One hundred years ago today,
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City on March 25, 1911, was the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of the city of New York and resulted in the fourth highest loss of life from an industrial accident in U.S. history. The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, who either died from the fire or jumped to their deaths. Most of the victims were recent immigrant Jewish and Italian women aged sixteen to twenty-three. Many of the workers could not escape the burning building because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits. People jumped from the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors. [Wikipedia]
There’s a documentary that debuted on HBO a few days ago called Triangle: Remembering the Fire. I remember reading about the fire vaguely, 2 lines in a history book in high school. Watching this film, hearing from relatives of people who survived the fire and people who didn’t, workers and owners, seeing pictures of teenagers alive, then lined up in open-air coffins so that their families could identify them. It was almost too much to take. Especially in the context of today with unions coming under fire for being, I don’t know, the handiwork of the antichrist or something.
“The people of New York City already knew these girls from 1909’s Uprising of the 20,000, when shirtwaist workers, most of them recent immigrants from Eastern Europe, went on strike demanding higher pay, shorter hours and better conditions. An event in American history missing from most textbooks, it was the first great uprising of women–at a time when they didn’t have the vote.
Organized by the newly created International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), the workers had marched in the streets, stood on picket lines and been beaten by hired thugs. When many of them later appeared on the ledges of the burning Asch building, without any chance of survival, it broke the hearts of New Yorkers who remembered their pleas.
Worst of all, the fire was preventable. Safety precautions such as sprinklers and fire drills existed at the time, but were not required by government regulations, which would have cost businesses money. [HBO]
This is such an important story in our national history and one we can’t forget when we talk about what government should and should not be able to ask of business.
The company’s owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, who survived the fire by fleeing to the building’s roof when the fire began, were indicted on charges of first and second degree manslaughter in mid-April; the pair’s trial began on December 4, 1911. Max Steuer, counsel for the defendants, managed to destroy the credibility of one of the survivors, Kate Alterman, by asking her to repeat her testimony a number of times — which she did without altering key phrases. Steuer argued to the jury that Alterman and possibly other witnesses had memorized their statements, and might even have been told what to say by the prosecutors. The defense also stressed that the prosecution had failed to prove that the owners knew the exit doors were locked at the time in question. The jury acquitted the two men, but they lost a subsequent civil suit in 1913 in which plaintiffs won compensation in the amount of $75 per deceased victim. The insurance company paid Blanck and Harris about $60,000 more than the reported losses, or about $400 per casualty. In 1913, Blanck was once again arrested for locking the door in his factory during working hours. He was fined $20. [Wikipedia]
Triangle: Remembering the Fire was followed by another documentary called Schmatta: Rags to Riches, all about the garment industry from the late 1800s to present, and its place in defining American culture and creating a middle class. The most striking thing I learned from it is: In 1965, 95% of our clothes were made here; In 2009, that number was only 5%. FIVE PERCENT.
And, of course, what makes foreign manufacturing so attractive is the price point. And what make the price point possible is the lack of oversight and regulation. And the lack of oversight and regulation means that in 2001,
NARSINGDI, Bangladesh— The fire in the garment factory began on the fourth floor, where polo shirts, neatly folded in boxes, made a fine feast for the hungry flames. The 1,250 workers scampered for their lives, most of them hurrying to the stairway that led to the main exit. There, at the bottom, was a folding gate. It was locked.
In panic, the trapped people spun around, rushing back up the steps, colliding with those coming down. It was night. The lights had gone out. Some workers squeezed through windows, shimmying down an outside pipe or chancing a desperate leap.
The rest were caught in a human knot on the dark stairs, arms pushing, mouths screaming, hearts pounding. Some people fell and were trampled. That is how nearly all of the fire’s 52 victims died, their final breaths stomped out of them on the hard concrete of the teeming steps. Most were young women. Ten were children. [NY Times]