The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and the relevance for today
There will be many articles and blog posts remembering the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that happened 100 years ago tomorrow. I highly recommend reading Nancy Goldstein’s piece at the Prospect, where she brings the issues raised by the fire to modern times, and to the most recent example of such a tragedy, the West Virginia coal mine collapse that killed 29 workers. This is a realy critical issue, because in all the sea of people remembering this tragedy and using it as an opportunity to once again call for strong unions, we can’t forget that the conservative reaction is predictable and could be effective if not properly countered.
Prediction: conservatives will roll their eyes and point out that this horrible tragedy happened 100 years ago, and everything has changed. This is a fairly common conservative gambit. It’s used against civil rights legislation—which conservatives argue can be rolled back because people are supposedly not racist anymore. Indeed, it’s being used on unions. Rarely will you hear a conservative straight up say that workers shouldn’t be permitted to have time off, benefits, or basic workplace safety. What they will say is that unions once did good, but now are useless. This distinction allows them to both believe that the outrage 100 years ago was justified, but that the outrage at current union-busting is just fine.
Which is why it’s important to point out modern examples, as Nancy has done. The notion that owners nowadays aren’t the Gilded Age assholes who don’t care if their workers live or die as long as they’re replaceable is simply a lie. And I think the Wisconsin protests are beginning to focus attention on this. The dripping contempt that Scott Walker has for the teachers and other public sector workers in his state couldn’t be more obvious. The slobbering eagerness to bash them he exhibited during the sting phone call with a fake David Koch was particularly damaging. In the face of this, and in the face of the utter indifference to the deaths he caused exhibited by the mine owner in West Virginia should settle the matter. If the upper class could take away your weekends, your health care, your right to go home at a certain hour, your right to fair compensation, your assurance that you won’t die at work to save them a couple of bucks, your right to save for retirement? They’d do it in a heartbeat. Now, as then, most of the people who pull the strings see working Americans as chattel and nothing more. And the mere existence of unions is our best defense against this mentality.
If you doubt that, look at how hard they are working to destroy unions. You don’t do that unless you do see them as a check on your power.