One hundred years ago today, the worst industrial disaster in the history of the city of New York City took place.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris and produced women’s blouses. The factory occupied the top floors of a ten-floor building in the heart of Manhattan’s Garment District. It employed about 500 workers, mostly young immigrant women who worked nine hours a day, including weekends. Their pay was horrible. In an effort to increase productivity and to inhibit stealing, company management routinely locked the exit doors.
As the women approached the end of their workday, a small fire started in the cutting room on the eighth floor. Within minutes, flames fueled by loose cloth lying in innumerable piles engulfed the area and spread to the floors above. Panic spread with the flames and smoke.
The women frantically dashed to the exits, only to find them locked. They furiously pounded on the doors, but to no avail. The one fire escape at the rear of the building collapsed, killing many and cutting off that route of escape. Some attempted to slide down the elevator cables only to lose their grip and fall to their deaths. Others, with their clothes on fire, jumped in groups from the top of the building or from open windows on the lower floors.
In its wake, the fire left 147 dead, the fourth highest loss of life from an industrial accident in U.S. history. Blanck and Harris were tried for manslaughter, but were acquitted. However, three years after the fire, a court ordered the owners to pay $75 dollars to each of twenty-three families who had sued for the loss of family members.
The aftermath brought forth the creation of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). In 1995, the ILGWU merged with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union to form the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE). UNITE merged with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union to create UNITE HERE.
The Triangle Sweatshop tragedy underscores the fact that big business continues to chip away at worker protections in the United States.
New Republican leadership, both in Congress and in states want to return to those days before the National Labor Relations Act, and with the help of multi-billion dollar corporations sending campaign contributions, propose “watering-down” current labor laws, including loosening child labor, eliminating minimum wages, health and safety protections and destroying collective bargaining for workers.
Companies, such as Nike and Reebok circumvent the process and simply send work overseas to countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan and Honduras, where there are little or no protection for workers.
Here’s some food for thought.
In 2003, Honduran garment factory workers were paid $.24 cents for each $50 Sean John sweatshirt, $.15 cents for each long-sleeved t-shirt, and only five cents for each short-sleeved shirt – less than one-half of one percent of the retail price. Comparing international costs of living, the $0.15 cents that a Honduran worker earned for the long-sleeved t-shirt was equal in purchasing power to $0.50 cents in the United States.
In essence, the GOP and their allies in big business want to return to the days of no protection for workers.
Pray we don’t go there!