Preserving the Triangle Factory Fire's Lessons, 100 Years Later

March 25 marks the 100th anniversary of the notorious Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that trapped and killed 146 workers, most of them young immigrant women, on the upper floors of a New York City sweatshop. It's a time to honor and mourn the Triangle's victims, commemorate the tragedy's importance as a turning point in the history of the American labor movement, and reaffirm the crucial role of unions and regulatory bodies in advancing worker rights. Both are taking a beating in America's 21st-century iteration of the Gilded Age, as industrialists (hello, Koch brothers) paired with the craven politicians who do their bidding (greetings, Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Scott Brown, et al.) take another pass at ridding our country of all those nasty laws that protect consumers and workers, and cut into their bottom line.

It was unions -- led by the International Ladies' Garment Workers (now Workers United) in league with the Women's Trade Union League -- that began harnessing public outrage in the wake of the fire to demand the regulations regarding worker health, well-being, and safety that protect many workers to this day, whether or not they belong to a union. Think workers' compensation, unemployment insurance, the 40-hour workweek, weekends, holidays, sick pay, employee benefits, and safety standards. While you're at it, peruse this excellent chart from the Service Employees International Union that illustrates the many ways unions succeeded in making workplace buildings safer in the wake of the Triangle tragedy. These included pressuring legislators to mandate emergency exits, sprinkler systems, and maximum-occupancy laws.

And then think about how dangerously close America is to turning its back on Triangle's legacy because of this past decade's (mostly) Republican and corporate-led assault on regulatory bodies and policies. This is the very time when workers most need protection: As our country's recession deepens, unions have been eviscerated, and jobholders and job seekers have become more desperate. As one Harvard Business School lecturer memorably said about Harley Davidson's happy discovery that reducing the number of employees has actually contributed to soaring profits, "Because of high unemployment, management is using its leverage to get more hours out of workers."

Yet the public seems increasingly to hate, envy, and blame unions and unionized workers. Perhaps the average Joe doesn't understand that unions helped to create most of the benefits that make his workplace bearable. Or maybe the very thing that makes people vulnerable also makes them envious. To riff off of H.L. Mencken's definition of fundamentalism, it could be that the root of the average Jane's anti-union fervor is the terrible, pervasive fear that somewhere, someone is being adequately compensated and treated well. Or perhaps people really just don't understand the basics of state revenue generation and taxation.

Surely, it must be one of these, or some toxic mixture. How else to explain Gov. Walker's considerable success in demonizing public-sector unions and steamrolling anti-union legislation through the Legislature -- in Wisconsin, the birthplace of workers' compensation (1911), unemployment insurance (1932), and public-employee bargaining (1959), no less? Or the large number of people who swallow Walker's ridiculous claim that, in the wake of very real threats to the economy like the housing bust, the financial crisis, and the credit drought, compensating public workers is what's really eviscerating state budgets? (For a more likely explanation for the state's revenue shortfall, see Sally Kohn, who notes that "in Wisconsin, 60% of corporations making more than $1 million per year in revenues pay zero taxes. Zero.")

Destroying collective-bargaining power not only fails to resolve financial issues in Wisconsin and elsewhere; it also, as Triangle's example warns us, endangers workers. In 1909, two years before the fire, Triangle Shirtwaist factory workers walked out in protest over hazardous working conditions, low wages, and long hours. The owners agreed to modestly raise pay, but continued to deny the strikers collective-bargaining rights. Ultimately, poverty drove them back to the shop. Had the Triangle workers been able to negotiate regarding work conditions, they might have been able to address their concerns over the building's many, obvious hazards. Instead, their inability to hold out for more control over labor conditions cost them their lives.

When the fire broke out, the Triangle factory's workers found themselves in a deathtrap. As Celia Walker Friedman, one of the surviving workers recalled (read her statement here), flames were already shooting up from the eighth-floor stairway by the time the women on the ninth floor even knew there was a fire. "[The] aisles were narrow and blocked by the chairs and baskets," and the door to the other stairway "was completely blocked by the big crates of blouses and goods." Friedman couldn't access the flimsy fire escape (and didn't know it had already collapsed).

Though the elevators stopped working almost immediately, people continued to fall into the shaft, pushed from behind by other frantic workers crowding the doors trying to escape, or throwing themselves at the center cable, hoping to slide to safety. Friedman, the only one to survive by doing this, was found under a pile of bodies at the bottom of the shaft when the firemen began removing the dead.

Now Gov. Walker is asking Wisconsin's public-sector employees to accept the same deal that the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory offered their workers 100 years ago: a little more money in exchange for being stripped of any right to demand better workplace conditions.

If you think that labor laws and safety conditions have improved too much for Triangle to happen again, consider a more recent historic event. The mine that collapsed in West Virginia last summer killed 29 miners in the worst mining tragedy in 4 decades. But it didn't have to happen, and it wouldn't have with more rigorous regulation and enforcement. The Massey-owned mine, according to The New York Times, was known to have had "repeated problems with methane buildups." In fact, in the 15 months prior to the blast, the Times reported, "federal regulators had cited the mine eight times for 'substantial' violations relating to the mine's methane control plans, according to the records." Where was the Labor Department in all this? Trying to play catch-up after eight years of gutting by the Bush administration. Now President Barack Obama's secretary of labor, Hilda Solis -- the first serious candidate to get the job in the past decade -- is struggling with a huge backlog; an equivocal, business-friendly boss and Congress; and budget cuts that will undoubtedly continue to affect regulation and enforcement efforts.

At this crossroads in the American economy and labor, when so many of us are jobless; when deregulation forces have gained so much ground; when workers are increasingly being squeezed for more and given less; when corporate kings are more kingly than ever; and when unions are under attack, we need to look to the Triangle tragedy and its aftermath to remind us of the costs of compliance. History demonstrates that whenever workers are denied the ability to negotiate for their own safety and well-being, and whenever regulatory bodies and policies are defanged, tragedy follows. It's a lesson we learned at great human expense and forget at our peril.

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