Repealing The Last Century The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Terrance Heath

In his remarks at the Summit on Jobs & America’s Future, Van Jones summed up the GOP agenda:

"They want to repeal the last century."

As the GOP declares war on regulations that protect workers, the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is an appropriate occasion to ask: What would repealing the last century look like?

It would look something like this trailer for the HBO documentary, Triangle: Remembering the Fire.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City on March 25, 1911, was the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of the city of New York and resulted in the fourth highest loss of life from an industrial accident in U.S. history. The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, who either died from the fire or jumped to their deaths. Most of the victims were recent immigrant Jewish and Italian women aged sixteen to twenty-three. [1] Many of the workers could not escape the burning building because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits. People jumped from the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors. The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers.

It is called "the fire that changed everything." Fire does indeed change things. Usually, it destroys. Yet sometimes, what it cannot consume is refined and made stronger.

A century ago "the Progressive Era was coming up against the Gilded Age," like flint striking steel. The Gilded Age gave us a modern industrial economy and created the fortune of über-rich industrialists like Rockefeller, Carnegie, Morgan, and Vanderbilt. It was also an age of disturbingly familiar economic inequality.

During the "Gilded Age," every man was a potential Andrew Carnegie, and Americans who achieved wealth celebrated it as never before. In New York, the opera, the theatre, and lavish parties consumed the ruling class’ leisure hours. Sherry’s Restaurant hosted formal horseback dinners for the New York Riding Club. Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish once threw a dinner party to honor her dog who arrived sporting a $15,000 diamond collar.

While the rich wore diamonds, many wore rags. In 1890, 11 million of the nation’s 12 million families earned less than $1200 per year; of this group, the average annual income was $380, well below the poverty line. Rural Americans and new immigrants crowded into urban areas. Tenements spread across city landscapes, teeming with crime and filth. Americans had sewing machines, phonographs, skyscrapers, and even electric lights, yet most people labored in the shadow of poverty.

To those who worked in Carnegie’s mills and in the nation’s factories and sweatshops, the lives of the millionaires seemed immodest indeed. An economist in 1879 noted "a widespread feeling of unrest and brooding revolution." Violent strikes and riots wracked the nation through the turn of the century. The middle class whispered fearfully of "carnivals of revenge."

If the Triangle Shirtwaist fire was "the fire that changed everything," there were sparks that foreshadowed the movement the it would ignite.

Last August, Rand Paul’s opposition to mine safety regulations in the aftermath of the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster led me to research industrial disasters and the growth of the labor movement. The result was a timeline that puts the Triangle fire in the context of that history.

It suggests that Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire sparked a labor movement, because so many layers of economic kindling laid the foundation.

And on March 25, 1911, 146 workers —most of them young women who were recent immigrants — died in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City.

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They had names. They were sisters, daughters, mothers, fathers, sons, and brothers whose families lived near or below the poverty line, in a world where dogs wore diamond collars worth more than what 20 of their families earned in a year. They lived and died in a world where they had no rights as workers, and no voice in their pay or working conditions.

The factory owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, had a history of factory fires, and then some.

The Triangle factory, owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, was located in the top three floors of the 10-story Asch Building in downtown Manhattan. It was a sweatshop in every sense of the word: a cramped space lined with work stations and packed with poor immigrant workers, mostly teenaged women who did not speak English. At the time of the fire, there were four elevators with access to the factory floors, but only one was fully operational and it could hold only 12 people at a time. There were two stairways down to the street, but one was locked from the outside to prevent theft by the workers and the other opened inward only. The fire escape, as all would come to see, was shoddily constructed, and could not support the weight of more than a few women at a time.

Blanck and Harris already had a suspicious history of factory fires. The Triangle factory was twice scorched in 1902, while their Diamond Waist Company factory burned twice, in 1907 and in 1910. It seems that Blanck and Harris deliberately torched their workplaces before business hours in order to collect on the large fire-insurance policies they purchased, a not uncommon practice in the early 20th century. While this was not the cause of the 1911 fire, it contributed to the tragedy, as Blanck and Harris refused to install sprinkler systems and take other safety measures in case they needed to burn down their shops again.

Added to this delinquency were Blanck and Harris’ notorious anti-worker policies. Their employees were paid a mere $15 a week, despite working 12 hours a day, every day. When the International Ladies Garment Workers Union led a strike in 1909 demanding higher pay and shorter and more predictable hours, Blanck and Harris’ company was one of the few manufacturers who resisted, hiring police as thugs to imprison the striking women, and paying off politicians to look the other way.

It was 4:45 p.m., near the end of the workday, when the fires started. But instead of heading home, many workers who tried to escape the fire, were trapped by the locked door. Others sought refuge on the poorly-secured fire escape, which ultimately collapsed. Others, trapped with no hope of escape jumped to their death.

Frances Perkins witnessed Triangle workers plunging to their deaths. She became the first female cabinet member, when Franklin Roosevelt appointed her labor secretary. Perkins was also a member the factory safety commission that drafted factory safety laws mandating fire safety drills, occupancy limits, and clear exit signs. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union was grew even larger after Triangle factory tragedy. So began the modern labor movement that fought for the safety regulations that still protect us at work today.

Like Van, I see the GOP agenda as an attempt to turn back time; to rewind the clock to a mythical "golden age of freedom," when worker protections and safety regulations were nonexistent, and when many Americans — women in particularhad far less freedom than they do now.

Today, conservatives say that unions served a purpose once, a century or more ago, but aren’t needed now that we have the Occupational Safety & Heath Administration (OSHA), minimum wage, and other safety regulations. Yet, the GOP’s federal budget cuts would make OSHA ineffective, cripple the National Labor Relations Board.

Meanwhile, GOP governors are trying to do away with the hard-won rights and protections workers have gained in the 100 years since the Triangle fire, in states like Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin — where a Republican governor and legislature are to strip workers of a right that might have saved the lives of the Triangle factory workers: the right to collectively bargain for better working conditions.

As we remember the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, let’s resolve not to let conservatives take America back to the days when, as, a descendant of a Triangle Shirtwaist factory worker said in the HBO documentary, "To be a worker under those conditions was to have very few rights." Let’s remember what another participant in the documentary said: "If people want to know what deregulated industry looks like, look at the Triangle building."

Poet and philosopher George Santayna famously said:

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

The 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is both a reminder of how much has changed, and a warning that our future could look lot that history, if we allow ourselves to forget.

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