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Book Review 232: Triangle

April 1, 2012 - Harry Eagar
I did not put it into the review, but under oath Triangle owner Isaac Harris was asked how much pilferage by workers he had suffered the previous year that justified locking them in his firetrap. Less than $25, he said.

Like I said, if the market determines you are worth more dead than alive, it will see to it that you are killed.

TRIANGLE: The Fire that Changed America, by David von Drehle. 340 pages, illustrated. Grove paperback, $15

Read David von Drehle's masterful history of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, and all the Republican complaints about big government and regulation of business will evaporate as the meretricious nonsense they always were.

Newspaper reporter von Drehle starts out saying the 1911 fire that killed 146 underpaid blouse makers, mostly teenage girls, has been forgotten. I was skeptical, as I had long known of the fire as one of the worst of the many industrial crimes of the pre-progressive era, in which scores died in a locked factory.

But when I asked a friend whose grandfather worked in the New York garment industry around that time, he'd never heard of it, so maybe it really is forgotten.

What I didn't know, however, was that the owners, Blanck and Harris, had a long record of corruption, arson, fraud and violence before the fire. Nor that this tragedy, out of many, was the motivating event that vaulted the progressive movement into real political power – with, surprisingly, the backing of Tammany Hall. Von Drehle persuasively argues that the Factory Investigating Commission act passed in New York in response to this fire was the precipitating event that led to the New Deal – and that “dished” the socialists in America.

These good results do not, however, obscure the fact that Blanck and Harris not only got off scot-free but made a large profit on the deaths (about a million dollars in today's money).

I have often said that if the free market figures you are worth more dead than alive, it will arrange to have you killed. No clearer proof of that maxim exists than the Triangle fire.

Although the evidence piles up that Blanck and Harris were conscienceless thugs – we often hear Republicans whine about labor thugs, but somehow they never mention employer thugs, who have killed and maimed a hundred times more Americans than any labor extremists ever did – they could never have become the Shirtwaist Kings honestly, even if they had been honest.

A Gresham's Law operates as relentlessly in business as in silver coinage, and unless government steps in to referee, the dishonest businessman will always have an advantage over his honest rival. The honest man will fail.

That the garment industry was wholly corrupt was a matter of jest at the time. The humorist Montague Marsden Glass wrote a long series of comic stories about the drapers Potash and Perlmutter in the Saturday Evening Post, in which Potash and Perlmutter, relatively honest men, constantly outwit their rivals, but only just.

Being a boss was tough, but being a worker was terrible. Von Drehle visited the East Side Tenement House Museum, one of the most worthy museums in the country, where he got a lively sense of how brutal free-wheeling capitalism was.

And even more brutal if you worked for Blanck and Harris, who hired goons to stomp young girl strikers.

Some, though not all, of the abuses have been curbed in the century since the Triangle fire (the garment industry is still among the most abusive), but that bosses will revert to their murderous ways if left to themselves is proven from time to time. Von Drehle cites the 1991 fire at the North Carolina chicken plant.

Twenty-five workers burnt up, locked in because the bosses feared they would steal chickens. The bosses had not learned that if you pay a satisfactory wage, workers will buy your chickens, not steal them.


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