Friday, March 25, 2011

What Have We Learned in a Century?

(By American Zen's Mike Flannigan, on loan from Ari.)

That sometimes even history's most hideous lessons are worth forgetting.

Today is the 100th Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the worst industrial accident in New York history and one that claimed the lives of 146 men, women and children.

In lieu of private unions, this is what the workers at Triangle Shirtwaist had to endure:

  • Many of the workers made under $2 a day, a day often being 12 hours or longer.

  • Out of those wages, the employees had to pay the owners for the needles, thread and electricity they needed to do their jobs.

  • All but one exit was locked to deter theft, the primary reason why almost a third of the employees lost their lives.

  • Missing even a day of work or being caught talking to the person next to them meant immediate termination. Work weeks were commonly 6 or even 7 days a week.

  • Workplace injuries were ignored because they were time-consuming and could also result in immediate termination.

  • And a job at Triangle Shirtwaist was considered a plum job a century ago, which ought to give you an idea of how much more brutal the other sweatshops in New York City were.

    By 1911, shirtwaists, or women's blouses, were beginning to go out of vogue. Adding to Triangle's problems, literally thousands of other smaller sweatshops in the garment district were making the same product for retailers. The only way for Triangle to remain competitive was to produce in massive volumes. That required draconian policies in the workplace and to put greater pressure on the workers, many of them as young as 13, to produce and meet quotas. It was a precursor of the sweatshops we saw until a few years ago on the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

    Triangle was located at the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the Asch Building in what is now Greenwich Village not too far from the Stonewall Inn. Toward the end of the working day, a fire started in a clothing bin on the 8th floor. Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, Triangle's owners, had blocked all but one door to the exits and stairwells. In an eerie prescience of September 11th and the World Trade Center, this forced dozens of the panicking workers to jump for their lives from the 8th, 9th and 10th floors to avoid the fire and smoke.

    The funerals for the workers were, to say the least, heavily attended, drawing tens of thousands of mourners and pro-labor activists. The disaster forever changed building codes, building inspections, workplace safety and was the major impetus behind the forming of private unions such as the International Lady Garment Workers Union.

    Or were they changed forever? To prove what a career criminal he was, two years later Max Blanck was again found locking his doors during business hours and was fined a mere $20.

    The owners got off scot free and even made a pile of money off the dead workers. During the criminal trial, their ambulance chasing lawyer used chicanery to discredit one of the prosecution's key witnesses and had her testimony dismissed on the grounds the city's DA had coached her. They were acquitted and even though they were found to be responsible during the civil trial in 1913 in which they were forced to pay a paltry $75 for each fatality, the insurance company paid out $60,000 over the size of the settlement, meaning they made $400 for every dead worker.

    This could almost be construed as a precursor to the "Dead Peasants" insurance enjoyed for years by many leading corporations today.

    A century later, Blanck's and Harris's legacy lives on in the sweatshop owners all over the world, in the lobbyists who continually bribe lawmakers and officials regarding the relaxation of workplace safety and in the Koch brothers and the Republicans they bribe and employ to remove from the latter day workplace landscape the last vestige of unions both public and private.

    Such people would lay the blame for the fire squarely on the anonymous worker who'd carelessly tossed a match or lit cigarette into the bin rather than the owners who'd caused the deaths of nearly 150 innocent human beings by locking the doors because they suspected all their underpaid wage slaves to be thieves. The owners, they'd tell you, were the real victims in spite of making a profit of $325 per corpse.

    Newly christened Republican Governors Scott Walker (WI), Rick Scott (F), John Kasich (OH), Rick Snyder (MI), Chris Christie (NJ) and others would tell you that it isn't the grasping, rapacious corporations that are at fault but public unions, relegating public union workers who often put their very lives on the line on our behalf to the status of welfare queens for wanting and getting affordable health care and an actual pension.

    Many of these freshman Republican Governors were backed by a criminally clueless Tea Party that plainly didn't know what it was backing. Scott Walker, for instance, never, ever campaigned on a platform for stripping collective bargaining rights for Wisconsin public workers (save for the police and firefighters who'd supported him). Considering several of these candidates were bankrolled in part by the Koch brothers and that some of them (such as Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and Indiana's two-term Governor Mitch Daniels) come from a corporate background, it's hard to see where else their administrations would've gone if not against the public unions.

    This suspiciously coordinated attack on unions has a manifold purpose: To strip power from public workers, to outsource to private and costly corporations the duties and functions no longer budgeted for and to strip labor of its money and political power (In short: Defeat the black guy in 2012.).

    It doesn't matter that stripping such rights away from public unions already willing to negotiate in some misplaced good faith with Republican policy-makers would not impact on any state budget such as Wisconsin's. This is now a national movement that has gained much more traction than that for recall elections for Republicans who are bound and determined to catapult us back in the days of the robber barons who never gave a thought to their workers' safety and even profited handsomely from their gruesome deaths.

    Across Greenwich Village near Christopher Street sits the Stonewall Inn, another place of invaluable historical importance. 42 years ago this July, a riot erupted between gay patrons and straight activists and the NYPD, providing the gay rights movement with its first crucial pillar that led to the legalization of gay marriage in what is now five states.

    But as with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire a century ago today, there are factions that are hell-bent to take away those hardwon rights that are just as zealously determined to take America back to the 19th century when gay men and women could be murdered, beaten and persecuted with impunity.

    Religious and ideological conservatism and corporate greed and callousness are sicknesses of the human spirit and no lesson, no matter how hideously instructive, retains its force against such cancers of the human soul.

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