Sunday, March 27, 2011

Remembering the Triangle Fire and the (Mixed) Legacy of the American Labor Movement

Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. – Abraham Lincoln
This past Friday marked the 100th anniversary of the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, when 146 workers died in a blaze that was, until September 11, 2001, the deadliest workplace tragedy in the city’s history. Most of the victims were young Jewish and Italian women, many with no choice but to jump to almost certain death or remain trapped in a deadly inferno that was rapidly consuming the ninth floor of the building. It was later discovered that the factory’s managers had padlocked exits to all but one stairwell to prevent workers from leaving with leftover scraps of cloth. To compound matters, the door to the open stairwell swung inward, making it nearly impossible to open amidst the onrush of workers attempting to flee the quickly spreading fire. The factory building contained no automatic sprinklers and the one open stairwell was swiftly consumed by flames. A rickety fire escape, built to accommodate only a few people at a time, collapsed as panicked workers piled on. With no way out for the remaining workers, their only hope was to be rescued by the fire company, but the firefighter’s ladders only reached to the sixth floor, thirty feet below the igniting flames. Nearly fifty trapped seamstresses, mostly young teenage women, one as young as fourteen, leaped to their deaths, bodies accumulating on the sidewalk below, as a stunned and horrified crowd looked on from Washington Square.

When the cramped and unsafe working conditions endured by the garment workers were later exposed, a public outcry ensued and a credible workers’ rights movement was launched. In direct response to the Triangle fire, the New York State Legislature passed laws requiring automatic sprinklers in high-rise buildings, mandatory fire drills at large companies, and fire doors that swung out. Later reforms included a 54-hour workweek for women and child workers. The tragedy spurred the growth of American labor unions and influenced the passage of national laws outlawing child labor, further limiting the work week, and imposing minimum standards of workplace safety and more humane work environments.

A great irony of the Triangle fire is that, two years before the fire, the factory owners, themselves immigrants who became wealthy by employing new immigrants at low wages and long hours, successfully resisted a 13-week strike aimed at achieving union representation and safer working conditions. The fire and resulting deaths of 146 workers achieved what the strike could not.

One of the onlookers of the Triangle fire in 1911 was a young social worker named Frances Perkins. She and a friend were having tea in Greenwich Village when they heard the fire trucks and anguished screams of “don’t jump” from down the street. Perkins rushed outside and ran toward the commotion, where she witnessed flames and black smoke coming from the top floors of the Triangle factory. Young girls and women, some alone, some clutching hands, stood on window ledges with terrified looks in their eyes, as no good options existed. Perkins watched helplessly as many of the young girls and a few young men jumped to their deaths.

Twenty-two years later, Perkins became the first female cabinet member in U.S. history when she was appointed Secretary of Labor by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. During her twelve-year tenure, the Triangle fire’s victims embedded in her memory, Perkins worked to guarantee the rights of workers to organize, form unions, and collectively bargain. With the firm backing of President Roosevelt, she helped win passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which called for the “elimination of labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standards of living necessary for health, efficiency, and well being of workers.” Perkins was instrumental as well in securing implementation of the Social Security Act, unemployment insurance, and the minimum wage.

Before the Triangle fire, and for virtually all of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century, the balance of power in this country steadily favored wealthy industrialists and the owners of capital. The government’s willingness to interfere with the operations of American businesses and impose humane working conditions was greatly influenced by the principle of laissez faire, which instructed that government take a hand's off approach to commerce and business. The growing political power of the corporate class, tied to vast concentrations of wealth of a small number of conglomerates, contrasted sharply with the pitiful working conditions of most American laborers, who toiled in coal mines and garment factories, plantations and steel mills. Businesses and corporations predictably resisted virtually every effort at reform, arguing that mandatory workplace health and safety protections, and laws allowing workers to organize, would result in economic calamity.

“Such complaints, of course, are with us still,” writes Harold Meyerson of The Washington Post. “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. . . . A century after Triangle, greed encased with libertarianism remains a fixture of – and danger to – American life.” Often ignored by the anti-regulation crowd is the fact that workplace protections were necessary precisely because of unfettered corporate greed and neglect and, despite such laws, the American economy experienced its greatest prosperity in the decades following corporate and labor reforms.

A. Phillip Randolph said, “A community is democratic only when the humblest and weakest person can enjoy the highest civil, economic, and social rights that the biggest and most powerful possess." The rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively, to strike if necessary, helped shift the balance of power from the owners of capital to the laborers that made capital possible. "If capitalism is fair,” said Franklin Lloyd Wright, “then unionism must be. If men and women have a right to capitalize their ideas and the resources of their country, then that implies the right of men and women to capitalize their labor."

Although the rise of the American labor union helped, at least in some cases, to even the playing field between the large corporations and the workers on whose labor they profited, times have changed. Today, the word “union” is typically invoked in complaints about teachers resisting school reform or the excessive pension costs that are burdening state and local governments. “I pay for three police departments,” is a common complaint of township and borough mayors, “one active and two retired.” The growing power of certain labor unions in the 1950’s and 1960’s led to corruption and greed within labor’s own ranks. Many unions in the industrial northeast and Midwest demanded ever increasing wage and benefits packages, sometimes making near extortionate demands on their employers and ignoring the impact of ever increasing international competition. These unions often missed the big picture and eventually priced themselves out of a job, as manufacturers closed shop in the United States and took advantage of cheap labor overseas.

The protections afforded workers by occupational and safety laws, restrictions on child labor and excessive hours, and protections against discrimination and harassment, coupled with the wage increases unions won through the 1960’s, rendered the need for unions in some industries less compelling. Some powerful unions lost sight of their mission and seemed insufficiently grateful to a country that had enacted many progressive workplace protections. Government regulation of business and the enforcement of workplace rights is today a generally accepted part of the American economy, yet certain unions failed to acknowledge that the U.S. workforce was in a far different place at the end of the century than it had been when the Triangle fire shocked America’s conscious.

In the garment industry, for example, workers who were supposed to benefit from the wage and benefits packages negotiated by their unions found themselves with less work as jobs moved first to the south, where unions are less welcome, and eventually to India, China, and places with sweatshop-like conditions in factories that employ masses of people at low wages. Retail stores like Macy’s and Bloomingdales continually demanded steeper discounts and the ability to return goods they could not sell. Manufacturers in turn scrambled to reduce costs in piece work and outsourcing, as more and more U.S. jobs were lost. In 1975, 90% of all clothing sold in the United States was made in America. Today, the U.S. garment industry supplies only 5% of America’s clothing needs.

Increasing concentrations of wealth in the hands of a very few, along with international trade and globalization, have complicated and hampered the ability of the American workforce to maintain its standard of living. I have always been a strong proponent of free international trade, but when U.S. workers lose their jobs so that investment bankers can make millions of dollars on the backs of exploited laborers working in Triangle-like conditions in Thailand and other impoverished countries, I begin to lose my enthusiasm for tariff-free trade. We must open our eyes and insist upon more equal treatment of workers worldwide and, if necessary, impose tariffs and trade restrictions on countries and industries that fail to protect its workers in a manner required by modern decency and U.S. law.

I am fully aware of the labor movement’s failures. I recognize that certain unions became corrupt and undemocratic, some almost criminal and thug-like as extortionate contract demands wreaked havoc on businesses that were already struggling to compete in an increasingly global economy. In the fall of 1975, during a bitter and prolonged strike at The Washington Post Company, members of the pressmen’s union jumped the night foreman and pinned him to the floor with a screw driver at his throat, then severely beat him as other striking workers vandalized the pressroom, sliced the cushions of the press cylinders, ripped out electrical wiring, cut air hoses and sabotaged almost every piece of equipment before setting the presses on fire. Although twelve union members were eventually convicted of crimes of violence and The Post essentially broke the worst elements of the union, the damage was done.

A friend of mine, who owns a small trucking company in Ohio, once told me that his non-union drivers were threatened with violence by members of the Teamsters and, in retaliation for failing to unionize, found their tires slashed and, in a few instances, had pipe bombs set off in acts of intimidation. Such acts quickly dispel any romantic notions one may have of labor unions.

Nevertheless, it is easy to forget that a significant portion of U.S. prosperity from the end of World War II to the 1970’s was in part the result of union contracts and union advocacy. A strong labor movement contributed to a broad middle class with spending power and economic security that resulted in low unemployment and high wages. As Gerald Seib of The Wall Street Journal noted recently, for 48 straight months, between 1966 and 1970, the United States enjoyed an unemployment rate at or below four percent. Although unions were not wholly responsible for this prosperity, they helped maintain a fairer distribution of income and were, in the words of E.J. Dionne, Jr., “important co-authors of a social contract that made our country fairer, richer and more productive.”

Union excesses and short-sightedness notwithstanding, there would never have been a need for unions in the first place had businesses and corporations treated their workers more humanely and decently in the days before they were required to do so. In 1911, more than 100 workers died on the job each day. The Triangle fire was but a symptom of a much larger problem. Even today, despite all of the worker protections and all of the complaining of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups about the burdens of government regulation, industrial workplaces remain dangerous places. In 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4,340 workers died in workplace injuries. In 2010, 29 miners died in one day at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, a non-union shop. The tragedies at the Triangle factory in 1911 and Upper Big Branch mine in 2010 spurred legislative investigations and calls to action. But in both cases, had workers had a stronger voice, a union, and the ability to insist on better and safer working conditions, both tragedies likely would have been prevented. In both cases, efforts by workers to organize, and their calls for safer work environments, were bitterly resisted by their employers.

So, while I have my problems with certain aspects of the American labor movement, as some unions are often their own worst enemy, I understand their importance and value to American economic life. In the words of Clarence Darrow, "With all their faults, trade unions have done more for humanity than any other organization of men [and women] that ever existed. They have done more for decency, for honesty, for education, for the betterment of the race, for the developing of character in men [and women] than any other association." I am not yet ready to give up on the American labor movement, and we must never forget what happened a century ago at the Triangle factory in New York.

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