March 25, 2011 is the Centennial of the infamous Triangle Factory Fire.
It was quitting time, the bins by the lines of sewing machine operators filled with scraps from the day’s work. The workers were immigrants mostly, nearly all young women. I mean teens and even younger. Families recently arrived from Eastern Europe and Italy predominantly. A fire broke out, consuming the highly flammable cloth and cloth dust. The inferno engulfed the upper 3 floors of the building in a matter of minutes, while doors which could have been used to exit were locked. Management claimed they feared employee theft, hence locked them to prevent employees leaving during their shift.
When firemen arrived, their ladders were unable to reach the upper floors or the roof, where workers who were able to get out gathered in hope of rescue. Horrified onlookers watched from the street, while desperate workers escaped the flames only to plunge to their death from the building windows and roof. The final death toll: 146 people, 123 of them women.
A week later, David von Drehle reports in his remarkable book, Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, “the cream of progressive New York and the leaders of downtown socialism” gathered at the Metropolitan Opera House. Rose Schneiderman, representing the Women’s Trade Union League, admonished the crowd: “We have tried you good people of the public — and we have found you wanting.”
She went on to say, “The old Inquisition had its rack and its thumbscrews and its instruments of torture with iron teeth. We know what those things are today: the iron teeth are our necessities, the thumbscrews are the high-powered and swift machinery close to which we must work, and the rack is here in the firetrap structures that will destroy us the minute they catch fire.” (von Drehle, p. 207).
The explosion of the BP oil rig, the mining disaster earlier this year are flagrant examples of the otherwise quiet desperation of workplace safety today. The lingering immigrants’ rights issues, the continuing battles for women’s equality also give us reason to reconsider Triangle. It’s important also to consider what a different world we live in and the consequences of that.
It can be argued that, while it took 25 years, Triangle was the impetus for important social legislation that marked the reforms of the Roosevelt era, reforms that accompanied an expanding economy (despite the dark days of the depression). Introduction of more and more high speed machinery increased productivity dramatically, and the global expansion of American capitalism fueled this expansion as well. It is difficult to argue that the American economy is still expanding.
Introduction of electronics and robotics has weaked havoc with employment in every industry. Even in the countries to which apparel jobs have been outsourced are finding it convenient to replace workers with the new technology. Output of commodities increases, while employed labor decreases. And the funny thing is: robots don’t buy clothes or eat food. The market for the commodities has begun to hit a wall. The same corporate masters that dotted the landscape in 1900 are with us today, only much wealthier and concentrated. Many of us are no longer employed by capital and have no prospect of getting work (employment figures show millions out of work for at least one year — and those are the ones still looking for work; there are uncounted millions more who have ceased looking or never were in the work force).
One hundred years after the tragedy of Triangle is a good time to revisit, not simply for an abstraction; not as a sentimental homage; but to recognize the continuing and changing tragedies of our time and to resolve that unless we do something to end the rule of the corporations, our future as humanity is bleak.