Frances Perkins, FDR's future Secretary of Labor, was an eyewitness to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of March 25, 1911. It was a tragic day in our history, one in which 143 workers lost their lives due the indifference of their employers.
Triangle was the culmination of licentious economic behavior. Powerful business interests fought on-the-job safety regulations; exit doors that were kept locked to keep out union organizers also kept workers from escaping the building; proposed fire safety standards were fought tooth and nail, all in the name of economic freedom.
But as tragic as the fire was, it was also a turning point. The tragedy of that horrible fire made Americans begin to truly realize that working people were not merely a means to wealth, but ends in and of themselves, worthy of being treated with dignity. On a political level, it was the singular event that transformed Al Smith and Robert Wagner Sr. from Tammany Hall hacks into champions of reform. It caused the Democratic Party to better live up to its moniker, “the party of the people.” It is why Perkins came to say that day of that fire was “the day the New Deal began.”
Similarly, today we now endure an economy set on fire by this same perverse notion of “freedom.” Freedom? What many on Wall Street call economic freedom is nothing more than anarchy and license. While workers see wages and benefits taken away, the top one percent live lives filled with conspicuous consumption -- and conspicuous waste. True freedom requires discipline, the structure of regulation, laws of oversight that curb and deflect destructive greed. And yet after thirty years of savings and loan failures, fraudulent CDOs, and Wall Street bailouts followed by million dollar bonuses, economic libertarians still want to tear down the very framework that provides order.
But something has stirred in the American people. We are witnessing protests on Wall Street demanding that this stilted notion of freedom be revisited and revised. Despite what many free market types claim, a healthy form of capitalism cannot survive by being indifferent to the workers who physically build the products or provide the services. As Paul Krugman put it, “…we may, at long last, be seeing the rise of a popular movement that, unlike the Tea Party, is angry at the right people.”
Just as it was in the wake of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the public is outraged and is demanding change. The rising of a popular movement comes at a moment none too soon. It is an opportunity for the Democratic Party to again turn out its present-day hacks and replace them with advocates of an already proven New Deal capitalism.
Then perhaps one day we will look back at the events of today and be able to say, “that was when the New Deal was reborn.”
Frank L. Cocozzelli writes a weekly column on Roman Catholic neoconservatism at Talk2Action.org and is contributor to Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America. A director of the Institute for Progressive Christianity, he is working on a book on American liberalism.