It happened on March 25, but there had been warnings for years. Factory owners across America amassed fortunes by exploiting what was, at the time, a seemingly inexhaustible resource: immigrants. Newly arrived Europeans were expendable. They had a weak political voice, so crossing them had little negative impact for politicians and none for businessmen, since few laws existed to protect them.
So children labored alongside mothers. Women labored all a day, sometimes as much as 75 hours a week, with no days off, forbidden to so much as speak. They frequently lugged their own machines to work. Girls of 15 made $3.50 a week. Factory doors were locked so they would not waste time gossiping, or stretching their legs, or breathing fresh air. And when they went home, hunched and raw after spending all the daylight hours doing piecework, they often slept in rooms with seven or eight family members, none of them able to earn enough money to reverse their plight.
Demands for protections surfaced but rarely took hold. Child labor protests were the cause célebre, and momentarily. In 1909, a fifth of Triangle’s workers took to the streets with some 20,000 other degraded women, all of them too desperately poor to take a passenger train let alone lose their jobs, in a strike. These weary, foreign-tongued women in threadbare clothes made a rare appearance in Union Square during the daylight to open eyes. Some people clucked their tongues and said, “Yes, yes. Something really ought to be done” — and did nothing except express momentary dismay. But to many others, these protestors were considered anti-American agitators — unclean ghetto scum whose laziness was an affront to the American Dream. Many were arrested, and some sent to work camps. Even though those as American as Mark Twain were emphatic supporters of labor movements, booming industry (backed by police) retook focus and power, and the girls’ warnings faded from novelty and the public eye.
But on March 25, 1911, in a factory on the upper floors of a building on the east side of Washington Square Park in New York City, time ran out. A fire began. With no rules in place to keep the floor clear of loose rags, it spread with breathtaking speed. Women scrambled for the doors, but they were locked. They rushed for the windows, but they were too high to be reached by fire truck ladders. They began flinging themselves out of windows, smashing on the sidewalks below, crashing through the pavement, and, skirts still aflame, impaling themselves on fencing. Some desperate girls found a fire escape, but it hadn’t been inspected, and it came loose, dashing more of them to the ground. Bystanders gathered, unable to assist the trapped women, while the streets piled with bodies. The gore filled the gutters, and the smell of blood caused the horses pulling the fire trucks to rear back in fear. The warnings were made horrifically real.
By dinnertime on March 25, 146 had been murdered by something that could have been avoided: the callousness of commerce. It was more than just an accident. If the image of people leaping to their deaths reminds us of 9/11, that’s apropos, because like the 9/11 of its day, the Triangle fire was a source of paralyzing horror and a bellwether of change. Public opinion turned. How could a prosperous, civilized country have allowed the conditions that killed these women — and, even on March 26, threatened countless more across the country? Hastily, with an acknowledged shame, the system changed. Labor and safety laws, weak at first, were ushered into place.
The real changes were deeper. No longer would most Americans trust industry to police itself, without oversight by law or a government interested in the greater good of society. Unions surged in popularity.
Back to how it was: Demonize the employee
Here we are. It’s a mournful irony indeed that on the 100th anniversary of such a milestone in the humane execution of our national business, the right wing, and heedless windsock politicians such as Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Rep. Tom Niehaus of Ohio, are taking a sledgehammer to unions. Their ire is currently directed at public sector unions. As if high school teachers are fatcats who wickedly milk the system. As if being able to stand up for yourself is something you should only be allowed to do if you don’t work for the state.
It’s shameful ignorance of who we are, a modern crime against our history, that the sacrifice and idealism of our ancestors 100 years ago could be so summarily discarded at the very moment they should be commemorated.
In March 2011, there ought to be parades to honor the centenary of the day our industry civilized. Instead, conservative partisans are attacking unions, seizing a political moment to demonize a largely productive entity and feed their own wealth, and disrespecting the process that made America an industrial power that was admired by the rest of the world.
Throughout the majority of our history, American industry was a free-for-all, with no rules to look after the greater good. Look at slavery, for goodness’ sake! Left to its own devices, American business trampled people. And it would have remained so if people hadn’t taken control of their own conditions and created the industry they wanted to have.
It’s no accident that unions took hold in this country at the very moment our consumer culture added rocket fuel to our national economy and propelled us to the very stars in the 20th century.
Yes, there are corrupt unions — but it’s also true that there are corrupt politicians and CEOs, so any argument of moral superiority over organized labor quickly collapses upon itself. I also believe that all-powerful employers can do a hell of a lot more societal damage than all-powerful employees. And I do not believe that history bears out the oft-repeated saw that unfettered capitalism is naturally for the best. Even Adam Smith did not advocate the abuse of workers or the elimination of government involvement.
We created unions because we needed them. Business was abusing the people because it could get away with it. Unions were designed, at their purest form, to protect the lives of the workers who provide the engine of any business. Opponents lazily call them communist, but it can be argued that if an employer cannot run a business in a humane manner and still make a profit, it has no place in a civilized country. Besides, why shouldn’t workers have as much of a voice as businessmen have?
Collective bargaining is one of the few defenses Americans have against the all-powerful corporation. We can thank the 146 Triangle victims for kicking that off in a real way.
Unions can also protect industry itself. In Germany, where trade unions are far more powerful than they are here, they have helped prop up flagging businesses at moments when they were weakest. When an American enterprise might have shut up shop, Germany’s indomitable guilds repelled change. That may frustrate entrepreneurs, but it nonetheless it helped create an economy that is just as productive as ours despite the fact the average German takes about four times as much vacation as the average American.
In the final analysis, American businesses exist to make money for their owners. Innovation is not necessarily at the top of the list of things that are produced in much quantity by that mandate. Cutting corners, or refusing to modernize, or pressuring workers to give up more and more of themselves (including personal health), are just three destructive things businesses do yet still generate profits. And let’s not forget that there is no economic system that is impervious to greed. Without a force that resists potential abuses, greed wins.
I work three blocks from from the building where the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire happened, in a building that was, at the time, Wanamaker’s. It was a mammoth department store taking up two city blocks where those women’s handiwork, created from despair, was almost certainly offered for sale.
The old Triangle space now belongs to New York University, where I attended graduate school. The streets that once ran with gore are now lined with coffee bars and student hangouts. The fire escapes are now secure and regulated. So is my office, and so is every workplace in the country. I have never been a member of a union in my life, but I can thank unions for forcing men of profit to do the correct thing by their fellow man — a Christian principle, after all.
We all assume a level of safety where we work because of what happened on March 25, 1911. We take the fruit of collective bargaining for granted. Visit a sweatshop in Indonesia or China or Bangladesh and you may begin to grasp how things could be, and how they once were.
Of course it’s easy for a Tea Party reactionary to paint all unions as wasteful when they have no true understanding of what they actually contributed to our quality of life. It’s easy to dismantle America if you don’t understand why it was built the way it was. If you want to know the value of what you own, know your history.
The Republicans have spent the past few years vigorously demonizing unions. Let’s not fool ourselves. They’re desecrating the overwhelmingly positive influence of unions because their members contribute mostly to Democrats. The right wing wants to decimate Democratic funding. So they claim unions are guilty of bleeding the American businessman of his profits, that commerce cannot continue if they exist, and that we cannot afford them.
This March 25, I remind them that those was the same arguments that employers gave on March 24, 1911.