harold Meyerson asks us to think about "the mind-set that survived the Triangle Shirtwaist fire"


The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire: "On March 25, 1911, in New York City‟s Greenwich Village 146 workers, mostly teenage Jewish and Italian immigrant girls, perished after the fire broke out on Triangle Company‟s sweatshop on the 8th and 9th floors of the building. Factory foremen had locked the exit doors to keep workers from taking breaks and stealing scraps of fabric. Other doors only opened inward and were blocked by the stampede of workers struggling to escape. Workers burned or they jumped to their deaths." (the Cry Wolf Project)

"Businesses reacted as if the revolution had arrived. The changes to the fire code, said a spokesman for the Associated Industries of New York, would lead to 'the wiping out of industry in this state.' 'The regulations,' wrote George Olvany, special counsel to the Real Estate Board of New York City, 'would force expenditures on precautions that were "absolutely needless and useless."' 'The best government is the least possible government,' said Laurence McGuire, president of the Real Estate Board. 'To my mind, this [the post-Triangle regulations] is all wrong.'"
-- from Harold Meyerson's WaPo column yesterday,
"The mind-set that survived the Triangle Shirtwaist fire"

by Ken

In that really splendid column yesterday, Harold Meyerson continued (in fact, concluded):
Such complaints, of course, are with us still. We hear them from mine operators after fatal explosions, from bankers after they've crashed the economy, from energy moguls after their rig explodes or their plant starts leaking radiation. We hear them from politicians who take their money. We hear them from Republican members of Congress and from some Democrats, too. A century after Triangle, greed encased in libertarianism remains a fixture of -- and danger to -- American life.

I've been relieved to find that the Triangle Shirtwaist fire hasn't been forgotten. All month I've been seeing a heap of coverage, of nakedly horrified remembrance, but then my vantage point is the crazed left-wing outposts of the alternate media. I'm hoping the rest of the country remembers too, and in a proper mode of unmitigated revulsion. As commentators I've heard have pointed out, there have been countless workplace disasters that caused more damage and loss of life. This one, though, remains fixed in the imagination, probably for the same reason that it inflamed the public imagination at the time: the utter innocence and helplessness of the victims, and the preventability of the tragedy, which was caused by the greed and callousness of the people who could have prevented but didn't give a damn.

Just to be clear about what happened, let's let Harold Meyerson retell it:
The seamstresses were just getting off work that Saturday, some of them singing a new popular song, "Every Little Movement (Has a Meaning of Its Own)," when they heard shouts from the eighth floor just below. They saw smoke outside the windows, and then fire. As David von Drehle recounts the ensuing catastrophe, in his award-winning book Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, just a couple minutes later the ninth floor was fully ablaze.

The fire engines that rushed to the scene did not have ladders that reached to the ninth floor. The fire escape -- which didn't reach all the way to the street anyway -- was not built to accommodate more than a few people and soon collapsed. The stairwell that led to the roof was already burning, and after a few minutes was consumed by flames. The other stairwell led down to the street, but the door was padlocked from the outside so that the men and women who worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company would be compelled to use just the one stairwell or the two elevators to exit, lest any of them elude inspection and make off with leftover scraps of cloth. [A shirtwaist, by the way, was a blouse styled like a man's shirt. Later the term was used to refer to a dress that had such a top. -- Ed.]

The elevator operators made runs up to the ninth floor several times before their cables stopped working, and before desperate sewers sought to escape by jumping down one of the elevator shafts, hoping to find a softer landing atop the descending elevator than on the sidewalk nine stories down.

But many, facing the choice of death by fire or death by impact on the city streets, chose the latter and leapt. Down they came, some already engulfed in flame -- first a few, then a torrent, before the horrified crowd that had gathered by the building, which was just off Washington Square in the heart of New York's Greenwich Village.

When it was over, 146 people had either died by fire or jumped to their deaths. Most were young women, almost entirely Jewish or Italian immigrants, many still in their teens, one just 14.

The Cry Wolf Project recap backs us up a bit, to the situation before the fire:
* Fire Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo had ordered sprinklers to be installed in a number of warehouses. Three weeks before the Triangle conflagration, the Protective League of Property Owners held an indignation meeting. The League's counsel, Pendleton Dudley, then issued a statement charging that the Fire Department was seeking to force the use of "cumbersome and costly‟ apparatus. . . . And the New York Herald noted that the owners claimed the order amounted to "a confiscation of property. . . .‟ (Stein, p. 25-26)

* In 1909, Mr. H. F. J. Porter, one of the ablest fire prevention experts in the city, was recommended to Triangle, in the wake of a commissioner‟s visit, to set up a number of fire drills for the firm. In June of 1909, he wrote them to offer his services, but he received no reply to his letter. The New York Times later tracked him down, after the fire, and he said: “The neglect of factory owners in the matter of the safety of their employees is absolutely criminal. One man whom I advised to install a fire drill replied to me: "Let 'em burn. They're a lot of cattle anyway." (Stein, p. 29)

Triangle owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, Harold Meyerson writes,
had fiercely opposed the general strike of Lower East Side garment workers two years earlier and had hired thugs to beat up their seamstresses when they picketed the plant. They rebuffed the union's demand for sprinklers and unlocked stairwells -- and when these facts became widely known in the fire's aftermath, outrage swept the city. Blanck and Harris were tried for manslaughter -- but acquitted in the absence of any laws that set workplace safety standards.
(As a footnote, Sam Seder did a lovely extended Majority Report Radio interview with author Kevin Baker, whose work includes a trilogy of NYC-set historical novels, and who in the course of providing all sorts of interesting background and a specially detailed walk-through of the event itself, notes that FDR Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, the first-ever female cabinet member, at the time a social worker in the city, who happened to be in the Village that day and became an eyewitness to the fire, insisted that March 25, 1911, was the first day of the New Deal. You can hear Sam and Kevin discuss the fact that Triangle owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, after beating the manslaughter rap, cleaned up on their fire insurance -- Kevin notes that end-of-season fires in the garment factories were a commonplace, in fact were more or less counted on to recouping some of the investment in unsold inventory -- and opened another factory that was found to have all the same safety hazards.)

The horror of the Triangle fire was so overwhelming that it actually caused a turning point in workplace-safety regulation -- and, not incidentally, in the fortunes of the American labor movement. Here's Harold Meyerson again:
In Triangle's wake, and facing the prospect of losing New York's Jewish community to an ascending Socialist Party, Charlie Murphy, who ran Tammany Hall and controlled the state's Democratic Party, told two young protégés -- Assembly Speaker Al Smith and state Senate President Robert Wagner -- to make some changes to New York's industrial order. Aided by Frances Perkins, a young social worker who was in Washington Square looking on in horror as the seamstresses jumped to their deaths, Smith and Wagner visited hundreds of factories and sweatshops. Over time, they authored and enacted legislation that required certain workplaces to have sprinklers, open doors, fireproof stairwells and functioning fire escapes; limited women's workweeks to 54 hours and banned children under 18 from certain hazardous jobs. (Years later, Wagner, by then a U.S. senator, authored -- with help from Perkins, who had become labor secretary -- the legislation establishing Social Security; he also wrote the bill legalizing collective bargaining.)


We've already sampled the reaction of the Pillars of American Capitalism to even the reforms that were generated by the fire. As Meyerson points out in the quote at the top of this post, that attitude has changed surprisingly little in the last 100 years. The general revulsion the fire can still arouse in sentient Americans suggests that the public has never endorsed that noble Pillar of Capitalism philosophy, "They're a lot of cattle anyway." What has changed in recent decades is the general public awareness of why and how workplaces have changed.

I was struck by the way New America Foundation president Steve Coll framed this change as he considered the role of Internet and non-Internet factors in phenomena like the uprising in Egypt, in an April 7 New York Review of Books piece called "The Internet: For Better or for Worse":
One problem confronting anyone who seeks to explore these questions is the habit of mind referred to by intelligence analysts as mirror imaging. In the West, where digital social media were born, many of us find Facebook and Twitter to be new, exciting, and important. When we examine an event like Egypt’s stunning revolution, it is hardly surprising that we find social media to be new, exciting, and important there, too. Labor unions, on the other hand, enjoy no comparable glamour. Yet some Egyptian youth activist groups, such as the April 6th Movement, owe their origins to labor strikes. If, as is at least conceivable, Egyptian labor syndicates were just as important as social media sites in organizing and providing mass support for street protests during January and February, would we be able to see this accurately?

To begin with, I think large numbers of present-day Americans, afflicted by the successful right-wing campaign to wipe out education, are simply ignorant of the revolution that had to occur to raise social consciousness and government policy above the "lot of cattle anyway" attitude toward working people. (The folks at SEIU, by the way, have produced a swell interactive infographic documenting: "How unions succeeded in making your workplace safer in the 100 years since the deadly Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.")

Then, I think that decades of vicious anti-union disinformation has done a lot to elevate that ignorance into full-blown imbecility. Even among people who are duly horrified by bits of ancient history like the Triangle Shirtwaist fire there is often a sense that "well, that was then, but that's all over." Do they have any idea what it took to bring about the changes that took place in the course of the 20th century? That a lot of it involved what was in all but name full-fledged war? And that for a long time the Qadaffis of the Pillars of Capitalism military command were winning?

More to the point, do the reflexive union-bashers really imagine that concessions made by organized management were made voluntarily, out of any sense of fairness or the goodness of their hearts? Because that's exactly what they propose to make the nation's labor policy: Let management decide -- they know what they're doing. Oh yes indeed, they do. And that's why they continue to send miners into mines riddled with ignored safety violations, to be maimed and killed. And why disasters like the Triangle fire, far from being obsolete, occur with some regularity -- only now in the "offshore" locales where the Pillars have shipped their low-wage manufacturing work? And when we hear about those maintenance workers being locked into WalMart stores overnight, do we understand that we're talking about situations that could be a match away from another Triangle disaster? Or does it simply not matter because they're "a lot of cattle anyway"?

I can't think of a better way to close that to quote once again Harold Meyerson's conclusion:

"A century after Triangle, greed encased in libertarianism remains a fixture of -- and danger to -- American life."


"In concert with organizations and individuals across the country, we are spearheading commemorative events -– activism, education, arts -– for the Centennial and the establishment of a permanent public art memorial."
-- the Remember the
Triangle Fire Coalition

Thanks to Kevin Baker, in the Sam Seder interview, for this tip. The Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, in addition to tracking (since August 2009!) events all over the country related to the Triangle fire anniversary, at (by no means limited to the actual date; the schedule continues on into the calendar year), invites anyone who'll be in New York tomorrow to join them for "Workers United -- official commemoration," from 11am to 1:30pm, at the site of the building that housed the Triangle factory (yes, it's still there, now part of New York University), at Washington Place and Greene Street in Greenwich Village. ("Can't be here in person?? No worries! We will stream the event live right here!")

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At 8:15 PM, Anonymous Jacqrat said...

I have been following this story all month and want to thank you for such a wonderful and thoughtful article. Thank you for pointing out the Meyerson article as well.

At 8:52 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks, J! There is something about the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire that grabs hold of the imagination and won't let go, isn't there?

And thank goodness for Harold Meyerson, who always seems to get it, and outdid himself yesterday.


At 11:09 PM, Anonymous Atlanta Roofing said...

The Triangle factory actually wasn’t a lock-in. But in those days there were no restrictions on egress routes, and the doors opened inwards, instead of outwards. What this meant was that in a panic situation, a scrum of people rushed to the exit door, and found they couldn’t open it because of the pressure from the people stacked up behind them, pressing everyone forward against the door. This is one of the effects that most people find rather far fetched, until they see the evidence of piles of suffocated people piled up against a door, after a fire has been put out.

At 4:28 AM, Anonymous jb007 said...

really this event was horrible...

At 1:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Then there's the mind-set that demands a mural depicting workers laboring be removed from the Maine Dept of Labor, fer gawd's sake! And rename some of the conference rooms too, because they're named for labor movement leaders! And the Governor of Maine agrees!

"Among the witnesses to Triangle tragedy was Frances Perkins, a woman who vowed to take up the cause of workplace safety after she learned the factory lacked fire escapes and contained blocked doors. Perkins later became the first female member of the U.S. cabinet as Secretary of Labor under President Franklin Roosevelt. Perkins, who kept a summer home in Maine, and is buried here, is one of the people depicted in the mural that hangs in the Department of Labor lobby and one of the people for whom a conference room is also named."

From The Maine Public Broadcasting Network (link url at signature)

At 5:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a prime example of the battle we still fight today. The truth is this. We license electricians, plumbers etc and enforce building codes not just to protect the public but also to protect the integrity of properties on which banks have leins to. Also, insurance companies don't wan't to insure property that was just re-wired by just anyone. These regulations are also set as standards by manufacturing groups like ASME and not labor unions. Outsourcing and so-called free market capitalists have left us with a faster, cheaper is better mentality and a severe lack of revenue. We are once again dominated by monopolies who can charge us whatever, whenever. Innovation is dead because they now own the government. They are comfortable and are now willing to take your rights away to protect it. It has never been about socialism, communism or anything else. Countries like Cuba became communist because they were being looted. These tactics are meant to turn us against each other. Stupid how we fight each other for their interests? It's been done this way as far back as the early middle ages. We need to wake up and educate each other. America has always done best when it travels the middle path. Not right, not left but a combination of the best of both.


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