Friday, March 25, 2011

Today, The Bells Remember; Do You?

It's 4:45 in the afternoon here in Upstate New York.  The bells just started to ring in New York City. 

Today, the bells remember, down to the very hour and minute when it started.

Today is the 100th anniversary of the disastrous Triangle Waist Company fire in New York City that took the lives of 146 garment workers.  They died behind the locked doors of their stitching workroom. The door was locked because the company owners wanted to reduce theft. The foreman who had the only key escaped, probably via the elevator that was working for a short time, then shut down. All the other exits were blocked by the fire itself.  

The public outrage sparked by the fire resulted in significant fire safety reforms and in some gradual improvement in factory working conditions nationwide.  Of course, those reforms came too late for the dead workers, most of whom were immigrant women.

One of the other results of the Triangle fire was that the New York State Legislature authorized the creation of the nine- member State Factory Investigating Commission.  The Commission was chaired by State Senator (and later NY City Mayor) Robert F. Wagner, with Assemblyman Alfred E. Smith (later NY State Governor and Presidential candidate) as Vice-Chair.

Even though the State already had a Factory Inspector’s Office that did periodic health and safety inspections, its inspection staff was small and greatly overworked.  Moreover, advance word of the impending arrival of state factory inspectors at a specific factory location often traveled via the factory owner/manager grapevine so that potential violations could be cosmetically tended to before the inspector arrived.

The Factory Investigating Commission, a creature of the Legislature, was not an enforcement agency; mostly, they traveled around the state, holding hearings on factory conditions, worker safety and child labor with an eye toward revamping the state’s labor laws.  Considering the recent tragedy of the Triangle Fire, they were especially concerned with fire safety and were assisted in their investigations by a young woman who headed the New York Committee On Fire Safety.

That young woman was Frances Perkins, a Boston-born graduate of Mount Holyoke who had just received her master’s degree from Columbia University in political science in 1910.  Perkins was a dynamo, writing about fire safety forcefully and testifying boldly before the commission.  

Frances Perkins (1880 - 1965)
Some years later, Gov. Franklin D, Roosevelt named her New York State’s Industrial Commissioner.  When FDR was later elected President, he appointed Perkins as the first female cabinet officer in US history.  She became Secretary of Labor in 1933, a position she held for 12 years.

As the Factory Investigating Commissioners traveled around the state, they interviewed hundreds of factory workers – some as young as seven – and scores of factory owners, managers and foremen.  They investigated the garment and retail clothing industry, vegetable canning plants, paper box factories and much more.

(Several years ago, I wrote an article for the NYS Archives Partnership Trust’s magazine on using the records of the Commission for genealogy.  In the article, called “Candy Factory Girls, Working All the Livelong Day”, I focused on the records that were produced while the Commission was investigating working conditions in  a New York City candy factory.)

What were factory conditions in general like in 1911 – 1912?

The sixty hour work week was the state’s goal, but in some industries, that was just the baseline.  Workers, especially in canning factories, routinely worked 17 hour days for 8 cents an hour.  In some factories, typhoid fever was common, as was tuberculosis. Fingers frequently fell victim to heavy equipment. 

Compensation for a lost finger was about $75.00

Here’s a bit of the testimony from one of the hearings, this one in the Fort Stanwix canning factory in Rome, New York.  This witness had worked there for three years:

John Huchko, called as a witness by the Commission, testified as follows:
Direct examination by Mr. Elkus:
Q. What is your age? A. Ten.
Q. What are you, Polish? A. Yes.
Q. Have you worked here? A. Yes.
Q. Did you work here last year? A. Yes, sir.
Q. Year before that? A. Three years I have worked.
Q. Since you were seven? A. Yes.
Q. What do you do, snip beans? A. Yes.
Q. Anything else? A. I only snip beans and pick peas.
Q. What time do you start to work? A. At seven.
Q. What time do you stop? A. Ten o'clock.
Q. At night? A. Yes, sir.
Q. How much do you make a day? A. About twenty-five or thirty cents.

There are hundreds of these transcripts, many containing important genealogical information, buried in the Commission’s reports.

Of course, that was all a long time ago, right?

Listen carefully to the discussions in the news these days about workers, working conditions, collective bargaining and the like.  Look in your closet, as I did this morning, and then look at the labels in your clothes.  The shirt I’m wearing was made in Bangladesh.  It was hanging next to the red one made in Vietnam.  That was next to a plaid one made in El Salvador.

None of them were made in a place where worker safety is much of a concern.  They were made where workers are cheap. Investment capital has no conscience; it’s not supposed to.  It goes where it can maximize profit.

You want a little bit of conscience, perhaps a little bit of worker safety and human dignity with that new shirt?  Then you should start voting for politicians who actually care about those things, not just some bank’s bottom line.

Frances Perkins died in 1965 and was buried in Newcastle, in her parents’ home state of Maine.  Recently, the Maine governor decided that a new mural in a meeting room in the state’s Department of Labor building needed to be moved.  The mural, he said, seemed “unfriendly to business” since it portrayed things like the Great Lewiston Auburn Shoe Strike of 1937 and child labor.

There’s a “Frances Perkins Room” in the Department of Labor Building as well.  According to news sources, that may also be on the gov’s chopping block.  It's just a bit too "labor-friendly."
The more things change, …

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