The flowers, red and white and placed in a neat row, had
name tags attached to their stems: Rose Friedman and Israel Rosen; Shafur Banu
and Shrina Begum. Almost a week had passed since a few hardy souls gathered for
one of New York’s quiet rites of spring-the commemoration of the Triangle
Shirtwaist fire-but the flowers were still there, a splash of color at the
intersection of Washington and Greene streets. A gust of wind caught one of the
name tags and blew it toward the gutter. I retrieved it and tried gently to
reattach it to a naked stem.
Rose Friedman, Israel Rosen and 144 others-mostly young
Jewish women-died on March 25, 1911, when the sweatshop they toiled in went up
in flames. They were remembered this past March with roses placed on the
sidewalk where corpses were lined up 90 years ago. Shafur Banu and Shrina Begum
were among 51 workers who died in a factory fire in Bangladesh last year. They,
too, were remembered on March 25. Some of the carnations left in their memory
bore name tags that read: Unknown .
The story of what happened after the Triangle Shirtwaist
fire is part of 20th-century American history: Three reformers named Al Smith,
Robert F. Wagner and Frances Perkins began investigating workplace conditions
throughout New York State and eventually wrote the kind of regulations that employers,
then and now, invariably describe as onerous.
The Triangle factory fire is-or, at least, was-a parable
about private greed, public outrage and government reform. These days, however,
outrage is very much out of style (the keepers of 21st-century American style,
of course, generally do not have much about which to be outraged, except
perhaps an unjust kill fee, the cancellation of a favorite television program
or a lukewarm double latte). Government intervention on behalf of exploited
workers is considered far worse than the exploitation itself. And private greed
is celebrated as a public virtue.
So, when Bill Moyers broadcast a stunning piece of
journalism about the chemical industry’s cover-up of workplace abuses-the
two-hour piece was aired on March 26, the day after the Triangle
anniversary-perhaps practiced yawns were to be expected in certain quarters. A
review in The New York Times conceded
that Mr. Moyers had come up with some “appalling stuff,” but suggested that the
show’s viewers might experience only “that old numbness” which apparently
accompanies lucid revelations of truth.
In light of the revelations about the tobacco industry and the true stories
that inspired the book A Civil Action
and the film Erin Brockovich , the
review suggested that the “natural reaction” to Mr. Moyers’ documentary would
be “a ‘So what else is new?’ shrug.”
If shrugs are, in fact, today’s “natural reaction” to tales
of unconscionable corporate abuse, the parable of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire
has clearly lost its power. Nobody shrugged when those young women died in
their bleak sewing rooms, or leaped nine stories to their deaths with clothes
aflame. The public demanded change, and the politicians delivered.
It would be so very comfortable to believe that the Triangle
fire could never happen again, at least not here. (Bangladesh, of course, is another matter entirely, as are all those Third World–Pacific Rim countries and U.S. possessions
where poor women sew our designer clothing and have never heard of Al Smith, Robert
Wagner or Frances Perkins.) But, as Mr. Moyers’ documentary demonstrated,
corporate abuse of labor didn’t end with the passage of the eight-hour day and
federal workplace-safety rules.
The chemical industry discovered in the 1960’s that exposure
to vinyl chloride, a gas used in aerosol hair spray and numerous pesticides,
was making workers sick. The centerpiece of the exposé was a chemical-plant
worker, Dan Ross, who died of brain cancer after working with vinyl chloride for nearly a quarter-century. Ross’
widow filed a lawsuit that led to the public exposure of hundreds of memos
showing just how the chemical industry tried to cover up the dangers of vinyl
chloride, keeping its workers as well as federal regulators ignorant of the
chemical’s deadly record. The industry knew of medical studies linking it to
cancer. But, as Mr. Moyers noted, chemical workers were told they had nothing
to worry about.
Dan Ross didn’t die by leaping out of a burning factory. He
died in stages, in agony. When the end came, he understood what had happened to
him: “Mama,” he said to his wife, “they killed me.”
The Bush administration’s head of the Environmental
Protection Agency, Christine Todd Whitman, regularly extols the virtues of
industry self-regulation. And on this matter, she probably qualifies as the
administration’s token radical lefty. Were it up to some members of Congress
and other administration officials, the very idea of workplace
regulation-whether federally imposed or self-policed-would be dispatched to
There, tragically, it would share space alongside the legacy
of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, forgotten now by all but a few souls who carry
flowers once a year.