Monday, March 28, 2011

Triangle Fire Legacies

One hundred years ago Rosie Grasso, 16, lived at 174 Thompson Street, my old street in Greenwich Village. Although we lived decades apart, our workdays began the same way: a walk to the top of Thompson, then a right turn at Washington Square. I walked east to take the Lexington Avenue subway to Newsday. Rosie walked to the east side of the Square, where she worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. There she became one of 146 people to die in the infamous Triangle fire. When the centennial of the fire came on March 25, activists chalked her name on the sidewalk in front of her old building. I set down my thoughts on the fire, and its significance, in an op-ed published in The Record.

The one hundredth anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire will be a day of tragedy and irony. The tragedy lies in the deaths of 146 workers, most of them young Italian and Jewish immigrant women, who died because the laws of their time allowed them to work in a firetrap. The irony is that the labor movement, and the demand for strong government action on workers’ behalf galvanized by Triangle, are today under attack as never before.

After the fire, tens of thousands of workers marched through the rainy streets of Manhattan in a procession that mixed mourning and protest. Rabbi Stephen Wise blamed the fire on greed and inadequate industrial standards. Labor activist Rose Schneiderman, a veteran of bitter garment workers’ strikes in 1909, concluded : “Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”

Wise and Schneiderman lived in a time when ideas of reform and radicalism were part of everyday politics, and questions of corporate power, political corruption, and the tension between political democracy and economic inequality were widely debated. Socialism was not yet a scare word. Socialists could be found in city halls, state legislatures, and unions.

The young women who died in the Triangle fire were part of a generation that tested the boundaries of life and work in ways that shocked parents and employers. They went to amusement parks without chaperones, found jobs of their own, bravely walked union picket lines in the face of thugs and strikebreakers, and fought for the right to vote. If they were Yiddish-speaking Jews they read newspapers like the socialist Forverts, or Forward, published on the Lower East Side. If they were Italian anarcho-syndicalists they might have read L’Era Nuova, or The New Age, published in Patterson, NJ and Manhattan.

Such militancy made New York’s response to the Triangle fire less than revolutionary but still transforming. Reformers, and Tammany Hall politicians acting out of humanity and political self-interest, created new laws to regulate working conditions. Prominent among the activists were Al Smith, a Tammany man from the Lower East Side, and Frances Perkins, an economist and social worker who had watched in horror as Triangle workers leaped to their deaths.

When Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York State was elected President of the United States in 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression, he brought to Washington ideas and people from New York. With help and pressure from radicals, union members and liberals, Roosevelt crafted the New Deal—a mix of programs to end the Depression that committed the federal government to protecting Americans against economic inequality. It also put the Federal government behind workers’ right to organize unions and bargain collectively with their employers. Years later Frances Perkins, Roosevelt’s secretary of labor and the first woman to sit in a presidential cabinet, said that the New Deal began with the Triangle fire.

The New Deal order wasn’t perfect. Initially, it often discriminated against African Americans and women. Its political base included racist Southern Democrats and unions that did not always welcome Blacks and Latinos. But over time, New Deal reforms became more inclusive and improved the lives of the vast majority of Americans. When veterans of the Triangle era gathered to observe the 50th anniversary of the fire in 1961, in the middle of an extended era of prosperity, some 30 percent American workers were in unions.

Now, the very notion of collective bargaining is under assault. In Wisconsin and in New Jersey, public sector unions are attacked. In private industry, unions have been ground down by hostile laws, conservative opposition, and industrialists’ ability to move factories to countries where unions are weak and wages are low.

Today, only 11.9 percent of American wage and salary workers are union members. Labor unions, along with the kind of strong social benefits set in place by the New Deal, are increasingly viewed as illegitimate obstacles to economic health.

Not all the signs are bad. Anti-sweatshop campaigns, polls that show support for the bargaining rights of Wisconsin pubic sector workers, and demonstrations on behalf of immigrant workers all suggest that labor still matters in America. It just doesn’t matter the way that it did in the days of the Triangle fire. To change that, more Americans will have to remember not just how the Triangle workers died, but how they lived.

Reprinted from The Record, 25 March 2011,

Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Peak Experience in the Adirondacks

Growing up in the New Jersey suburbs and living in Manhattan, I've lived with an inconvenient ambition: to climb a mountain in classic alpine style--roped up, with ice axe and crampons, surrounded by ice and rock and snow. But even though I've done a lot of hiking, including a trek to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, I never realized my ambitions for mountaineering until a recent trip to the High Peaks of the Adirondacks.

Saint Patrick's Day of 2011 was the date. Goal: the summit of Mount Colden.

The weather was bright, conditions were great, and my guide--Chad Kennedy of Adirondack Rock and River--was tops. Around 7:30 am we left the Adirondack Loj parking lot on skis, carrying climbing harnesses, crampons, snowshoes, and ice axes. (Chad carried our rope, carabiners and other climbing gear.) We skied to Avalanche Camp, stashed our skis, then trekked over the pass to Avalanche Lake and the foot of the Trap Dyke. The Dyke is essentially a steep gully that forms the first part of the ascent of Mount Colden.

There was lots of snow in the Dyke, but it was fairly firm underfoot and there was no need for crampons and roping up until we reached the first of two ice faces. The first went by quickly; the second took a little more work to climb. (My ice axe was an absolute necessity by this point.) Soon we were up on the slab, an open rock face covered with ice and snow.

We ascended the slab at a steady pace. I paid little attention to the scenery; most of the time I was looking for the best way to plant my crampons in Chad's footsteps.

My alpine form is far from perfect, and at moments I wished I'd put in a few more weeks of running stairs before making the climb. But I kept on plodding as Chad set a good course and a good pace. We reached the summit by around 1 pm and I whooped with joy: ice, snow, and spectacular Adirondack scenery, all under a glorious blue and sunlit sky.

We descended the mountain on snowshoes, put on our skis again at Avalanche Camp, and skied out to the Adirondack Loj. On this stage of the trip, gravity was our friend: we glided through the last few miles of the trek and finished around 6 pm. I was pleasantly tired, very happy, and glad to have taken my passion for mountains and hiking to a new level.

Mount Colden in winter is a good introduction to winter mountaineering. You need basic skills with ice axe and crampons and you need to be in shape. With a good guide--and Chad, like other guides at Rock and River, is first rate--Mount Colden can be a great trip. It certainly was for me.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Halting March of Labor

I always learn from my students at Rutgers-Newark, especially when their experiences and understandings differ from my own. Yesterday, I asked a class of 30--the majority of them journalism majors--how many felt reasonably well-informed about the struggles over unions, public sector workers, and state government in Wisconsin. Only one student raised her hand. This is striking in a school with many immigrant working-class students. Mind you, my students are fully plugged into social media. And at the start of the semester they were fascinated by events in Egypt. But labor struggles don't have any great interest for them.

This more or less accords with my experiences last Saturday, when I attended a demonstration at city hall in New York City. The crowd was not large, and the median age was about 50. Our numbers swelled when we joined forces with a somewhat younger crowd demonstrating for women's reproductive rights at Foley Square. But never did we assemble a large crowd. And both demonstrations--corralled by the police and carefully monitored--conveyed the impression that public assembly in New York City has gone from being a fundamental part of democracy to a nuisance in the eyes of city hall that must be tolerated at best and always controlled.

As the Egyptian revolution unfolded, some of my students interpreted the events in Cairo as proof of the power of social media. That's a partial truth. In Egypt, the uprising can be understood only as the product of social media, varied forms of labor organizing, civic dissent, the Muslim Brotherhood, and satellite television. All of these combined in fascinating ways.

In the USA, we have an abundant and growing world of social media. We also have massive inequalities and a labor movement under fire from many directions. Yet social media alone did not bring out crowds to support the Wisconsin strikers, nor did it reach my students with the Wisconsin workers' plight.

New media forms gain impact in part through their interaction with existing forms of consciousness. Among the young today in the USA, as networked as they are, workers' rights and the value of unions are just not a big part of their political vocabulary. I hope for a change in this, but I can't say that I'm optimistic in the short run.