August 3, 2011
Only 100 years ago, a major event occurred in New York City that has since been an example of why government needs to continue to regulate the private sector. Without the aid of government, we have a situation were labor has no power. Sure, the individual would be “free” to negotiate his/her labor, but due to a labor surplus and the increase in unskilled jobs, that ability is a non-starter. However, to their credit the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist company chose a good modern building for their enterprise. The Asch Building had been certified as fireproof by 1911 standards. However, the fire department had noted the distinct absence of fire exits, yet nothing was done to compel the owners of the building or the company to rectify this, nor had anyone listened to the women’s pleas for fire drills. All this is well documented. The city ignored conditions inside the factory. Doors were locked from the outside so that workers could not leave their posts until quitting time, a common practice. At the same time, the company was worried that the workers might steal some of the materials. There were not real safety standards and forget about sanitation even by early twentieth century standards. When the fire broke out at the factory on March 28,1911, it burned so quickly because of the scraps of fabric on the floors and the finished clothing that hung on wire wracks dangling over the heads of workers created a fireball. the workers were locked inside, could not use the one fire escape, and were surrounded by flammable clothing.
The Triangle owners were later acquitted of charges of negligence because it could not be proven that they actually knew that the doors were locked. A fact later proved false by historians. The owners settled out of court for $75 per victim. Not enough to even have a funeral by 1911 standards. What the Triangle fire illustrates is the violation of the ideal of social responsibility on the part of the corporate elite. This is a concept that is today still disputed. The concept of a shared social responsibility embedded deeply in American values of individualism, unimpeded economic growth, and property rights above all else. Mac Blanc and his partner Isaac Harris exemplify the typical business. They worried about competition but failed to provide any concept of responsibility for their workers. Workers were cattle and they controlled their workforce. Speed was the key. They had the new electric sewing machines that make 3000 stitches a minute. Volume was the key to their success.
Now this is a typical example of a company in the garment industry during that period. Since then, the federal government had implemented new safety standards. As a result of the fire at Triangle, after a 5 year investigation, the state of New York implemented new safety standards, that were promptly ignored by companies who could buy off inspectors who got their jobs because of their relationship to local politicians. While we all balk at some of the weirdest standards, at least we have standards for safety and sanitation.
This is a day an age where the private sector created the demand for goods and services and an unregulated economy had more weight than government. For corporations their corporation was private property that they could run however they wanted. Forget the fact that they would not have been successful if it had not been for the workers who made it possible. Their wealth and power was a reward for their individual freedom. Yet, there was not recognition of the individuals who made the goods.
Do we want to go back to this unregulated system where private property and that concept trumps social responsibility. We have not moved very far from that point. Industrialists to this day feel that their self made status has been achieved by them alone forget all the people that have made it possible. If they close the company, so what, workers will have to find other jobs. We need to renew that sense of social responsibility. Corporations are NOT private property, they have a social responsibility to the nation, economy, and to the workers they employ. Hence when a CEO makes $10 million a year and lay’s off workers after 20 years, I know from personal experience, this can cause one to question their practices. Especially since, over the last 20 years, CEO’s have no responsibility to the company they run. They negotiate their contracts for a set salary regardless of how well the company performs. This does not give them a stake in the company.
Consequently, when we talk about returning economic ‘freedom” to the private sector, we are really talking about restoring more power to stockholders and CEO’s who could care less about the city or state and the economic consequences of their decisions. Their major concern is to make money. While that is important, we need to have a factor in there for social responsibility. Case in Point, New London V. Kelo The underlying reason for the seizure of property to redevelop the Fort Trumbul areas was . . . to please Pfizer and their expansion of their New London site, see New London Day for more facts. In the end, people lost their homes, but were compensated, which is really no compensation when one wants their home. Then the company who was developing the area went bankrupt and Pfizer closed the site. This illustrates no social responsibility for the people who lived in the area. There was no thought of what the impact would be in the end. As a result, there remains empty buildings and homes. Social responsibility demands that workers have an equal partnership with the company as they provide the means of wealth for the company. Would the company profit without them? While a group of individuals may own stock, there is a social responsibility that comes with that and we need to stress that.
As are result, we cannot count on the private sector to provide the needed safeguards for all people. The private sector only allows for individuals of wealth, with that comes power, to have a say. If one does not have wealth they have no power or economic ability to enforce compliance with demands. Companies that think workers are unreasonable get a tax break from the federal government and move to . . . China. Do we really want a return to this system. It may be an extreme example, but the every day worker will tell you that this is not a far cry from the truth.Author : mikegreen40