Present-Day Apathy Not Always Case

We live in cynical times. For years, young people have felt disengaged from the political process.
August 28, 2003

“Triangle: The Fire That Changed America,” by David Von Drehle (Atlantic Monthly Press, $26)

We live in cynical times. For years, young people have felt disengaged from the political process. Knowledge of governmental figures and the workings of law seem more tenuous among college students every year. Now, driven by electoral ambiguities and corporate scandals, Americans have grown increasingly disillusioned about the impact individuals can really have on the governance of this country.

This hasn’t always been the case. The first half of the 20th century was a time of unrivaled activism. That involvement took many forms. In New York, the infamous Tammany Hall political system openly bought and sold votes and the influence that came with them. Opposing the forces of the ward bosses, sachems and scouts — as the Tammany operatives were called — were the ranks of progressive thinkers who agitated for change. Among the latter group, Eastern European Jews, recent immigrants from such oppressive and anti-Semitic regimes as Russia, Hungary and Lithuania, were in the vanguard. Having lived through the pogroms (as well as other forms of discrimination and intimidation) in their hometowns and cities, they came to the United States prepared for better treatment, and willing to fight for it when it was not forthcoming.

The immigrant’s life was not an easy one. As is well known, many ended up in the tenements of the Lower East Side, working for slave wages in sweatshops and dreaming of better days to come. That their bosses were often other immigrant Jews did not ensure that they would be treated fairly or even humanely. Those who could amass their fortunes at the expense of other, more recent arrivals, did so without a second thought.

It is hard to understand where they drew the strength to take on a system stacked against them; factory workers had little money, no clout with city officials — who had been paid off by the shop owners — and practically no time to organize. They worked from early in the morning until late in the night in cramped, poorly lit rooms, being driven to produce more and more by foremen who stood over them with eagle eyes, aware that they could be replaced by another desperate person for any infraction.

Then there were the safety hazards: fire was common. According to one source, approximately 136 people died in workplace fires every year. Tenement fires were common, too, and with up to 150 people squeezed into a narrow, six-story building, surviving was a matter of luck and chance. Conditions were so unsanitary at work and home that people often fell sick with diseases we think of as belonging only in underdeveloped, Third World countries.

Life indeed was hard, but somehow that difficulty galvanized people, and things were ready to burst by 1909, as David Von Drehle comprehensively and often chillingly relates in his new book, “Triangle: The Fire that Changed America.” By the autumn of that year, conditions in the shirtwaist factories, where mainly young women toiled to produce ladies’ blouses, had deteriorated so far that the workers, many of whom barely spoke English, inspired thousands to stage a walkout in hopes of forming a union.

The young women drew some influential supporters, among them J.P. Morgan’s daughter and Frances Perkins, who would go on to hold the first Cabinet position held by a woman in American history. These “society women” had money, influence and the ability to draw media attention to the cause of the shirtwaist workers. What they did not have was the vote. Women’s suffrage did not pass until 1920, and yet all these women, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, threw themselves into the fray. Even though they could not affect elections, they still believed they could have an impact on the way things were run.

And they were right, but first there had to be a fire. Von Drehle brings the situation that led up to the disastrous Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire — the deadliest workplace disaster in New York City until Sept. 11, 2001 — horribly to life. His book shows how the events of the previous year and a half led to the changes instituted in the wake of the devastating blaze. Primed by the strike’s impact, the government was finally ready to change business practices to protect the safety and well-being of those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

The outcome was by no means assured. The owners, who had locked their workers into the factory floor to make sure no one stole some thread, lace or even a $0.50 blouse, were acquitted in their trial, and the Tammany bosses resisted any change that might have adversely affected their coffers. But change did come, and transformed the lives of countless American workers.

That was then. We are all enfranchised now, and yet one doesn’t have to look far to find greed, corruption and the perversion of the democratic process. What will it take to galvanize us?

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