This year marks the 100th anniversary of the
Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, and while a cake with one hundred burning candles
might seem inappropriate, some have found a better way to commemorate this
tragic loss of shirtwaist material: dismantling the labor movement it spurred.
In March of 1911 under working conditions a Siberian Gulag
survivor would object to, before being beaten with a rusty shovel, 146 mostly
young women, teenage girls, Jewish and Italian immigrants, died in a fire
because their escape route had been locked to prevent workers from slipping
away with valuable scraps of fabric during coffee breaks they didn’t have.
fairness to Triangle’s proprietors, Isaac Harris, a Russian immigrant, and Max
Blanck, born with an unnecessary “c” in his name, they were just protecting
their status as greedy factory owners. While paying their workers thirteen
cents an hour for a thirteen-hour day, they were earning one million
dollars a year; a stolen shirtwaist here
and there and pretty soon they’d be earning less than two thousand times as
much as they paid their typical worker, and would have to cut down on luxuries,
like shirtwaists. They even charged
their workers for electricity and docked their pay for needles used, along the way earning the title “Shirtwaist Kings,”
which played better in New York’s social
circles than the more accurate “Greedy Soulless Pricks.”
But the gruesome aftermath of charred dead bodies littering
New York’s tony streets forced state and federal governments that had refused
to regulate industry to finally intervene, leading
to unprecedented reform, including safety standards, minimum wages, limited
hours, child labor laws and recognition of workers’ rights—you know, “job
killers!” Yet all this meddlesome safety and fairness somehow failed to slow the booming wealth of American industrialists.
And here we are one hundred years later, lessons learned…
rolling back worker gains, defanging already toothless unions by eliminating their
right to collectively bargain, and attacking luxurious
municipal pension plans, after looting them to invest in toxic securities and
magic beans. Republican legislators “voted” to eliminate collective bargaining
for public workers in Wisconsin
and Ohio, and a similar Republican-sponsored bill is pending in Indiana.
Not to be outdone, Democrats have their own union-busting proposal on the
table in Massachusetts,
just to show that they can be assholes too.
Even the NFL has gotten into the
act, locking out players rather than reaching a new collective bargaining
agreement. And who could blame them? Under the onerous terms of their current agreement, thrity-two owners divvy up their
first billion dollars in earnings before having to share 60
percent of anything above that with players. What the owners want: two
billion dollars to split before the players get theirs... which
works out to a pay cut of about six hundred million dollars. Even Harris
and Blanck would think, Wow, these guys are assholes.
The Triangle workers themselves would be pretty appalled if
they were alive today, not to mention incredibly old, to witness a workplace
remarkably unchanged except for annoying cell phone use: there’s the same
gleeful union-busting, disdain for government regulation, and familiar hatred for immigrants who came to
this country and took those jobs Americans want, like dying in a factory fire
for eight bucks a week. And while women no longer have to pay for their needles
(except addicts in needle-exchange programs defunded by the
GOP), one hundred years later they still earn only about 80-percent of what
their male counterparts get for doing the same job but with testicles.
So on the one-hundredth anniversary of one of the most
significant turning points in American labor history, we honor not the workers whose
deaths shocked us into mandatory cigarette breaks, but the entrepreneurial spirit
of business owners who lock workers in and players out, with one final note:
acquitted on manslaughter charges, Harris and Blanck subsequently lost a civil
suit forcing them to pay compensation in the amount of $75 per deceased victim.
But by that time their insurance company had paid them about
$60,000 more than their reported losses, or
approximately $400 per casualty—a tidy 533 percent profit per dead worker.
Even NFL owners would think, Wow, those guys