Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and Ronald Reagan at 100

The US, conservative news media recently celebrated the 100th birthday of Ronald Reagan and told many stories about Reagan's long term affect on America. In the version of America Reagan popularized, which, since Reagan did have a long term affect, you now hear about nightly on Fox News and from people like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, America is in danger of being lost, or has been lost; destroyed by Liberals -- Socialists, that is -- who want to take away our freedoms, who want a bigger government that wastes our money, that desires more and more money and is always raising our taxes. These Liberals have bleeding hearts and don't care if dark skinned people swarm the country and get government benefits and don't even work.

Reagan's America and the current one differ only in small details. Reagan said it was the Black folks who got government benefits and didn't work, and now it's Mexicans, and instead of Communists being the external enemy, it's now Islam.

There has always been a competing version of America, symbolized by the Statue of Liberty, as a refuge, a land of opportunity, not just for a few but for all, the melting pot, where diversity is recognized as an asset, and where people strive to live according to their good sides and not their selfish, fearful sides. At the moment, the small-hearted, Reagan/Fox/Beck/Limbaugh version of America is winning. I hear co-workers now, all the time, repeat the slogans they pick up from the conservative media, slogans that substitute for thinking and analysis that Republican politicians and their hired consultants come up with to spin every situation and repeat ad infinitum. Twice as many Americans now get their news from Fox as from CNN, and almost five times as many watch Fox as MSNBC -- a wide range of Americans believe in the Fox News version of America. Their version of America is winning.

But an article by Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, written on the 100th anniversary of a fire at a factory in New York City -- called the Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the shirtwaist being a popular kind of dress women wore in 1910 -- that killed 143 women, many of whom jumped to their deaths, just as many did from the Twin Towers, who were trapped in the factory because management had locked the doors to the exits and fire escapes, to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks, is a good reminder of the past that conservatives want us to return to.

In that America, the one Conservatives want us to return to, there was no government regulation. Workers had no choice but to work long hours at jobs that barely sustained them -- sustained them, that is, until they were injured or got sick and were fired, as there were no benefits like health care. Sustained them until they got too old to work as fast as management desired, and were fired. There was no Social Security in that America, and no Medicare. Instead of being able to live a dignified retirement, with, perhaps, the chance to travel a little or do other things they had wanted to do their whole lives, old people, those who survived retirement age, who had no family to take them in, were forced to live in places called poor farms, which were dismal places run by local governments or charity organizations. I remember, as young child in the 1950s, an uncle pointing out to me a poor farm, in rural Indiana, that was a remnant of that America. I remember aunts and uncles referring, with a strange mixture of sadness and shame in their voices, to an acquaintance who was living at the poor farm.

Solis also reminds us of how the unnecessary loss of life in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire gave a boost to the Labor movement, which then was able to force business owners and corporations to take job safety seriously. As Labor gained power it was able to force passage of laws that mandated not only workplace safety, but also a clean and safe food supply and professional standards that businesses and professions had to adhere to. And as the unionized percentage of the workforce increased and employers had to compete for workers with unionized workplaces, the standard of living of all American rose, reaching a high, before the advent of the Reagan era, that was the envy of the world.

I have not heard President Barak Obama, who many Conservatives, incredibly, label a Socialist, mention the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. He supports the privatization of Social Security, which, as we saw in the most recent economic meltdown, is akin to handing our savings over the the rich and tossing our retirement out the window. He has not supported the workers in Wisconsin, or anywhere else workers right to organize are being taken away. Without so much as a whimper of support he has allowed the Employee Free Choice Act to die without ever being voted on, which would have removed some of the barriers to union organizing conservatism has written into law over the years. No Democrat in my own New Mexican legislative delegation has spent any political capital supporting that bill either, or the rights of the working class which are now under withering assault, neither Martin Heinrich nor Tom Udall, nor Jeff Bingamon who was an initial co-sponsor of the Employee Free Choice Act but who, when the bill began to take heat, made a fast retreat and has kept his head down ever since, as is his way on most things like that.

After the Republicans made big gains in November's election, Obama on the following day made remarks about wanting to compromise with them. But this has been his standard line since being elected, and we have seen, on numerous occasions, how he goes about compromising. After his health care legislation began to be criticized. Obama unilaterally removed from consideration most of what Conservatives and the insurance companies didn't like, such as the co-called "public option."Conservatives and the insurance companies, instead of offering concessions of their own, simply continued to criticize the legislation. There was no reason for them to compromise.

Another article, by EJ Dionne, explains why President Obama, often labeled a Liberal and even a Socialist, will not stand up for Liberal causes. It's part of a calculated effort to improve his standing in the polls and ensure his re-election, and it's working. His approval rating is a healthy 58 percent, and Republicans are having to scramble to find anything to criticize him for. The situation in Libya is the latest example. Republicans who were criticizing Obama for not acting are now criticizing him for acting. Republicans are doing everything they can get away with the keep the economy from recovering before the election, but it continues to improve, and Obama's re-election prospects improve in direct correlation.

Never mind that while Obama tends to his re-election chances and his reputation, we, the people, are seeing our living standards fall before our very eyes. Never mind that wages in the US declined last year, according to the IRS. Never mind that before last year, inflation adjusted wages had been flat since the advent of the Reagan era in 1980, when changes to tax laws made it beneficial for factories to move overseas and outsource, which depress wages, as workers are forced to compete for lower paying jobs. Never mind that workers, who have been under assault since Ronald Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers, are now undergoing an assault that can best be understood as the end game of Reaganomics.

Polls indicate that for the first time, most Americans no longer expect their children to do better than they did, and the reality is, they probably won't. Americans are starting to wonder if they can even afford to retire, and the so-called American Dream is being re-defined before our eyes to mean something less that it has always meant. In a recent round of articles and columns in the Conservative media, for example, it was decided that there's no longer the need for home ownership to be part of the American dream, and indeed, as the Washington Times piece points out, President Obama doesn't think so either as evidenced by the housing policies he is pursuing. Home ownership, they argue, only makes people want to have roots, and thus gets in the way of a "dynamic" workforce, which is Reaganomics-speak for a pliable, low wage work force of expendable workers.

And all the while our living standards and expectations have been in decline, our economy has continued to expand. Wealth abounds in America -- it has tripled since the beginning of Reaganomics -- but as the Federal Reserve recently reported, all of the increase in America's wealth now goes to the few at the top. None of the increase in wealth since Reaganomics began has gone to we, the working class, which was, after all, intended under Reaganomics, and we are forced to continually work for less, with fewer benefits.

When faced with facts like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, and how nowadays because of what unions have accomplished and because of regulations and their enforcement that make such tragedies a lot less likely, Conservatives often will nod and admit that things were bad at one time, but then argue that reforms have "gone too far." It's a clever response, actually, and the only that can be made by a politician or talk show host whose job is to shill for those who stand to lose some of their privileges and advantage because of human progress. It's the same as saying we've become too civilized, too kind, too caring for one another. In reality, it's simply a device to change the subject, back to their plausible-sounding listing of the side effects of requiring that Capital act responsibly, that they treat workers as human beings instead of dogs, a diversion from their constant listing of the side affects of letting working people have a fair share of the wealth that is created entirely, incidentally, by the labor the working class supplies.

And while Fox News and the rest of the Conservative Media keep the majority of the working class angry at Liberals and unions and fearful of Mexicans and Muslims, we are on our way back to the old America, before unionization and Liberal economic policies resulted in the American working class enjoying the highest standard of living in history. Before it was taken for granted that your children would attend college if they wanted to, and get a good job with good benefits, do well by their families, and hope to live a dignified retirement. An America when the government wasn't on the backs of businesses, making sure our food was safe, that toxins, like nuclear radiation, weren't getting into our water supply, and making sure that there were sprinkler systems and that they worked and that there were escape routes and fire exits that always had to be kept open.

More on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Most of the women who died were young Jewish immigrants. Jews have always been leaders in Labor struggles, in pretty much all social justice struggles, in fact, and were instrumental in the ones that followed the fire, and the Jewish Forward has an excellent series on the fire and its aftermath, laid out in a handy, clickable format.

The Coalition To Remember The Fire is largely responsible for the attention that is being paid, here and there in the mass media, to the fire and its consequences.

In some places such tragedies are still a regular part of working for a living, as Labor Notes points out, and the way things are going, if people like the Republican governor of Wisconsin have their way, death in the workplace is what we have to look forward to, here in America, again.


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