Thursday, March 24, 2011

Fire in the Factory

100 years ago, on March 25, 1911, in New York City (roughly where NYU is now), 149 workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, mostly women, most of them Jewish or Italian immigrants, were killed as a result of one of the most famous fires in American history. The previous year, garment workers throughout the city had gone on strike for unionized working places - unions being the only way to guarantee decent pay and safer working conditions. At least for the Triangle workers, however, the strike had failed, for the factory's owners successfully resisted unionization. What a city-wide strike had failed to accomplish, however, the tragic deaths of so many young women did, finally tipping the scales in favor of workers' rights. New York City and State soon adopted new laws that served as model public-safety codes and labor-relations laws for other states and later the federal government to emulate. One of those who stood in the street watching the fire was Frances Perkins, who served as FDR's Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945 and who famously called that tragic March 25, 1911 the day the New Deal began.
The Labor Movement undoubtedly has had its faults and failings, and the right of public-sector unions to strike has always and for good reasons struck many as somewhat questionable. That said, it cannot be denied that the period of greatest, most widespread prosperity and social harmony in modern American history was also the era when labor unions were most powerful. There are good things one can say about globalization, of course, but one of its negatives has been its impact upon American workers. In a globalized world market, national governments simply don't have the power they once had to guarantee workers' rights. (Obviously, one of the reasons public-sector unions have grown in recent decades, even as the unionized percentage of the American labor force has been declining overall is that, unlike other businesses which can simply move their factories to take advantage of cheaper labor, governments normally stay in one place).
Particularly troublesome has been the enormous increase in income inequality in the US in recent decades. Nor is it just a matter of money. The old saying that the rich are no different from eveyone else, they just have more money, is only partially true. Not having a feudal past, not having a hereditary aristocracy, American society for most of its history did indeed enjoy an unprecedented amount of social mobility, which fostered widely shared democratic and egalitarian vlaues. Even so, the very rich really always were different. The Rockefellers and the Kennedys (however much they cultivated a common touch to advance their political ambitions) lived lives completely different from that of most ordinary Americans. Apart, however, from those relatively few who fell into that distinct category of the super-rich, most successful, wealthy corporate types were seldom so much richer than those who worked for them that they could no longer relate to the rest of America. When I was growing up, my father's boss certainly made more money than my father. He lived on Fifth Avenue and presumably enjoyed many of the finer things in life that only money can buy. But I suspect that his fundamental values and view of the world were not all that markedly different from those of his employees. The incredible gap that has opened up in recent decades between the overwhelming majority of ordinary Americans and the obscenely wealthy beneficiaries of so much of our public policy since 1980 has created a complete cultural and moral chasm - not unlike that which Abraham describes in today's Gospel account of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).
So, on this centenary of the Triangle Fire, perhaps we would do well to remember how we as a society responded the last time inequality seemed to be getting too excessive and the resulting benefits of those reform policies for generations of Americans - and to ask ourselves how we let ourselves lose so much so quickly and what, if anything, is to be done about it.

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