Tuesday, March 25, 2014

From the St. Petersburg Times

Remembering the Triangle Fire
By David Lee McMullen

This essay was originally published on the 100th anniversary of the fire -- March 25, 2011

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City's Greenwich Village — perhaps the most infamous industrial disaster in American history.
On that day, 146 workers, mostly young women, some as young as 15 and 16, died in a fire that could have been prevented. Today, that fire provides a tragic reminder of what happens when the greed of employers is afforded more importance than the safety and welfare of their workers.
The Triangle Shirtwaist factory occupied the top three stories of a 10-story building in Manhattan's garment district. There, approximately 500 workers, mostly Jewish immigrants, worked 52 hours a week for weekly wages that ranged from $3 to $14.
Even by early 20th century standards, the factory was courting disaster. Despite the availability of modern fire safety measures — including automatic sprinklers, fire-retardant walls, doors and stairs, and periodic fire drills — none were in use because employers said they were too expensive.
No one knows how the fire began. Some speculated that it started in a bin of scrap cotton material, perhaps from a cigarette. The cotton scraps exploded and the fire spread rapidly across the cutting room floor, which occupied most of the eighth floor. It spread so rapidly that the bodies of some of the workers were found still bending over their sewing machines.
Of the two internal stairwells, one was blocked by fire and the other was locked by the owners. Some workers were able to make their way through the smoke to a poorly constructed outside fire escape, but they died when it collapsed, impaling several workers on twisted pieces of iron. More than 60 women, terrified by the smoke and flames with their hair and dresses on fire, jumped to their death on the sidewalks below. Another 50 women, those afraid to jump, were later found huddled together in a cloak room, their faces turned toward a tiny window, burned to death.
The factory owners escaped unharmed. Tried for manslaughter, they were acquitted and ultimately collected a large insurance settlement. David Von Drehle, author of Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, noted that the factory owners "were so-called rotten risks, in insurance parlance, because they kept having fires." He also observed that at the time of the fire the owners were paying high premiums for insurance coverage that was almost twice the value of the factory. Arson was, after all, a common method of balancing the books and assuring a profit.
The fire sparked reform in workplace safety and inspired activists to take on the cause of the workers.
Sadly, the Triangle fire is not unique in American history. In 1991, 25 people died in a chicken processing plant in Hamlet, N.C. Just like the Triangle workers, the poor men and women found the exit doors locked when they sought to escape. After the fire, footprints were found on the locked doors, left by panicking workers who had tried desperately, but in vain, to kick down the door.
Today, there is growing evidence that the lessons of the Triangle fire have been forgotten. The rights of workers — public and private, union and nonunion — are under attack. Employers, business groups and their political servants want to repeal government regulations designed to protect workers. Where regulations cannot be eliminated, they seek to cut government funding, thus reducing oversight and enforcement.
These employer groups say such changes are needed to create jobs in America, but aren't these the same people who have been responsible for sending American jobs to other parts of the world for several decades?
Too many employers continue to value profit over the safety and welfare of their workers — particularly those at the lowest economic levels who work the longest hours for the least amount of compensation. Business interests disseminate disinformation designed to frighten average Americans into believing that their neighbors are responsible for America's economic problems. It is an old strategy that has long been used by the rich to pit one worker against another, dividing Americans by race, gender, ethnicity and religion.

As one New York City newspaper noted after the fire and the trial where the Triangle owners were acquitted, "Capital can commit no crime when it is in pursuit of profits." Sadly, that observation seems to remain true a hundred years later.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

From The Tampa Tribune

Working with Gov. Nice Guy

Reubin Askew’s death will undoubtedly provide an abundance of stories about his political career, his accomplishments as governor during the 1970s and his reputation as one of Florida’s most popular governors. We will remember his honesty, sincerity and commitment to building a better Florida. But he should also be remembered for being a genuinely nice guy.
Gov. Askew was midway through his first term when I graduated from Florida State, his alma mater. He was the first FSU graduate to be elected governor. Not long after my graduation I went to work for state government, where writing speeches and proclamations for the governor’s office was among my responsibilities.
I still remember the first speech I wrote for Gov. Askew. It was short, perhaps five minutes in length, commemorating the planting of a tree on the capitol grounds in honor of those missing in action during the Vietnam War. The speech referred to the MIA bracelets that many people were wearing at the time. These metal bracelets were engraved with the names of individual soldiers who were missing in action. As he delivered the speech, Askew veered from the prepared text, holding up his arm and adding, “just like the one I am wearing.” By the end of that speech, the governor was in tears. He was a veteran of both the Army and the Air Force, serving during the Korean War, and understood the suffering of those who did not know the fate of their loved ones.
That speech was one of the moments when the man behind the public figure emerged. He was someone who cared sincerely about his fellow human beings, and he was courageous enough to reveal his own emotions. For me, it was the most memorable speech I ever wrote.
Years later, the first year Florida State joined the Atlantic Coast Conference, I was living in Charlotte and attended the ACC basketball tournament. At the tournament each year all of the universities erect hospitality tents outside for their supporters.
Upon entering the FSU tent, I was delighted to see several familiar faces, including a tall, thin man with a full head of snow white hair. It was Gov. Askew. I approached him and said, “Governor, I am not sure if you will remember me, but I used to write speeches for you.”
With a very serious face, he looked at me and asked, “Were they good speeches?”
“I thought so,” was my response, at which point his stern demeanor turned into a broad smile, followed by a hardy laugh as he reached out to shake my hand.
This Everyman aspect of the governor could be seen in a variety of ways. According to a friend of mine who served on his security detail, the governor’s favorite place to eat when he traveled was not a fancy restaurant, but McDonald’s. One day when I was walking to the capitol in the rain, sharing one umbrella with two other men, the governor’s limo pulled up beside us, and the governor put down the window, told us how funny we looked and then offered us a ride.
Living in Chicago in the 1980s, I worked on Askew’s short-lived exploratory campaign for president. For years I kept a box of “Askew for President” buttons and bumper stickers just in case he changed his mind. He would have made a great president.
Others will remember Reubin Askew for his political accomplishments. Yes, he was one of Florida’s greatest governors, but I will remember him for being a genuinely nice guy.
David Lee McMullen is a writer and historian at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, where he teaches about modern Florida politics.

Monday, March 10, 2014

From the Tampa Bay Times

Remembering the Crimean War
By David Lee McMullen
Published Monday, March 10, 2014

Given the current tug-of-war in Crimea, it is hard not to think about one of the most romanticized wars of the 19th century — the Crimean War. Fought during the 1850s, it pitted Imperial Russia against the forces of Great Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire.
The issues that brought about the conflict were Russia's demand to protect Orthodox Christians within the Ottoman territories and a dispute between Russia and France over the rights of the Russian Orthodox versus Roman Catholics in the Holy Land.
But the underlying cause, as with most wars, was economic. In this case it was the growing competition among the empire-building nations of Europe, and involved Russia's need for a warm-water port. As Russia began to push south, it came into conflict with the British in India and the Middle East, which explains why the British sided with the Ottomans. Interestingly, these same economic issues can be found intertwined in the current crisis.
The Crimean War lasted for more than two years, involved almost 2 million men and cost the lives of more than half a million. Fought in the decade before the American Civil War, the death toll was almost as high, over a shorter period of time.
Ultimately, Russia abandoned Sevastopol, sinking its own fleet as it departed. The war ended when Austria threatened to join the fight against the Russians, a decision that soured relations between the two countries and would push Austria into an alliance with Germany by the end of the century. The seeds of World War I were already beginning to grow.
Today the Crimean War is mostly forgotten, overshadowed by larger and more terrible conflicts. This is sad, because the war included some of the most memorable moments in the history of warfare.
There was the Battle of Balaclava, remembered today as "the valley of death" and commemorated by two of Britain's most famous poets. There was also the courage and leadership of a young woman who went to Crimea not to take lives, but to save them.
After reading news accounts of the battle, Alfred, Lord Tennyson dashed off a poem that immortalized the courage of the 11th Hussars, the British light cavalry remembered for their suicidal charge against the Russian lines. That poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade, later made into a Hollywood movie, offers insight into the fate of the average soldier on far too many battlefields. As Tennyson noted, "Some one had blunder'd: theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die."
Years later, in his poem Tommy, slang for the common British soldier, Rudyard Kipling wrote about the Sutherland Highlanders, a small group of Scottish soldiers who withstood the assault of a much larger Russian cavalry unit at the same battle. For their courage, the Scots became known as the "Thin Red Line of 'eroes," a name that today is synonymous for a small force standing against overwhelming odds.
Finally, there is the memory of Florence Nightingale, who led a group of young women to the Crimea to tend wounded soldiers. There, because of her late-night rounds, she became known as "The Lady with the Lamp." It was a time when more soldiers died from disease than battle.
In Crimea, she fought for better sanitary conditions, improvements that are credited with saving a great many lives in that war and the wars that followed. After the war she returned to London to establish the world's first modern school of nursing and, most notably, inspired Henry Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross.
While the Crimea may be an obscure corner of the world, and the Crimean War a forgotten folly of European imperialism, the nobility of these men and women, and the examples they offer, are worth remembering. Let's hope the current crisis in Crimea will be resolved without another bloody war.