Ninety-seven years ago this month, just eight days after the March 25, 1911, Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire , in which nearly 150 young men and women suffered horrific deaths, Rose Schneiderman rocked the Metropolitan Opera House.
She was not singing. But her voice, pellucid and sharp, carried the house:
"I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting."
Who was Rose Schneiderman? She was, in the words of Frances Perkins (who later became Franklin D. Roosevelt's labor secretary): "an unknown little girl." It was a realistic - not unkind - description of this factory worker, who earned a paltry $5.00 a week for grueling ten-hour days spent sewing linings into golf hats. To the indifferent eyes shaded by those natty caps, the Polish immigrant with a sixth-grade education was almost certainly invisible, or, at best, a curiosity to be observed on a Sunday afternoon East Side-slumming tour.
On Sunday, April 2, however, all eyes were riveted upon the 29-year-old labor organizer with "fiery red hair" who was commanding the Opera House stage.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory building, it had been said, was fireproof. And so it was: The structure survived unscathed. The people inside, however, did not. The owners had cut costs by packing seamstresses and chain-smoking fabric cutters into a cramped wood space, eschewing rudimentary procedures necessary to avoid the accumulation of flammable oily rags and littered fabric. Even worse, to avoid the theft of an odd scrap of lace or ribbon, they had locked all but one door to streamline the bosses' daily inspection of pockets and handbags on the employees' way out. So, when the inevitable conflagration began, the mostly teenaged workers - for some of whom the only identifiable remains were their engagement rings (14 in all) - had no way out. They were left to roast to death or hurtle themselves to the pavement.
Suddenly humanitarians after this tragedy, the same Gilded-Age revelers who had caroused through the East Side as if it were Disneyland were moved to donate to Red Cross victims' funds.
Schneiderman was having none of it. It was much too late to offer "a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift." It was also, she reminded them:
"[n]ot the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred."
Certainly, much has improved for factory workers since 1911. But, as workers at the Imperial Sugar Co. in Port Wentworth, Georgia, could attest, life is still cheap and property is still sacred. On February 8, 2008, 12 employees there were burned to death and dozens more critically injured because Republicans are committed to making sure no pesky regulations upset that perverse calculation - regardless of the human suffering it entails.
In the early 1900s, as a former New York City fire chief testified regarding factory conditions after the Triangle fire, there was "nobody responsible for anything." Now, of course, we have an office - the Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) - that is at least putatively responsible for workplace safety. Specifically, OSHA is legislatively mandated to (1) enact industrial standards for toxic substance exposure and site protection; and (2) conduct inspections to ensure those standards are followed.
Unfortunately, OSHA started becoming anemic during the 1990s, and now it is positively spectral. With fewer employees than it had 30 years ago, yet twice the number of workplaces in its charge, OSHA would need 133 years to inspect every business over which it has jurisdiction.
The far more serious problem with OSHA's performance, however, is that, under the Bush administration, it has deliberately avoided setting any significant industrial standards. (To be precise, it has set one, regarding the permissible level of workplace exposure to the known carcinogen hexavalent chromium, but only after a court ordered it to do so.)
OSHA's abdication of its duties is not a matter of incompetence. It is, as Rep. John Barrows (D-Georgia) pointed out in a March 12, 2008, Workforce Protections Subcommittee Hearing of the House, Education and Labor Committee, a purposeful unwillingness to act. Or, to put it more colorfully, as Barrows did:
"When you've got an agency that don't know its job or don't care about its job, or has all kinds of reasons for not doin' its job, it's a little bit like goin' bird huntin' and havin' to tote the dog."
OSHA's failure to enact mandatory standards has not only been fatal to its mission; it has been fatal to the workers.
The Imperial Sugar refinery disaster, for example, followed a long-known pattern of explosions involving finely powdered and, therefore, highly combustible materials, such as chemicals, flour, metals and, of course, sugar. As William Wright, interim executive of the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB), explained at the March 12 Workforce Protections Subcommittee hearing, witnesses familiar with the Port Wentworth facility described seeing snow-like piles of accumulated sugar dust on floor joists, pipes and equipment. When this highly combustible powder was dislodged by an as-yet-unknown event, it fueled the massive explosion and fire.
Like so many factory fires before it, the Imperial Sugar Co. catastrophe was both predictable and preventable. In 2006, the CSB, after identifying 281 combustible dust fires responsible for 119 deaths and numerous injuries, formally urged OSHA to immediately establish mandatory combustible dust hazard regulations.
This report was not a news flash to OSHA. The year before, OSHA itself had issued a bulletin entitled "Combustible Dust in Industry: Preventing and Mitigating the Effects of Fire and Explosions," which had detailed a gruesome history of catastrophic explosions resulting from combustible dust and suggested procedures for prevention of future similar disasters. OSHA emphasized, however, the procedures were not mandatory. Failure to follow them would not be a basis for any adverse action whatsoever:
"This Safety and Health Information Bulletin is not a standard or regulation, and it creates no new legal obligations. The Bulletin is advisory in nature, informational in content, and is intended to assist employers in providing a safe and healthful workplace."
After the CSB issued its report in 2006, did OSHA decide to put some teeth into its recommendations? No. It established a National Emphasis Program to further encourage voluntary employer action.
What about now, after yet another disaster caused by combustible dust? Well, according to Director Edwin Foulkes, OSHA is "saddened by the tragic loss of life that resulted from the Imperial Sugar explosion [and] will not rest until we ensure that all employees go home safely to their families and friends at the end of every work day." So concerned is Foulkes that he has, on behalf of OSHA, sent out a very large number of letters - 300,000 to be exact - reminding employers about dust hazards.
Foulkes has also promised to investigate the issue of mandatory combustible dust standards, but we should not expect those any time soon. Why? Because, as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory owners discovered when they were acquitted of manslaughter charges after the fire, the best way to avoid criminal liability for even the most egregious workplace malfeasance is not to have any laws at all. Despite infuriating testimony about previous warnings and blocked egress, the jury was unable to find owners Isaac Harris and Max Blenck had violated or failed to comply with any legal requirements: There weren't any.
It was a perfect void of government responsibility. And it is into this very same early-twentieth-century abyss the Bush administration has been dragging us for the past seven years. No regulations, ergo, no violations. No violations, ergo, no criminal culpability. Employers - unfettered by oversight or even laws - can live free and profit. Employees, on the other hand, can live free and die. Meanwhile, however, charitable donations continue to pour in for the families of the Imperial Sugar Co. victims who have been killed or maimed as the result of this unconscionable bargain.
A century has passed since Rose Schneiderman rebuked the citizens at the Metropolitan Opera House in the wake of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, but were she alive today, I have no doubt that we would again be found wanting.