Friday, March 25, 2011

On the Hundredth Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Frances Perkins, the first female Cabinet member in the United States and the secretary of labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt, witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire herself (warning: contains graphic images of death):
...1911 which was the year of the great Triangle Fire in New York City, a terrible industrial accident which burned out the contents of a 9th and 10th floor loft building factory where they made light cotton shirt waists for women.

It caught on fire and the blaze spread very rapidly. There was only one means of exit available, the other two means of exits were the elevator which was ablaze almost immediately as the flames got into this open shaft and spread from floor to floor and the second exit was locked. It was an exit to the roof, not a very good means of exit at best but it would have saved most of the people in that building if it had not been locked.

It had been locked by the employer himself because he feared that on a Saturday afternoon which he was working just before Easter on a lot of shirtwaists for the market, he feared that some of the people in the shop might stroll out over the roof exit with a few shirtwaists rolled up under their jackets or that somebody might come in and take a few shirtwaists. In other words, he was - I only know what he said on the stand - he was afraid he would be robbed either by his employees or by the outsider. Not so much by the outsider, mostly afraid of his employees. I remember the judge in righteous indignation reproached him for his attitude toward his employees. It may have been a perfectly legitimate attitude. He may have lost goods that way, one doesn't know, but it was at least bad judgement to tell it to the judge on that particular occasion.

I remember that, the accident happened on a Saturday, I happened to have been visiting a friend on the other side of the park and we heard the engines and we heard the screams and rushed out and rushed over where we could see what the trouble was. We could see this building from Washington Square and the people had just begun to jump when we got there. They had been holding until that time, standing in the windowsills, being crowded by others behind them, the fire pressing closer and closer, the smoke closer and closer. Finally the men were trying to get out this thing that the firemen carry with them, a net to catch people if they do jump, there were trying to get that out and they couldn't wait any longer. They began to jump. The window was too crowded and they would jump and they hit the sidewalk. The net broke, they ______a terrible distance, the weight of the bodies was so great, at the speed at which they were traveling that they broke through the net. Every one of them was killed, everybody who jumped was killed. It was a horrifying spectacle.

Perkins then recounts the aftermath of this disaster, including a labor organizing meeting:
So almost immediately at this meeting, people spoke, and I'll never forget this was the first time I ever had heard Rose Schneiderman speak. I think it is the first time I had ever seen her, as a matter of fact. She was an unknown little girl, a little red headed girl; she couldn't have been, - well, she couldn't have come up to my shoulder. Very small type but with red hair, fiery red hair, and blazing eyes and pretty too, I mean. She had a ___ but a voice that carried in the Metropolitan Opera House. Wonderful what a speech she made, and I remember how moved we all were by this girl who was a member of that union, you see, the Ladies' Dress and Waist Union. She was a member of that union and most, not all of these members because it wasn't a union shop, not all of these members but many of them were members of her union. Anyhow they were all eligible for membership in her union, and she took them all in with the most beautiful speech.
Perkins later called the date of the Triangle fire as "the day the New Deal began."

That was one hundred years ago. Whether we are now close to the death of the New Deal remains to be seen. But the two developments which made disasters like the Triangle Fire less likely: the unionization of labor and the creation of laws concerning working conditions, are now both threatened.

I have written about the threats unions face as well as about the importance of unions in a world where the employers consist of large and powerful firms. Given this importance, how sad to observe their gradual disappearance:
Government data show that labor unions have become less of a factor in the overall U.S. economy in recent decades -- most notably in the private sector. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 11.9% of wage and salary workers in the United States belonged to unions in 2010. That is down slightly from the 12.3% in 2009, but much lower than the 20.1% that belonged to unions in 1983, the first year when comparable data are available. BLS also reports that now more public sector workers belong to a union than do private sector workers.

Legislation concerning workplace safety is not as threatened as unions are though that may well change if the Republicans have their way:
Congressional Republicans are promising to scrub the government for what they say are "job killing" regulations. One of their primary targets is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA.

Republicans say OSHA enacts expensive rules without regard to their effect on business. They've proposed cutting its budget this year by 20 percent, a reduction the director says would be devastating to the agency's efforts to protect worker safety.

OSHA has long been on the front edge of the divide between labor and management, and Democrats and Republicans. Where during the Bush administration the agency stressed voluntary compliance with worker safety standards on the part of business, the Obama administration stepped up enforcement. It hired more inspectors and increased OSHA's budget.

Now, Republicans in control of the House are trying to push the pendulum back. As part of their drive to cut about $61 billion from federal spending in the current fiscal year, they've targeted OSHA for a $99 million reduction.

"The Republicans have proposed a 20 percent cut and given [that] half a year's over, that really means a 40 percent cut," OSHA administrator David Michaels says. "It would really have a devastating effect on all of our activities."

The Kheel Center of Cornell University has many pictures of the Triangle Fire and its aftermath.