Friday, March 25, 2011

The sacrifice of workers

As conservatives attempt to vilify working people across America, it's important to remember what happened 100 years ago today. On that day, at around 4:45 p.m., fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Lower Manhattan. Workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women, were trapped because the doors were locked.

Burns and smoke inhalation killed those who couldn't escape; blunt force killed others who jumped from the ninth floor. The death toll was 146.

The event spurred the enactment of workplace laws and the inspection of other death traps. The owners of the building were found not guilty of second-degree manslaughter, though one of them was fined $20 for locking the doors.

This would be a good time to consider Bertolt Brecht's poem "A Worker Reads History":

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
 The books are filled with names of kings.
 Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
 And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
 Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima's houses,
 That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
 In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
 Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
 Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
 Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
 Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
 The night the seas rushed in,
 The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.

 Young Alexander conquered India.
 He alone?
 Caesar beat the Gauls.
 Was there not even a cook in his army?
 Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
 was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
 Frederick the Greek triumphed in the Seven Years War.
 Who triumphed with him?

 Each page a victory
 At whose expense the victory ball?
 Every ten years a great man,
 Who paid the piper?

 So many particulars.
 So many questions.

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