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March 25, 2011

Triangle Shirtwaist
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 11:35 AM * 80 comments

Today is the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

The story is familiar, and has been covered well many places. We all know how at quitting time, Saturday March the 25th, 1911, a fire started on the 8th floor of the Asch Building (29 Washington Place in Greenwich Village, now known as the Brown Building and part of NYU). We know that nearly a hundred and fifty workers, mostly women and children, died in the fire, either of burns or falls.

We know that some of the exit doors were chained shut by management. We know that the fire escape was only 17½ inches wide and tore away from the wall. We have heard how the rooms were overcrowded and filled with flammable materials. We have heard of the heroism and the horror.

But perhaps less well-known is that the Triangle Shirtwaist Company had successfully resisted unionization of its workers two years before.

One of the people on the sidewalk who witnessed the fire was Frances Perkins.

In less than 20 minutes, 146 people, mostly Italian and Jewish immigrant women and girls, were dead. The last six victims were officially identified just a few weeks ago. Triangle outraged the public and offered a grisly example of how powerless workers were without collective bargaining, because unionized garment workers received better pay and had safer conditions. And it galvanized Frances Perkins.

Twenty-two years later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her secretary of labor, the first woman to serve as a Cabinet secretary. During her 12-year tenure, she directed the formulation and implementation of the Social Security Act, one of the most important pieces of social legislation in our history. Among other extraordinary accomplishments, she helped create unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, and the legislation that guarantees the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively. She also established the department’s Labor Standards Bureau, a precursor to what is now the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Perkins clearly had the Triangle victims in mind as she weaved the nation’s social safety net.

Now, as collective bargaining rights are being destroyed by executive fiat all across America, it is well to remember what those rights cost, and what losing them may well cost again.

Step outside today at 4:45pm and ring a bell in memory of those lessons we should never forget.

Comments on Triangle Shirtwaist:
#1 ::: Lighthill ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2011, 12:00 PM:

We all know how at quitting time, Saturday March the 11th, 1911

Typo: I think one of those 11s wants to be a 25.

#2 ::: PurpleGirl ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2011, 12:10 PM:

I was unable to attend the site ceremony this morning, but I'm live streaming it on the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition web site.

#3 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2011, 12:14 PM:

The building, today, is part of New York University. Many Violets do not realise that part of the history of the institution (I certainly didn't when I was in grad school there, and I stood in line in that very building my first day in order to register).

#4 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2011, 12:33 PM:

Esther Friesner has an excellent post on the subject here on a kidlit celebration of Women's History Month . She talks about the incident itself, and about the value of historical fiction in bringing the past alive.

"What I would like to do is point out that keeping our eyes fixed on the deaths of these human beings keeps us from remembering their lives. It makes it seem as though the only means of influence they had was to die, that they were important only for being victims.

They were more than that."

Although I will admit that the value she sees in historical fiction, of making the individuals come alive, can also be done by nonfiction, as Jim's Collinwood School post demonstrated so vividly.

#5 ::: PurpleGirl ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2011, 12:57 PM:

Fragano: NYU bought the building in 1929. It has been used for chemistry and biology classes and labs for as long I can remember. (I started NYU as a chemistry major in 1969.) I spent most of my freshman year class time in labs in Brown.

#6 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2011, 12:58 PM:

A ceremony has been held there every year since I came to live in the neighborhood.

This year with the righwinger roll-out of very serious Union attack they've done more than ever.

Love, C.

#7 ::: PurpleGirl ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2011, 01:04 PM:

Mayor Bloomberg is being booed by the crowd at the ceremony. He's being heckled. The crowd definitely doesn't like him.

#8 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2011, 01:13 PM:

PurpleGirl, I am not surprised.

#9 ::: The Modesto Kid ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2011, 01:24 PM:

Interesting notes about Clara Lemlich, who played a part in the birth of the ILGWU, at NY Times' Cityroom blog.

#10 ::: The Modesto Kid ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2011, 01:28 PM:

That article by Solis is great -- thanks for linking it.

#11 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2011, 02:40 PM:

IIRC, Avram Davidson wrote a good piece on the fire in his book Crimes and Chaos, published by Regency Books in the early 1960s. That's where I first ran across it.

#12 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2011, 04:12 PM:

Weirdly, I am right now just six blocks north of where the fire happened, in the waiting room of TNH's pain clinic, waiting for her to emerge from a brief consultation. Maybe we'll get down to the street in time for the bell-ringing at 4:45.

#13 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2011, 04:31 PM:

I had never read/heard Robert Pinsky's "Shirt" until today. The Triangle Fire is prominently mentioned.

He reads it here.

#14 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2011, 04:43 PM:

Patrick has just sent me two photos from the building. They got there in time for the bell.

#15 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2011, 04:50 PM:

Also: I was reading, completely coincidentally, a good summary of the recent incident at Ronald Reagan Airport*. That was the night two planes had to make uncontrolled-airport landings because they couldn't get a response from the tower.

It turned out that the ATC was working alone (doing both the supervisory and controller roles), on his fourth night on the 10pm - 6am shift. He fell asleep.

He's now suspended. He'll probably get blamed.

My first thought was what a shame it is that the air traffic controllers don't have a union to stand up for him, and for adequate staffing on all shifts.

My second thought was that the line between that ATC working those shifts and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is laser-straight, and not nearly as long as we would like to think it is.

-----
* Airport Irony Win, and has been pointed out

#16 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2011, 05:07 PM:

Abi: I was thinking very similar thoughts this morning. I feel sorry for the guy.

#17 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2011, 05:16 PM:

I refuse to read this until I get my post on the subject up.

:)

#18 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2011, 05:17 PM:

abi:

This goes back to that wonderful comment you made regarding marriages and countries, where there are no long-term situations in which I win and you lose--that dynamic means we both lose.

When the boss has all-but-unlimited power over the employee, he can, and probably will, ignore inconvenient and tiresome complaints about how three night shifts in a row doing two peoples' jobs is unreasonable, or about how this particular machine is an accident waiting to happen, but wouldn't be that hard to make safer, or whatever. An amoral but perfectly rational AI would probably keep listening, but human nature, filtered through US culture, is that when I'm on top and you're on bottom, I don't have to listen. Vacation? Sick kid? Overtime? To hell with that nonsense, be here tomorrow morning or you're fired. I don't have to trouble myself with your complaints, because I hold all the cards.

The result is often that the job gets done less well, and preventable disasters occur.

#19 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2011, 06:08 PM:

albatross @ 18: "The result is often that the job gets done less well, and preventable disasters occur. "

But doing jobs well and preventing disasters isn't the point. Making money is the point. Disasters don't even matter at all, unless they impact the bottom line. They might, they might not; but if [increase in likelihood of crashes * median cost of crashes] < [cost of staffing two ATCs on midnight shifts] then they will happily cut workers and hum happily to themselves as the planes come whistling down.

What I'm trying to say is that this ATC incident isn't everyone losing--it's us who care about human life and dignity losing, and those who care about profit winning. I'll not call it a solution, but it is a meta-stable equilibrium point.

#20 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2011, 06:57 PM:

heresiarch @19:

they will happily cut workers and hum happily to themselves as the planes come whistling down.

I think you are, at the very least, painting with a very broad brush there. The vast majority of people who do nothing to prevent disasters don't "hum happily to themselves" when they occur. Fires where people jump out of the windows and plane crashes engender surprisingly little humming.

What the people you're thinking about really do is turn a willfully blind eye to the possibility of disaster (particularly in comparison to the reality of making your required numbers), then look for a scapegoat when it does occur. That way they can, perhaps, still the voice in the small hours of the night that tells them that they could have prevented it.

In either case, they've still lost. They've lost the ability to look up, to look widely, because somewhere in their hearts they know they won't like what they see. And we need the breadth of vision they will not use, the way we need the hands and minds and hearts of everyone to make this a whole and decent society.

We all lose from situations like the one I pointed out. It's just that some of us know it in the daylight, and others only in the dark of night. (Or, of course, when it's their plane crashing. These disasters affect us all.)

#21 ::: janra ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2011, 08:35 PM:

In general I agree with the stated principle of individual responsibility that the right wing goes on about so much, but one of the things I just can't understand is how they completely fail to see the massive power imbalance inherent in an individual employer/employee contract.

The "I'm on top so I don't have to listen" might apply to the executive level right wing folks, but what about the ones who are on the bottom, who keep getting the short end of the stick of that power imbalance?

It's hard to negotiate a fair contract when the other party can just shrug and take the next person in line who will accept their terms.

#22 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2011, 08:55 PM:

I am constantly amazed at the number of turkeys who will vote for both Thanksgiving and Christmas (although, as a political scientist, I do know that they're voting not their interest but their identity). I keep thinking that they should wake up before the axe bites them in the neck.

#23 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2011, 09:20 PM:

abi @ 20: I didn't mean that they were humming happily to themselves because the plane was crashing--I meant that they were humming happily in blissful ignorance of whether the plane was crashing or not. Perhaps while on a beach somewhere, drinking something with an umbrella in. Poor wording on my part.

"What the people you're thinking about really do is turn a willfully blind eye to the possibility of disaster (particularly in comparison to the reality of making your required numbers), then look for a scapegoat when it does occur."

I think that's a very compelling story in the wake of a disaster: that those who could have prevented it and didn't must have been somehow blinded. Perhaps by inattention, perhaps by ideology, but certainly they didn't let this happen with open eyes, mindful of the consequences.

It's a narrative that breaks down when applied elsewhere. Suffering for the sake of profit is hardly confined to disasters: they are likely a small fraction of it. Most suffering is entirely predictable. For every sweatshop, there is a sweatshop manager, watching the workers bleed and suffer and making sure that it continues. It's not like that suffering is a low probability event, hard to predict or control. It's built in. It occurs with the full knowledge and consent of those responsible, accepted as a cost of doing business.

Maybe they knew, maybe they didn't. But given the reality of knowing exploitation in so many other cases, why assume that knowing would have changed anything?

#24 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2011, 10:27 PM:

They are humming because they trust trust trust because they can't imagine how to live without trusting, and because they trust they know that even when the plane goes down it won't affect them at all.

Study the history of slavery, particularly in this country, and you cannot ignore the history of labor's connection to prosperity. Every damned time it comes down to extracting the most amount of wealth from labor without expending any expenditure yourself. In these equations is it is always better to lose individuals than to treat them fairly. Always.

Unless you have a different system of regulations, checks and balances, than you get with non-regulation, non-unions, non-abolition, etc.

Love, C.

#25 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2011, 10:28 PM:

The biggest stick with which to keep management in line for some decades has been public relations. But when they own all the media that no longer exists either.

We. Are. Screwed. That's all.

Love, C.

#26 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2011, 10:46 PM:

heresiarch #23: Except that the sweatshop manager isn't inflicting suffering out of pure sadism -- they're just slashing their overhead, without regard for who gets hurt in the process.

Remember that saying about "hard to make someone see something, when his salary depends on their not seeing it"? That is the manner in which the abusers are blinded to the effects of their actions -- and to the eventually disastrous consequences.

#27 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2011, 11:07 PM:

And the real abuser may well be a couple of steps up from the person whose job description includes not seeing it (and who can be fired if he sees it and therefore fails at his job). Somebody higher up quietly said "make it so," and so it was.

#28 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2011, 11:10 PM:

Meanwhile, we've got an all-out attack on workers going on here in New Hampshire.

Earlier this week, put into the state budget at the last minute and quite literally in the dead of night, we have a clause ending "evergreen" clauses in state workers' contracts.

That is to say, if a contract ends without a new contract being signed, rather than continuing under the terms of the old contract until a new one is agreed to by both parties, the contract ends completely, and all employees are considered "at-will," and can be fired for any reason or for no reason.

What this gives management is the ability to run out the clock on a contract and fire everyone. There's no incentive there for the employers to negotiate in good faith.

[Rep. Neal] Kurk, [R-Weare] said his plan, adopted 18-7 in the House Finance Committee Tuesday night, "is designed to produce a little more leverage for state labor negotiators."

While it was aimed at state workers, Kurk added that his plan puts the same power in the hands of every school board, selectmen's board and city council in the state.

If a contract expires without a new agreement in place, he said, the contract is over completely. Workers "become at-will employees and the government and state management officials could change the pension plan, could change health insurance, could change salaries and wages. Unilaterally," he said.

This is a screamingly bad idea, and so unfair on its face that it's a wonder the Republicans can propose it without blushing. But there it is, big as life.

#29 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2011, 11:58 PM:

My post is up. The post before that is relevant to the day as well.

#30 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2011, 12:03 AM:

regarding the sweatshop owners. In the research for my post one of them (ca. 1910) was quoted as telling an inspector that fire drills weren't going to happen, "let them burn, they're all cows" is how I recall the quotation...

Found it: The [New York] Times also found Mr. H.F.J. Porter, who had written to Triangle for an appointment on the matter of fire drills.

"There are only two or three factories in the city where fire drills are in use," he declared ruefully. "In some of them where I have installed the system myself, the owners have discontinued it.

"The neglect of factory owners in the matter of safety of their employees is absolutely criminal. One man whom I advised to install a fire drill replied to me: 'Let 'em burn. They're a lot of cattle, anyway.' "

#31 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2011, 12:03 AM:

Arg... It was, of course, supposed to be ital to the end.

#33 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2011, 01:43 AM:

Jim @ #28 writes: it's a wonder the Republicans can propose it without blushing.

In the immortal words of John McEnroe, You Cannot Be Serious (caution: audio of Mac plays upon clicking).

The Republican party has lost its capacity for embarrassment. Even when party members' hypocrisy is pointed out for all to see, these days their answer is "So?"

#34 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2011, 06:44 AM:

Kip W @27:
And the real abuser may well be a couple of steps up from the person whose job description includes not seeing it (and who can be fired if he sees it and therefore fails at his job). Somebody higher up quietly said "make it so," and so it was.

You have your finger on the issue, which is what I meant about "making your numbers" back at 20.

The road to Triangle Shirtwaist, and Foxconn, and Coca-Cola Mexico, goes something like this:

1. Management, with little or no insight into the realities of the shop floor, set targets (production, profit, etc) to please the shareholders. These targets get more stringent every year.

2. Middle management propagate the targets to supervisors, and are answerable for their delivery. But they're not in a position to push back if those targets are unrealistic.

3. Supervisors are promoted from the workers, and can be sacked or booted back into the pool if they don't get their staff to meet the targets. (Note that they are rarely trained for their new roles, but have to figure out effective leadership strategies for themselves.)

4. Workers can be fired easily, and there's a significant population of potential employees.

They top three layers each have a thing they need to do or they lose their jobs, so they transfer the pressure down the way. The bottom layer has no one to transfer the pressure to, so they get squeezed until they break.

No one in this scenario needs to be evil. They can be, and they can be merely willfully blind, but they can also be good-intentioned but with a mortgage and a kid who needs health insurance.

And that, by the way, is why we need strong labor laws. Not just to punish the bad guys, but also to give the good people, who want to do better, a good wall to have their back against.

I note that May 1 (International Workers' Day) is a Sunday this year. Has anyone considered how much fun it would be to have a bunch of parades on a Sunday in the spring, with flags and songs and kids riding bikes?

#35 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2011, 09:29 AM:

Abi #34 - maybe I am condensing your post too much, but it seems to me that it is a matter of power, and the people at the bottom don't have any.
And people seem to have a real problem seeing that there is political and economic power, but the two are to a large extent combined nowadays, so the only politics which gets done is that which is suitable for the economic power people.
Here in the UK, so many of the governments reforms seem to be, when examined properly, only to be about giving away economic advantage to political allies. Which isn't new, but seems to be ever more normal.

#36 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2011, 10:34 AM:

Abi @34

May 1 might be an interesting event, this year.

Many recordings of The Internationale are here.

I rather like the Billy Bragg version. I also have a version played on ukelele, while I think one of the versions on that page starts very French, and then leaps into an approximation of the Quintette Du Hot Club De France.

Singing songs about Christmas Trees or the State of Maryland might cause confusion.

As for mentioning the Spanish Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, we might be lucky enough to see some politicians' heads explode...

#37 ::: Henry Troup ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2011, 11:36 AM:

#15 - I thought that the airport name was one serious piece of irony.

#38 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2011, 11:50 AM:

More on my #28 (from the same article):

"Maybe he's hoping they won't notice we are shredding the public safety net, devastating essential services, creating no jobs and giving tax breaks to corporations at the same time," [Diana] Lacey, [president of the State Employees Association] said.

Finance Committee Chairman Rep. Kenneth Weyler, R-Kingston, said unions are exaggerating the effects of the reforms.

He said the change creates, "a mild advantage for the employer."

"Mild advantage" my ass. As if employers didn't have enough advantages already, this gives them the ability to present sign-it-or-you're-fired contracts whenever they want. No matter how horrible those contracts might be. I wonder if next legislative season they'll introduce gun-to-the-head contracts. Those would only be a "mild advantage" too.

"Shredding the public safety net, devastating essential services, creating no jobs and giving tax breaks to corporations at the same time" is the minimum of what's being proposed. Apparently the Republican legislators don't contemplate that they personally, or anyone they know, will ever have to work for a living. And think that their houses will never catch on fire, their kids won't go to a public school, they will never be robbed, and they won't need to go to an emergency room by ambulance.

And here we see why the Republicans are fighting so hard against the public option for health care. If you took health insurance off the table, workers would have more freedom to change jobs.

#39 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2011, 12:10 PM:

Jim Macdonald #38:

Hear! Hear!

#40 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2011, 12:21 PM:

I have never been anything other than an at-will employee, and have been shafted in numerous ways, some legal, some illegal ("Get a lawyer" was the EEOC's comment when I called them).

Still, I respect unions. I know they're the reason for work-week limits, overtime, safety regs and a lot of other rules that even people in my position benefit from.

It makes me sick to see this all-out attempt to destroy them.

#41 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2011, 01:25 PM:

At this moment, I don't anticipate returning to the US during my working life. Working conditions are a big part of it.

It's not just the paucity of vacation days, or the way that illness is treated (which encourages the spread of disease). I think the pervasiveness of "at will" employment is a stifling monstrosity. Greater job security allows people to take professional risks, some of which pay off in interesting and dramatic ways.

And I'm infuriated by the complete and utter disrespect of labor and organization of labor. It can be made to work so well for all sides.

As is required by businesses of its size in Europe, my company has a Works Council, made up of elected employee representatives. Management must get their agreement for any substantive changes in working conditions, pay, etc, etc. I've read about them doing some surprising things (agreeing to a flattening of the upper end of the pay curve for a few years to allow a set of historically underpaid colleagues to catch up, frex.) The German private sector furlough program, which is widely credited for saving German jobs (and keeping skilled employees in the companies that need them) was negotiated via Works Councils.

And then there's health insurance. As Jim points out, that's another kind of leg iron on employees.

From where I'm sitting, it looks like the US working world is a trap. I had the great good fortune to have the opportunity to escape from it, and my only regret is that my dear friends without that luck are in it.

Workers of the world, unite. No, seriously, do. We're on your side, over here in Europe.

#42 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2011, 01:52 PM:

abi #34: I'll add that essentially the same pattern has been implemented in the No Child Left Behind Act. The inevitable disasters are already starting to show up -- certainly less deadly, but arguably even more damaging to America's future.

#43 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2011, 02:00 PM:

abi #41:

That was really a lot of the point of what I was saying above. My claim is:

a. Setting up the rules so that the workers have zero power and the management has all the power, or

b. Setting up the rules so that the workers have all the power and the management has zero power[1]

will either one be far more likely to run the company or industry into the ground than would making sure everyone has some amount of power. The reason, IMO, is because of limits of information and human nature. When I hold all the cards, I don't have to care what you are telling me. Often, the really important, valuable stuff you're telling me is also really unpleasant stuff to hear, and I'm likely to prefer not to hear it. If you have some power, I am a lot more likely to have to listen. If you have none, I am a lot more likely to tell you to STFU. And it's quite likely that this will lead to bad outcomes for me as a manager, or for the company I'm working for.

Shorter me: to get your workplace to function better, you may or may not want a union, but you definitely want your employees to have enough power not to be intimidated into silence about problems.


[1] I'm not sure how often this extreme has ever been reached, but it does seem, from my very limited information, like unions that didn't have to listen to unpleasant feedback from management caused a lot of damage in the US auto and railroad industries. This is human nature.

The thing is, in a family or a nation or a market or a workplace, we all have somewhat different interests, but if we're either in an adversarial role, or if some participants are powerless and others are super powerful, things will almost certainly not go well.

#44 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2011, 02:06 PM:

One addendum:

I think abi's right about health care. I have known (and now know) several people who work only for the healthcare--they don't want or need the job and salary, but they have long-term condition or a sick kid, so they don't dare go without health insurance. If we really arrive at something like affordable healthcare for everyone, the job market will become much more efficient, because people will be far less likely to feel locked into their job for fear of being bankrupted by an illness. (Though I gather you're usually bankrupted by an illness as much by not being able to work as by medical bills and related life disruptions like being too sick to manage your bills for several months.)

In places most heavily struck by the housing bubble, there's another ball and chain in place. If a better job is a 100 mile move away, you may have to go bankrupt to be able to move there and take that better job, since you owe $400K for a house that now will sell for $300K.

One bright spot here: most retirement is now defined-contribution, which means you're not chained to the retirement plan, and your employer can't save money by firing you a week before you would have become eligible for the program.

#45 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2011, 02:16 PM:

abi @ 41... it looks like the US working world is a trap

I wouldn't mind their shoving things up my ass if I got something more than sweet little nothings.

#46 ::: PurpleGirl ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2011, 02:17 PM:

One bright spot here: most retirement is now defined-contribution, which means you're not chained to the retirement plan, and your employer can't save money by firing you a week before you would have become eligible for the program.

They will still fire you if you're a higher-paid older worker.

#47 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2011, 02:23 PM:

albatross @43:

Oh, the two of us are in entire agreement (a not uncommon occurrence in the area of principles, even when we vary on practice). This is particularly the case when you say flattering things about me, as you did back up there at 18.

To a certain extent, my comment at 41 is a confirmation, a practical example of your points.

It's worth mentioning that there are costs to the level of worker protection we have here in the Netherlands. I spent the last five months working under a truly useless boss, who has been drifting from department to department in my company because he's effectively un-sackable. It's not good for the company, and it's not good for him, either; he needs to move on and rediscover his own value. (It wasn't too super for me for a while, but I learned to just ignore him and do what I felt was needed. This has been a winning strategy thus far.)

On the other hand, I have a peer whose life took a bad turn for a year or so, and he did a truly terrible job for that time. He's since rediscovered his mojo, and is becoming quite intimidatingly good at what he does again. He, too, is moving teams, but he's also back to being an asset to the company. At-will employment would probably have broken his career, and it certainly would have lost his skills for the organization.

(How do companies work with the employment protection laws and their need to get a good long look at new hires? There tends to be a trial period of a month or so that is true no-notice at-will employment on both sides. Then there's a fixed-term contract, usually for the rest of a calendar year from the start date. There's a notice period and employment protections during that time, of course, but an employer can also just wait the clock out. If employees make the grade, then they are offered indefinite contracts and are fully under the umbrella of the extensive worker protections in the Netherlands.)

#48 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2011, 02:42 PM:

albatross @43 and abi @41 and @47
Yes, this.

In particular, the experience abi describes of Works Councils - of the ability to compromise in a situation that threatens both parties - sounds like an excellent thing to me.

This links to me to the discussion we had earlier about the Netherlands teaching anti-bullying, compromise, and cooperating starting in grade school.

#49 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2011, 03:40 PM:

PurpleGirl #46: They will still fire you if you're a higher-paid older worker.

I was laid off under similar circumstances, and pointed out to my boss that since they've laid off myself and one other experienced person in a related department, they've eliminated everyone in the company who knew how to use MS Access, which would put a particular customer's work in question. Didn't matter, and that customer went away too.

#50 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2011, 03:59 PM:

David Harmon @ 26: "Except that the sweatshop manager isn't inflicting suffering out of pure sadism -- they're just slashing their overhead, without regard for who gets hurt in the process."

Exactly. Business isn't sadistic, in the sense that it differentiates between kindness and cruelty and chooses the latter. It simply doesn't recognize either of those concepts at all.

(Though I do believe sadists tend to cluster in lower management for pragmatic reasons. It's hard to find people who can gaze directly at human suffering and just not care at all: the vast majority of people are either repulsed or excited by it. Since being repulsed by it would make the job undoable, there's a selective pressure towards sadists [or sociopaths, but they're harder to find]. That, I think, ends up being inefficient--there's also a reason sadists don't move up the hierarchy--but less inefficient than not exploiting labor.)

Kip W @ 27: "And the real abuser may well be a couple of steps up from the person whose job description includes not seeing it (and who can be fired if he sees it and therefore fails at his job). Somebody higher up quietly said "make it so," and so it was."

That doesn't exculpate responsibility for war crimes; why should economic crimes be any different?

This isn't a situation where I think "evil" is a useful concept. It is incredibly uncommon for people to choose to do bad things believing they're bad. In the overwhelming majority of cases for the overwhelming majority of people, they choose to do things that are good from their vantage, from within their worldview. The point is that within the capitalist worldview the good thing to do is make money, whatever the consequences, and that people internalize this and do not need ignorance or self-deception to perpetrate monstrous acts. Ignorance and self-deception certainly play a pervasive role, but they aren't alone.

(Apropos: Everyone has a mortgage to pay.)

#51 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2011, 06:14 PM:

Abi #47: On the other hand, I have a peer whose life took a bad turn for a year or so,

Which sums how I lost my last job as a programmer -- and, added to the effects from their exploitative work environment, it did break my career.

#52 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2011, 07:47 PM:

albatross @ 44:

One bright spot here: most retirement is now defined-contribution, which means you're not chained to the retirement plan, and your employer can't save money by firing you a week before you would have become eligible for the program.

That's fine as long as the money is actually present in the fund. Many retirement plans are underfunded, either because the manager of the plan (often the employer) didn't put in all the money they were supposed to, or they took it out of the fund to keep the company going (read "stole"), or because the last couple of economic crises depleted the fund and the managers haven't been able to restore it (that happened to a lot of hedge funds: the managers hedged with their money but not with their clients' money).

#53 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2011, 07:51 PM:

heresiarch @ 50:

"Evil" still applies to acts of omission, and to failure to examine the consequences of one's acts even if not willful blindness; see Hannah Arendt. Sometimes there are no actions that don't have evil consequences; we all get to decide whether or not to live in Omelas.

#54 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2011, 07:58 PM:

I'm not terribly surprised by the attack on labor the Republicans are mounting; my grandfather was a member of the ILGWU in New York in the 1920's; that's how he met his first wife, my mother's mother and I've been hearing stories about fighting for the union since I was a child. But there's a practical reason why it's happening right now: with 5 unemployed people for every job opening, the bosses have the whip hand, and they plan to use the power this gives them to make it permanent.

"If you want a picture of the future, imagine a whip lashing a human back— forever."

#55 ::: Avedon ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2011, 10:18 PM:

For anyone who is interested, Sam Seder interviewed Kevin Baker about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and its impact on the union movement earlier in the week, and you can stream or get the podcast for it here.

#56 ::: Chris Lawson ::: (view all by) ::: March 27, 2011, 08:34 AM:

janra #21,

I too believe in the importance of personal responsibility. Two things need to be said, though. First is that it has to be implemented carefully. The best way to prevent disastrous errors is to NOT seek individuals to take personal responsibility, but to correct the breakdown in the system that led to the error.

The second point is that, in conservative hands, personal responsibility is just a marketing slogan meant to apply to criminals, single mothers, drug addicts, illegal immigrants, and so on. Try asking for personal responsibility from investment bankers who destroy the economy, police officers who assault protestors without provocation, or attorneys-general who give permission to torture and see how far you get with the principle.

#57 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 27, 2011, 10:22 AM:

Chris:

Not to put too fine a point on it, but allegedly liberal elected leaders in the last couple years have also not been so keen on personal responsibility as applying to bankers, cops, or torturers....

#58 ::: Dr. Psycho ::: (view all by) ::: March 27, 2011, 02:58 PM:

What is the building called by NYU, and why on Earth is it not called the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Building?

#59 ::: PurpleGirl ::: (view all by) ::: March 27, 2011, 03:08 PM:

What is the building called by NYU, and why on Earth is it not called the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Building?

NYU's current name for it is the Brown Building of Science. It is the home of chemistry and biology labs and classrooms. Its previous name was the Asch Building. Triangle Shirtwaist Co. had the top three floors. There is bronze plaque on the side of the building with some of the story on it. The plaque has been stolen a number a times and replaced by unions.

#60 ::: janra ::: (view all by) ::: March 27, 2011, 06:27 PM:

Chris & albatross, that's why I called it the "stated principle". Some live by it. Some don't.

For things where a single person has power over what happens, I think it's a good principle to use.

For things where a single person has less control or not enough power to affect what happens - that's where stuff like social responsibility, collective action (not just unions, but neighbourhoods on up), and other non-individual themes come into play.

From my outsider's perspective, this second part of reality seems to be a blind spot of a fair bit of the right wing. And probably the left too; frankly, of anybody who has lots of power and can bend reality to their will for a time. It just appears to be particularly well embedded in the rhetoric of the right wing.

#61 ::: Chris Lawson ::: (view all by) ::: March 27, 2011, 08:56 PM:

albatross:

I agree completely. It has been one of the disappointments of my life to see the validation of the worst policies of the Bush administration by people who should have opposed them but felt too afraid of the political consequences. Likewise in the UK, the Lib Dem party had an historic opportunity to temper the conservative government but instead has found itself supporting the worst of the conservative policies in order to maintain their seats at the table. Here in Australia, we have a supposedly liberal prime minister balking on legislating gay marriage despite polls consistently showing 70% of the population being in favour, because she is afraid of the conservative backlash. I feel like screaming at her THEY'RE NOT YOUR CONSTITUENCY AND THEY NEVER WILL BE! but I guess if she was able to figure this out, she would have by now.

I know I've drifted out of the personal responsibility topic, but the principle applies generally: the West is currently hobbled with supposedly liberal leaders supporting anti-liberal policies out of sheer cowardice.

#62 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 27, 2011, 09:32 PM:

Chris Lawson #61: I know I've drifted out of the personal responsibility topic, but the principle applies generally: the West is currently hobbled with supposedly liberal leaders supporting anti-liberal policies out of sheer cowardice.

Pardon, but just how is that "drifting"? The problem is exactly that the officials in question are shirking personal responsibility for their own official actions.

#63 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: March 27, 2011, 09:40 PM:

Abi at # 47: It's worth mentioning that there are costs to the level of worker protection we have here in the Netherlands. I spent the last five months working under a truly useless boss, who has been drifting from department to department in my company because he's effectively un-sackable. It's not good for the company, and it's not good for him, either; he needs to move on and rediscover his own value.

But I've seen this in the US several times as well, incompetent middle managers transfered from department to department until they retire or their spouse accepts a job far away. And this was in a state with a so-called right-to-work law.

So I wouldn't count this as a cost of Netherlands-style worker protections, because we pay it regardless.

#64 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: March 27, 2011, 09:43 PM:

Bruce Cohen STM at # 52: That's fine as long as the money is actually present in the fund. Many retirement plans are underfunded, either because the manager of the plan (often the employer) didn't put in all the money they were supposed to, or they took it out of the fund to keep the company going (read "stole"), or because the last couple of economic crises depleted the fund and the managers haven't been able to restore it....

It sounds like you're describing defined benefit plans rather than defined contribution plans. An advantage of defined contribution plans is that it's harder to cook the books or dip into the pot; the employer contributes the defined amount to the fund and thereafter it is in the control of a trust company and out of the company's hands.

#65 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: March 27, 2011, 10:01 PM:

@64 As I understand it the chief problem with defined-contribution (401K and friends) plans is that they're largely invested in, well, investments - stock and things - that can go down as well as up, meaning that the money isn't there when you need it. My other half's 401K-equivalent (he works for an educational institution, so I think it's a 403-something or other) has had some very bad years.

I'm a perma-temp, so I haven't been at more than a couple of jobs long enough for 401K-equivalents to become an issue; I declined one opportunity to start one with a company that Really Really Really wanted employees to invest in their stock, and after getting laid off due to division closure I was amused when a couple of years later they got bought out by their major competitor Um, yeah, that's where I want my retirement (what retirement?) money...

Roth IRA for me; I'm already in the lowest tax bracket so I might as well pay the taxes up front and save worrying about it later.

It's all a racket anyway [1]; I fully expect to be obliged to work until I physically can't anymore, or at least 30 more years, whichever takes longer. (Not a typo; under current Social Security rules I have to work until age 67 to collect full benefits, so 30 years is pretty much the shortest work window I've got.)

[1] says the cynical and disillusioned Gen-Xer. I fully expect to pay into the system one way or another until it's time for me to collect, and then to have the rules changed so I'm no longer eligible. It's a repeating pattern, but I don't see how I can change it.

#66 ::: inge ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2011, 08:16 AM:

janra #60: For things where a single person has power over what happens, I think it's a good principle to use.

But as every serious mess is multicausal, you will always find one part of it that was within the power of the person you want to blame.

At a training I was, we had a role play on something like that: Six people of different power and status contributed to a mess, one had to be thrown to the wolves. Trainer said in three out of four games, everyone agreed to throw the least powerful (and, not accidentally, least responsible) person to the wolves -- the guy who actually tried to fix things when they happened, but lacked backup and support. And that was a game -- no institutional or structual power involved. (Which is why in one memorable case the most powerful "role" lost, after an unwise attack on the player with the most gaming experience.)

#67 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2011, 08:20 AM:

inge #66: What sort of training was this? Is it accessible to the general public?

#68 ::: Leigh Kimmel ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2011, 11:05 AM:

inge @ #66: Ah, yes -- I'm all too familiar with that dynamic of everyone trying to push the blame for a screwup away from them, so that the person with the least power to push back ends up stuck with it, even when they actually made the smallest contribution to the mess. Often there's also a "last person to touch" rule in operation as well, or a "last opportunity to abandon" rule, such that the big wheels who set up the mess get to slink away and leave a flunky holding the bag.

The truly sad thing is what happens to the innocent family members of the person who gets thrown under the wheels of the bus to satisfy demands for accountability (read, somebody needs to be Punished for this mess). Especially the kids who get their lives ruined for no reason they can comprehend, who have only memories of the love of the parent who's become the receptacle for everyone's displaced guilt, and who not only have to go through a childhood hell of bullying and ostracism, but often upon adulthood (which generally is an adulthood of straitened educational and employment opportunity) find that their attempts to clear their parent's name and be able to live a normal life instead of the existence of a pariah are met with intense hostility. Especially if lives were lost, "respect for the dead" is often used as a stick to beat them into keeping their heads down and their mouths shut and just accepting the stigmatized pariah role even though they've done nothing to deserve it.

#69 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2011, 12:11 PM:

inge #66:

Yeah, the common versions of this in the US, which play out all the time in media-reported scandals, have a scandal arise from a whistleblower's testimony. And after internal investigation and waiting for public interest to fade, the only person punished is often the whistleblower. This happens pretty often in police brutality cases.

#70 ::: inge ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2011, 05:37 AM:

David #67: It was part of a week-long soft skills trainig that every student at the technical school received. (I find again that educational stuff is hard to translate across cultures -- I'm in Germany.)

For years I remembered it mostly because the experienced role player really pwned the rest (geek power!), and felt the setup was artificial and clumsy, but looking at it more as a lesson about power and less as a game, it was quite well crafted.

Today I observe that the more pressure people are under, the quicker they are in looking for someone to blame, and the less able they are to look at the systematic causes of failure. Of course, these games of hot potato create even more pressure, and everything goes to hell in a handbasket. I could have lived quite happily without seeing this first hand, because my job is to create good processes.

#71 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2011, 10:54 AM:

inge:

There's a kind of transition point here, where people go from working together in a community, to every man for himself and let's find someone to throw under the train so it's not done to me instead. The more of a culture of finding someone to punish for each failure you have in an organization, the faster you transition in bad times. And that means more failures, because when it starts looking like there will be a failure, all prudent people try to avoid being associated with it in any way, rather than trying to help salvage something or get the project back on track or whatever.

#72 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2011, 11:14 AM:

blamestorming

#73 ::: Kate Salter Jackson ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2011, 11:02 PM:

http://streetpictures.org/chalk/

Very fitting, and very moving.

#74 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: March 30, 2011, 12:43 AM:

Kate Salter Jackson: Thanks. I just sent an email offering to take part in next year's.

#75 ::: Barry ::: (view all by) ::: March 30, 2011, 08:44 PM:

#64 ::: Allan Beatty:

"It sounds like you're describing defined benefit plans rather than defined contribution plans. An advantage of defined contribution plans is that it's harder to cook the books or dip into the pot; the employer contributes the defined amount to the fund and thereafter it is in the control of a trust company and out of the company's hands."

I've actually heard of a country where the financial corporations trashed the place quite a bit, so that such investments were harmed.

However, that couldn't happen to modern, large countries :)

Barry, writing from alternate universe 473-24A/Q1, labeled 'Tech bubble/9-11/Bush II/Great Financial Crash"

#76 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2011, 01:02 AM:

Barry @ 75:

The grift is that the plan manager is a company shill, and he or she invests a lot of the contributed money in the company's own stock. Then when the company's stock tanks in the bubble burst, the fund is screwed.

#77 ::: [المزعج ذهب] ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2011, 11:19 AM:

[188.236.207.178 أرسلت من]

#79 ::: Rob Rusick calls spam probe on #79 ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2012, 06:22 AM:

re: #79; 1st and only comment, name links to an odd-sounding website, phrase itself results in 7500+ google-hits.

#80 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: September 13, 2012, 09:57 AM:

What happens when you ship jobs overseas: You get the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire a hundred years later. Here: In Karachi, fire in a clothing factory; hundreds of garment workers dead; managers had locked the doors.

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