Home socialism The Unsolved Problem of Labor
Home socialism The Unsolved Problem of Labor

The Unsolved Problem of Labor

Both national and local newspapers have made a great show of commemorating the Triangle Waist Company fire, a horrifying event in which women working in a sweatshop burned alive or fell to their deaths. The Triangle fire was not the only example of sweatshop abuses, but it was the most horrifying, and even a 100 years later it is being used by labor advocates to make a point. But that point may not be what they think it is.

A century later there are still sweatshops not very far from the former building that housed the Triangle Waist Company, which has been absorbed by the spreading blot of the NYU campus. The women who work in these sweatshops are not Jewish and Italian, but Chinese. They make from 1 to 3 dollars an hour -- and 90 percent of them are members of unions.

Many of the NYU students who go in and out of the Brown building, where hundreds of women died, wear trendy clothing made in sweatshops. The clothing is not cheap, it is cheaply made. Those students who wanted a moral alternative bought clothes from American Apparel, which promoted its clothes as sweatshop free, turning the company into a major player in the garment industry. But American Apparel started out by subcontracting its manufacturing to Sam Lim, since then it has employed large numbers of illegal aliens and the lawsuits charging the AA boss with sexual harassment and blackmail, suggest its office workers might envy Norma Rae.

The tale of the Triangle Waist Company is intertwined with that of the ILGWU, the union which represented female garment workers. But the ILGWU no longer exists, instead it has been merged into a restaurant workers union, and even that combined union has half the membership the ILGWU did. The combined union is run by a Yale Phi Beta Kappa grad, whose wife, another Yale alumni, cozily runs the union's health plan. Additionally he serves on the Board of Trustees of Washington D.C.'s high end liberal public policy think tank, the Brookings Institute. It's enough to make the NYU tenants of the old home of the Triangle factory seem downright lower class.

What happened to the unions? A union is an organization, not the expression of the collective will of the workers. It is not fundamentally different than the sweatshops, it just operates on another business model. A sweatshop and a union both run for the benefit of the bosses, they just have a different set of customers, the sweatshop's customers are the brands and the union's customers are the workers. Both the sweatshop and the union win over their customers with ruthless tactics, but the final profit goes to the bosses.

The Triangle era saw ruthless exploitation and conflict between workers and bosses. The bosses suppressed worker discontent and strikes by hiring local gangs for protection or relying on the Democratic party's Tammany Hall machine to send out its cops, at a time when promotion in the New York City police force meant paying money to the boys on top . The workers turned to gangs and to left wing radicals, who built up their unions, took them over and turned them into a trust that controlled entire industries. The trust was integrated into the political machine. Soon the sweatshop workers and owners were both working for the same people.

The ILGWU, which newspapers and labor mythmakers would have us believe that the falling women of the Triangle Waist Company died for, used gangsters like Little Augie and Lepke Buchalter, head of Murder Inc, to maintain control over the trust. And though much is made by feminists of the ILGWU being a mostly female union, it was and in its current incarnation is still run by men who did not tolerate any dissent. When the Depression killed the boom that had powered the garment business, it also killed the ILGWU's trust. Only federal intervention by FDR's labor regulations turned the tide. But that too was only temporary. Once the garment industry was able to begin outsourcing to cheaper labor abroad, the ILGWU began dying a slow death.

The union's business model depended on raising the cost of labor, and charging the workers for doing their organizing for them, which conflicted with the garment industry's need to make clothes as cheaply as possible. Now those same clothes are being made in China or Chinatown. The ILGWU, like so many unions, promised the good life, but they could only deliver temporary raises followed by the decimation of the industry itself. It was enough time for a generation to get on its feet, but not for those that followed it. There are still garment worker union members and plenty of them work in sweatshops while making below minimum wage. This is no paradox. A large membership means wealth and power for those on top. It doesn't necessarily mean anything for those on the bottom. Cheap garments will always be made, whether they will be made cheaply by union or non-union members. They fill a need and as long as people buy based primarily on price considerations, the sweatshop will go on existing.

Sweatshops were built to take advantage of a new business model, that sidelined tailors who worked for individual customers, for mass produced garments by factory workers. The workers could be unskilled and disposable. An owner made the lowest bid for a contract, borrowed money and rented a space and equipment, got workers for as little as he could, and then tried to squeeze blood out of them to make a profit. If he succeeded, then he might be able to do the same thing again, if he didn't, he would be bankrupt. The cheaply made clothes were of lower quality (though of much higher quality than most clothes you'll find at Wal-Mart or K-Mart today) but affordable for millions of people. A successful worker might save up enough to become an owner himself. And plenty of doctors, lawyers and tycoons had fathers or mothers who started out this way.

That is what makes the problem of labor so difficult. Over a hundred women died in the Triangle Waist Company fire, but how many hundreds of thousands of women lived because the garment industry, with all the ugliness of its sweatshops and child labor, provided a way for them and their families to come to America. How many of them would have survived under Nazi or Communist rule?

It isn't a cheerful question to ask, but any moral consideration of the Triangle Waist Company must also raise that question. The possibility that the garment industry still saved far more lives than it took. And that moral consideration is often at the heart of unregulated capitalism. Does its ultimate prosperity justify its abuses?

Today China has slave labor, widespread pollution and a rising middle class. And America has a tightly regulated labor market and a declining middle class. Liberals despise trickle down economics, but prosperity is undeniably trickling away from the regulatory republics of the West and into the maw of Chinese crony capitalists. And the Chinese sweatshop workers in New York, slaving over machines in hot rooms, the way their Jewish and Italian predecessors did, are more likely to have children who will go to Yale, than the Black and Hispanic government employees living on generous union negotiated salaries

New York City has lost 2 percent of its Black residents who are mainly moving to the non-union south, because there are jobs there. The large Black populations in Northeastern cities had come for the jobs in booming urban industries. Particularly during wartime, when so many American workers were fighting in Europe or Asia. When those industries moved abroad, they left behind ghettos full of people who could no longer find work. The race riots had far more to do with joblessness, than with discrimination, as can be seen by looking at the much milder race riots during WW2 when jobs were available.

The liberal northeast is a union paradise, and yet black people are deserting it. They are abandoning strongholds like New York, Chicago and Boston. And it's not just the Northeast, even a Pacific liberal haven like San Francisco is losing its black population. The Federal government is going after Marin County for its lack of diversity, accusing it of violating the Civil Rights Act. But officials have tried to attract Black residents with the usual diversity buzzwords, but how do you do that without jobs? Every article about Black emigration from urban areas uses those same buzzwords and all of them miss the point. Chicago, New York and San Francisco did not suddenly turn racist-- they turned jobless.

While unions can lock in a guaranteed number of jobs at a given salary-- they can only do so at the cost of reducing the overall number of available jobs. You can have a 100,000 very good jobs, a 1,000,000 average jobs or 10,000,000 miserable ones or a 100,000,000 slave labor jobs. The unionized northeast has gone with the.100,000 and China has gone with the 100,000,000. Which is why they have jobs and we don't. That is not to say that we should be imitating China-- rather it is important to understand the dynamic at work here.

Liberalism's celebration of diversity is properly a celebration of capitalism. That diversity would not exist without it. America was built by everyone from indentured English and Irish servants, German, Irish, Jewish and Italian factory workers, Swedish farmers and miners to African-American slaves, and half the world, from Norway to China. Many of them were treated badly, but the larger story may be what they and their descendants achieved here. Liberals like to fit that into a narrative that begins with exploitation and ends with regulation-- but then why are so many of the millions of White and Black workers who depended on major industries out of work?

Their answer is that government solves everything. But let us take a look at another fire that happened not far from the site of the Triangle Waist Company fire and is much less remembered today. The fire on board the General Slocum.

In the summer of 1904, the General Slocum, a  ship taking the women and children of the ethnic German community in Manhattan, for an outing caught fire. But its safety equipment from life jackets to hoses were completely useless. Over a thousand women and children died within sight of the shore. Died in useless and senseless ways that would have never happened had the safety equipment been inspected. But the 'inspectors' were part of the Democratic party's corrupt Tammany Hall network, who were appointed by political patrons to a lucrative office and were notorious for passing anything. Life vests filled with iron bars and rotten hoses on the General Slocum got their approval. The regulations were there, but government corruption ensured that they would not be enforced.

A year earlier, 650 theater patrons had died in Chicago during the Iroquois Theatre fire, again because of corrupt inspectors. Safety equipment was non-existent and the law went unenforced. Charges were leveled against everyone up to Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison, but the 'Chicago Way' ensured that justice was not served. And a year later, Carter Harrison was running for the Democratic party's nomination for President.

Both these events were at least as horrifying as the Triangle Waist Company fire, and had a much higher death toll. But they are not remembered because not only do they fail to make a pro-labor point, but they actually make a much more dangerous point about the inherent corruptibility of government authority. They remind us that regulation is law and law is enforced by men through a bureaucracy overseen by political patronage. And that such systems are no more moral or ethical, and no less greedy, than that of the sweatshops. As we confront a 15 trillion dollar deficit and an uncontrollable orgy of greed by politicians and public sector unions who are their electoral base, we are reminded of that every day.

The only answer may be that there is no answer. It is men who make moral choices, and it is the individual, whether in a corporation, a union and or a government who does or does not do the right thing. The problem of labor cannot be solved by creating more organizations, as that only creates more hierarchies which also treat workers as cash cows. They cannot be solved through passing laws in one country, while its citizens purchase the benefits of slave labor from another. There may be no solving it at all. And on the former site of the Triangle Waist Company, students pass holding iPod's made by abused workers in China whose economy is nevertheless threatening to dominate the 21st century.


  1. I don’t entirely agree with your rather negative conclusion. Globalization is an American corporate and government bilateral creation and it can be stopped just as easily as it was started. Labour has gone abroad because the cost of business and labour are high; the former is high because government is too large and not concentrating on the social requirements of business as it should and the latter is high because the cost of living is too high and that is thanks to government subservience to finance (seen through high housing cost/finance and currency devaluation). You're right to identify government corruption as a key factor but I believe that it can be tackled, whereas you seem resigned.

  2. actually I was speaking about a dynamic of labor far more fundamental and predating globalization

    globalization is just companies and consumers seeking out the cheapest manufactured products

  3. Anonymous31/3/11

    it was the Triangle Shirt Waist not Triangle Waist.

  4. No, it was Triangle Waist Company

    see a New York Times 1911 article of the day


  5. Wow, I had never heard of this tragedy before. Horrible. Immigrants certainly did work under horrendous conditions, but I often wonder what their fates would have been in they stayed in the old country.

    Not the right time period but think about the poor women in particular forced into prostitution just to have one meal a day or a bed for the night. I wonder if they would have willingly worked in a sweathouse versus just to have something to eat and somewhere to sleep.


    "As we confront a 15 trillion dollar deficit and an uncontrollable orgy of greed by politicians and public sector unions who are their electoral base, we are reminded of that every day. "

    Quite true. Just to show how absurd some public unions are, the Buffalo PBA got the city to agree to paying cops an entire day's pay just for giving blood once a year. They call it "Blood Days."

    Granted, that was approved under a previous adminstration but good luck trying to get the city to reverse it.

  6. Anonymous31/3/11

    one of your best articles, from many different angles.

  7. thank you, I appreciate that

  8. Did you mean "The sweatshop's business model" or "The union's business model"?


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