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Worst Hundredth Birthday Present Ever!

2011 March 25

100 years ago at 29 Washington Place, New York, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory went up in flames and down in history as the largest man-made disaster in New York until 9/11. The fire forced New York to see its most invisible population: young immigrant women. These women had yelled to the world that their conditions weren’t safe, but they were just too expendable to matter. Their deaths forced New York, under raining ash and falling bodies, to open its eyes.

The 10-story building near NYU housed one of the largest shirtwaist factories in the city, owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris. The Triangle Factory was also the epicenter of mass protests just months earlier, when thousands of factory workers finally ended a four-month long strike, the largest garment strike New York had ever seen.

Women who dared to strike were fired, fined, beaten, and jailed all under the orders of Blanck and Harris and their private army of thugs, backed up by the New York Police Department. But with pictures of pretty young women being beaten up gracing the pages of the newspapers, public support for the protesters grew, even among New York’s upper crust.

Bowing to public pressure and banking on the media’s attention span to run out before the kick-off of the spring fashion season, Blanck and Harris made minor concessions: the work week was supposedly limited to 52 hours, workers were given four paid holidays a year, employers were required to supply all tools necessary for the job, and a grievance committee was mandated to deal with individual issues that came up. These new rules were repeatedly violated but the strikers’ resources were depleted, and the public had tired of seeing Jewish girls with picket signs.

But on March 25th, 1911 a cigarette ignited a container of scrap cloth on the eighth floor. There were no fire extinguishers to douse the flames leaping from table to table; fire extinguishers were too expensive for the cheap lives they would have saved.

Women rushed to the doors trying to escape the blaze, but one exit was already engulfed in flames. The other was locked from the outside, as it was every day by the paranoid factory owners to stop the girls from leaving early or stealing the blouses they made but could barely afford to buy. Trapped inside a raging inferno the workers surged towards the windows.

The fire department arrived in the street below. The trucks extended their ladders, but the ladders stopped just short of the 7th floor. The spray from their hoses also only reached the 7th floor. So the firefighters pulled out the trampolines, calling up to the terrified workers cowering in the windows to jump. The first woman leapt from the window ledge, but bounced off the trampoline, hitting the street and dying on impact. Like the too short ladder and the inadequate hose, neither was the trampoline equipped; it wasn’t sturdy enough to catch people jumping from nine stories up.

There was nothing the firefighters could do, so they stood among the crowd of Washington Square Park picnickers, NYU students, street vendors and passersby and gawked, helpless as frantic women chose between burning to their deaths or jumping to them. 62 workers leapt from the conflagration, falling from the sky onto New York City.

Of the 146 workers who died in the Triangle Fire, 125 of them were women between the ages of 13 and 23, barely more than children or teenagers. They died because they were locked into a dangerous workplace. They died on a Saturday afternoon because they couldn’t earn enough for their families or themselves to live on in 5 long weekdays. They died because their bosses had figured out how to make fashionable shirtwaists’ for a few pennies cheaper than the competition. They died because they were as disposable as the factory-made clothing they produced.

The teenage bodies that littered the streets did more than serve as a warning: they also fueled a public demand for a safe working environment. 100,000 workers marched in their funeral procession a few days later, with 400,000 New Yorker’s lining the streets.

Within two months of the Triangle Fire, automatic sprinkler systems, as well as unlocked fire exits were required in factories. By 1938, the US Congress enacted the Fair Labor Standards Act which set a minimum wage, overtime pay, child labor regulations, and record-keeping requirements. A generation of workers refused to accept that it was their destiny to die in flames, so 27 years after the fire, sweatshops became the exception rather than the rule.

Arguably, the biggest victory for worker safety came in 1970 when Richard Nixon, of all people, signed OSHA (The Occupation Health & Safety Administration) into law. OSHA consolidated all the different laws and mandates already in effect under one federal agency, as well as extended them to states which had yet to enact sufficient worker protection. OSHA’s chief objective is to advance and enforce safety regulations sparked by the Triangle Fire and scores of other industrial accidents. OSHA:

• Encourages employers and employees to reduce workplace hazards and to implement new or improve existing safety and health standards;

• Provides for research in occupational safety and health and develop innovative ways of dealing with occupational safety and health problems;

• Establishes “separate but dependent responsibilities and rights” for employers and employees for the achievement of better safety and health conditions;

• Maintains a reporting and record keeping system to monitor job-related injuries and illnesses;

• Establishes training programs to increase the number and competence of occupational safety and health personnel; and,

• Develops mandatory job safety and health standards and enforce them effectively.

Not exactly a radical proposition. Still, the Republicans are proposing a 99 million dollar budget cut to OSHA this year, calling the work of the health and safety agency “job killing” and accusing OSHA of enacting expensive rules without regard to the effect on business profitability. They want to cut 20% from the already underfunded and understaffed agency, furthering weakening its ability to prevent accidents like the Triangle Fire from happening again.

The idea that OSHA kills jobs is, in fact, complete rubbish. In the words of OSHA administrator David Michaels, “OSHA doesn’t kill jobs; it stops jobs from killing workers.”

Next on the list of atrocious 100th birthday gifts: the annihilation of US unions. Unions are key in protecting worker safety, allowing workers a voice loud enough to be heard by both the employer and the government, and protecting workers from being fired for standing up for their safety.

Wisconsin is only the first state in this new round of anti-union demagogy to try and rescind the gains of the past. Employers, including the state, in California, Ohio, Michigan, New York and elsewhere are waiting impatiently in the wings. By limiting collective bargaining so severely, their goal is to render unions ineffective. Though this particular attack targets public sector unions, unions of private and public sector workers are interdependent. The continuous erosion of workers’ rights to organize will allow big business – in the board room and in the State House — to subject workers in all sectors to any kind of conditions they might want. Whether that recreates fires in the garment industry, student self-destruction in classrooms of 45, or untenable patient loads that lead to neglect and mistakes, these impending disasters have at least one thing in common: they are all preventable if we put people’s needs first and allow the workers who know the job best a voice with which to speak.

So, on the hundredth birthday of the event that should have ended a grotesque era, blow out the candles, but be very careful, because there won’t be any unlocked fire exits.

4 Responses
  1. March 25, 2011

    Super article. I just finished doing the Triangle Shirtwaist factory with my history class in a unit we did on organized labor. I’d love to show this to a few of my students.

  2. Miriam permalink
    March 25, 2011

    Connecting all the dots across history is hard but this article makes what happened 100 years ago seem as relevant (and scary) as if it had just happened. All people who work (who doesn’t?) in the US need to stand up for their rights as workers. What recourse will we have left when we get sick/injured/killed from our work and our salaries and benefits are cut? We need OSHA and we need bargaining power!

  3. Judy Branfman permalink
    March 25, 2011

    Thanks for making the link with OSHA and the present. Unfortunately our country has been and is still full of sweatshops – and Los Angeles is the garment sweatshop capital of the US at this point – here’s some history that fills in the historical gaps, from a public art project called “Hidden Labor”:

  4. Jennifer Casolo permalink
    March 26, 2011

    So glad to read this article that not only makes important historical links but also makes evident that the women who died in the fire were not just victims of unsafe working conditions but also workers who had struggled for worker rights. While Missouri state Sen. Jane Cunningham is proposing to eliminate child labor laws, allowing corporations to employ any kid under 14 and to terminate restrictions on the number of hours that kid can be forced to work, we need to remember the sacrifices that made laws to protect workers possible in the first place. Excellent, evocative article!

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