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How a Factory Fire Transformed Workers’ Rights

Last month marked the 110th anniversary of one of the most horrifying industrial disasters in U.S. history. On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory building in New York City caught fire. Flames quickly spread through the top three floors of the garment mill, which employed mostly young immigrant women. Hundreds of workers fled for their lives, only to discover that the factory’s owners had locked the doors of the exit stairwells – a common practice at the time to monitor employees. A lucky few were able to cram into the building’s only operational elevator and descend to safety before it succumbed to the heat, sealing the fate of those left behind. Ultimately, 146 people perished in the fire. Many were burned alive when they became trapped in the stairwells, and dozens jumped to their deaths from windows once they realized escape was impossible.

As the ashes of the blaze smoldered, the nation was forced to confront the brutal reality of working life in the early 20th century. The deplorable conditions of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company building – decaying bathrooms, poor ventilation, antiquated heating systems, and a lack of overhead fire prevention sprinklers – were common within the urban labor industries that relied on worker exploitation to generate profits. Employees typically worked long shifts seven days a week for pennies an hour. Many of the laborers were children or immigrant women with limited English skills and few opportunities to advocate for themselves. Government oversight of factory safety and workers’ rights was virtually non-existent, and factory owners who viewed the lives of their employees as expendable rarely faced repercussions. The owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company not only escaped jail time for their negligence, they secured a profit of $325 for each fire death in the form of insurance payouts.

But reform was imminent. Following the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, mass demonstrations of workers, religious leaders, and labor reform advocates spurred the creation of the New York Factory Investigating Commission (FIC). At the time, it was the most extensive watchdog organization for workers’ rights in the country and resulted in over a dozen state laws mandating workplace health and safety standards. Frances Perkins, a prominent workers’ rights advocate who helped form the FIC, was eventually named Secretary of Labor by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She ensured that labor reform gained attention on a national scale by making it a central element of his New Deal administration. Many of her initiatives, including social security benefits, unemployment insurance, a federally mandated minimum wage, and the outlaw of child labor, transformed the work culture of America and are still in effect today.

While workplace protections have improved tremendously since the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, there are still deficiencies. The COVID-19 pandemic has put tremendous pressure on “essential workers” –the health care professionals, grocery store employees, first responders, teachers, and millions more on the front lines of society during the worst public health emergency in a generation. They risk their lives every day of this pandemic just by going to work. Yet there are no state or national laws mandating hazard pay for non-federal employees during a public health crisis. Meanwhile, major retailers like Wal-Mart and Kroger raked in record profits last year. It appears that even a century after one of the deadliest workplace accidents in our nation, the fight for the welfare and dignity of workers still isn’t over.

 

Sources: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, History.com, 03.23.21

                History of Sweatshops: 1880-1940, Smithsonian

                How the Horrific History of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Led to Workplace Safety

                Laws, by Patrick J. Kiger, History.com, 03.24.21

                The New York Factory Investigating Commission, U.S. Department of Labor

                New Deal, History.com, 11.27.19

                Local Covid-19 Hazard Pay Mandates Are Doing What Congress and Most

                Corporations Aren’t for Essential Workers, by Molly Kinder and Laura Stateler,

                Brookings, 01.27.21