Thursday, March 24, 2011

Bread and Roses

One hundred years ago today something approaching 500 people were coming to the end of a long workday Saturday in the Triangle Waist Company building down in lower Manhattan near Washington Square.March had been a busy month that year. The first U.S. federal cemetery with both Union and Rebel graves had opened in Missouri. Victor Berger had taken his seat in the U.S. Congress as the first socialist, while back on the 7th of the month 20,000 troops had been sent south to the Mexican border to keep an eye on those pesky revolutionaries. Willis Farnsworth patented the coin-operated locker in Petaluma, California, while on Broadway Ivan Caryll's musical "Pink Lady," had opened the previous week and a splendid new theatre, the Winter Garden, had opened just last Monday. So the people hard at work in the upper floors of the Triangle Company must have had a lot to talk about.

Most of them were girls and young women, as was customary in the "garment trade". They were employed sewing "shirtwaists", women's shirts or blouses. It was repetitive, niggling work, and the seamstresses were paid by the piece, meaning that they had to work as fast as possible, but would not be payed for flawed garments, meaning that they had to be exact and avoid mistakes.Like most factory workers at the time - like most factory workers from the time there HAD been factories - the gals at the Triangle shop made what they could, and that was damn little. There were lots of young women ready to take any job for any wage; the immigrant boats were full of them, coming from Russia, Italy, Germany, and much of Eastern Europe. The owners had a business to run, not a charity. Their business was business, and any worker who made trouble - or didn't make enough shirtwaists, was out on their ass.

So it was just another Saturday on the ninth floor of the Triangle Building, the Singer sewing machines clattering, the working girls probably exchanging a word or two, looking forward to quitting time and the next day off.And then the first young woman breathed in a faint scent of smoke.

The Sunday New York Times said later; "The building was fireproof and the owners had put their trust in that. In fact, after the flames had done their worst last night, the building hardly showed a sign. Only the stock within it and the girl employees were burned."And they burned.

Like candles. One hundred and forty-six of them.

Some preferred to break themselves on the street ninety feet below rather than die in flames. The single staircase was quickly blocked by fire, the wretched "fire escape" broke in a cascade of twisted metal and twisted bodies. When New York's Bravest arrived they found that their ladders, crafted for a smaller, lower New York City, could only reach the sixth floor. Dust, rags, cloth scraps, all took fire like kindling. The firebuckets were quickly emptied, the exits blocked by debris, or, after a while, by bodies.So the women burned, or jumped. And died, their skin blackened like burst sausages, their guts looped ropy and blue on the pavement, spilling from ripped skirts, brains seeping from shattered skulls. The dead carts hauled them off to the morgue, to be identified, or not, by bits of cloth, or broken jewelry, or shards of teeth.The city was shocked by the carnage. Hundreds of funerals, a day of mourning, reminded even the least involved what had happened. For those who continued to work in the business, Triangle reminded them like a punch in the face how close they skirted to disaster every day they punched on the clock.

The fire that consumed the working girls of the Triangle company set alight the garment workers unions that had been trying to organize the workers in New York for years. Rose Schneiderman of the ILGWU said later that;
"We have tried you citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable, the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us....I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement."
The State of New York tightened their fire safety inspections, and moved to change some of the rules that allowed the conditions of the Triangle fire. But not by much.

Even more insulting was the "trial" of the owners of the company for negligence and for locking all but a single exit door (to prevent pilferage, they said). They were acquitted within a month. Three years later the owners settled civil lawsuits for 75 bucks a corpse.Meanwhile they had gotten back in the shirtwaist business before April 1911 was out; their new factory was inspected later and found to be a wooden firetrap without fire escapes and a single exterior door. One of the Triangle owners, a character by the name of Max Blanck, was found guilty of again locking one of the doors of this factory during working hours and was fined twenty dollars.




The judge apologized to him for the hardship of the fine.

That same year an inspection of this workshop found it was "littered with rubbish piled six feet high, with scraps kept in non-regulation, flammable wicker baskets."

Max got a stern warning from Justice that time, you bet.


Why remember this hundred-year-old fire today?

Because we Americans have had it pretty soft for a long time.

Because we take a lot of things for granted; things like safe workplaces. Things like weekends, and free time. Things like clean air and water. Things like a living wage, and vacations, and retirement, and professional courtesy and honest dealings from employers and civil servants.

Because we forget that we didn't "get" these things. They weren't "given" to us. We didn't "earn" them.

They were taken from people like Max Blanck, who fought and squealed, who called in cops and soldiers and scabs and strikebreakers, who locked out and beat up and laid off, the people who fought them to get these things.Because we have forgotten that the Max Blancks don't forget; that they'd take all those things back, if they could, and that they will if they can.

Because we seem to think that unions are bad, that workers are bad, that protests are bad, that government is bad.

Because the unions themselves have forgotten that they aren't in this just for a fat paycheck and a featherbedding job. Because the unions once helped make the United States a land where a man could live a middle class life through the work of his hands, and that that was something WORTH fighting for. That jobs weren't just "given" from the wealthy factory owners, they were made by the men and women who worked at them.

Because we've forgotten that, while capital and industry have brought us goods and services, comfort, ease, and entertainment, it has also brought us Love Canal and thalidomide, the Dalkon Shield and Deepwater Horizon. Because we've forgotten that if corporations are people as people they are often psychopaths; unconcerned with human lives, divorced from any responsibility other than Making a Goddamn Buck.Because we had forgotten that America has become as strong as she has because her people were strong, her people have risen together more closely than the deep divide that separates the rulers and the ruled in many nations. And that this has not been because of the grace of the American ruling classes but largely because of a ruthless coalition of liberal aristocrats like the Roosevelts, muckraking journalists, socialists and even communists but most of all because of American workingmen and women who fought for roses along with their bread, for days of rest as well as workdays, for relief in sickness and age as well as wages for labor.

It is fashionable today to flip a hand at the notion of "organization", at the idea that Americans who are not in the two-yacht families, who cannot aspire to wealth or society, should stand together against those who are. "Class-warfare" is the sneer, from the very class that is winning that war. It is popular today to dismiss the sort of people who died on the streets of New York as the losers of this war; the casualties of the New Economy.But we have not been beaten. We have surrendered; we have chosen to give up rather than try to fight the standards of the developing countries, with their starvation wages and festering sewers of rivers and trashpiles in ravines, driving us into a race back down to the bottom.

And it may well be that the combination of foreign competition and domestic mediocrity are indeed spelling the end of the Era of American Industrialism. That we are fated to become two nations; a wealthy elite and a mass of beaten wage-slaves, clinging to an every-tightening gyre of falling pay and rising debts, shrinking services and growing costs, as the vulture of greed tears as our liver.But the real shame of it is that we have gone down without a fight. In our fever to "lower our taxes" and save pennies we have handed our masters billions. In our haste to "shrink government" we have gutted the agencies that inspect our food and secure our workplaces. In our frenzy to "grow the wealth" so it will "trickle down" we have made little tin gods of the Trumps and the Kochs,and the Max Blancks.

Perhaps this is all inevitable. Perhaps the living-wage factory job really is as dead as the dodo; killed off by low tariffs, low-wage competition, automation, greedy unions, greedy stockholders, high costs and deregulation.

If automation, layoffs and offshoring, corporate profits and our desperate need to fill the stores with disposable plastic crap continues to destroy living-wage work, yes, it WILL be inevitable. But even if it is...we have chosen to surrender without a real fight. And that is not just defeat. That is dishonor.

If we are headed towards a nation that consists of the rich and the unemployed, if in our greed and fecklessness we allow the oligarchy - that has always been a part of the makeup of the United States since its founding - grow great and become our future...on the way to that nation we will have to pass under the stony eyes of the dead women of 1911, in whose pitiless gaze we will see reflected the exact dimensions of our dishonor, the final diminution of our nation, and the precise misery of our fate.


Pluto said...

You've written a powerful piece here, Chief. There was recently an American Experience show on PBS that recounted the incredibly sad story of the Triangle fire. I wasn't able to finish it because of the inevitable horror that hung over the whole sordid episode.

The explanation that "nobody could have predicted this" was too close to home and it was human bodies, not dollars that burned in the logical sequence of events that followed.

But I think you're wrong about what is going to happen in our future, and you might be too optimistic. Automation is reducing the number of workers needed, in some cases by a spectacular amount (80%+). We are rapidly becoming a country of two pieces, the highly-paid and the unemployed. Part of the problem is that unlike third world countries (or the US in the case of the Triangle fire), fixed employment costs for each worker costs are fairly high and rising.

This increases the value of automation to the CEO's of the companies and they are (FINALLY) beginning to transfer some of the resulting profits to shareholders and workers. Everybody profits except the people that don't get hired.

Noticing this trend early on and riding the wave has given me a pretty good career, but I'm in the minority.

A while back my company realized that we had a major stumbling block in producing the reports that are our major source of revenue. We realized that if we could automate the generation of the reports we could save a lot of money and gain a major speed advantage over our competitors. At the time we had 6 word processors manually generating the reports.

I (and others, including the CEO) spent quite a lot of spare time trying to help the word processors realize that their jobs were going away and to get a new line of work. Two changed careers and are still with the company, two got new jobs and quit before the inevitable happened, and the last two went down in flames, shocked by what had happened.

One of the shocked ones had been a good friend of mine for a number of years. She literally couldn't believe:
a) that we were removing her position even though she'd done nothing wrong
b) that we were doing this to her even though we liked her
c) that working harder and faster (and making more mistakes) wasn't going to save her job
d) that she had a whole world of opportunities but she refused to see them

We installed the program, and with some tweaking, reduced our operations costs by quite a lot and sped of the production of the reports from 6 weeks to an average of 2 days. Our clients were ecstatic, our fellow employees had more time to do things that they actually wanted to do, our competition was gnashing it's teeth.

But I still think of that bewildered woman leaving on her final day, confidently telling me "you'll call me when you need me and I KNOW you'll need me." That was almost three years ago now and we've not needed her once.

FDChief said...

I think the problem with "retraining" is that there are some people who don't want to - or can't - be an IT person instead of a word processor, or a salesperson instead of a steamfitter. The economics will doom them, and yet, I can't help but grieve for them.

And while you're right that automation (and low-wage competition from overseas) has probably doomed the middle-class laboring job here, it just seems wrong that we have refused to even try and save these jobs, or find some meaningful work for the people who did them. They have been the heart of the "American Dream" for a long time. If we are NOT to become the country you suggest - the one that is either rich or unemployed - we must find something, whatever that is.

Pluto said...

I didn't have time to finish my earlier thought but I agree with you.

The key issue right now is that automation is destroying jobs faster than new technologies and societal evolution is creating them. This has been happening for some time but is now getting particularly bad. I'm not sure if this is a short-term thing or a long term one.

Your comments on retraining are totally accurate. When I was much younger I was constantly applying for jobs at 3M but they couldn't hire me because they had a large number of secretaries whom they had retrained to be computer programmers (in 6 weeks or less) and they felt they had to rehire these newly branded programmers instead of an experienced college-trained programmer. I shudder to think about the quality of work the company got from those poor people and how few of them were qualified to be programmers and the horrible experiences everybody must have had before the handwriting on the wall could no longer be ignored.

These days 3M gives their excess people a nice cash cushion and throw them off the train without a look back. This may sound hard and callous but it seems to work a lot better than a lot of the other options.

FDChief said...

The thing that gets to me about this is the spineless way we've just given up on these people and these jobs.

The rush to "Greed is Good" and the market magic...the faith in the religion that enriching corporations and their executives will enrich everyone; well, we've had thirty years of that and what has it gotten us?

As I said in the post; it may well be that this is inexorable, that the combination of low-wage immigrant and foreign competition combined with the automation of manual-skill tasks is going to force "labor" was we knew it from the Thirties to the Nineties back into the wage-slavery of the Eighteen-Nineties.

What infuriates me is that we're not even trying. This huge, fundamental shift in our society, in our economy, is happening, and the conversation we're having is about deficits and taxes, not work, paying work, for the mass of Americans and what will happen if many people end up without it...

Aviator47 said...

These days 3M gives their excess people a nice cash cushion and throw them off the train without a look back. This may sound hard and callous but it seems to work a lot better than a lot of the other options.

However, people are not machines, "production equipment" or "economic units". Funny that we can send troops to kill and die to "promote democracy", but can ignore the suffering around us. Every one of my relatives in Belarus was meticulously exterminated in the 1940's, with each execution carefully documented. Simply because they had been dehumanized and defined as "unnecessary" by those claiming "superiority". When we begin to categorize any of our fellow men as "excess" and throw them off the train, we approach the same mentality as the murderers of my family. Sorry, but I can see it no other way.

FDChief said...

Al: Because they're not really "people", you see. They don't know the right people, don't do the right jobs, don't make the right salaries. Those are "people", the sort of people who know and are known to senators, magazine editors, who hang with Arianna at DAVOS and with Prince Charles at Ascot.

The rest of us?

"Units". If we're lucky, we won't get a boot in the face when we're flung from the train with our little wad of cash.

Like I say; the oligarchy has always been here. The oligarchs shat the bed in '29 and it's taken them nearly 100 years to work their way back. But they're back, baby, with a sucker punch of automation and cheap-ass foreign labor on their hip.

We can fight back, or lay down, and ISTM that the nation as a whole has chosen to lay down.


FDChief said...

And I like the way Driftglass puts it; there are two rules in today's America -

1. There's a club.
2. You're not in it.

Pluto said...

"The rush to "Greed is Good" and the market magic...the faith in the religion that enriching corporations and their executives will enrich everyone; well, we've had thirty years of that and what has it gotten us?"

Chief, this is a symptom, not the cause of the problem. The problem is that there are too many people with too few skills in a world that increasingly requires a LOT of skill. All the rest is noise.

Unfortunately I don't have a good answer to the question of how to deal with this.

Al, your response to my comment was a bit knee-jerk. It's quite likely that I caused this with the seeming callousness of my remark.

Think about the situation at 3M that I described. They were taking secretaries, running them through a 6 week course in computer programming, and then hiring them as fully-skilled computer programmers. How well is this going to work out?

I can tell you from personal experience it's going to be a godawful nightmare for everybody.
- The newly minted computer programmers are going to be under insane stress in their new positions and are going to make horrible mistakes
- The users are going to have previously reliable programs blowing up on them left and right and are going to be unable to get their jobs done
- The clients are going to start hating 3M very quickly (unless they find ways to exploit weaknesses of 3M's systems)
- Managers are going to be cringing when they present their sales results
- The shareholders are going to be REALLY upset
- Qualified computer programmers are going to be locked out of good-paying jobs for several years until the pool of internal applications (ie poorly trained secretaries) is used up

The better course, in my opinion is the one that is currently being used: giving the laid-off person a BUNCH of money (like 250k or more) and access to guidance counselors and let them make their own path in the world.

FDChief said...

"The better course, in my opinion is the one that is currently being used: giving the laid-off person a BUNCH of money (like 250k or more) and access to guidance counselors and let them make their own path in the world."

And you thought the stockholders were unhappy BEFORE?

Like I said in the post; I'm not so sure that all of this working-class hardship isn't inevitable. What gets me is that we haven't even really tried. We all rushed into the Magical Market, we all agreed that Greed was Good and Deregulation made Magical Ponies and Capitalist Goodness. We never even debated whether low tariffs, gutting environmental and labor regulation, floating the economy on credit and financialism would be good for us in the long run.

Well, no matter. We did it, and now we're stuck with it. What's sad is that a good 30% or so of our population doesn't seem to see anything wrong with returning to the social stratification and labor climate of the Gilded Age. I'm not sure how you change that, or even if you can...

Aviator47 said...

Pluto: The better course, in my opinion is the one that is currently being used: giving the laid-off person a BUNCH of money (like 250k or more) and access to guidance counselors and let them make their own path in the world.

If employers were giving 5 years' wages (which is what $250k represents for a secretary) before throwing folks like secretaries off the train, that would be a different issue. But, we know that is not the case. A generous severance is considered 2 weeks pay for every year employed.

No, I do not think a secretary should be simply given 6 weeks training and then proclaimed an instant programmer. That's a lie. However, until corporate America begins to take a more far sighted view, this crapola will continue. I'm sure 3M did not have 6 weeks notice that their employment skills mix was going to change. Usually, a firm rocks along content with the status quo until someone "discovers" a cost saving technique that excesses people, and events drive the train, not long term plans.

For example, my assistant and I both projected the need for belt tightening at the company where I worked some 9 months before the ownership decided to address it. Thus, when I was told to lay off two technicians, I offered a job share plan that my dept had quietly agreed to months before (couple of military dependents in the mix that really liked this) that actually offered greater savings with the ability to staff up again instantly. The empty suit boy wonder just sat there gobsmacked. He said, "Can I have time to think about it and crunch the numbers?" I said, "We crunched the numbers months ago. Here they are", and I handed him my work up of it. He never could understand how someone could have anticipated the problem and developed a better solution. Meanwhile, other departments irretrievably lost some damn good employees that might have job shared through the downturn in business, and saved less money than mine.

Pluto said...

You both bring up good points. I keep forgetting that I've managed to land in a high quality outfit this time and am sticking close to it. Not everybody is as lucky as me.

You're both right that the 250k number is unrealistic for a lay-off package but I've been in some pretty awful companies that gave better than 2 weeks pay per year employed. The last time I was "let go" was 2002 and I got 3 months of pay and medical coverage even though I'd only been with the company slightly less than 2 years. And I need to tell you that the company did NOT consider me to be a model employee, I just couldn't keep my mouth shut when I saw something flagrantly stupid.

In 2008 GM and Chrysler were giving their employees something like $7,500 per employed year when they were laying off thousands of people.

Al's point about the shareholders happiness is a fairly good one except you've got to take into account a lot of different angles, including a company getting a bad rep with potential employes (they can still find plenty of employees, just not the ones they'd like to have) or customers. There's always the threat of legal action; a discrimination or wrongful termination lawsuit can make a bottom line suffer pretty seriously for a long time. Finally the government, in its infinite wisdom, has modified the accounting rules so the shareholders don't see much direct hit from paying for lay-offs.

Lisa said...

"... in whose pitiless gaze we will see reflected the exact dimensions of our dishonor, the final diminution of our nation, and the precise misery of our fate."

Powerful. Lest we forget.