Monday, October 06, 2003

Triangle Shirtwaist Fire: Still Lessons to Be Learned

Thee was a good review last week in the NY times of a new history of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911:Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle.

The reviewer, Mike Wallace, distinguished professor of history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and director of the Gotham Center for New York City History at the City University of New York Graduate Center, thinks this is the best history written so far about the fire, but he also has an important message. He criticizes the author for implying that the fire and subsequent investigation lead almost automatically to important permanent reforms of “the New Deal, women's rights, labor empowerment and urban liberalism, first in New York, then across the country.”

Such triumphalism, while inspiring, overlooks the fact that history can run backward, and that gains won can be lost again — and have been, repeatedly. Many of the initial post-Triangle reforms were strenuously opposed by conservative businessmen. Unable at first to prevail amid mass indignation at the fire and shocking revelations about working conditions in the city and state, they were soon back in the saddle and able to halt, hamstring or reverse liberal initiatives.

The Depression galvanized progressives again, and the New Deal expanded the terrain of social democracy, but by the late 1930's, opponents had regained the initiative and dismantled many of its signature programs. In the 1960's and 70's reformers won health and safety and pollution regulations; today's free marketeers are whittling these away. And sweatshops that exploit vulnerable and unorganized immigrant workers are again alive and malignantly well in New York City.

Mr. Von Drehle's fine history is a welcome reminder of the realities of life in a laissez-faire jungle, and of the Triangle fire's importance in spurring the movement that helped tame it. But resting on our ancestors' laurels won't prevent a return to the conditions he deplores; only constant pressure from informed citizens and an organized work force can accomplish that.
It's nice to see a reviewer/historian who realizes that historical progress doesn't just happen unless people make it happen.

Buy it here.