Archive for March, 2011

Is our House Burning?

March 22nd, 2011 No comments

In dealing with this Challenging Economy, I have found few things to be interesting, inspiring and noteworthy. If I can stand more than 15 minutes of news, it is a good day. The Republicans are making things as difficult for Obama as possible. Liberal Democrats like myself wonder why he cannot stand up for worker rights and the needy. No solutions are forthcoming from our legislators. The TARP bill gave a small “bump” to the economy, but basically indemnified and enriched the Financiers who created the Financial Crisis. The word ‘Gridlock’ implies stasis, the affect is defeating and ultimately alienating.
I end up fatigued by the inability of our Leaders to solve problems. We Americans are more alienated and partisan, listening to our own drummers- my listening to Bill Maher, my family to Bill O’Reilly. The net effect is that our opinions do not change, the leaders (if we can call them that) are speaking to the ends of the Political spectrum. They are not speaking to the solution of conciliation and agreement. The result is an Economy that has created and reinforced class lines not seen since the days of the Robber Barons. Let’s see that is One Hundred Years ago.
So, this blog addresses the repeating of History (“if we do not learn from we tend to repeat”(Santayana)) of one century ago. The poverty, the class distinctions, the Puritanical belief that ‘God rewards the Just with Wealth’. What made me want to write this, and hopefully bring it to your attention?
The HBO Documentary “Triangle: Remembering the Fire.” I had heard of this in the Sunday New York Times, and with Monday network Television being slim pickings I thought I might watch it.
The quick ‘n Dirty recap of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory Fire is as follows: Garment workers were crammed inside a highly flammable building, with no fire safety training & no fire protective apparatus. On the 7th floor a fire started, and quickly spread. The owners on the 10th floor escaped; the switchboard operator who notified Management on the 10th Floor failed to notify the workers on the 8th Floor of the Fire. The doors on the 8th Floor garment worker’s workroom opened “in’. Because they could not get out by the workroom doors, they had no escape except one elevator. The elevator operator worked rescuing the employees until the elevator would not work, saving hundreds of lives. The trapped employees either burned to death in the fire, or jumped to their deaths on the Street. 146 employees died, while the Owners escaped from the roof. The owners were acquitted in a Trial, but public outrage necessitated workplace safety and fire safety regulations – on both a local (NY) and national jurisdiction. That’s the story, and the 25th of March is the One Hundred Year Anniversary. This is remembered in both Labor and Fire Safety history as a The pictures and stories are very grim.
What grabbed me from the first minutes was the appalling lack of responsibility of the Rich Business Owners, the sickening and horrifying deaths, and the similarities to our present day. The analogies between Then- the quaintly dressed, sepia-colored history and Now: internet-connected and Twitterified.- the present of too much content, and too little responsibility.
‘Riches’ and ‘responsibility’, in the same sentence? I know, I know, there are Philanthropists with Foundations everywhere. Rich people meet in Davos, Switzerland to talk about giving away Billions, while eating sustainably and getting a big tax write-off. Their philanthropy is disassociated from the present problems in the United States and the responsibilities of wealth. We need help for the 24,000,000 unemployed, the underemployed here. If Andrew Carnegie gave away Libraries, why can’t the Gates Foundation give away food in our neighborhoods?
Let me recap and bring to your kind attention the similarities between the United States of 1911 and 2011.
Extremes of Rich and Poor
Business Complaints of the Costs of Safety and of Livable Wages
Media and Republican Enmity towards Unions
Lack of and lackadaisical Enforcement of Consumer & Worker Safety
An Underclass working in underpaid and unsafe conditions.
No, it’s not just Liberal Democrats in their Foundations that are the problem. From what I can gather the Republican, Tea Party and conservative platform on both a National and State level seeks to disenfranchise workers, loosen regulatory constraints upon workplace and consumer safety, fail to discipline rampant Upper Class fraud and the theft of public monies. They fight sharing their wealth, and lobby to oppose the tax increases that would force them to share it. They avoid prosecution (“Inside Job” Charles Ferguson, Director, available on Netflix Instant Queue), and tax increases – a pretty slick platform, huh?
The Robber Barons are still here, they are just called Multinational Corporation shareholders, Venture Capitalist and Financiers. The impunity of the wealthy Bosses who, in the case of the Triangle Fire escaped from the roof, and who in the Economic Meltdown of 2008 enjoyed the weak scrutiny of the SEC with billions of dollars in profits without being brought to Trial. For anyone who watched the escapist Oscars™ in February, the Director of the “Inside Job”, in his acceptance speech stated that “to date no one has been held responsible”. The owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where 146 employees burned in a gruesome death, got a “not guilty” judgment, whereas the contemporary Robber Barons escaped indictment.
The result of the gruesome Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire one hundred years ago on March 25th, 1911 was Labor and workplace regulations. It was regulations meant to protect those who lack the means to protect themselves. The IGLU, the DOL, the FLSB were created in an era when the Public Conscience demanded the wrongs be addressed and redressed.
What is happening now? Unions are being dismantled, funding for the poor/ children/disabled/infirm and old is slashed. We are told “It will take a few decades for the jobs to come back”, while Washington and Sacramento debates whether it is acceptable to increase taxes on the Robber Barons. What is wrong with this scenario?
Who is running the shop? How do we get the legislator’s attentions? And better, what are the responsibilities of Wealth?
The Documentary: Triangle: Remembering the Fire
HBO, March 21 at 9, Eastern and Pacific times; 8, Central time.
Directed by Daphne Pinkerson; produced by Ms. Pinkerson and Marc Levin; written by Michael Hirsch, Richard Lowe and Ms. Pinkerson; Nancy Abraham, senior producer for HBO; Sheila Nevins, executive producer for HBO; narrated by Tovah Feldshuh.

HBO website;

Lesson Guide:

Activism: what further steps you can take

email address: info@rememberthe
Steve Zeltzer LaborFest
The New York Times Review of the two documentaries:

““sic” The narrators, Michael Murphy (PBS) and Tovah Feldshuh (HBO), supply the sad, heroic and outrageous details of the disaster: the exit door kept locked to prevent theft; the ladders that reached only the sixth floor; the elevator operator who kept returning, through the flames, to the ninth floor, until his car was halted by the weight of the bodies that had fallen into the shaft and onto its roof.
But it’s the images of corpses stacked on the Greenwich Village sidewalks where they fell, as a crowd of thousands helplessly watched, that get to you, as dreadful now as they were a century ago, when they inspired a wave of workplace reform in New York State. The parallel to 9/11 is inescapable; it’s made explicit in the HBO film, in the observations of a fireman who was at the World Trade Center and whose grandfather was on the sidewalk outside the Triangle factory.
Where the two films vary significantly is in tone. The title “Remembering the Fire” is a clue to the HBO film’s intentions: It focuses more closely on the fire itself, and many of its interviewees are descendants of fire victims or of others who played a role. (A great-aunt of Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films, died in the fire.) It’s the more emotional and impressionistic of the films, and its narrative is more fancy, moving back and forth between the fire and events in the larger world.
Either film, or both, could spur you to want to learn more about the history of unions, garment workers and an earlier, rougher New York City. If so, a pilgrimage might be in order: the Asch Building, home of the Triangle factory, still stands at Greene Street and Washington Place, now owned by New York University and called the Brown Building of Science. “

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