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Ron Radosh

As any of the articles will let you know, the fire led to a Factory Investigation Commission run by Robert F. Wagner Jr. and Alfred E. Smith, soon to be two major New York political leaders. The fire led to regulation that produced new laws guaranteeing safety standards in factories, as well as major efforts by trade unions to organize the work force to fight for shorter hours and better conditions in the workplace.

Unlike many libertarians, who seem to believe that our modern corporate society needs no regulations of any kind, and that the market alone can address all problems, I too am thankful for the resulting laws that led to new safety regulations, as well as a new age of labor peace in which the cloakmaker unions — as they were then called — signed massive agreements with employers that actually guaranteed both productivity and an avoidance of strikes that benefited industry.

But all of this, I think, does not explain the amount of attention throughout the country to memorializing the Triangle Fire. After all, the conditions existing in 1911 hardly are similar to those in the 21st century United States, although they clearly are more similar to conditions in many Third World countries where much of the manufacturing of clothing now takes place. So what, then, is the explanation? Why does it appear that everywhere you look,  every media source  is telling you the story of Triangle? Aside from the Civil War — the 150th anniversary of which will soon be upon us — we have not had so much attention on one historical event.

The real reason is the Left’s hegemonic control of the culture industry in this country. Looking back at Triangle gives them a new opportunity to use the event for one reason: to try and ignite a new movement on behalf of unionization of public sector employees, and to argue that the condition of Wisconsin teachers, let us say, is the equivalent of that of the women who worked in the Triangle factory one-hundred years ago!

Look, for example, at the article by CUNY’s labor historian Joshua Freeman, writing in The Nation. Arguing that the fire took place “at a moment of radical challenge to the national structure of power,” Freeman sees an exactly parallel situation today. He writes: “Today, as a cult of deregulation, a rabid ethos of unrestricted capitalism and the ability of firms to play workers in one country against those in another have seemingly sent us careening back in time toward a pre–New Deal regime of labor relations, there is less domestic opposition to sweated labor than 100 years ago (though low-paid workers overseas have been increasingly militant, evident in the fusillade of strikes in China). Periodic waves of moral outrage sweep across college campuses in antisweatshop campaigns, but as an organized force, labor has weakened to the point that the percentage of privately employed workers who belong to a union is now lower than in 1911.”

Rather than try and explore why so many private sector workers no longer relate to unionism, and why its growth has alone been  in the public sector, Freeman pleads instead for “recapturing the spirit of the reformers of a century ago, that the world belongs to us, to make it right as we see fit,” which alone he thinks will lead to only “modest improvements.” The world, he says, “needs reinventing.” And speaking in a defeatist mode, he writes that “even the thrilling mobilization of labor and its allies in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana has remained, so far, defensive…not enough even to win incremental advances.”

Then there are the lessons to be learned according to the Communist Party U.S.A., in their newspaper, The People’s World. Their writer points to Rep. Peter King’s hearings on radical Islam in the United States, which it describes as “targeting yet another immigrant community.” And one of other writers asserts that there are “uncomfortable parallels with conditions facing workers today.” Failing to make any distinction between the factory unions of the previous century and the public sector white collar workers today, the writer calls for “saving worker protection programs from Right Wing budget raids, and upholding the right of collective bargaining.”

Indeed, that is the exact same position taken by Mark Levin, producer of the HBO documentary. Appearing at a forum held at NYU, near the site of the fire itself, “the producer of “Triangle: Remembering The Fire” acknowledged the parallels between the event the film depicts and the labor disputes unfolding today. ‘None of us planned for the film to be quite as topical as it is because of what’s happening in Wisconsin, and Ohio, and Indiana, and New Jersey — the debates that we’re seeing about public employees, the future of the labor movement, and the right to collective bargaining. In many ways I was thinking that the ghosts of the fire’s victims wouldn’t believe what they’re witnessing right now — the assault that we’re seeing on worker’s rights and middle class citizens,’ he added. ‘So it had relevance that we never anticipated.’”

If the analogy could not be more explicit, Bruce Raynor, president of Workers United /SEIU, which represents the remnant of workers in the garment industry today, explained it the following way: “The Triangle Shirtwaist fire is probably the single most important event for working people in the history of the city of New York. … One hundred years later we have an America where the governor of Wisconsin feels it’s okay to strip thousands of working people of the right to collectively bargain and to have any say in their working conditions.”

One has to pause in disbelief. Does Raynor and film producer Levin really believe that a teacher today, with high union benefits not enjoyed by private sector workers, who works 9 to 3 with time off, and with three months off in summers, is anywhere near the same boat as those who worked twelve hour days in a New York City sweatshop in 1911? Do bus and train engineers earning salaries sometimes amounting to close to $100,000 a year or more, really think that despite a high cost of living, their conditions are akin to those of the Triangle workers?

And one wonders how NBC, which put the above post on its own website, feels about these claims, and whether they are endorsed by parent company General Electric or the new owners, Comcast. Somehow, the statements do not endorse strikes or organizing in those particular companies, or argue for any analogy to them between the conditions of their workers and those at Triangle a century ago.

So yes, learn about Triangle — and honor the victims and remember their struggles and sacrifice. But don’t be so shortsighted as to try and use the past to draw non-existent parallels to the conditions of today’s workers, or to sully their memories by using the tragedy as a reason to get people to support the extortionist attempt of the public sector unions to refuse to help rescue the states in which they live from a growing unsustainable deficit. 2011, quite simply, is far away from 1911.

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