Just a few days ago, we passed the anniversary of a seminal tragedy. On March 25 1911, a fire tore through the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory in New York City. 146 people, mostly young girls, died in fifteen minutes time. Many died in the flames and smoke, unable to exit the building due to very narrow stairs with inward opening doors—some of which were habitually locked during work hours by the owners to prevent theft or absenteeism. Others died as the ill-conceived fire escape buckled under the weight of those trying to scramble down to safety. Still others, often already smoldering and with no other prospects for escape, leapt from the ninth story in hopes of a miraculous survival.
The tragedy was not unpredictable. A sweatshop for manufacturing the “shirtwaist” top so fashionable among women at the time, Triangle was packed with flammable material. Fires were not uncommon in the factories of the day. But neither was it inevitable. Many of the basic fire protection innovations upon which we rely today—firewalls, fireproof doors, even automatic sprinklers—had been available since the 1880s. Enclosed fireproof stairs were developed at the turn of the century. Fire drills were recognized as very successful in preventing panic and catastrophe in the event of a fire. But neither the Triangle Shirtwaist company nor the Asch building in which it was located availed themselves of any of these protections, and some of their standard practices made the situation worse (the aforementioned locked doors).
Why was the Triangle Shirtwaist Company so disinterested in investing in fire protection? Industrial Engineer H.F.J. Porter was an expert in fire safety, and had observed the conditions at the sweatshop. He had recommended some basic changes, but reported being brusquely rebuffed.
“Let em burn up. They’re a lot of cattle, anyway.”
While the Triangle Shirtwaist fire was the most dramatic urban workplace catastrophe prior to 9/11, it was hardly an isolated incident. Workplace injury and death was rather common in factories of all sorts. With desperate workers plentiful, they simply couldn’t be bothered to concern themselves with such trifles as basic sanitation or safety.
The Triangle Shirtwaist fire was a catalyst in the history of the U.S. It galvanized the labor movement and gave greater force impetus to women’s suffrage and feminism. Workplace conditions in the U.S. are by and large much better today, but not because corporations and owners have become more enlightened and benign, or because the magical market forces have guided industry to become more safety conscious. Plenty of modern manufacturing businesses have proven themselves more than willing to put the well being of their workers in peril when they can do so (consider loathsome sweatshops of Marianas, enthusiastically protected by Tom Delay when he lead the House Republicans). Domestic labor conditions have improved primarily because of the growth of the vigor of unions in their ability to defend the interests of workers, and because of the willingness of government, motivated by their citizens, to establish standards and regulations for the safety of workers.
It is not uncommon to hear conservatives and libertarians denounce legislated safety standards, government regulatory bodies such as OSHA, and organized labor as interfering with the mechanisms of the market. Yet I’ve heard none of these critics give any sort of satisfactory answer as to how the safety and well-being of employees would be better protected under Chicago school-style free markets. Their best defense is typically that the death and suffering of workers under sweatshop labor is an inevitable, if perhaps sad, cost of economic development. As long as someone is becoming wealthy off the blood shed by workers, and therefore some wealth will eventually trickle down to the surviving labor force, the involuntary sacrifice of the dead and maimed is worthwhile.
I refuse to accept that a society and its economic system cannot prosper without human sacrifice to bloodthirsty gods of the market. All children of God have an intrinsic worth, and their well being deserves protection regardless of any given market conditions. To the extent that the market does not value that worth, it should very much continue to be restricted.