This is a guest post by Jacob Remes, who is clinical assistant professor at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. His book, Disaster Citizenship: Survivors, Solidarity, and Power in the Progressive Era, is available from the University of Illinois Press. He tweets at @jacremes.
Charles Lee worked at a patent leather factory in the Blubber Hollow neighborhood of Salem, Massachusetts. It was unpleasant work in a rickety building. Workers like Lee dissolved flammable scrap celluloid film in flammable amyl acetate and alcohol, painted it on leather, added another layer of wood alcohol, and then steam heated it.
A hundred and two years ago today, on the afternoon of June 25, 1914, the inevitable came: a fire broke out. Charles Lee was the worker standing closest to the fire’s origin, and he broke both his legs jumping out of a window to escape the flames. Half an hour later, 300 workers had been forced to flee their factories. By evening, the fire had consumed 50 factories across the city, including, most devastatingly, Salem’s largest employer, a sheet factory called Pequot Mills. More than 18,000 people were left homeless or jobless.
Every disaster is a workplace disaster for someone. Sometimes, as for Charles Lee, the disaster is part of work. Other times, as for Pequot Mills employees, a disaster destroys opportunity for work. For others, including the 87 firefighters who died in the line of duty in 2015, it is disaster itself that is the worksite. Workers have long responded to workplace disasters by coming together with their coworkers and neighbors to think about–and fight over–the conditions of their labor.
Changes in illumination, heating, firefighting, and transportation technologies–together with organizing and government regulation–led to a gradual decline in the sort of fires that once regularly destroyed large swaths of cities. In 1918, a Canadian government researcher counted 290 urban conflagrations in the United States and Canada between 1815 and 1915, more than half of the global total. Salem’s was among the last.
But industrial risk was not vanquished. In the United States in 2014, the last year for which data were available, about 13 people a day were killed at work, whether in small accidents or big disasters. This risk–of lives lost, of bodies mangled, of property and livelihoods diminished–is never evenly distributed (as Erik, among others, has reminded us). Who bears the bodily risk of industrialism is a political choice we all make. Most of the time, workers die in ones or twos, invisible except to their families, coworkers, and friends. Disasters–like when 29 coal miners died in Upper Big Branch, West Virginia, in 2013, or when, in the same year, 1,100 garment workers died in a factory collapse at Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh–are the times we see our choices and have an opportunity to correct them.
After the Salem fire, as after disasters today, people debated how to organize society and its risk in their neighborhoods and churches, in town meetings and voting booths. Six months after fire, Salemites recalled their mayor in the first modern recall in New England. Catholic laypeople argued with priests and the archbishop about how their parish should be rebuilt. Neighbors argued about whether a new building code, designed to make the city less flammable, was worth the cost.
Most of all, they fought for power in their workplaces. Pequot Mills was rebuilt and reopened a year and a half after the fire, in 1916. Soon, workers began to experiment with new ways of organizing and building power across skill, gender, and ethnicity. At a time when in most Massachusetts textile mills only the most skilled workers, mostly men, were welcomed into unions, workers at Pequot Mills organized a union that included women, unskilled workers, and French Canadians, whom many labor leaders at the time thought were unorganizable.
Workers at Pequot Mills fought for, and won, higher pay, but more importantly they wanted a say in how the factory would be run. They won seniority rights, a grievance system, and defined job categories and so limited management’s arbitrary ability to hire, fire, promote, and discipline workers. By the late 1920s, the union had taken charge of the company’s sales and marketing departments, and it controlled a joint labor-management committee that sought to increase productivity through scientific management. Workers’ willingness to sacrifice some material gains for control over how the factory would run got press attention as a national model.
It did not last. While at first union power meant democratic control of the workplace by workers, within a few years the business manager, not the workers themselves, controlled the process. “I didn’t bother to report,” he told visiting researchers, “because they are a bunch of ignorant Canucks and Polacks who wouldn’t understand anyway.”
After a few years of growing union autocracy, workers took the skills they had honed in the aftermath of the fire and rebelled against their own leaders. Led by women, who were especially hurt by the business manager, they rebelled and struck in 1933 and again in 1935 to found a new, more democratic union. A generation after the fire, workers were still debating with each other, with management, and with their neighbors how to organize work.
In our own era of workplace disasters, we too can debate how labor should be organized. Disasters offer opportunities for solidarity in the workplace, in the community, and up and down the supply chain. They are times when the choices society makes about whose lives are more or less valuable become visible, and they are times we can make different choices.
One example was the prosecution of Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship for his role creating the Upper Big Branch disaster. (He was sentenced to a mere year in prison.) So too was the Rana Plaza factory collapse. The horror of that disaster forced the North American companies that had subcontracted work to those factories to impose greater–though still inadequate–safety standards. More importantly, it spurred greater garment worker organizing, so that in Dhaka, as in Salem, workers can build power and set their own standards.
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This is the 182nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.