Remember or learn what happened a hundred years ago at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory before you turn your back on labor…

A lot of times people, including me, will describe public broadcasting as being a little left leaning and therefore slanted a little toward the point of view of, say, labor in labor versus management.

Well sometimes when you tell a story, even if you try to balance it out, the facts just lean that way by themselves — but the story is still essentially balanced.

I mention this in relation to the ongoing push by some on the right to curb public funding for public broadcasting and more importantly because a hundred years ago this March 25 there was a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City in which 146 workers, primarily woman and young girls, toiling in abysmal working conditions, perished in a fire in a building in which doors were locked, cutting off an escape route.

PBS provides a good documentary on the story (see link at bottom of blog post).

There had been labor unrest in the garment industry and at that factory. There had been a walkout, but the Triangle owners held out.

The union gained public sympathy and support after the fire. The owners escaped criminal convictions on manslaughter charges and faded off into the background with their insurance money. The workers’ families got little to nothing.

I watched the PBS documentary video on the incident just before posting this. Actually I believe I have seen it previously and certainly I have known of the famous incident, but watching the video refreshed my memory and this time I picked up on what you might say is the other side of the story.

While most of the workers were poor recent immigrants to America, so were the owners when they started the business. They sacrificed so they could better their lot in life and in so doing provided jobs for hundreds more. The owners resented efforts by workers and third parties, and even socialists, to interfere with their business and tell them how to run their factory. They were also contending with being undercut in their production costs from competition — right here in America, in New York City. So there is your balance. I got that from the PBS video. Also, I don’t think anyone is for sure what caused the fire. It was supposedly set by a discarded match — there was supposed to be no smoking in the workplace, but some workers snuck smokes in — got that from the video too. It was suggested the doors were locked in part to keep people from smuggling merchandise or supplies out (not really a good reason to block safety exits).

The women were not even allowed restroom breaks. I’m not sure how you balance or explain that one.

Today in the U.S. we have strict safety regulations and things like the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration (much maligned by the right wing, and perhaps on occasion a little unreasonably bureaucratic). But we have moved away from the industrial base and in so doing away from unionization, except in public employment where unions still rule and up until now have seemed quite strong. And with the bleak job market and the heightened competition for the few jobs that remain, the labor movement has been weakened and the sympathy for those who labor has seemingly waned. Besides a lot of people, even me included, hate to think of themselves being in an adversarial relationship with their employers.

In addition, I think, a lot of people, including myself, do not necessarily think that pay ought to be an issue decided by a group of workers or a third party calling itself the union, but rather essentially a deal between the employer and employee. We may think we ought to get paid more on the basis or our own merits rather than a group. And, as pointed out in the video I referred to, even if you have sympathy for the plight of workers, you may see robust capitalism, only lightly restricted, as the best means of innovation in and invigoration of the economy.

But let us learn and/or never forget from the past.

It is worth your while to watch a video or read about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, whether it is for the first time or to refresh your memory.

While I personally think that in at least some cases unions, especially in, but not only in, the public sector are responsible for what I would call economic abuse or outright greed, I also know full well that forces representing business interests use our present economic ills and the fears of the working public scared that they will lose their jobs or never get their old ones back as a device to turn back the clock to a time we never want to see again.

Watch the video:


As an added bonus, you find out what a shirtwaist is.

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