Chemical Reactions: Where’s the Outrage?

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

history’s dustbin.

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. Chemical Reactions: Where’s the Outrage?