March 25, 1911 was a glorious spring Saturday in New York City’s Greenwich Village. About 600 workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were just winding up the long workday sewing light cotton shirtwaists (fashionable high-necked blouses) when a fire broke out on the 8th floor. Within eighteen minutes the flames engulfed the top three floors of the ten story building.
If you Google “Triangle fire” hundreds of sites appear – primary source articles, photographs, editorials, essays, blog posts and YouTube videos. And yesterday in Lower Manhattan where the Asch Building still stands, hundreds gathered to remember and pay tribute to the victims of the “fire that changed America.”
The first alarm sounded at 4:45 p.m. but there were no sprinklers or fire extinguishers and only one rickety fire escape that collapsed as workers tried to exit the inferno. Trapped in the building, many kicked out windows, linked arms and jumped to their deaths. 146 young immigrants, mostly Italian and Jewish women and girls from ages 16-23 perished in the fire.
The fire led to a two year long investigation of factory conditions and laws which revolutionized the American workplace. The victims of the Triangle tragedy are still considered martyrs at the hands of unbridled capitalism and industrial greed. It’s an accurate and fair depiction.
One hundred years ago there were no building codes or labor laws on the books – no regulations addressing fire and safety inspections, child labor, working conditions and hours, let alone minimum wage laws, health benefits or compensation for injury. Without a single safety net, the average American worker in 1911 was fifty times more likely to lose his life on the job.
Immediately after the Triangle fire the Women's Trade Union League organized relief efforts and a funeral protest demonstration and even spearheaded criminal prosecution of the factory owners. The fire was a catalyst for union organizing that combined with public outrage to prompt New York’s state legislature to rewrite labor, building and industrial codes. Child labor laws, safety and workers compensation laws were enacted and the legislation became the model for FDR’s New Deal agenda of workers’ rights and protections.
I suppose it’s not surprising that several articles written about the 100th anniversary of the Triangle fire begin and end with references to Wisconsin’s current efforts to curtail collective bargaining for state employees. Some writers actually suggest that the collective bargaining rights of public employees are rights that were paid for with the lives of those young immigrants. It’s not a fair comparison – to me, it’s a gross overreach that exploits the memory of the Triangle girls and the thousands of other miners, factory workers and laborers who’ve been exploited for the sake of a profit margin.
No cash-strapped governor or state legislature has suggested repealing the Fair Labor Standards Act or eliminating OSHA. The “bad guys” in Wisconsin are the elected officials struggling to fund overly generous retirement and health care obligations negotiated under collective bargaining but no longer sustainable. (For the record, FDR opposed collective bargaining in the public sector.)
In 1911 the labor movement came to the rescue of powerless, exploited teenagers trapped in sweatshops. It was a noble, necessary and worthy cause and unions should take credit for the good they did to improve the lives of millions of working Americans. They should also remember that most state governments today rely on taxpayers to fund their public services and corresponding retirement systems. Until taxpayers can identify the greedy capitalists and corporate executives exploiting public employees, they have every right to ask the question, “Just who is exploiting whom?”