March 16, 2011

Let their deaths not have been in vain

Friday the 25th of March will be the 100th anniversary of one of the most terrible and tragic events in New York history, the deadly fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Most of those who perished in the fire, or leaped to their deaths rather than burn, were young immigrant women making a paltry wage in conditions best described as poor; 146 died in the flames and smoke, or on the pavement below. Witnesses at the time were helpless to do anything more than listen to the distant screams and the dull, repeated thuds of the falling bodies as they struck the street. It is a horror that led to changed laws governing safety, and spurred the growth of the labor movement.

In the midst of the tragedies of today, it is good to remember those of the past. In the face of injustices and inequalities, and the exploitation of workers in substandard circumstances at home and abroad, it is even better to do something positive, and to be well-informed about those who make the goods we purchase, who grow the food we eat, who care for us and those we love.

Let us do justice, love mercy, walk with God in our sisters and brothers, for as we do to the least of them we do to the greatest of all.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The Kheel Center at Cornell University has a superb online exhibit and resources about the tragedy.

10 comments:

Robert said...

I wonder how many died altogether, so that some parts of the world could have safety laws which are enforced. I wonder how many are still dying in other parts of the world.

Rick+ said...

     I spent the last hour going through the Kheel Center website. The testimony and pictures were moving. All I could think of, as I viewed the tragedy unfolding, was the current attempts to destroy unions. I wondered whether anyone remembers why unions, worker laws, minimum wage, and collective bargaining came about. I am amazed so many in our society are willing not just to put their own lives into the hands of corporations, but to act as shills of wealthy players opposing regulation and employee rights. Do they honestly believe business will always have the workers' best interests at heart? Can folks really be that naive?

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Robert, an excellent question. Why does it seem to require a tragedy for people to notice these injustices and dangers?

Rick, there seems to be a profound disconnect, perhaps due to the fact that politicians come largely from the white-collar world rather than the blue. They may not have any clear memory or experience of the struggles of the middle of the last century, or be grateful for what their grandparents may have fought for. The fact that members of legislatures can basically vote their own salary and benefits packages into law (that sure beats collective bargaining!) may also have some impact on their attitude. (And shame on those who insist that teachers "only work from 8 to 2 and have the summer off...")

Thanks for the thoughts.

Chris H. said...

The state I'm from is very blue collar/rural and they hate unions because, as the saying goes, "Those who can, do. Those who can't join a union so they can't be fired." Is the union plumber better than the non-union? Often not. They look at the bad teachers that they can't get rid of, etc. They see the union workers going to the capital in Wisconsin and say, "Think of the people with regular jobs who had to miss work today 'cause the teachers weren't doing theirs." The farmers wish they weren't but know they're living off gov't subsidies 'cause nobody-union or not-is going to pay them a living wage. Unions are seen as just as selfish as the big corporations, so they are hated just as much.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Chris, far be it from me to suggest that unions are perfect. They can be (and sometimes are) as corrupt and geared to self-interest as any other human institution. But I think on the whole, if one looks back at the history, especially of the labor movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some very real advances were made for all workers, non-union as well as union. That some folks may be ignorant of that history, and of the benefits they reap because of work done generations earlier, doe not alter that fact.

I don't see how farm subsidies have any immediate connection. Farming is often resistant to labor organizing, especially of migrant workers, whose work conditions can be and often are appalling.

It is also human nature to resent what others have achieved or possess. So human frailty is amply evident on all sides of this issue.

None of this alters the fact that the women who died in this terrible fire were being treated in a less than humane way, and subjected to working conditions I imagine few of those who protest the existence of unions would be willing to suffer. Of course, I could be wrong, but I'd need more than anecdotal evidence to convince me...

Rick+ said...

     There is another viewpoint on firing a teacher other than the old saw that it can't be done. All a teachers' association can guarantee is due process, not a job – I can tell you that as former president of both a local and state teachers' association. For employers who wish to behave like monarchs ("Off with their heads!") yes, it is frustrating for them to have to justify and document their treatment of a professional. Due process is, however, something we give the lowest criminal in our society, how much more our teachers? Schools are not improved and children are not served by autocrats being able to fire on a whim.

     Having taught for thirty years, I also have a unique perspective on those legions of "bad" teachers out there. First, I'd admit there are some, but truly not as many as you'd think; most really care and give their all for their students. Second, if we fired every teacher someone at some point thought was bad, we'd have none. In my career, I've had individual parents claim I was not fit for the classroom because: a) I insisted a child in 6th Grade do his homework; b) A girl got her first "B" on her report card; c) A boy was given detention for climbing the roof of the school, tearing off shingles, and throwing them at children below, and my personal favorite; d) I put a sticker that said "Good Work!" on a child's paper (The parent believed all rewards should be intrinsic. The parent went straight to the principal and demanded I be terminated. When he would not, she pulled her child out of school!) With everyone being self-appointed experts on when teachers should be terminated, no wonder "everyone" knows there are "lots" of "bad" teachers out there.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thanks, Rick, for this testimony. My dad was a schoolteacher, and that back in the day when compensation was not all that great. I too intended to be a teacher, but other vocational direction diverted me. I know there are a few really bad teachers... but most are very dedicated and hard-working. I'm happy to say a number of them are members of my working-class parish.

Paul said...

My father used to tell us stories about building codes and how they evolved. A large number of requirements can be directly traced back to specific events like the shirtwaist fire. There was a fire in a theater in Boston, for example, that prompted the requirement for crash doors opening outward in commercial buildings.

I have no doubt that each one of these changes was opposed by builders and other moneyed interests. Decisions on local building codes are made in meetings which are heavily attended by builders and developers, but not by the public or by journalists. Unfortunately, it takes tragedies like these to get the attention of the public focused on the arcane, yet vital work of defining these codes.

The good news is that there is a community of people dedicated to the thankless task of learning from these events. We will never know how many lives have been saved as a result.

Chris H. said...

It wasn't my intent to malign those who died so long ago, whose lives and deaths were so terrible.
I was responding to Rick and others who don't see how anyone with a brain could be against unions. (If they want to help everyone, pay everyone living wages,farmers too.)
Public workers holding the populace hostage to their personal wage increases and claiming they're helping everyone while they're doing it still seems wrong. My high school teachers worked almost a whole year without a contract or strike because they felt it was important not to hold the kids "hostage". They wouldn't have closed the school because the people they elected ran away. I was a teacher in a non-union school, a union contract is neither required, nor a guaranty of a good education. Non-union isn't either. Perhaps a century ago unions were trying to help everyone, now it seems they're just out for themselves-just like their bosses.

Anonymous said...

Hi,
My Aunt Michela worked in one of those factories back in the day. She had just arrived from Italy and had poor English, so this type of job was all that was open to her. She worked in a layout like the shirtwaist factory, with long tables that trapped people in the center and all sorts of combustibles around. The fumes from the chemicals used to set dyes would fill the room and make her sick. When my father, her brother, visited the workplace he was furious and brought an original copy of the NY Times article to the factory owner in Ct. To his credit, the owner improved the working conditions, although this did not include sufficient heating and cooling. My aunt pled with my Dad not to go back and cause any more trouble because she didn't want to be fired.

These types of conditions do still exist, and unions are an important way of addressing those conditions and looking out for people with little political power. The fact that Congress can't make a sane Farm Bill shows that farmers do have political power. The problem there is the legacy of Earl Butz's (Republican) "get big or get out", "fencerow to fencerow" production of cheap food that must be supported by subsidies.

What the current rash of union busting has in common with Earl's policies is disregard for ANYONE for actually earns their living by the sweat of their brow. Both do not honor the virtue of paying a living wage. The wages of actual working people are kept low in order to squeeze out bigger profits for the union busters and big ag. Farmers, teachers and others in unions being targeted now are in the same boat and will rise or sink on the same tide.