Friday, March 25, 2011

Leaping from Death by Fire to Certain Death Below: Two New York Tragedies

Today is the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: you can read about it here, talk about it in this thread, or listen to a good radio report from today's Democracy Now! here.

In brief, a sweatshop factor in New York caught fire; 146 people, mostly poor immigrant women, died. The deaths were caused in large part by the fact that exit doors were chained, on the theory that workers would otherwise steal from their employer. In other words: women burned to death in a building because they'd been locked in by their employer.

It was a major scandal at the time, leading to a lot of reforms; a lot of the fire codes you see can be traced back to the Triangle fire.

But what struck me today, listening to the Democracy Now! report while driving to work, was the detail that some of the women leapt to their death from where they were trapped on the 10th floor.

Sound familiar?

While all the murders of 9/11 were equally criminal, I must admit that the ones that touched me the most emotionally -- tied, I suppose, with the deaths of the firemen who raced into the building to help those inside and died -- were those who leapt to their death from the top of the World Trade Center. Something about the sheer horror of that act was incredibly palpable; the images of those falling bodies, shown on TV, were among the most horrifying of all those shown in that horrifying time.

And I suspect I wasn't the only one for whom those deaths helped symbolize the sheer, unthinkable evil that would cause such a thing.

Well, it's worth remembering that it's not only murderous religious/political ideologies that can do that. Other things can too.

It would be nice and simple to chalk it up to the greed of the owners of the factory; but while they were fully morally culpable, their reform would not have solved the issue: as long as such a practice was legal, any given virtuous capitalist will simply be driven out of business by a less virtuous one.

No, what caused those deaths were the evils of unregulated capitalism -- that, when not held back by law, will burn women and children to death if there's profit in it.

And, of course, law is not enough: to sustain those laws, we need political counterweights to the ever-increasing power of money in our politics.

We need organizations who fight for the poor -- or, rather, which enable the poor to fight for themselves.

What the women of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory needed was a union.

Laws to regulate capital, and unions to balance its political power: or a foe ever bit as evil in its deeds (albeit not in its motives) as any other we face will burn us all alive.

In the memory of those who died, let's fight for that.

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