I had missed the recent American Experience film on the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire but I was able to view it on the PBS Video website. I highly recommend spending an hour watching it. This program seems to be all the more pertinent to me as I continue to read about the daily struggles of unionized government workers in many states - starting with Wisconsin. They are, of course, not fighting for safer working conditions but they are trying to hold onto long-fought-for collective bargaining rights. The bitter irony of the workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company is that even though they had led a strike by New York City garment workers in 1909 for union representation, they never achieved it for themselves. The owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, would simply not permit any "meddling" in their control of the business. Harris and Blanck were later tried and acquitted of manslaughter charges connected to the fire. They went on to collect a lucrative insurance settlement and continued in the garment business. They were fined repeatedly for operating their factories under unsafe working conditions.
|Asch Building in New York where fire occurred |
on second to top floor still stands today.
Photo from Wikipedia.
Society benefits greatly from technology. More often than not, that technology is made available through companies which compete fiercely against each other in the marketplace. The argument that nothing should fetter the owners of a business with regulatory burdens that might make them less competitive simply cannot be supported in the face of the tragic consequences that can so easily befall their employees. Reasonable regulations and collective bargaining are not evils. They are part of the cost of doing business in a complex society. It is always a balance. What should be regulated and what should be left to the market? What voice should workers have compared to owners or managers? While there is no lasting answer to these questions, it seems that we are once again tilting towards excessive power - and excessive rewards - on the side of owners and managers.