A Few Thoughts on Unions and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire:
There's no need here to go over the horror of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire on the day of its centennial. It was, in ways figurative and literal, like 9/11 for the American labor movement, a moment when the enemies of the masses were shown in all their cruelty and viciousness. But let's remember a few other things about how intractable the evils of industry were (and are).
Four months before Triangle burned, in November 1910, a building in Newark, New Jersey, containing factories for lamps, boxes, and undergarments, went up in flames. The fourth floor, where the garment factory employed mostly women, had inadequate fire escapes and, of course, locked doors. Twenty-five women died, six from fire and 19 from leaping out of the building. An article written shortly after hopefully stated, "The factory workers' only chance of protection lies in carefully drawn legislation enforced by an adequate number of inspectors appointed by civil service. This terrible and useless sacrifice of life in Newark will not have been altogether in vain if it stirs employers throughout the country to the point of establishing fire drills in their manufactories." Of course, it didn't lead to much of anything, even in New Jersey law, which relieved the building's owner and the factory's management of any liability.
Thus we got the fire at the Triangle Waist Company across the Hudson River.
We like to romanticize what came after the ineluctable nightmare that the mostly young women experienced a hundred years ago. Yes, there was a surge in the membership of International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (and other unions), and, yes, worker safety legislation was eventually passed, as were laws governing wages.
But let's not forget that in the 1920s, under the Harding and Coolidge administrations, and, indeed, until the Wagner Act was passed in 1935, unionism was under assault in the United States, with membership declining for over a decade from its 1920 high.
Before getting too wonky here, though, let's return to the anniversary. In a May 1911 article in Life and Labor magazine, writer Martha Bensley Bruere described the aftermath of the fire:
"Well, the fire is over, the girls are dead, and as I write, the procession in honor of the unidentified dead is moving by under my windows. Now what is going to be done about it?
"Harris and Blanck, the Triangle Company, have offered to pay one week's wages to the families of the dead girls--as though it were summer and they are giving them a vacation! Three days after the fire they inserted in the trade papers this notice:
"'NOTICE, THE TRIANGLE WAIST CO. beg to notify their customers that they are in good working order. HEADQUARTERS now at 9-11 University Place.'
"The day after they were installed in their new quarters, the Building Department of New York City discovered that 9-11 University Place was not even fireproof, and that the firm had already blocked the exit to the one fire escape by two rows of sewing machines.
"And still as I write the mourning procession moves past in the rain. For two hours they have been going steadily by and the end is not yet in sight. There have been no carriages, no imposing marshals on horseback; just thousands and thousands of working men and women carrying the banners of their trades through the long three-mile tramp in the rain. Never have I seen a military pageant or triumphant ovation so impressive; for it is not because 146 workers were killed in the Triangle shop-not altogether. It is because every year there are 50,000 working men and women killed in the United States-136 a day; almost as many as happened to be killed together on the 25th of March; and because slowly, very slowly, it is dawning on these thousands on thousands that such things do not have to be!
"It is four hours later and the last of the procession has just passed."
You get that? The owners of the factory merely set up a new shop and committed the same crimes, as if the deaths hadn't happened. They must have believed they could just act with impunity, that worker life was cheap and replaceable, that their profits were more important than obeying even simplest humane rules. They blocked the fire escape again. Christ.
It's one thing for capitalism to be amoral. It's another for it to be immoral. While that immorality may not be so brazen nowadays, it is there in every cutback made by profitable companies, it is there in every job shipped overseas, it is there in every denial of health care for employees, it is there in every CEO's bonus check. That's why we have unions. That's why, despite the best efforts of the right to destroy them, gut regulation, and trust the immoral corporations again, we need them just as much they did back in 1911.