Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Anniversary
March 25, 2011 8:09 AM   Subscribe

100 years ago today, fire swept through the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, killing 146 garment workers trapped inside. The tragedy spurred New York State to enact progressive labor reforms and was the motivation for the creation of the American Society of Safety Engineers. Although subsequent labor laws and regulations protect factory workers in the United States, the problem has moved overseas.
posted by pashdown (58 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
Don't
.

Organize.
posted by Mngo at 8:11 AM on March 25, 2011 [8 favorites]


I was just reading the Salon story about the fire, which includes a link to Cornell University's page about it.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:13 AM on March 25, 2011


.
posted by josher71 at 8:15 AM on March 25, 2011


Links to the American Experience episode and other resources commemorating the event can be found in this previous thread.
posted by hippybear at 8:16 AM on March 25, 2011


In theory, labor laws and safety regulations protect workers in the US; but there are still plenty of violations, especially in industries where many of the employees are undocumented. Remember when, five or six years ago, Walmart was caught locking its stockers in the stores overnight?
posted by steambadger at 8:17 AM on March 25, 2011




In theory, labor laws and safety regulations protect workers in the US; but there are still plenty of violations, especially in industries where many of the employees are undocumented. Remember when, five or six years ago, Walmart was caught locking its stockers in the stores overnight?

A lot of things have changed in 100 years. Human nature isn't one of them.
posted by ocschwar at 8:21 AM on March 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


flagged as "hostile to business"
posted by orme at 8:23 AM on March 25, 2011 [19 favorites]


The last such nightmare befell workers barely 100 days ago, on December 14, when thirty workers were killed and more than a hundred injured at a factory producing for Kohl's, JC Penney, Target, Wrangler, Phillips-Van Heusen, Oshkosh, Gap and others.

You buy shirts at any of those stores? Despite demonstrating that you have no sense of taste or style, you are also contributing to the problem.
posted by three blind mice at 8:25 AM on March 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


In theory, labor laws and safety regulations protect workers in the US; but there are still plenty of violations, especially in industries where many of the employees are undocumented. Remember when, five or six years ago, Walmart was caught locking its stockers in the stores overnight?

If there weren't any regulations, corporations would just kill people and add the cost of payouts to their balance sheet. They gladly trade lives for profit. The only thing that truly scares anyone is jail time, and we need a hell of a lot more of it for white collar crime like Wal-Mart lock-ins, Phillip Morris killing their clients, and Pfizer pushing through dangerous drugs, etc, etc, etc.
posted by notion at 8:25 AM on March 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


Previously.
posted by Stagger Lee at 8:30 AM on March 25, 2011


Obligatory link to Rasputina's song My Little Shirtwaist Fire.
posted by threeturtles at 8:31 AM on March 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


If there weren't any regulations, corporations would just kill people and add the cost of payouts to their balance sheet.

Strictly speaking, that is not true. There is also the Common Law principle of punitive damages, which are legally defined as whatever amount will be too painful to consider a cost of doing business.
posted by ocschwar at 8:33 AM on March 25, 2011


Strictly speaking, that is not true. There is also the Common Law principle of punitive damages, which are legally defined as whatever amount will be too painful to consider a cost of doing business.


BWAHAHAHA. "Strictly speaking" and "in reality" are two different things.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 8:38 AM on March 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


BWAHAHAHA. "Strictly speaking" and "in reality" are two different things.

Punitive damages get applied a lot more frequently than criminal charges. And, a corporation can't just pick a mid level manager as a fall guy and send him to prison, so the prospect of PD is a lot more effective at the boardroom level.
posted by ocschwar at 8:40 AM on March 25, 2011



You buy shirts at any of those stores? Despite demonstrating that you have no sense of taste or style, you are also contributing to the problem.


Ireally hope that you manage to strip down every last ethical interconnectedness to the vast system of exploitaion and greed that powers the modern world so that you can live your life clean and pure.

Have you ever seen what modern supply chains look like?
posted by lalochezia at 8:41 AM on March 25, 2011 [11 favorites]


.

Also, when I teach about labor history in my US History class, my high school students are really moved by this story. Other events like Haymarket, the Homestead Strike, or Pullman don't elicit nearly as much sympathy. These women and men that perished in the fire were truly innocent.
posted by Hop123 at 8:42 AM on March 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Even the "labor-friendly" places have their dangers; Dov Charney's being sued by four women for sexual harrassment, and in one case, for coercing an employee into sex.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:43 AM on March 25, 2011


Yeah but that's because Dov Charney is an asshole.
And regardless of his pervy appetites, the protections against sexual harassment still exist, as unfortunate as it is to have to use them.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 8:48 AM on March 25, 2011 [1 favorite]




when I teach about labor history in my US History class, my high school students are really moved by this story. Other events like Haymarket, the Homestead Strike, or Pullman don't elicit nearly as much sympathy.

...At the risk of tooting my own horn:

A few years ago I wrote a very short play about a Triangle Shirtwaist survivor (the premise was that a reporter had come to talk to her on some "yay it's our local resident's 100th birthday" puff piece, they ended up talking about that, and then the survivor turned the interview into a whole rant about "but there are still sweatshops, so what the hell is it going to take to get you people to realize this is a problem?"). About halfway through, the survivor talks about how she escaped (about a dozen girls escaped to the roof; the factory was next door to an NYU building that was one floor higher, so some students stuck some ladders out the window so the girls could climb up to safety) and what she saw that day. I got a lot of the details from survivors' first-hand accounts.

The director invited me to sit in on auditions, and she asked different actresses to do that monologue for their auditions. Invariably the director would be in tears by the end of it, each time, because some of those details are so damn harrowing.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:50 AM on March 25, 2011 [7 favorites]


It's hard to imagine a time when an outrage really was an outrage. If this happened today, there'd be garment factory PR people and lobbyists fanning out to all the news networks to provide "balance." Right-wing commentators would try to shift blame to the workers themselves. (Did they bring over unsafe or unsanitary habits from the old country? Would they have known how to escape if they'd just bothered to learn English?) Republican congressmen would denounce the "witch hunt" of the factory owners.

I'm sure something like that happened at the time, and the details fade away after 100 years. Or maybe I'm just being more pessimistic than usual. But I have to think if 146 people died in a factory fire in the US today, the response wouldn't be a major effort to right wrongs. It would just be a sad face then a collective shrug. And then the latest antics from Charlie Sheen, right after the break.
posted by PlusDistance at 8:54 AM on March 25, 2011 [17 favorites]


"Democracy Now" devoted an hour to the anniversary this morning - smart, insightful commentary RE: the importance of the fire and how it relates to current attacks on workers in Bangladesh and elsewhere.
posted by ryanshepard at 8:55 AM on March 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


EmpressCallipygos, could you share that play with us? I'd love to read it.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:55 AM on March 25, 2011


You can watch the stream of the live commemoration here. It will be archived later.
The Jewish Daily Forward has republished (translated) articles from the fire and the aftermath.
posted by cushie at 9:02 AM on March 25, 2011


ochredraco: it's at home somewhere; I'll need to dig it up. (Although, how would I share it -- post it somewhere, but where?)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:11 AM on March 25, 2011




Empress Callipygos, this is exactly the kind of thing that the Triangle Fire Open Archive is collecting. You can upload it there.
posted by cushie at 9:16 AM on March 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


Wrong thread, Uther?
posted by hippybear at 9:17 AM on March 25, 2011


Strictly speaking, that is not true. There is also the Common Law principle of punitive damages, which are legally defined as whatever amount will be too painful to consider a cost of doing business.

That is logically nonsensical. Companies can, and do, wager legal costs against human cost all of the time. The only thing punitive damage limits is how many murders they can get away with before it hurts their bottom line, which is exactly what I said.
posted by notion at 9:20 AM on March 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


That is logically nonsensical. Companies can, and do, wager legal costs against human cost all of the time.

Only if they have an estimate of the legal cost a priori. The whole point behind punitive damages is that they are defined as whatever amount will render that discussion moot.
posted by ocschwar at 9:22 AM on March 25, 2011


In my more cynical moments I think that if this happened today we'd see people actually taking the position that banning child labor would hurt American families and the economy.

I'm not so pollyanna-ish that I think there aren't people who think those things but sometimes I'm amazed at what positions people are willing to publicly take.
posted by phearlez at 9:27 AM on March 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


If I hadn't just eaten lunch and thus feel lazy, I'd try and draw some paralell between what's going on in WI with what led to the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, but yeah, meant to put that in the giant Wisconsin thread.

...and now i've been beaten to it. So it goes.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 9:28 AM on March 25, 2011


Actually, Phearlez Senator Mike Lee of Utah is trying to repeal federal child labor laws, although he has a selective and misreading of the history of SCOTUS rulings on this.
posted by cushie at 9:31 AM on March 25, 2011


The whole point behind punitive damages is that they are defined as whatever amount will render that discussion moot.

This probably does prevent some of the most egregious behavior -- but it's an iffy remedy. For one thing, when seeking punitive damages, it helps to be able to point to some sort of regulatory violation. For another, corporations have entire battalions of lawyers who live only to fight such lawsuits, or at least mitigate the damage. How often do major corporations go belly up because of punitive damages in a labor suit?
posted by steambadger at 9:39 AM on March 25, 2011


The Triangle Fire Open Archive does sound like a good home for your play, Empress, especially if otherwise it would just be sitting in a drawer (or on a hard drive). But you could also put it online on a site of your own, or upload a pdf to Google Docs or Scribd or something. (All this assumes that you don't mind having it publicly available; I'd understand if you didn't.)
posted by ocherdraco at 9:41 AM on March 25, 2011


This probably does prevent some of the most egregious behavior -- but it's an iffy remedy.

All remedies are iffy. That's why we need all remedies to be on hand.
posted by ocschwar at 9:41 AM on March 25, 2011


Oh, I'm gonna upload it to the Open Archive. That's PERFECT.

I'll do that tonight. If it's immediately available, I'll post the link.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:51 AM on March 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


Only if they have an estimate of the legal cost a priori. The whole point behind punitive damages is that they are defined as whatever amount will render that discussion moot.

Phillip Morris is still raking in cash, despite having "a priori" knowledge that their product was killing people while they lied and said it was perfectly healthy. To my knowledge, not a single executive or employee has seen jail time because of it.

The whole point of punitive damages is that it reinforces the belief that human lives are just dollar signs, and as long as those human lives don't overtake the profit margin, the corporation happily rolls along. The whole point of punitive jail time is to make a corporate board terrified of going to prison instead of just having a little less money to pass round.
posted by notion at 9:59 AM on March 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


Phillip Morris is still raking in cash, despite having "a priori" knowledge that their product was killing people while they lied and said it was perfectly healthy.

And they have stopped saying that.
posted by ocschwar at 10:03 AM on March 25, 2011


And they have stopped saying that.

I don't understand why you seem to be argumentative here, since you seem to acknowledge that both criminal and punitive damages should apply, and I don't *think* you're arguing that there shouldn't be any regulations regarding worker safety.
posted by rtha at 10:11 AM on March 25, 2011


My classmates and I did a play on the Triangle fire, in 5th grade, I think. I remember being really affected by it. I got to play Rose Schneiderman, the labor activist who spoke for those who died, after the fire.
posted by medeine at 10:13 AM on March 25, 2011


I'm sure something like that happened at the time, and the details fade away after 100 years. Or maybe I'm just being more pessimistic than usual. But I have to think if 146 people died in a factory fire in the US today, the response wouldn't be a major effort to right wrongs.
After the Station fire in 2003 (scroll down the page a bit) the state revised the rules and public buildings that had previously been grandfathered out of the existing sprinkler laws were ordered to be retrofitted. But even other municipalities who were trying to do the right thing and change codes and laws after the Station disaster were met with resistance from club owners.
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:16 AM on March 25, 2011


I don't understand why you seem to be argumentative here, since you seem to acknowledge that both criminal and punitive damages should apply, and I don't *think* you're arguing that there shouldn't be any regulations regarding worker safety.

Well, I was mainly prompted by the concentration on criminal charges, which as I poitned out, often only result in a fall guy being chosen.
posted by ocschwar at 10:23 AM on March 25, 2011


You buy shirts at any of those stores? Despite demonstrating that you have no sense of taste or style, you are also contributing to the problem.

I have no doubt your hair shirt wardrobe is morally superior, and stylish, to boot. Feel free to buy me a new set of clothing that will satisfy your ethical standards.
posted by 2N2222 at 10:50 AM on March 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


I've been reading about this and thinking about it all week.

Triangle was a tragedy. If our regulations prevent another one, that's an unambiguous good.

But the fact that sweatshops have moved overseas to get away with this kind of shit rankles and bothers me so much that I wonder if it all just ends in a moral draw.

The only solution that I've been able to come up with is a political non-starter: if you want to sell goods to Americans, the plum market of the entire world, you have to make 'em here. You have to employ U.S. workers and pay U.S. taxes. I have no idea how to go about implementing such protectionist measures, and I know it would go nowhere on a major party platform, but that's all I got.

There are several ironies in my favoring protectionist economic/industrial measures. If this actually happened, it would almost certainly hurt my family's bottom line.

We buy very few things new- every piece of furniture in our house is either used or home built, of our appliances, only our fridge/freezer and washer were bought new (and this is the fourth washer I've owned, the previous three were used), we've never owned a new car. The primary stuff that we buy new is electronics, the price of which has plummeted within my adult life. Each of our laptops cost under $300. Our 42" TV was $350. Our 10MP camera was $100. Our cell phones were $15 each, until my stepson wanted an upgrade for his birthday, and the new one was only $50. Our iPods were $175 each. There's more stuff- speakers, cordless phones, VOIP box, DVD player, cables, routers, amps, connectors, our Roku box, remotes- but all this stuff ranges from sub-$100 to loose change at the neighborhood Radio Shack. How much would this have all cost if it were made in the U.S.A. by workers paid a living wage? Twice as much? Three times? We wouldn't be as geeked-out, I can tell you that.

I have mastered the art of dressing a family of five for a few hundred bucks a year. Now, we have some pretty heavy subsidies- due to the structure of the modern, blended family, my kids have a dozen grandparents and a doting aunt who all love to shop, particularly for kids clothes. We get boxes of stuff in the mail regularly- once a month is not an exaggeration. But even if we didn't have that subsidy, it wouldn't be too hard. We live a few blocks from the world's greatest thrift store, it's actually right next to my daughter's preschool, and if they don't have something that we want, I check eBay, a source that hasn't yet let me down. We all have wool dress coats and cashmere hats/gloves/scarves from eBay, I didn't pay more than $200 for everything. My daughter is in love with Lands' End dresses, and they cost $40 on the LE website and $10 on eBay.

Where this all falls apart is shoes for my husband and bras for me. My husband has one leg that's longer than the other, so we have to buy him very high quality shoes, that then need to be torn apart and rebuilt by a cobbler. When we lived in a different place, there was actually a cobbler who made shoes from scratch. Cobbler made shoes were actually cheaper for the hubs than buying a nice pair and paying for the work. But the scratch cobbler died (he worked up until the day he died; he was nearly 90) and his son just did repairs. So now we're back to the $300 pair of shoes- $200 for the shoes, and $100 for the cobbler.

I am a full busted woman. Pre-kids, I wore a 36F, which is impossible to find. Post kids, I'm a 38F, which is really a blessing because I now can find bras at plus size clothing retailers, and if I'm smart about sales, I can spend $18-$25 per bra, rather than $60-$80. The delightful irony of this is that my daughter's preschool is housed in a building downtown that used to be a bra factory. It hung on for a good while, until the early 70s, I think. Now, bras would cost more if that factory was still up and running and paying workers $10 an hour- but I may have actually been able to talk to a manager and been able to buy bras four blocks from my house rather than order them from a company in Chicago who has them made in China. Hell, maybe one of us could eventually get a job there, if that factory was still running.

I know we'd pay more for stuff. We'd have to. I think used stuff would go up in price, too, because everything would cost more, people would hang onto it longer, and demand would go up for good quality used items. We are lower middle class thanks to sheer luck, education, and the fact that my husband's benefits give us security and options that even money can't buy, but we live under 150% of the poverty level. So I'm putting my money where my mouth is when I say that I want a return to U.S. manufacturing. Both for the overall good of our economy and society, even at my personal expense, but mostly because I don't want Triangle Shirtwaist to happen anywhere, be it New York, China, or Panama.
posted by Leta at 10:53 AM on March 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


New York Times Magazine's description of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, commemorating the life of the last survivor Rose Rosenfield Freedman

Her obituary in the Times is well worth reading.
posted by plastic_animals at 10:58 AM on March 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


'That's the whole trouble of this fire. Nobody cares. Nobody. Hundred forty-six people in a half an hour. I have always tears in my eyes when I think. It should never have happened. The executives with a couple of steps could have opened the door. But they thought they were better than the working people. It's not fair because material, money, is more important here than everything.

''That's the biggest mistake -- that a person doesn't count much when he hasn't got money. What good is a rich man and he hasn't got a heart? I don't pretend. I feel it. Still.''

-Rose Rosenfield Freedman
posted by Benny Andajetz at 11:08 AM on March 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


The delightful irony of this is that my daughter's preschool is housed in a building downtown that used to be a bra factory. It hung on for a good while

*childish snicker*
posted by phearlez at 12:18 PM on March 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Max Steuer, the attorney who represented the Factory owners and got them acquitted, is my great great great(?) grandfather. As part of the case, he negotiated the first collective bargaining agreements in the women's clothing industry.

Oddly enough, about 50 years later, my father would be one of the founders of the National Association of Women's and Children's Apparel Salesmen (NAWCAS), an effort to unionize sales and trade show representatives in the Garment District.
posted by JaredSeth at 12:35 PM on March 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


As a person involved in corporate safety, I've studied the Triangle fire and other disasters for the lessons they can teach us. One of the positive outcomes was the creation of the United Association of Casualty Inspectors which has over the years become the ASSE as noted above. A friend's daughter was telling me that she wanted to go into Human Relations when she got out of school because she "really wanted to do things for employees." I had to tell her that in modern corporations, the only departments that do things "for" employees are the HSE department and the Training department. HR does things TO employees, at the behest of management.
posted by Standeck at 1:19 PM on March 25, 2011


And 80 years later, there was the Hamlet Chicken processing plant fire. The more things change.
posted by dilettante at 2:43 PM on March 25, 2011


Arg -- the file I have at home of my play is an earlier draft (my computer was stolen in December and people tried sending me back things I'd written, but the person who sent me my play sent me draft #1, and there were six more drafts). I'm trying to track down the more current draft; I'll let you all know when I'e uploaded it to the Archive site.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:29 PM on March 25, 2011


Good piece in today's Financial Times ("New York's Abiding Appetite for Risk" - you might need google to by pass the sign up wall) noting that it was in stark contrast to New England factories which managed risk by sprinkler systems rather than financial instruments (since, after all, a fire at night could be for the owners a "good" thing) and suggesting that the mindset is with NY still, thus, recent financial nonsense where risk was not mitigated, only off loaded onto someone else.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:17 PM on March 25, 2011


JaredSeth, my family had a similar link between the Triangle Factory and later pro-union work in New York.
posted by Asparagirl at 9:59 AM on March 26, 2011


Asparagirl, I would imagine our families probably crossed paths at some point or another. My father was a fixture of the Garment District for many years and I'm still surprised from time to time to meet complete strangers who knew him.
posted by JaredSeth at 6:25 AM on March 27, 2011


Right -- so I submitted my play to the Triangle Open Archive mentioned above, but it hasn't been posted to the site proper yet. I'll keep watching and post a link if/when they do. I'm not sure how else to post it if anyone wants to read it rightnowrightnowrightnow.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:48 PM on March 28, 2011


Finally - the play is up in the archive.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:30 PM on April 9, 2011


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