- The Triangle Fire, The Protocols of Peace, and Industrial Democracy in Progressive Era New York
On March 25, 1911, a fire raged through the crowded Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in lower Manhattan, killing 146 mostly young immigrant women, many of who jumped to their deaths. Just before, two large-scale strikes had rocked the local ladies' garment trades in response to low wages, poor conditions, and abusive treatment. The 1909 "Uprising of Twenty Thousand" involved mostly women shirtwaist makers, while male tailors participated in "The Great Revolt" of 1910. As Richard A. Greenwald convincingly demonstrates, these events marked turning points in labor history and industrial relations. While scholars have treated them as separate incidents, Greenwald links them as part of a quest by workers, their unions, middle-class reformers, and political allies to achieve industrial democracy—"an effort to square free market capitalism with democracy to provide a fair and just workplace."
The outcome of the strikes was an industry-wide experiment in joint industrial governance called the "Protocol of Peace," the brainchild of then MIT law professor Louis Brandeis, whose main objectives were to rationalize industry along scientific principles and to drive out primitive shops that sweated labor and kept the industry in chaos.
In the fire's aftermath, a time of public sympathy for the working-class, the state created the Factory Investigating Commission (FIC) to prevent fires and improve sanitary conditions. The Protocol and FIC combined both private (Protocol) and public (FIC) solutions to the "labor problem," but also revealed the ambiguities and limits, as well as the successes of industrial democracy. Nonetheless, for Greenwald, they represent the premier pre-New Deal labor reform experiments.
The Protocol improved wages, hours, and conditions, created a revolutionary Joint Board of Sanitary Control, required preferential hiring for union workers, banned strikes and lockouts, and established one of the earliest grievance arbitration systems. However, problems plagued the Protocol from the onset and led to its demise in 1916. Its top-down and legally inflexible structures limited rank and file input and could not deal with day-to-day exigencies, while its lack of enforcement mechanisms and its inability to cover the entire industry reduced its effectiveness and reach. The Triangle fire revealed that the union alone could not protect workers if it could not organize the entire industry.
In response, Protocolists came to rethink the role of the state in labor reform and, capitalizing on the public's sympathy for the fire's victims, turned [End Page 99] to politics to achieve what the Protocol could not. This time, Greenwald notes, gender issues (in terms of protecting women and children), which were absent in the Protocol, became a key political and policy issue. The fire also was catalytic in remaking the state's Democratic Party, a complicated story that Greenwald tells deftly. Out of the fire's ashes rose an embryonic liberal welfare state, "liberal heroes" Robert Wagner and Al Smith, and the FIC, a relatively successful legislative body that "marked the highpoint of New York's reform efforts during the Progressive Era and embodied the ideas of industrial democracy." By 1915, however, as the FIC sought to move beyond fire safety and sanitation toward social welfare, it was weakened by a split among labor over minimum wage legislation and killed off by the Republican Party and its business allies.
The Protocol and the FIC delivered on the bread and butter issues, but fell short in providing workers industrial democracy. Yet both were important elements in the creation of a new industrial relations system that set the labor policy agenda for decades to come.
Greenwald offers a highly readable, albeit detailed, account of an important era in labor and industrial relations history. In it readers will notice similarities to contemporary union concerns: tensions between rank and file activism and bureaucratic structuring in both unions and industrial relations, the challenges of organizing an entire industry, the limits to state labor reform, and the fragility of political alliances. The...