The Lesson of the Triangle Trial

By Abraham Cahan

Published March 16, 2011.
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Originally published in the Forverts, December 29, 1911

Even a child could understand the lesson of the Triangle trial. It’s so clear—clearly detailed from top to bottom. It’s this: the workers under current conditions cannot be helped other than through their unions, meaning, through their own means.

The city, in the Triangle case, went as far as a capitalistic government can go. The government indicted the bosses with a strong accusation. They were brought to trial and the case was placed in the hands of capable lawyers. The two assistant district attorneys, Bostwick and Rubin, worked with all their hearts on this case. All their energies were put towards proving the guilt of the bosses, and they did their best.

But the bosses also had a capable lawyer, an individual who resembled the accused. It’s been said they paid him no less than $25,000 for the job. And the jurors were businessmen, salesmen, rent-collectors — people of the same class as the bosses. These people sympathized more with the bosses, from whom a working girl steals a waist, than with a worker who is burned to death behind a locked door.

Under these circumstances the verdict could not be any different than it was. In the case of a similar tragedy the same would occur. Workers are not selected as jurors. Jurors are always small or big businessmen. And wealthy folks can always hire capable lawyers who can confuse and bend the minds of the best jurors with now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t ‘evidence.’ The workers never get good results from these kinds of trials and they never will.

A suggestion for the workers — and only they can prevent these disasters and they can do this only through vigorous organizing and robust unions. A powerful union can force the bosses to keep the doors open. A union can make sure the bosses build fire escapes. If the Triangle Factory had been managed by a union, no lock would have been hung on any door and the lives of the shirtwaist workers wouldn’t have been so cheap.

Keep this in mind, shirtwaist workers, and use all your power now to strengthen your union!

The workers can also get help from the government but in order to do that it is necessary for them to have previously taken the government in hand. There is now a law that shop doors must never be locked, but the law is dead on arrival, it is only a written one and not much more. Most bosses don’t know much about this law, and those who do know laugh it off. They know that no one cares if it is obeyed. The Labor Department itself has plenty of inspectors who examine the shops when they’re in the mood, and when they happen to do it they take the boss to his office and ‘show’ him that everything’s all right.

If governance were in the hands of labor leaders, workers would at least have faith in it and it would be completely different. The laws would be better and they would be enforced correctly.

There is nothing to be expected from outsiders. The current government is led by men who are alien to the needs of the workers. When they do something in some bill that is aligned with the workers’ interests they enact it in order to get it over with, or out of fear. Their hearts are not in it and therefore it is powerless.

Workers, don’t lose yourselves to others, do it yourselves for your own liberation. Organize strong unions. Take part in political struggles, become owners of your trades, control them as much as possible and you will become the owners of your government, directing it as much as your power permits you. Help yourselves! Others will not do it for you!


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