Corporate greed set stage for Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

This essay, written by Makena Easker, a sophomore student at Durand HEaskerigh School, was entered into the 2014 National History Day competition.  It is reproduced since it brought the meaning of the 103 year old Triangle Fire into the present day, and to represent many of the efforts of young people who participate in the Society’s various “Labor History in the Schools” projects. Makena presented her paper at the May meeting of the Western Central Area Labor Council at Eau Claire in May 2014. Also presented was a video of by Sarah Vetsch, entitled, “Fight for Rights, Failing in Responsibility: Conflict and Casualty in the Copper County Strike of 1913.”  The students were joined by their parents.   

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In 1911, William Howard Taft was serving his first term. The Philadelphia A’s had beaten the Chicago Cubs in the previous World Series and the dance, the tango, was trending throughout the nation.

Also during this year, on March 25, in New York City, a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The doors were locked to prevent theft, so leaving the building was difficult. For many workers trapped inside, their only means of escape was by jumping out of the windows. A survivor, Pauline Cuoio Pepe, later discussed the event with a man compiling stories about the fire into a book:

“I saw the people throwing themselves out the window. I wouldn’t dare. I didn’t have the courage…We were all torn to pieces. My hair was a mess. My coat was torn. I had no pocketbook or nothing. When my mother saw me, she thought somebody got ahold of me and was killing me… We were also angry. “What the hell did they close the door for? What did they think we’re going out with? What are we gonna do, steal a shirtwaist? Who the heck wanted a shirtwaist?”(Kisselhoff 325). *

These were thoughts shared by many of those trapped inside the ill-fated Triangle Factory. Nevertheless, the fire’s influence in history will not soon be forgotten. Even though strides have been taken to improve factory conditions, including the creation of the Factory Investigation Commission and later OSHA, many workers’ rights are still overlooked; it is our generation’s responsibility to change that. To fully understand this statement, however, it is necessary to start at the beginning of this tragic tale.

Background Information

Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were immigrants from Russia who arrived in the United States during the early 1890s. They met and started a business together based on Blanck’s business sense and Harris’ industry expertise. In 1900, they opened the Triangle Waist Company on Wooster Street. The products they produced were shirtwaists, loose fitting tops styled after menswear. They were more liberating than Victorian style bodices, and, therefore, popular with female workers in New York [Refer to Appendix A]. The men priced them “modestly” at $3 each, which is over $70 today (U.S. Department of Labor n. pag.). In 1902, the pair moved the company to the ninth floor of the new Asch building. The tables were arranged so conversation would be minimized among workers [Refer to Appendix B]. This was done in an attempt to increase productivity. After four years, they expanded to the eighth floor and again in 1908, when sales hit $1 million, to the tenth floor.

The success experienced by the factory owners allowed for them to move from their cramped apartments to large brownstones that overlooked the Hudson River. Harris had four servants, and Blanck had five. They arrived to work in chauffeured cars. Additional shirtwaist factories were opened in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Blanck partnered with his brothers and opened more around the country. With all of these factories the men operated, they were producing more than 1,000 shirtwaists a day. They were given the nickname “Shirtwaist Kings.” Little did they know, over 100 years later, they would earn another nickname: The Fourth Worst Bosses of all Time (Gibson n. pag.).

The majority of the workers were young immigrants – Italian, Russian, Hungarian, and German – who didn’t speak English (“141 Men” 1). In time, they began to feel like the machines they worked with. Morris Rosenfeld, a Yiddish poet living in the early 1900s, described this feeling in his poem, “In the Factory”: “And void is my soul,” He complained. “I am but a machine. I work and I work and I work, never ceasing.” In order to retain high profit levels, it was necessary to produce the cheapest shirtwaist in the largest quantity. The production team worked long hours for little pay. Some journalists during the late 1800s and early 1900s recognized factories with similar conditions. Wirt Sikes, a popular social reformer, was one of these news reporters and described a factory he toured in his 1868 testimonial, “Among the Poor Girls”: “The room is crowded with girls and women, most of whom are pale and attenuated, and are being robbed of life slowly and surely. The rose which should bloom in their cheeks has vanished long ago. The sparkle has gone out of their eyes…they breathe an atmosphere of death” (Stein 12-13). Young girls who should have been celebrating life were, instead, packed into rooms and drained of their vitality. Additionally, security was tight. A foreman monitored the workforce during the day and inspected workers’ bags as they left at night. Blanck ordered the secondary exit door to be locked.

Eventually, in November of 1909, the workers could not take the cruelty anymore. They went on strike, and the owners took the walkout as a “personal attack.” Harris and Blanck hired policemen and brutes to beat, reprimand, and cause panic among demonstrators. Finally, after a few months, the owners agreed to allow shorter hours and higher wages, yet they still refused a union.

About a year later, on March 25, 1911, at 4:40 P.M., a fire started in the northeast corner of the eighth floor. A lighted match was thrown into clippings near oil cans (“Crowd” 1). While smoking was prohibited, it was constantly indulged. There was no explosion, but the blaze still spread quickly. Soon, the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors were engulfed in flames. Some workers escaped by running down the stairs; however, that avenue was eventually cut off by the fire. Others survived by getting rides with Caspar Mortillalo and Joseph Zito on elevators. Zito said, afterwards, that he saved over 100 (“Blame” 2). This, combined with the firemen’s futile efforts to put out the fire, left many girls still trapped in the building. These girls rushed to the windows and looked down at Green Street, 100 feet below them. After the first girl jumped, they all began to drop. The crowd below watched in horror. They yelled, “Don’t jump!” Their shouting did nothing [Refer to Appendix C]. William Shephard described what he experienced while on the telephone: “I learned a new sound – a more horrible sound than description can picture. It was the thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk. Thud-dead, thud-dead, thud-dead, thud-dead” (Shephard n. pag.). One body was referred to as “A mass of ashes, with blood congealed on what had probably been the neck” (“Sad” 1). It was a gruesome, painful end for all victims. The fire net did not save over one or two (“Stories of Survivors” 1). The trapped girls did not have chance.

The day after, 50,000 watched the ruins. Starting at 6:00 A.M., 500 frantic men and women demanded to be let in at the gate of the improvised morgue (“Crowd” 1). The covered pier of the Charities Dock served as a gathering place for mourners and curious onlookers [Refer to Appendix D]. The bodies were arranged by degree of likeliness to humanity. All those seemingly beyond recognition were near the end of the line. The last forty coffins contained bodies that the authorities said would probably prove impossible of identification (“Sad” 1). The women rushed about moaning and crying, tearing out their hair. At the end of the day, on March 26, fifty-five remained unidentified.

The papers reported the death toll was anywhere from 145 to 147 people. Of course, since the owners had escaped unscathed by the fire, they were put on trial for manslaughter in the first and second degrees. They testified that the doors were never locked, yet witnesses reported otherwise. Robert Wolfson, who had worked for the company for almost ten years, swore that Harris purposefully locked the doors. After the fire, Harris reportedly said, “The dead ones are dead and will be buried. The live ones are alive and they will have to live. Sure the doors were locked; I wouldn’t let them rob my fortune” (“Triangle Fire Case” 1). When asked why every employee had to leave the factory by the Greene Street exit, he responded that it was to prevent theft. He went on to talk about how he had discovered over ten shirtwaists were stolen in 1908. The prosecutor asked the magnitude of losses. Harris quietly admitted it would not be more than $25 a year (Hoenig n. pag.). Nearly a year following the fire, the court brought in the startling verdict of not guilty. The judge was pleased with the jurors’ decision, yet the public was mortified. Despite the shockwaves sent out by the fire, the owners did not learn their lesson. In the summer of 1913, Blanck was arrested for locking a door during work hours. The despicable pair also filed insurance claims far exceeding their losses, receiving $60,000 above documented damages (Hoenig n. pag.). The men were greedy, selfish, and materialistic murderers.

Efforts to Preserve Peoples’ Rights

There was one good thing that came from the fire, though. The district attorney foretold it in March of 1911. “I have no doubt that this disaster will lead to a general investigation as to the conditions existing in factories in this city” (“Blame” 2). His prediction came true. Union ranks swelled from 30,000 in 1909 to 250,000 in 1913 (Hoenig n. pag.). In 1912, the Factory Investigating Commission, headed by Robert F. Wagner and Alfred E. Smith, was created. The commission examined thousands of workplaces in small and large industries. It served as a model for the rest of the nation. One organization formed in the Factory Investigating Commission’s footsteps was the Bureau of Fire Prevention in May of 1913. In the past hundred years, the bureau has saved innumerable lives by imposing fire safety codes and remains to be the driving force behind new initiatives. In the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt passed a series of programs, known as the New Deal, to stabilize the economy during the Great Depression. These reforms won safer factories and shorter hours for garment workers. After many years of founding progressive organizations, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration was established in 1970. OSHA, an agency of the Department of Labor, is charged with the enforcement of safety and health legislation. The fire emboldened the call for workers’ rights and, for the most part, it seemed as if the lives of workers could not get much safer. Employers began recognizing and acting upon their responsibilities to provide a secure work environment.

Though many believe the resulted labor legislation from the fire has created ideal workplaces throughout the globe, this is simply not true. “Dozens of ordinary workers die in a fire, making the shirts ordinary Americans will wear on their backs. Doors were locked. Some succumbed to smoke. Others jumped several stories to their deaths in a desperate, inevitably fatal, bid to evade the flames. But this wasn’t New York, 1911. This was Bangladesh, 2010” (O’Neill 24). Rory O’Neill, writer and professor, put everything into perspective with the opening sentence to his essay. However, Bangladesh is not the only country where disasters like this occur. Similar stories are told in nations such as China, Pakistan, Philippines, Nicaragua, and Cambodia. “In 2010,” O’Neill went on, “British oil multinational BP, operating in U.S. waters, saw its reputation torn to shreds as a result of its thirst for deep sea oil dollars. Eleven workers died and the Gulf of Mexico was coated in a toxic smear” (O’Neill 24). O’Neill told another story that sounded familiar. “In 1988, U.S. oil multinational Occidental, operating in British waters, was the villain behind the Piper Alpha rig explosion. While 167 workers died, Occidental escaped unscathed” (O’Neill 24). Accidents where neglecting CEOs evade consequences unearth feelings of frustration and injustice, but they tend to occur the most frequently.

As much as Americans would like to believe that tragedies such as these only exist outside of the United States, the facts show otherwise. Tom O’Connor, Executive Director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, made this clear in his essay. “Some 15 workers still lose their lives every day on the job from injuries – and many more from long-latent illnesses” (16). One example of a long-latent illness is exposure to silica dust, which continues to claim the lives of hundreds of workers each year. Wal-Mart was sued in the past decade for routinely locking their night-shift workers in their stores to prevent theft. Steven Greenhouse published an article in The New York Times about the company’s hazardous practices.

For more than 15 years, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer, has locked in overnight employees at some of its Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores. It is a policy that many employees say has created disconcerting situations, such as when a worker in Indiana suffered a heart attack, when hurricanes hit in Florida and when workers’ wives have gone into labor (1).

Car wash workers had severe chemical burns and California’s pesticide-soaked fields cause immigrants to bake to death. Just like during the days of the Triangle fire, immigrants are being taken advantage of due to their needs for jobs. Twenty-nine workers died in the 2010 Massey Energy underground mine explosion in Montcoal, West Virginia (Romney 15). In 2013, information was released concerning Massey’s CEO’s advanced warnings of surprise federal inspections. This way, he could afford to have his mines in poor conditions until he knew an examination was scheduled. Other reports of carelessness include a construction worker with no harness falling to his death and an eighteen year old buried alive in a collapsed trench. Wisconsin is not picture-perfect either. The United Students against Sweatshops (USAS) forced UW-Madison to cancel its contract with Nike due to labor violations in Nike’s Honduran plants. “These incidents happen daily across the U.S. and each one is the sort of hazard that we have known about since the days of the Triangle fire, for which simple preventable measures are easily available,” said O’Connor. “Yet they keep happening, day after day, year after year” (16). While the aftermath of the Triangle fire had a large impact on history, it was obviously too inadequate to prevent the disregard of basic human rights.

It has been the goal of many committees across the world to reduce the chances of death and injury in the workplace, but their efforts are not enough. Tragedies that sound so similar to that of the Triangle Fire happen too often in the U.S. and the world. Despite how dismal this sounds, hope is not lost. There are ways to fix this problem. Laws can be passed, relief funds can be donated, and organizations can be created. In the words of Jeanne Stellman, professor and lecturer at Columbia University, “The best homage we can pay to the young women and men who died in the Triangle fire is to redouble efforts to prevent the needless toll of occupational hazards that don’t blaze behind chained doors but plague the lives of working men and women every day” (23).  

(Note this essay is available, along with an annotated appendix that lists the sources and a bibliography, at the Wisconsin Labor History Society website: http://wisconsinlaborhistory.org.)