Our Ghastly Devastation
Originally published in the Forverts, March 26, 1911.
The heart grieves, breath is held, eyes cry bloody tears. The disaster is too great, too dreadful, to be able to express one’s feelings.
A mountain of people, of children burned to death!
Young children, blood and milk, full of life’s force, lying in a pile of a human burnt-offering!
Children wept over by parents, children—their crowning glory—their pride—their hope—the comfort of mothers and fathers, were in one minute taken from this world, drawing their last breath in a sea of flames.
In dark tenement rooms fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, grooms, brides, loved ones with eyes bugging out of their heads from searching, waiting for their children, sisters, brothers, loved ones; waiting for them to arrive from the shop, where they labored all week long, waiting for them to arrive bringing their paltry wages and resting from the week’s toil; but instead of them, the blackest news is delivered: they are no longer among the living, their bodies lie seared, a burnt-offering on the altar of capital!
Like birds, so many of these young children took off skyward, in twosomes and threesomes they held each other, and leaped away from the flame-filled hell. And that’s how we perceive them yet. In flight they were still alive but one second later and their young bodies smash on the street’s concrete surface and they are no longer! Their young lives are extinguished!
In the last minute of their work-week the calamity occurred. Thousands of their toiling brothers and sisters employed in union shops, had already streamed homeward. They who labored in a non-union shop, were still in their fire-trap, and their week’s work ended along with their young lives…
The heart is too aggrieved, the breath seized by the sight of the pile of fresh human burnt-offering, inconceivable.
A mere one day prior judges invalidated a law supporting the safety of workers on dangerous jobs. And the following day, what we wrote about that, before the black catastrophe occurred, seems to have been a precise prophecy of the dark misfortune:
The court of appeals, the state’s highest court, presented a frank, daring statement earning her a heartfelt compliment.
She revoked the first truly good labor law that the state’s legislature had accepted. And declared that the law, by which in certain dangerous trades, injured workers must receive damages from their bosses even when the bosses, for instance, aren’t responsible for the accident, the law is against New York State’s and the US’s constitution.
The court wasn’t satisfied with merely rescinding the law which in itself wouldn’t have been such a heroic gesture. In this country labor laws are being abandoned in dozens of courts. Our judges are gaining acclaim the world over for this. This time, however, the court of appeals sent clear messages that will penetrate deep within the hearts and minds of workers in this land.
Here is the content of this statement:
The judges state that from an economical, philosophical and moral standpoint the law is necessary and correct. They state further that if a trade is dangerous then for the entire time he labors for a boss, a worker is exposed to the possibility of an accident. Why should it be worse for the worker than for a simple machine? When a machine breaks the boss fixes it with his own money. The worker is a live machine. Why should the boss not be responsible for him exactly as for an extinguished machine?
The judges also declared that such a law must be upheld, as rescinding it would be to stand in opposition to progress. But…but…but aside from all that, they say the law must be abandoned, as this country has a written constitution and this written constitution states that private ownership is holier that all else in existence, and this law counters the interests of private ownership.
Also, it signifies down with morality, down with progress, down with science, down with all that elevates man above animal! Only one thing is holier and more precious—private ownership, the sack of gold, capitalism!
This is said openly. It’s well known that the judges are candid people. That’s what they believe and they have the courage to say it.
To sum up, capitalists have won for the thousandth time and the workers have, for the thousandth time, lost. One year ago, when the law was being reviewed by a commission, the socialists disclosed that the courts will rescind it. The conservative trade-unions laughed at us. They stated that we were great ‘pessimists’ or that we desired to instigate trouble and fighting between capital and labor, for no reason.
What would these trade-unions say now? What effect would the decision, the judges’ statement, have on them now?
Let’s hope it would make them also a bit ‘pessimistic’ and a bit more revolutionary than they are. Let’s hope that this recent shock will sober them up and help them see once and for all that so long as sitting in the legislatures and courts are the leaders of capital, no labor law will be allowed to pass.
The capitalist court of appeals had to act capitalistically. She had to state that capitalism stands above all else in existence. The court judges, prior to being nominated to their positions, had to impress upon the capitalists that they believe in the ‘ultimate sacredness’ of capital.
If workers want to have labor laws they must act precisely as capitalists do in these times. They must vote for judges, those who have proven to uphold workers’ lives to be more valuable and more blessed than capital.