What the Triangle Factory Fire Did For Us

Removing the dead from the premises. Triangle factory fire, 1911

People will die if we ignore these lessons

It was late on a Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911. Yes, people worked regularly on Saturdays then. Weekends hadn’t been invented yet. Fire erupted at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory on the eighth floor of the Asch Building in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, New York City. The factory employed 500 people. The first fire alarm sounded at 4:45. By the time it was over, 146 people were dead – 129 women and 17 men, aged 14 to 43 years. More than 90 of them jumped to their deaths on the sidewalk below.

 The factory, on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors, was packed full of machines, bolts of cloth, hazardous electrical wires, accumulated garbage, and human beings. The doors were chained shut to prevent workers from leaving the work floor. There were no fire drills, internal fire alarms, or sprinklers. The fire was so hot and moved so fast that they never had a chance. Many burned or suffocated to death. Some of the workers got to the fire escape, but it was faulty and collapsed, throwing them to their deaths below and trapping others inside. It was the deadliest workplace disaster in New York City until September 11, 2001.

There were no government regulations and no labor union to protect them.

The women had demonstrated for better pay and working conditions only months earlier. As usual, company owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris ignored them.

But others did hear them. The disaster investigation prompted state and federal fire and other workplace safety regulations, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and fair wage and hour standards. The legislation that came from this event inspired Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. American labor unions won collective bargaining rights and fought for workplace health, safety, and labor standards for all workers.

That lasted until January 20, 1981, when Ronald Reagan became the titular president of the United States. Then Congress couldn’t give the farm away fast enough. They tripped over themselves de-regulating every industry and began their union-busting campaign.

Believe me, the Republican Party, teapartiers, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and corporate executives know just as much about this fire, and other disasters, as we do. Yet they continue to fight regulations, common sense, and common decency. The Republithugs want nothing more than to revert to the golden days of the robber barons, when children worked in mines and mills and sweatshops for pennies each day, until they were too old and too sick and too broken to work anymore. They want to destroy the minimum wage, fair labor standards, workplace health, safety, discrimination, and environmental laws, and your ability to join with your colleagues to work against their greed and corruption – all of the things that the unions accomplished. They won’t hesitate to take chances with your life if they can put an extra buck into their own pockets.

I ask once again; who benefits from eradicating health, safety, fair wage and employment practices, and environmental regulations from trillion dollar corporations?

Fifty-three American workers died in only four incidents in four states during a five-month period in 2010. 4,287 others died in individual incidents throughout the country during the rest of the year. Nearly all of them were preventable. Most of the companies were at fault, yet the median OSHA penalty was a mere $3,675 in 2007.

This is why we can’t trust corporations. This is why we need to regulate businesses. This is why we must compel OSHA to enforce the rules. This is why we need unions.

HBO is currently airing a documentary, “Triangle: Remembering the Fire”. It’s available On Demand and it’s well worth your time.

Every year on the anniversary, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union held a memorial service on the site. ILGWU’s successor union, UNITE HERE, will hold the centennial observance on Friday. They and dozens of other organizations created the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition.

Those 146 people were too poor to leave anything to their families, but they left something precious to all of us. We can honor their lives and deaths by fighting to keep the gains we’ve made, and to continue that progress. It’s up to us to take care of it.

Every time your representatives vote to relax business regulations, they’re voting to endanger your life. Is that what you want? Are you willing to die so that your company CEO can have more money?

146 people died because Triangle owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris wanted more money, and there were no workplace protections for them. You can read their names here. Remember them today. Remember them on Workers Memorial Day, April 28. Remember them every day that you arrive home safe from work.

Please. Write to your representatives. Tell them to enforce the laws that keep you safe.

For More Information

Unions, Big Business and the Forgotten Lessons of a Disaster that Killed Dozens of Workers 100 Years Ago this Month

Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition

Workplace Deaths an Epidemic

The Most Dangerous Jobs in America

HBO Documentary – Triangle: Remembering the Fire

 Occupational Safety and Health Administration

Today is the Day of the American Workers

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