Lessons from the History of Corporate Compassion

triangle shirtwaist fireThe Tea Bag Republican Party’s assault on union workers in Wisconsin seems to have died down a bit. But as corporate-owned, corrupt Tea Baggers like John Kasich in Ohio insist on reminding us, the Koch-suckers haven’t gone away, they’ve just gone a little quieter.

In this quiet, it might serve us well to reflect on the history of anti-union policies, and see what they portend for workers. March 25 is an appropriate date on which to reflect. It was on March 25, 1911 that a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York. The fire left 146 dead, mostly women and girls, all working at near slave wages, for long hours.

In 1911, March 25 fell on a Saturday. Virtually all of the workers at Triangle Shirtwaist were Jewish immigrants, forced to work on their Sabbath just to survive.

In 1909, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union held a strike at Triangle Shirtwaist, trying to get safer working conditions. New York Police sided with the factory owners and harassed and arrested striking workers. Factory owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris brought in the usual armed thugs to beat the women workers until the strike collapsed and the women went back to their machines.

That’s what capitalism has meant, too often, in our history. In the name of “free enterprise” the government has supplied police and troops to suppress workers who try to exercise their rights to speak and assemble. Free enterprise means that businesses are entitled to free government help to control and repress their workers. It does not mean that workers are entitled to government help to protect their lives from deadly working conditions or oppressive bosses.

Folksingers still sing songs about and by Joe Hill, an itinerant worker executed in 1915 for two murders in Utah, after the only witness to the murders (the 13-year-old son and brother of the victims) said, “That’s not him at all” when asked to ID Joe Hill as the murderer. But Hill was a songwriter and organizer, easily made into a martyr. His trial and execution have been used by both bosses and workers for PR in the decades since his death.

Less popularly remembered are the 19 unarmed strikers killed, each shot in the back, by a Luzerne County, Pennsylvania sheriff’s posse on September 10, 1897, for the ‘crime’ of peacefully marching and refusing to go to work in the mine. The mine workers in 1897, like most workers today, had suffered a decade of falling real income. But the dead were all Slavic and German immigrants (not “real” Americans), so shooting them for striking was OK.

triangle shirtwaist fireAlso unremembered are the 19 people killed by the Colorado National Guard, providing “free market” services to coal mining companies at Ludlow, Colorado on April 20, 1914. At Ludlow, the uniformed heroes of the National guard killed mostly women and children. Of the 19 dead, only five were union leaders and strikers.

More in step with today’s news, it was the National Guard in Wisconsin that gunned down seven workers on May 1, 1886 for the ‘crime’ of striking for better pay and working conditions. Just as Scott Walker’s Wisconsin Tea Bag Republican Party holds itself exempt from open meeting laws, the Wisconsin anti-labor National Guard saw no reason to waste time on criminal charges, prosecutions or convictions before executing strikers for the ‘crime’ of interfering with corporate profits.

Today, of course, we don’t have any evil corporations hiring police or National Guardsmen to kill striking workers. (Although they might, if the oil wars ever end, and we are flooded with returning Blackwater mercenaries, willing to kill anyone for a price.)

Today’s corporate killers are more like Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. Blanck and Harris killed their workers by keeping the doors to the staircases in the building locked. They didn’t want workers sneaking out for a smoke or a bit of rest. So they kept them locked in. They worked their ‘girls’ on the 8th and 9th floors of a factory building that didn’t have any real fire escapes. When workers tried to use the “fire escape” outside the building, it collapsed, dropping women from the 9th floor to the sidewalk, where 62 died. The other 84 died of burns or asphyxiation.

Although the Triangle Shirtwaist fire should have taught us the lesson a century ago, during the Bush administration, workers died in at least one factory fire, when they couldn’t escape because fire doors had been locked by managers trying to “increase productivity.”

The Triangle Shirtwaist factory didn’t have a fire alarm system. An alarm would have been a costly extravagance, not a reasonable expense for the factory owners. Today’s Tea Bag Republicans tell us that modern corporations wouldn’t scrimp on safety measures, since the costs of accidents and work stoppages would be economically inefficient.

I wonder what the families of the 29 Upper Big Branch miners killed on April 5, 2010, because mine owner Massey energy was completely unwilling to take any safety measures, even those mandated by law, think of the Tea Bag Republican argument that corporations won’t scrimp of safety, if they are just left alone to regulate themselves. In the three years preceding the deaths, Massey racked up 1,100 violations of mine safety regulation at Upper Big Branch.

I wonder how the families of the 11 crew members killed on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, on April 20, 2010, feel about the theory that corporations won’t scrimp on safety measures.

101 years after the Triangle Shirtwaist factory owners decided that it was too costly to install a fire alarm system, miners died because Massey Energy decided that it was too costly to install legally required mine safety equipment. Oil workers died because BP Energy decided that it was too costly to have contractor Haliburton, one of the nation’s most successful war-profiteering corporations, comply with oil drilling safety regulations.

Folksingers sing ballads about the Triangle Shirtwaist workers, and about Joe Hill and about Casey Jones – all workers who died on the job. But what of Max Blanck and Isaac Harris? Who sings songs, or writes articles about them?

The men who budget to cut corners on safety and the men who hire the National Guard and the Pinkertons and the Blackwaters, and the men who bribe local sheriffs or mine inspectors or food safety inspectors, work in obscurity. They slink through the shadows, racking up their millions in earnings paid for with the lives of workers killed by their indifference and callous cost-benefit analyses.

And they buy politicians and judges to keep them free from consequences. Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were charged with the deaths of their workers, but they got off. They were sued by their workers families, and ended up paying $75 for each worker killed. SEVENTY FIVE DOLLARS per death that their greed caused.

But don’t feel bad for them. In 1913, the company that insured the factory paid Blanck and Harris $400 for each worker killed. The factory owners MADE $325 on each dead worker!
In 2010, we learned that Walmart also profits by buying life insurance on workers, and raking in the cash when the workers die.

To today’s Tea Bag Republican Party, the days of shooting striking miners and of roasting workers alive and then collecting insurance on their bodies seems a good system to return to. In Missouri, the Republican Party is actually trying to pass a bill that will block the state government from enforcing child labor laws. Because the Republican Party actually believes that more children skipping school to die in factories is a good thing.

Tom Hall

That’s what they want to take us back to. Do we want to go? With all our modern organizing tools, must we wait for another tragedy, caused by Republican politicians’ greed before we get motivated enough to demand an end to the corruption that is now undermining decades of workers’ progress and rights?

Tom Hall

Published by the LA Progressive on March 25, 2011
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About Tom Hall

Tom Hall is a family lawyer in West Los Angeles. He is from Boston, and was raised in Friends Meeting at Cambridge (Quakers) to think that religion was a progressive force. During the Vietnam War, he organized draft counseling centers and worked with groups training people in techniques for disciplined nonviolent demonstrating. After the war, he became just another yuppie working to make a comfortable life. The Bush administration shocked him back into social concerns. Now he’s working to see that the Obama administration lives up to its progressive promises. Tom can be reached at ProgBlog@aol.com