The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

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.

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6 Responses to “The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire”

  1. Aaron Orgill Says:

    The market is much more self-correcting than you and other liberals give it credit for. Yes, unions and government regulations have had a necessary role, but the nature of the market has had much to do with it too. P.R. nightmares very realistically DO have an effect on corporations, even if human decency doesn’t (which has been shown to be the case on sad occasions, but most capitalists are not heartless oil barons, they’re just trying to make a good living, generally by filling a public need or they fail). Consider the tragedy of last summer. Murray was an ass the entire way and could never muster the ability to say or do the right thing, and he is nowhere near the end of his headache (and shouldn’t be). Evil and corrupt people always get theirs in the end, and it usually doesn’t take until the next life. The punishment that comes from the market is usually as ugly as any regulations we could put on (which there is often a way to get around anyway). The honest companies are rewarded by their own righteousness. I’m sure that sounds like market worship to you, and I’m not saying things can’t be made better, but it’s telling that you are using an example from 1911. Not that there haven’t been abuses since then (I just named one from last year right in Utah), but I read part of your link and you have to acknowledge, it’s amazing how far we’ve come since then. I can’t imagine even Bob Murray saying “let them burn up, they’re a lot of cattle anyway”. (You should have made that comment a live link, by the way; I thought it was some Michael Moore-style commentary rather than an actual quote before clicking through). DeLay is an extreme example, and in my opinion a completely immoral man. Today’s worker has so many things protecting him that you rarely hear of tragedies like this happening, so I guess I’m not sure what you’re saying. You close by saying “to the extent that the market does not value that worth, it should very much continue to be restricted”. Well, okay, it is. Good job, everyone. Or are you saying there needs to be more, and if so, what and why?

  2. Jesse Harris Says:

    You make it sound as if anyone who wants to make a buck thinks that people are no different than farm animals, that they are experiencing a Patrick Bateman-like disconnect from social norms. That kind of caricature is silly at best and dangerously dehumanizing at worst. Are there immoral men willing to exploit others for material gain? There always have been and there always will be and no amount of government regulation is going to stop it. After all, they have sufficient motivation to game the system to their advantage. Thankfully, they are a very small (yet visible) minority. It’s too bad we decide to produce reams of new laws and regulations that stifle the little guy trying to break into the market in a vain attempt at eradicating human behavior that has existed for millennia.

    These days, workers have unprecedented access to recourse via the media and courts. If government regulation of the workplace is working so well, then why is it that employees still have to seek other means of redress? Why is it that public shaming could get medical treatment for a sick boy in California and state regulators couldn’t? I don’t think you give those mechanisms of self-correction enough credit.

  3. Ben Says:

    Excellent article. Basic human greed was the culprit in those deaths, and that greed still exists today. It is naive to the extreme to think that modern captains of industry would not behave EXACTLY the same way as their forbearers 100 years ago if the laws allowed it. All we need to do is to see how they exploit third world labor today to see that. All that stands between the American worker and another incident like the Triangle Shirtwaist fire is deregulation of safety standards. Make no mistake – most corporations will do anything legal to increase their bottom line, regardless of whether it is moral or not. The free market has no morals, only self-interest, and so we are forced to regulate it in these situations. Regulation provides the conscience that the free market lacks by nature. Without regulation, capitalism is in effect a sociopath.

  4. Aaron Orgill Says:

    Oh Ben, knock it off. You are delusional if you think that everyone is like that. The “captains of industry,” which you put all in the same boat, couldn’t get away with what used to go on in a million years, so it’s stupid that we’re even having this discussion. The basic premise of capitalism is to make as much money as you can, something that can be very dangerous if it is unchecked. But capitalism is run by people who for the most part have the same conscience that you do, and not everyone will sell out their decency for a few extra bucks. With very few exceptions, they are providing much-needed services. But part of the bottom line (which I will concede that some scoundrels never learn) is that in order to get the best results, you have to demonstrate basic morals or the natives become restless, whether you have that morality in and of yourself or not.

  5. Derek Staffanson Says:

    Aaron, what I’m saying is that the free market crowd, which complains that government regulation and unions are bad for our economic system are wrong; strong unions and government regulation are necessary to protect the interests of workers and the public. I’m saying markets cannot by themselves protect people. You are right that it is telling I used an example from the Gilded Era; that age (1870s-1918) was an era with little regulation and a very weak labor movement in the U.S. There are perpetual examples of worker endangerment during that era. In subsequent periods (periods in which labor and regulation were much stronger), the risks workers faced were reduced considerably–and surprise! We still had a thriving economy despite labor and regulations! In other nations where regulations are lax and labor weak (such as in the Marianas, where Delay and others preserved free-market conditions), working conditions are still very dangerous and harmful to the health of the workers. The evidence is rather clear.

    Yes, Delay is a very immoral man: he believes the free-market dogma that it is acceptable to do whatever is necessary to make maximize profit. This is what the market teaches corporations and business leaders to do. And the way corporate capitalism is structured, it doesn’t matter if some of the individuals have the same conscience as the rest of us; the market pushes people to put profit maximization above all else. If the bottom line of the market is that to get the best results you have to demonstrate basic morals, why is Wal-Mart, a company which even you have criticized, one of the most successful companies on the planet? What makes you think that, freed from modern regulation, today’s corporate leaders wouldn’t act just the same as the Gilded era robber barons?

    Jesse, I would point out, as I did in today’s post, that regulation is only effective if the government charged with enforcing that regulation isn’t trying to frustrate that regulation.

    I find it funny that every free market advocate likes to tell the story of the archetypical little guy who can’t compete because of the stifling regulations. Why not tell the story of the little (or not so little) guy who is conscientious and wants to do right by his consumers, workers, and community, but can’t compete against those who can cut prices by cutting corners and putting profit maximization above all else?

  6. Ben Says:

    Aaron, I think you’re being very naive about this. While modern corporations can’t get away with treating Americans the way they used to, they CONTINUE to treat those in their third-world factories like this. Dangerous working conditions, harsh discipline for lateness, very little pay, etc. For those in the third world, it’s still 1911.

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