On March 25, 1911—exactly 100 years ago—approximately 500 workers were crafting “shirtwaists,” blouses with puffy sleeves and tight waists. These garments were the height of feminine fashion in America during the years before World War I and worn by “Gibson Girls.” It was part of an image personifying beauty, with a touch of independence, popularized by illustrated stories developed by a guy named—yep, you guessed it—Charles Dana Gibson.
But the women and girls (primarily) working long hours to produce the “shirtwaists” were not likely to actually wear them. They were immigrants for the most part, underpaid and overworked. They labored on the Lower East Side of New York City in a sweatshop at 29 Washington Place—specifically on floors seven through ten. On that particular Saturday they were wrapping up their otherwise typical workweek of many more than 55 hours or so, when a small fire started in a scrap bin. One sad hour later, glowing embers bore witness to an event of unspeakable horror. Sirens wailed throughout the city and hundreds of people made their way toward the scene of billowing smoke, “arriving in time to see tangles of bodies, some trailing flames, tumbling from the ninth-floor windows,” as described in the 2003 bestseller by David Von Drehle, Triangle—The Fire That Changed America.
It was a moment as pivotal as it was tragic.
The death toll reached 146, most of them women between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five. They died from burns, asphyxiation, trauma from a fall, or combinations thereof. In the aftermath of the Triangle fire, the movement toward trade unionism accelerated. Various governmental entities investigated and acted on issues such as low wages, the use of child labor, and employee safety. Eventually, several dozen laws and ordinances were enacted or enhanced, permanently changing the American workplace.
And, yes, part of the equation was the development of a strong labor movement in the country. In fact, standing in the crowd watching events unfold on that fateful day 100 years ago was a young lady named Frances Perkins, who would later serve as President Franklin Roosevelt’s Labor Secretary (the first woman in a presidential cabinet). She was famous for her observation that the Triangle fire was “the day the New Deal began.”
Few Americans today, no matter the political posture or affiliation, would seriously challenge the idea that things as they were in sweatshops in 1911 needed to change. And the next year, 1912, when the Titanic sunk, things changed to make sure ships had more lifeboats. Tragedies have often been the catalyst for constructive change and this has a way of honoring the memory of the fallen.
But the idea that somehow the current labor unrest among public workers in places like Wisconsin somehow relates to what happened 100 years ago in New York City is not only a stretch, it’s a, pardon the term, complete fabrication. If history is to be used to inform modernity, at least let’s make it honest and applicable. To compare, as some have done and are doing, the plight of workers in the garment district in 1911 with the issues du jour facing public workers is beyond ludicrous. And it brings to mind Talleyrand’s words, “it’s worse than a crime; it’s a blunder.”
Are the classrooms of America akin to “sweatshops” of old (or in many countries today)? Do schoolteachers and other public employees face the same dehumanizing conditions as immigrant workers before World War I? Do the deaths of 20 workers on an inadequate and overburdened fire escape in 1911 compare to the “plight” of public school teachers in Wisconsin who receive over $50,000 in annual salary, full medical coverage, and ten weeks off in the summer?
Recently, I was in Europe and tried to change a flight to come home a day early and the airline wouldn’t work with me on it. I was not happy. Then I turned on the hotel television and watched scenes from the Tokyo airport. It put my “unhappiness” into perspective. I used to complain that I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.
Yes, American workers—private and public—owe a debt of gratitude to people who fought valiantly generations ago. We also owe honor to so many whose lives were sacrificed on altars of human greed and indifference. But the surest way to dishonor those who fought and died for a better standard of life today is to somehow think that our battles today are on par with theirs.
Not in the same league, frankly. Not even close.
What we have in the current public employee brouhaha is an argument on behalf of unionism for the sake of perpetuating unionism—all done in the education field, of course, in the name of the children. But even that rings hollow when considered in light of what the patron saint of public employee unions had to say. His name was Albert Shanker (1928-1997--former president of American Federation of Teachers) and he was famous for the line, “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.”
His spirit seems to be alive and well across the board in the public employee labor movement.