Friday, March 25, 2011

Remember the Triangle Fire

One hundred years ago today, 146 garment workers - one hundred and forty six- died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City. Most of them were women, and immigrants, and they died because management had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits. People jumped from the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors. The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers.

An eyewitness (Louis Waldman, later a state assemblyman) described it thus:
Word had spread through the East Side, by some magic of terror, that the plant of the Triangle Waist Company was on fire and that several hundred workers were trapped. Horrified and helpless, the crowds — I among them — looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies.
The owners were found not guilty of manslaughter (on the grounds that it could not be proved they knew their foremen locked the workers in), but lost a civil suit which made them pay compensation of $75 per worker (less than a quarter of what their insurance had paid them over their property losses); in 1913, one of them was convicted of locking the doors in another factory and fined ... $20.

There were two major outcomes from the fire - first, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union became a major force for labor safety legislation, and second, the New York State Legislature created its New York State Factory Investigating Committee to "investigate factory conditions in this and other cities and to report remedial measures of legislation to prevent hazard or loss of life among employees through fire, unsanitary conditions, and occupational diseases"; the 1915 report helped modernize the state's labor laws. As a result, New York became one of the most progressive states with regards to labor and safety in the nation...

All that was a long time ago? Well, 80 years later - in 1991 - another fire broke out in a factory - this time a chicken processing plant in North Carolina. Twenty-six people died behind locked doors, one of whom was a vending machine stocker from another company, and 54 were seriously injured. The phones inside the building could not be used, so the operations manager -the plant owner's son - drove to the fire station and informed them that the factory was on fire ... but he didn't bother to say that workers were still in the plant. This time the company - Imperial Foods - was help accountable. They were fined $808,150 (far less than OSHA fines would have been, but N. Carolina runs its own programs), and the owner went to jail (his son and the local manager both went free as part of a plea bargain on the owner's part). He served 4 years.

Well, that was 20 years ago. Yes, it was. But in 2004 it came to light that WalMart routinely locks its night shifts and janitorial staff in - over 10% of its buildings. No WalMart has ever caught fire and killed locked-in employees, but people have been injured and waited hours to be let out: WalMart managers threaten to fire whole shifts if fire doors are used, or else tell people that the fire doors cannot be used unless the alarm is triggered (not just may not, that the doors will not open). And they're a major company, and this only came to light during an INS sweep. Who knows how many small factories and businessnes lock people in on a regular basis?

I am willing to bet money that right now there are people, probably immigrants (legal or otherwise), working in a building with locked doors, hoping that there's won't be a fire. And if that happens when unions are so strong (according to their foes) what will happen when they're gone? Well... this.

Just last year, in December of 2010, a fire at a Bangladeshi factory which employs thousands of workers making garments for companies such as Gap, JC Penney and Phillips-Van Heusen (good American brands all) killed 26 and injured more than a hundred more. Again... locked doors. Not in America? No - but working for American companies. And not unionized.



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