Lessons from History

One hundred years ago today, America witnessed one of the worst industrial tragedies in its history. New York City's Triangle Factory, one of the largest garment factories in the country, caught fire killing 146 mostly young, immigrant women. The Triangle Fire was seared into the hearts of New Yorkers and the nation for generations. That tragedy, however, led to a new era of industrial safety regulation that briefly made New York the model for the country. One hundred years later, with a series of high-profile industrial accidents again in the news, its clear that we need to relearn the lessons of this long ago tragedy.

March 25, 1911, started as any Saturday for the five hundred or so workers at Triangle: a work day, in a week of long hours, harsh conditions and miserable pay. Triangle occupied a notorious space in an industry know for notorious working conditions, even if it operated out of a modern Greenwich Village loft building. It kept tons of fabric on hand, dozens of 40-gallon oil canisters in stairways and regularly pad-locked exists. In 1909, as 20,000 workers struck over the garment industry's terrible sweatshop conditions, Triangle resorted to violence to resist workers' demands of better conditions and improved wages.

The fire started on the 8th floor, sparked most likely by a carelessly tossed cigarette. As workers fled, management, on the 10th floor, were notified and escaped to a neighboring building via the roof. No one told the workers on the 9th floor, who were trapped behind locked doors in what can only be described as an inferno. There was little hope, as a crowd watched helpless women jump to their death rather than face the fire. The image of young women leaping to certain death haunted a generation.

After the fire, many called it an accident, an act of god -- sad but the sort of thing that happens--and answered with charity. But, as Rabbi Stephen Wise said, it is not the act of God but the inaction of man that is responsible. Workers and reformers agreed with Wise. The fire and the tragic deaths were avoidable. Something needed to be done.

The fire united workers and reformers throughout the state, who pressured Al Smith and Robert Wagner, Assembly Speaker and Majority Leader of the Senate, into creating the Factory Investigating Committee (FIC), which they co-chaired. During its duration, 1911-1915, they rewrote New York's labor, building, safety and industrial code creating better working conditions for the states millions of workers, making New York a model for the nation. Rather than turn away from responsibility, that generation met it head on, becoming champions of the common man. But, unfortunately, we have unlearned that important lesson. How many workers need to die before we realize it?

Industrial accidents have gained renewed public attention this past year with mine collapses and oil rig explosions in the news. Yet, for all the public outrage, we have failed to learn from the past as we continue to see them as isolated acts of nature, rather than avoidable symptoms of a failed industrial regulation system. We loose sight of the dangers workers face by trivializing these stories as human-interest stories or solely focusing on the environmental impact. How many construction workers need to die before we learn that there is a problem in that industry that could be solved?

Thirty plus years of deregulation comes with an all too real human price. We have federal and state agencies that have such little funding that they no longer function. We have so under funded the regulatory system, declawing it through starvation, that it is essentially meaningless. We have rolled back the clock. If we really cared about workers' safety and health we would provide funding to increase the number of industrial inspectors at both the state and local level so they might find problems and correct them before we have another set of disaster. We have forgotten a lesson learned 100 years ago today, with the Triangle Fire: that the less we regulate, the more likely these events will happen and the more workers needlessly die. It is we who will have to live with the knowledge that we knew and chose to nothing. Triangle teaches us that it is never too late to learn from tragedies, even one that is 100 years old.

Have we become desensitized to industrial disasters in our post-industrial age? It is easy for us to turn our backs, as many of our lives are not directly affected when workers die. It is tragic, but life goes on. But, in 1911, our society paused, taking moral stock of itself and did what was right. We need no more victims, because we already have 146. So on this day, in their memory, lets pledge to relearn from history so that no others join them. We wouldn't need concerts and charities for industrial disasters if we truly learn from the Triangle Fire, because we could prevent them.

Richard Greenwald, professor of history and Dean of the graduate school at Drew University in Madison, NJ, is the author of The Triangle Fire, The Protocols of Piece and the Making of Industrial Democracy in Progressive Era New York his new book, to be published by Bloomsbury Press is The Death of 9-5: Permanent Freelancers, Empty Offices and the New Way America Works.