The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: 100 Years Later

Exactly 100 years ago today there was a fire on 29 Washington Place in New York City. The fire was important for a few reasons: the top three floors of the building housed a factory where immigrant women worked 52 hours per week sewing women’s blouses (called shirtwaists); the women had little or no protection for their safety; when a lit cigarette started a fire they were trapped since the doors were locked to prevent theft or the workers from going to the bathroom. There were also no fire alarms; for many of the workers, their first indication of trouble was the fire itself.

By the time the fire was extinguished 146 people were dead; they were either incinerated by the fire or died by jumping to their deaths to escape the flames.

In the aftermath the factory closed. This did not lead owners and managers of factories to institute reforms. It did, however, give unions (particularly the International Ladies Garment Workers Union) and the state legislators the moral authority to institute reforms to protect workers. Among people who belong to unions, this is an important anniversary.

Unfortunately 100 years after the deaths of these 129 women and 17 men, the union cause is again under attack. Union membership continues to decline and unions continue to be seen as impediments to progress. They are not, however, impediments to safety. This anniversary should remind us that union membership has given all of us many of the things we take for granted: the five day work week, the 8 hour day, and basic safeguards against danger.

Let us all pray for the 146 Americans who died 100 years ago today, and thank them for the awareness they gave us. And think about them whenever you see a fire escape.

The Justice Chronicles Volume 6: The Supreme Court rules on Snyder v. Phelps. Unfortunate But Necessary

I’ve reported on this case before, and on March 2nd the Supreme Court ruled on the case. By a vote of 8-1 the Court upheld the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to protest at funerals. They have protested at several funerals of young men and women killed in uniform who died in service to our country, including the funeral of Matthew Snyder. The members of the church (who are mainly members of the family of pastor, Fred Phelps) carry signs that say: “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11” or “God Hates Fags.”

The Court ruled that while this speech is clearly offensive and painful, it’s protected by the First Amendment. At the end of the day, I’m afraid I have to say that I agree.

As a Christian I hate the fact that Fred Phelps claims to worship the same God as me. And while I pray for his conversion from a life of hate to a life of love, as an American citizen I believe he has a right to his hate. He has a right to offend me, and large segments of the population.

The final good news here is that all of us also have the right to offend him. Since this case has made national news, several organizations have promised to show up at these same funerals to shout down Phelps, et. al. They also have First Amendment protection.

The Justice Chronicles Volume 5: Bruesewitz v. Wyeth: The Government Doing What It's Supposed To Do

Last month the Supreme Court ruled 6-2 in the case of Bruesewitz v. Wyeth and I’m finding great satisfaction over it.

Here some background and the basic facts of the case: In the last few decades there has been an increased belief that there is a link between vaccines and illness, especially autism (you can read more of my views on this in a previous post). Out of this came a well founded fear that drug companies would no longer be willing to develop or manufacture childhood vaccines. In 1986 Congress passed the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act (NCVIA). Section 22(b)(1) states this:

[n]o vaccine manufacturer shall be liable in a civil action for damages arising from a vaccine-related injury or death associated with the administration of a vaccine after October 1, 1988, if the injury or death resulted from side effects that were unavoidable even though the vaccine was properly prepared and was accompanied by proper directions and warnings

This act does not prevent anyone from suing a drug company if they did something wrong, but it did say you can’t sue if they did everything right and the person had a bad outcome.

Hannah Bruesewitz received the DPT (diphtheria/pertussis/tetanus) vaccine and later developed seizures. Her parents sued Wyeth claiming the vaccine caused this. Because they could not prove that Wyeth did anything wrong (or for that matter that there was a link between the vaccine and her seizures) the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Wyeth.

This puts me in a strange place as I almost never side with these large drug companies, and I virtually never side with Antonin Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion.

Our nation is currently full of people who believe that the free market can take care of our needs and government shouldn’t interfere. But I find that this was our government doing well what it should be doing. The free market would have made it unprofitable (and therefore impossible) to develop and manufacture vaccines that have become essential to childhood health. Congress passed, the President signed, and the Supreme Court affirmed this legislation.

Way to go.