Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

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Most people view Labor Day as the last hurrah of summer. Yes, it signifies the end of summer, back to school and the return of American football, but it also holds a deeper meaning. Labor Day honors the American Labor movement and the power of collective action by laborers. In today’s society, Labor Unions carry less and less power than they held at their peak. I wanted to share a tale of why labor unions and government safety and regulations are so important, the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.

The Triangle Company factory occupied the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the 10-story Asch Building, in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. The factory was owned by Max Blanck and Issac Harris. The factory produced women’s blouses known as “shirtwaists.” The factory employed mostly young immigrant women and girls; some were teenagers; most didn’t speak English. The workers worked 12 hours a day during the weekdays, plus 7 hours on Saturdays and Sundays. For their hours of work, they earned between $7 and $12 a week. In Modern times that equates to $ 191- $327 a week, or $ 3.27 — $ 6.29 per hour. For reference, the Federal minimum wage currently is $ 7.25 an hour, though most states have laws that exceed that amount. Of course, at that time in history, there was no minimum wage or overtime laws.

In 1911, there were four elevators with access to the factory floors, but only one was fully operational, and the workers had to file down a long narrow corridor to reach it. There were two stairways down to the street, but one was locked from the outside to prevent theft, and the other only opened inward. There was a fire escape, but it was so narrow that it would have taken hours for all of the workers to use it even in the best of circumstances. The city allowed Asch to build this fire escape, instead of a third stairway that was typically required. Though sprinkler systems were invented and available at the time, Blanck and Harris refused to install them.

In 1909 the International Ladies Garment Workers Union led a strike against the factory demanding higher pay and shorter and more predictable hours. Blanck and Harris resisted the strike by hiring police officers to imprison the striking workers and paid off politicians to look the other way. In other words, the Triangle waist company wasn’t showing up, on the best companies to work for list.

On March 25th, 1911, there were 600 workers at the factory when a fire begins in a rag bin. The manager attempted to extinguish the fire by using a fire hose, he was unsuccessful as the hose was rotted and its valve rusted shut. (another one of those safety features the factory didn’t keep up to code). The fire grew, and panic ensued.
The workers fled to the one operational elevator, but it could only hold 12 people at a time. The elevator operators were only able to make three trips back and forth before the elevator broke down amidst the heat and flames. Some of the girls in a desperate attempt to escape the fire pried the elevators door open and jumped down the elevator shaft, hoping to land on the elevator car, but they plunged to their deaths instead. Some workers rushed to the fire escape. The fire escape was not only narrow but also flimsy and poorly anchored. It soon twisted and collapsed and sent some 20 workers plunging more than 100 feet to their deaths on the pavement outside the factory. Others rushed to the stairwells, but remember the door at the bottom was locked, so most of those people were burnt alive as well.

The workers who were unable to make it to the stairwells, elevators or fire escape were trapped by the fire and begin to jump out the windows. The firefighters were on the scene at this time, but the bodies of the jumpers fell on the fire hose, making it difficult to put out the fire. The firefighter’s ladder only reached seven stories high and well, the fire started on the 8th floor. The firefighters then put out a net to catch the jumpers, but three girls jumped at the same time and ripped the net, making it ineffective.

The workers who were on the floors above the fire including Blanck and Harris were able to escape to the roof then adjoining buildings. All in all, the fire lasted 18 minutes. Forty-nine workers were burnt to death or died of smoke inhalation.36 workers died in the elevator shaft, and 58 jumped to their deaths out the windows. A total of 146 workers died because of the fire, 123 women and 23 men.

Blanck and Harris were indicted on charges of first and second-degree manslaughter charges; they were acquitted but found guilty of wrongful death in a subsequent civil suit. The plaintiffs were awarded $ 75 per deceased victim, but Blanck and Harris were rewarded $ 400 per victim by the insurance company for the fire. Even after all their negligence and neglect, they were still able to profit from the tragedy. In the sense of irony, Blanck was found guilty of locking doors during working hours in 1913, that’s only two years after the fire! He was again given a slap on the wrist and only charged a $ 20 fine for the infraction.

Some good did come from the tragedy, 38 new laws were passed in New York that regulated and changed labor laws and conditions. A summary of the statutes; were better building access, fireproofing requirements, availability of fire extinguishers, installation of fire alarm systems and automatic sprinklers, better eating and toilet facilities for workers and limited the number of hours women and children could work. The laws made New York one of the most progressive states when it comes to labor reform.

The building now known as the brown building still stands today and is owned by New York University. In 2015, it was announced by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, that a Permanent memorial for the Triangle factory victims would be constructed around the Brown Building.

Mistakes Were Made:

You may be thinking though this story is a tragedy, it happened ages ago, and cant happen in modern time. Labor and fire safety laws have changed for the better in the U.S. because of incidents like this, but sweatshops still exist.

The Triangle Shirt factory was a sweatshop, through and through. Though not as prevalent as they used to be in the U.S., they still exist. The modern economy is now a global economy. That means most things we enjoy every day like our smartphones, iPads, smartwatches, tv’s, laptops, and headphones are probably assembled somewhere else where the labor laws are not up to U.S. standards.

China has low labor costs and highly skilled workers, making them ripe for outside companies to come in and “use” their workforce. These factors, among others, have made China the second biggest economy in the world. Foxconn does the majority of manufacturing in China; in fact, it is the number one employer in mainland China. One big thing Foxconn assemblies? Iphones. Foxconn, biggest factory once housed 450,000 workers though those numbers are a lot lower today.

In 2010 Foxconn employees started committing suicide in protest to the working conditions. The workers started throwing themselves off of dorm buildings. There were 18 suicide attempts in 2010, with 14 being successful. The suicide notes and survivors told of immense stress, long workdays, harsh managers, public humiliation for mistakes, unfair fines, and unkept promises about benefits. Foxconn response? Install nets around the factory and make workers sign a pledge not to kill themselves. I guess the thought of improving conditions never crossed their minds. Foxconn has tightened up security since the suicide reports started coming out, so we don’t know whats going on there now. I’m willing to wager that the same poor working conditions are going on there.

Foxconn is just the most high profile incident, but labor exploitation is going on in other developing countries, that make products for the enjoyment of first-world people. In 100 years, we exported labor exploitation from U.S. immigrants to developing countries. Of course, out of sight, out of mind. As long as we get our shiny new babble for a reasonable price or not so low price in terms of Apple products, who cares what the workers had to go through to make it.

In summation have labor standards and safety really improved for the better since the Triangle Shirt factory fire? Sure, in the U.S but all corporations have done is push those same horrible working conditions offshore to developing countries in the name of globalism. I don’t know who’s the worst culprit, the corporations or us consumers, who act ignorant, and duck our heads in the sand about the conditions. As long as we can get that new clothing item from H&M, new house product from Wal-Mart or new electronic for a good price, that’s all that matters. It’s the same line of thinking as the consumers who bought clothing from the Triangle Shirt Factory back in 1911.

Originally published at on September 2, 2019.

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