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,

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