Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

Three stories of ten-floor building at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place were burned yesterday, and while the fire was going on 141 young men and women -- at least 125 of them mere girls -- were burned to death or killed by jumping to the pavement below.
The building was fireproof. It shows now hardly any signs of the disaster that overtook it. The walls are as good as ever; so are the floors; nothing is the worse for the fire except the furniture and 141 of the 600 men and girls that were employed in its upper three stories.
Most of the victims were suffocated or burned to death within the building, but some who fought their way to the windows and leaped met death as surely, but perhaps more quickly, on the pavements below.    New York Times, March 26, 1911.

I had missed the recent American Experience film on the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire but I was able to view it on the PBS Video website.  I highly recommend spending an hour watching it.  This program seems to be all the more pertinent to me as I continue to read about the daily struggles of unionized government workers in many states - starting with Wisconsin. They are, of course,  not fighting for safer working conditions but they are trying to hold onto long-fought-for collective bargaining rights.  The bitter irony of the workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company is that even though they had led a strike by New York City garment workers in 1909 for union representation, they never achieved it for themselves.  The owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, would simply not permit any "meddling" in their control of the business.  Harris and Blanck were later tried and acquitted of manslaughter charges connected to the fire.  They went on to collect a lucrative insurance settlement and continued in the garment business. They were fined repeatedly for operating their factories under unsafe working conditions.

Asch Building in New York where fire occurred
on second to top floor still stands today.
Photo from Wikipedia.

Society benefits greatly from technology.  More often than not, that technology is made available through companies which compete fiercely against each other in the marketplace. The argument that nothing should fetter the owners of a business with regulatory burdens that might make them less competitive simply cannot be supported in the face of the tragic consequences that can so easily befall their employees.  Reasonable regulations and collective bargaining are not evils. They are part of the cost of doing business in a complex society. It is always a balance.  What should be regulated and what should be left to the market?  What voice should workers have compared to owners or managers?  While there is no lasting answer to these questions, it seems that we are once again tilting towards excessive power - and excessive rewards - on the side of owners and managers.

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