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Ron Radosh

This past March 25, 2011, marked the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York City. Americans and the media especially love major anniversaries, and this one was no exception. If you read newspapers or magazines or watch television, the anniversary could not be escaped. Virtually every media organ had its own coverage, some times more than once. A few days before, The New York Times scooped everyone by presenting its first piece, and on the actual anniversary day, offered a way to teach the event, and evaluate its impact. And Time, still the preeminent weekly newsmagazine, had its own major article.

HBO had its own documentary, with a website link to the United Workers official union Centennial commission’s own website. If you don’t have HBO, you could have watched a similar documentary, often with the same talking heads and the same interviewees of relatives of those who perished in the fire, on PBS, which beat HBO by putting theirs on the air three weeks earlier. Or if you preferred the regular old networks, perhaps you saw the documentary presented by CBS on its program Sunday Morning.

If you prefer to learn about the fire from going to the museum, the New York City Fire Museum presented a special new exhibition, “Remembering Their Prayers,” that opened one day after the anniversary on March 26th and runs through April 23rd. Or you can attend the exhibit at the new National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, Pa. And of course, the Feminist’s Guide to New York City (bet you didn’t know that exists) reminds us of the memorial at Mt. Zion Cemetery in Queens, New York.

The above is the tip of the iceberg, which is apparent if you do a Google search of your own. The story, whatever the source presenting it, is essentially the same. On March 25, 1911, shortly before closing time, 146 young shirtwaist makers and some plant managers and executives, 129 of them women, lost their lives as a fire broke out on the 8th floor, where the women did the sewing. In a few moments, the fire spread to the 9th and 10th floors as well. Workers could not escape, because the one door through which they could have left was locked from the outside — supposedly to prevent workers from stealing material and leaving that way, or as some claimed, to prevent union organizers from coming into the factory floor to try to organize.

When the fire engines arrived, they found that the ladders of that day went only up to the 6th floor of the tall building — the Asch Building now part of NYU’s campus — and hence there was no way for the remaining workers who were trapped to get out. Choosing their own way of death, many leaped from the burning building through the huge windows, plummeting to their death. All of the city was shocked, in much the same way as New Yorkers were who saw what happened at the Twin Towers on 9/11. In one of those eerie coincidences, New York City’s current fire commissioner recalled how he had seen people jump on 9/11, and that his great grandfather was on the scene at Triangle 100 years ago, as a leading fire-fighter there to try and rescue the women.

All of New York City ground to a halt the next few days, and at the funerals of the women, hundreds of thousands lined the street in memorial and protest against the unsafe conditions that led to their deaths.

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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