100-year-old fire gave birth to worker rights

Editor’s note: Steve Fraser is a writer, historian and editor-at-large of the journal New Labor Forum. His first book, “Labor Will Rule: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of American Labor,” won the Philip Taft prize for the best book in labor history. He is a visiting professor at New York University.

New York (CNN) — The 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. Fire this Friday should throw into sharp relief recent efforts by lawmakers in Wisconsin and other states in the industrial heartland to curtail collective-bargaining rights for state employees.

The Triangle fire in New York City on March 25, 1911, killed 146 people, mainly women, mainly young immigrant women. Some were girls of 14 and 15. The fire broke out on the upper floors of the factory, too high for fire department ladders of those days to reach. People gathered on the street below watched in horror as women and men jumped to their deaths to avoid the enveloping flames. Observers talked of the sky raining flaming bodies. Many of the workers trapped inside were burned beyond recognition.

It was all over in half an hour. But the events of that day were permanently burned into the collective memory of the city and the nation. New Yorkers were shocked and grief-stricken. Some 100,000 people filed by the makeshift coffins gathered on the 26th Street Pier, which became known as “Misery Lane.” A few days later, 350,000 people turned out for a march through through Lower Manhattan, many to vent their anger and express their determination that tragedies such as this should never be allowed to happen again.

After all, the tragedy was not a natural disaster but a man-made one, too, frighteningly typical of this age of laissez-faire capitalism. The technology to prevent or confine such fires — sprinkler systems, fire walls, secure and ample fire escapes — all had been available for years. Moreover, fires had broken out at Triangle before, as they had in many other industrial workplaces. But no local, state or federal law required that these safety devices be installed or that safety protocols be followed. And manufacturers like the owners of the Triangle Co. didn’t want to spend the money.

Children died that day because laws or public agencies back then did not exist to prohibit such child labor. Nor were there laws to police other labor abuses regarding hours, wages and conditions of work, abuses that were common throughout American industry at that time.

One reason so many perished is that the owners had locked one of the exit doors. They had done that to prevent pilfering of shirtwaists and materials by their workers, whose average income, according to public authorities, was pathetically inadequate — between $800 and $900 a year — not enough for a family of three or four people to survive decently. There was no law establishing a minimum wage.

Most important of all, the owners of the Triangle Co. were adamantly opposed to the unionizing efforts of their employees. In “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America”–widely considered a definitive account of those times–historian David Von Drehle described the Triangle owners resorting to spies, thugs and a company union to intimidate and blacklist workers who sought to organize and had actually gone on strike a little more than a year before the fire. While the strike had compelled the owners to improve wages and hours a bit, they would not budge when it came to recognizing the garment workers union.

Like other manufacturers, the Triangle owners exercised a kind of industrial autocracy. There were no laws then that guaranteed the elementary right of workers to unionize and engage in collective bargaining, nor any government agency to prevent employers from engaging in what later came to be known as “unfair labor practices” (like keeping such blacklists or firing someone for his or her union sympathies).

The workers had virtually no voice in determining the most vital circumstances that would determine their fates in the workplace. Had they had such a voice, there is no question that matters of safety, especially given the company’s history of fires, would have been a top priority.

One reason the Triangle fire has lodged so deeply in the public memory is that it marked a watershed in the nation’s public life. Before the fire the situation was this: No one with the power to do anything about it was watching. No union, no government agencies, no laws and regulations prevented employers from doing what they willed. The workplace was a black box insulated against public inspection by the inviolate sanctity of private property. After the fire, all that changed.

A factory inspection committee established by the New York state Legislature exposed occupational dangers to health and safety in the garment and other industries and promulgated a series of laws and regulations that would drastically reduce the incidences of death and injury.

Similar steps were taken in other industrial states. Workers’ compensation laws were passed and disability insurance became customary. Government bureaus were established specifically to monitor the labor of women and children.

Eventually, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal saw the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established a national minimum wage, maximum hours and outlawed child labor. The New Deal’s Wagner Act inscribed in law the right of workers to organize a union and engage in collective bargaining. These reforms and others democratized and civilized what had been a savage version of free-market capitalism.

Which brings us back to Madison, Wisconsin. True, no one is yet proposing to repeal the Fair Labor Standards Act or abolish occupational health and safety regulations. Still, to chip away at one of the great achievements of 20th-century American democracy by curtailing the right to collective bargaining is to take a dangerous step backward in time.

Those 146 men and women died in part because they had been denied a voice in determining the basic conditions of their working lives. Their deaths were redeemed by an aroused citizenry that had come to realize that such a right was a matter of life and death and of human dignity.

It would be a second tragedy and an insult to the memory of those who died there, were we to return, even in part, to those dark ages.