Albert Marrin's non-fiction book, Flesh & Blood So Cheap, was, along with some very stiff competition, a nominee for the 2011 National Book Award. It actually seemed fated. What story could be more timely in the current political climate in America, when every other two words spoken seem to be government regulations? "We have to get rid of government regulations," we hear and, "If it weren't for government regulations, we'd be better off." Is that true? And which regulations?
Marrin's book is a reminder of the reasons behind many critically important government regulations concerning the protection of factory workers.
Flesh & Blood So Cheap tells the story of the first decades of the twentieth century when "America's growing industries had made the nation into a world of power. Oil Tycoon John D. Rockefeller. Automobile maker Henry Ford. Steel baron Andrew Carnegie. Inventor Thomas A Edison. . . became fabulously wealthy." It was also a time when, as in the year 1911, fifty thousand workers, (men, women and children) died on the job in America compared to just over five thousand adults today! 1911 was a time when no laws "regulated" work hours and wages, safety or sanitation.
Marrin provides a glimpse into the protection offered to the young women, mostly Italian and Jewish immigrants, fourteen and up and half under twenty, who worked at their sewing machines at the Triangle Waist Factory. Although in 1911, it was known that sprinklers and fire drills saved lives in factories, safety didn't pay. Safety was expensive and immigrant workers could be replaced.
Fire precautions were almost totally absent in New York City. Although the Asch building that housed the Triangle Factory was fire proof, inspectors reported too few exits. Stairwells allowed only single-file passage. Doors into stairwells swung inward, and workers bunching up at the doors would shut them, making escape impossible. The fire escape was poorly designed and the ladders on the fire trucks extended only to the sixth floor while the factory was housed on floors eight, nine and ten. Exits were locked to keep workers in. When a spark ignited the piles of combustable fibers on the floor and in the air of the factory, few escaped. Similar to what occurred during the burning of the twin towers in 2001, girls in twos and threes jumped from windows to their death on the sidewalk below. 146 workers died.
Marrin reminds us at the end of this stunning book: "Short memories are dangerous, because they allow greed to take control. The result is disaster. Thus, eternal vigilance truly is the price of liberty and safety. That is the lasting lesson of the Triangle Fire."
When politicians talk about getting rid of government regulations, perhaps they should be more specific.
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