COLUMN LEFT / RUTH ROSEN : Casualties of Unbridled Capitalism : Left unpoliced, free markets will sink to the lowest level of worker protection.
The doors, the authorities said, were the problem. To keep workers--most of them women--from leaving early, the foremen kept the doors locked. When fire broke out, the flames trapped the workers. When the fire trucks finally arrived, the ladders were too short. Forty-seven young women leaped to their deaths; another hundred never made it to the windows. The tragedy caused a national furor.
The infamous fire occurred at the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. in New York City on March 25, 1911. Afterward, workers and urban progressives vowed that such a catastrophe would never happen again. Two months after the fire, reformers created the New York State Factory Commission. During its four years of work, the commission developed an extensive program of labor reform--56 laws that addressed such matters as fire hazards, unsafe machines, home work, and wages and hours for women and children.
Last week, a fatal inferno swept through the Imperial Food Products Co. plant in Hamlet, N. C., killing 25 workers. Fire did not kill them; they died of smoke inhalation. The doors, the authorities said, were the problem. Why they were locked is still not clear; some reports said it was to keep workers from sneaking out with chicken parts.
Whether conditions will improve in the poultry-processing industry is uncertain. Eight decades after the infamous Triangle fire, how could another unnecessary tragedy kill so many workers?
In many ways, the tragedy was waiting to happen. In order to skirt unions and regulations, many American businesses have moved their factories to the South and the Third World. There, they find cheap labor and have a relatively free hand to fight unions.
Knowledge of the poultry industry’s unsafe practices was widespread. For years, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had singled it out for its high injury rate and frequently contaminated meat. Rather than investing in new equipment and plants, better safeguards and improved production lines, companies competed with each other by speeding up assembly lines and pushing workers to the breaking point.
Why, then, hadn’t OSHA closed down the Hamlet plant? In the name of free enterprise, the Reagan and Bush administrations crippled OSHA’s operating budget. The poultry processing industry has enjoyed a long, free ride, relatively unhampered by any demand to safeguard its cheap, largely female labor force. Federal investigators had not visited the Hamlet plant in the 11 years that it had been processing chickens.
OSHA allows 27 states, including North Carolina, to conduct their own inspection programs. Spokesmen have defended the agency’s supervision of the state-run inspection programs. But this is rank dissembling. The North Carolina Labor Department, understaffed for years, had also neglected to inspect the plant. Nor had local fire or health inspectors visited the Hamlet operation.
As citizens in former communist nations search for democratic models of free societies, the United States offers an unparalleled example of a society that protects individual rights. But scarcely all rights. The United States lacks a deep and solid commitment to the health, safety and security of workers. In East Europe, workers now demand free and independent trade unions to protect them from excessive exploitation. In contrast, American unions, which once won the benefits and protections that many of us now take for granted, are in a sorry state of decline.
It shouldn’t take a tragedy to alert Americans that an unregulated market needs tough regulation. An unbridled market creates casualties of all sorts: the homeless, uninsured medical patients, the unemployed, a damaged environment. Americans have long been admired for their pragmatic and nonideological efforts to meet human needs. Since 1980, however, right-wing ideologues have managed to convince Americans that they are better off without any government engagement or regulation. The North Carolina disaster tells a different story.