Echoes of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in Today’s Debate over Regulation

by Matthew Freeman

March 25, 2011

One hundred years ago today, 146 people perished in one of the nation’s worst workplace tragedies – the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in the heart of New York City. The story is gruesome, and each detail of exactly how so many people were trapped in a burning building was, and remains, a reminder of what can happen when worker safety is sacrificed in the name of profit.

Here’s the barest sketch. The Triangle Waist Factory in lower Manhattan relied on cheap, exploitable labor to produce women’s blouses – shirtwaists, as they were known. The factory occupied the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of a building at 29 Washington Place, and its employees were mostly young immigrant women, some as young as 14. They’d come to the United States for a better life, and found themselves working more than 50 hours a week, six days a week, in a non-union shop, laboring under sweatshop conditions. (This, of course, was before unions had essentially created the concept of “the weekend.”)

On March 25, 1911, at about 4:45 p.m., fire broke out on the 8th floor and spread quickly to floors above, fueled by piles of fabric scraps. The factory had no alarm system and no sprinklers, although such technology was available. Workers were quickly trapped, not just by the flames but by doors locked by company officials worried that workers would abscond with fabric if allowed to leave by any but the main door. The fire escapes did not reach to the ground, and eventually collapsed under the weight of the many escapees. A heroic elevator operator made several rescue runs but had to abandon the effort when the elevator’s guide rails buckled under the heat. Responding fire trucks lacked ladders that could reach the victims. Faced with the prospect of being burned alive, many of the workers chose instead to leap to their deaths. 

Watching in shock that day was a young social worker, Frances Perkins, who would go on to champion a successful crusade for safer working conditions. (She would later become the first female Cabinet member, serving as FDR’s Labor Secretary.)

In a spot-on piece in Wednesday’s Washington Post, columnist Harold Meyerson observes that industry rose in opposition to Perkins’ proposed reforms, offering arguments that ring familiar even today. Proposed fire code reforms would cause “the wiping out of industry in this state,” said the Associated Industries of New York, and were “absolutely needless and useless,” said a lawyer for the Real Estate Board of New York City. The president of the Real Estate Board argued that, “To my mind this is all wrong….The experience of the past proves conclusively that the best government is the least possible government, that the unfettered initiative of the individual is the force that makes a country great and that this initiative should never be bound…”

Child labor reforms met similar opposition. Said one company official, “I have seen children working in factories, and I have seen them working at home and they were perfectly happy.”

Responding to a proposed law requiring occupancy limits keyed to the number of exits and floors in a building, a trade association wrote, “While we are in favor of a restricted occupancy…we believe that the bill in the form proposed will work great disadvantage to our trades, requiring manufacturers almost to double their area capacity in order to employ the usual amount of people that their business demands. We respectfully submit that any such procedure would not only be of great injury to the trade, but to the state, by forcing a number of these establishments to remove their factories to other states.”

In the end, reforms did not have the disastrous effects on the economy that industry predicted. Businesses did not move out in droves, or in trickles, for that matter. And workers found safer conditions that included sprinkler systems, fire drills, unlocked doors that were required to swing outwards, and fireproof stairways and fire escapes. Reforms to labor laws included bans on employing children in hazardous work, limits on total weekly work hours for women, and more frequent worksite inspections.

In their day, those were momentous reforms, and thankfully, we’ve moved onto other workplace safety issues. But 100 years after the fire, what’s striking is that the contour of the debate is essentially the same. For the past two months, various committees in the House have conducted a series of hearings aimed at building the case against government regulation. The majority in the House has used wildly inflated estimates of the cost to industry of regulation, while scrupulously ignoring the much greater benefits. And they’ve consistently derided regulation as job-killing and economy-wrecking, hoping Americans will forget that the recession began before President Obama was elected and appointed his regulatory team, and that it was caused by the industry-first, laissez-faire approach to regulation that defined the Bush II era.

We have a very long way to go yet on workplace safety issues, as the BP and Massey mine disasters demonstrate. But two things remain constant: First, industry is always tempted to cut corners to improve its bottom line, making regulation necessary. Second, despite their repeated and overheated assertions that each worker safety improvement, each environmental rule, each food safety requirement, will run them out of business, they find a way to prosper.


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Media relations consultant Matthew Freeman helps coordinate CPR's media outreach efforts and manage its online communications. His media relations experience in Washington spans more than 30 years, and his client list includes a range of organizations active on the environment, education, civil rights and liberties, health care, progressive organizing in the interfaith community, and more.

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