From Triangle to Today, Big Business Is the Same

The blaze lasted less than half an hour. But in that brief period 146 people, mostly young Jewish and Italian migrant women, died in hideous ways, some burnt beyond recognition, some crushed on the sidewalk nine stories below.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire raged one hundred years ago today, March 25, 1911. Until the events of 9/11, it was the single worst workplace disaster in New York City’s history. It was also entirely preventable.

Wooden tables, wooden chairs, sewing machines that leaked oil, and work tables surrounded by easily combustible cloth scraps and tissue filled the cutting-room floor. The accumulated refuse hadn’t been cleared since mid-January. Several factory doors were kept locked to prevent employee theft. The Triangle Factory was a deathtrap.

The factory took up the eighth, ninth, and tenth stories of the Asch building (which still stands), but most firefighting equipment of the time could only reach the sixth floor. There was only one rickety fire escape.

The Triangle tragedy occurred for a reason: Industry leaders had long rejected safety measures. Mere weeks before the blaze, the Protective League of Property Owners angrily denounced the Fire Department’s orders to install, in the league’s words, “cumbersome and costly” sprinklers in city warehouses. The New York Herald reported that the owners claimed the order amounted to “a confiscation of property.” New York Fire Chief John Kenlon would later estimate the cost of sprinklers in the Asch building at $5,000—he also claimed that not one life would have been lost had they been put in place.

The immense public outrage that arose from the Triangle conflagration, spearheaded by the garment workers unions and the Socialist Party, forced New York City’s reactionary political machine, Tammany Hall, to recognize that times had changed. Instead of instinctively siding with industry, Tammany’s bosses appointed rising leaders Robert Wagner and Al Smith to chair the Factory Investigating Commission. In commission’s first year, its staffers investigated 1,836 firms, held 22 public hearings, questioned 222 witnesses, and proposed 15 pieces of legislation.

The commission’s proposals ranged from mandatory sprinklers and fire drills for certain factories to limits on child labor. Employers didn’t take kindly to these incursions into their supposed prerogatives. “We have been legislated to death,” complained James T. Hoyle, secretary of the Manufacturers’ Association.

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Charles E. Abbott, representative of the Wholesale Bakers’ Association, called the commission’s reforms “superfluous and entirely unnecessary.” (Meanwhile, investigators found the city’s cellar bakeries to be dank, rat-infested hellholes).

Many other industry representatives claimed that businesses would flee en masse to New Jersey if the legislation went through. But in July 1914, as the factory investigation commission wound down, the New York Times noted: “Notwithstanding all the talk of a probable exodus of manufacturing interests the commission has not found a single case of a manufacturer intending to leave the State because of the enforcement of the factory laws.”

Industry’s persistent efforts to stem the wave of reform following the Triangle fire should sound awfully familiar to modern ears.

Big Business apologists like Representative Darryl Issa want nothing more than to dismantle our regulatory system—the offspring of the work done in the wake of the Triangle fire.

Whenever reforms of any kind are recommended—be they environmental, safety, or health related—business lobbyists react with dramatic cries of “job killer.” Just like they did 100 years ago after the Triangle fire.


Jake Blumgart is a reporter-researcher with the Cry Wolf Project (their work is funded by the Ford Foundation and the Public Welfare Foundation). The piece is cross-posted from Talking Union.