Labor Stories: It took a catastrophic fire to make the workplace safe

A close look at American history would suggest we are a reactive nation — an event happens and we respond in a way to ‘correct’ the malady. This seems especially true inside the workplace. If you polled workers today, many would say it is their ‘right’ to have a safe place to work — but few know the cost of human life required to bring about that right.

One of the deadliest industrial accident took place in New York City at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in 1911. The company, in today’s vernacular, was a sweatshop and just two years earlier established itself as a non-union shop — refusing to negotiate during the Uprising of 20,000. The company went so far as to hired thugs and prostitutes to harass strikers. Even the police and courts sided with the company as strikers were often arrested on trumped-up charges. The majority of the strikers were women and inside the courtroom they faced hostile judges — one women was even scolded by a judge and told, “You are striking against God and nature.”

In Uprising of 20,000 by Tony Michels, he notes that:

In one month, 723 people were arrested and 19 sentenced to the workhouse. Bail averaged $2,500 per day, and court fines totaled $5,000. Overall, the strike cost $100,000. Clara Lemlich [the 23-year-old leader in the movement] suffered six broken ribs and was arrested a total of seventeen times. In one egregious miscarriage of justice, a ten-year-old girl was tried without testimony and sentenced to five days in the workhouse for allegedly assaulting a scab.

Although, other companies during the Uprising of 20,000 ceded to most of the demands — like a fifty-two-hour week [they were working up to 16 hours per day], at least four holidays with pay per year, provision of tools and materials without fee [they previously had to buy their own sewing machine]  and negotiation of wages with employees — the Triangle Shirtwaist Company refused to negotiate and eventually purged the company of most union loyalists.

So how did 146 people lose their lives in the fire on Saturday, March 25, 1911?

  1. They were working in overcrowded condition making exiting the building difficult.
  2. The factory owners had locked the exits to prevent workers from ‘stealing time’ and to keep union organizers out.
  3. The sole fire escape ladder bent under the heat and weight of people escaping.
  4. Fire crews did not have adequate ladders (most of the workers killed were trapped on the 9th floor).

The incident went to court where the company was acquitted of all charges. The company collected insurance money and re-opened its business at a new address. Triangle Shirtwaist Company offered a settlement of one week’s wage (about $5-$20, depending on position) to the victims’ families, however in 1914 a judge ordered them to pay $75 to each of the 23 families that had sued.

Public backlash and sympathy to the workers, though, did eventually lead to change through the creation of the Factory Investigating Commission. This agency was instrumental in drafting new legislation that set occupancy limits, required automated sprinkling systems — and drafted employment laws designed to protect women and children.

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