Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Singing the Triangle Shirtwaist song

In an op-ed in the Statesman Journal, Tom Chamberlain, the president of the Oregon AFL-CIO uses the 1911 Triangle shirt factory fire to claim we owe our lives to unions and government regulations. Here’s the setup:

It has become fashionable in certain circles to say that unions and government regulations are unnecessary nuisances, sand in the gears of the economy. The invisible hand of capitalism would take care of all our problems, if we would just let it alone.

It's a free country, and the talking heads on Fox News have a right to say whatever they like. But this week, if they have any sense of decency, they should be silent. For Saturday is the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.

Sept. 11, 2001, was not the first time that New Yorkers watched in horror as people jumped to certain death to avoid a more terrible death by fire. On March 25, 1911, dozens of workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory made the same grim choice. They were blouse-makers ("shirtwaist" was an early term for "blouse") -- mostly women, mostly recent immigrants. They worked six days a week, for as little as $7 a week. They worked in a crowded tinderbox of flammable material. And 146 of them died that day.

They died because there was no sprinkler system. They died because the flimsy fire escape quickly collapsed. They died because only some of them were able to make it through the single open door before it was blocked by fire -- and the other door, which could have led to safety, had been locked by the owners. The owners said that they had lost perhaps $25(!) worth of company property to employee theft, so they needed to watch all the employees leave, through a single door.
Here’s the cashing-in:

There was a law against locking employees in -- but it wasn't enforced. They had a union -- but no law required the employers to recognize and negotiate with that union on issues such as wages, hours and safety.

But the Triangle tragedy shocked the conscience of New York and of the nation. And as David Van Drehle writes in his excellent book, "Triangle: The Fire that Changed America," New York's corrupt Tammany Hall political machine decided that there had to be some response to the public outrage. The New York legislature passed laws requiring fireproof stairways, functional fire escapes, open doors that swing outward, sprinkler systems and fire drills. And, having been forced to face the conditions in which factory workers labored, they went beyond safety to pass a bill limiting the work week to 54 hours.

Years later, politicians who served in that same New York legislature expanded on those ideas at the national level. Robert Wagner, as a United States senator, passed the Wagner Act, requiring employers to recognize unions. Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- whose Labor secretary, Frances Perkins, had witnessed the Triangle fire -- passed minimum-wage and maximum-hour legislation.

We take all of these things -- safety laws, labor laws -- for granted today. But they were not given us by the invisible hand. They were the product of hard work and much suffering.
Consider for a moment how Chamberlain joins his progressive ancestors in hijacking an appalling tragedy to smear the free market and justify government regulation.

Chamberlain argues that Triangle’s owners were so obsessed about loss that they locked all the doors of their factory in order to secure it from theft, but the loss caused by the fire and the death of 146 employees--well, that’s just another day at the office. Chamberlain argues that the Triangle refused to negotiate with its worker’s union, yet he fails to mention the massive 1909 union strike that first began at the Triangle factory and that came to include 20,000 garment workers never made workplace safety an issue, or that the union itself elected to drop the issue of worker representation. If the "invisible hand" failed to compel Triangle’s owners to protect for fire, it also failed to compel the worker’s union to make a point of it.

Might the Triangle fire have more to do with the simple fact that an industrial accident on the scale of such a disaster had never occurred before? After all, the Triangle factory was state of the art for its era, with its high ceilings, well-lit workspace, modern plumbing and electric-powered machinery. In fact, the building itself was repaired and is still in use today as part of the campus of New York University.

I propose a different interpretation of the Triangle disaster. The Triangle fire was one of the first of a new breed of accidents--the industrial accident--and defending against it required a new type of thinking to protect both lives and investments. Chamberlain argues that subsequent safety laws protect workers, but he forgets that at best these laws create minimum standards and provide a false sense of security. It is businessmen themselves and the engineers they employ--specifically safety engineers--that helped to create the safe workspaces we enjoy today.

Why? Because safety is in one’s self-interest. By failing to foresee that textiles are flammable and that a basic respect for their investment and the lives of their employees demanded they take certain steps to mitigate the risk of fire, Triangle’s owners allowed their factory to be destroyed and exposed themselves to both criminal and civil liability from their negligence. How many other businessmen got the message after the Triangle fire and took their own steps to protect themselves and their employees from fire?

We’ll probably never know, because the Triangle case has been hijacked by the left as means to justify everything from the minimum wage to the number of hours an employee may work in a week, as Chamberlain plainly evidences in his op-ed.

Yet Chamberlain forgets that if the government can miracle a zero-harm environment, why have two space shuttles been destroyed under its management? Why have medicines that have been approved by the FDA later been recalled while effective medicines sit stalled in the FDA’s regulatory queue? Why does Chamberlain seem to endow government regulators with omniscience, yet fail to recognize the incentive a businessman has to protect his own investment, or the incentive an employee has to quit an unsafe workplace and find another job?

Why? Because union leaders like Chamberlain want power--and not the power one gets by economic negotiation, but the power one gets from political pull. That’s why, almost 100 years after the fact, this union boss still sings the Triangle song.


LibertyVini said...

Not bad Nick. But Workers' Compensation laws had already begun to blunt the self-interest mechanism by the time the Triangle fire happened. And if 100 years of labor regulation has been so effective, why did 3,000 people die at the World Trade Center? Why among them were workers who dug bodies from the rubble, and died subsequently from illnesses engendered thereby? Chamberlain has less than nothing to base his analysis on. Safety isn't about regulations, or unions, it is, rather about aligning as closely as possible the interests of capital and labor to maximize safety, health, and wealth.

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