A hundred years ago today 146 people scrambled toward the exits attempting to flee the inferno that had enveloped the Triangle Shirtwaist factory.
The exits were locked. The women were trapped in the factory and they were trapped in a world that didn’t value them beyond their piece count.
The only way “out” was the windows. Women hand-in-hand jumped to their death.
I’ve read about the tragedy in countless books, but none of them paint the tragedy with more humanity than Robert Pinsky in his poem “Shirt.” I appreciate poetry more when it’s read aloud, so give this a listen. The poem begins at 2:49, but his comments before will be of interest to any engaged consumer.
Here’s a short passage to show you the powerful words within.
At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes–
The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out
Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.
The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire changed our country. Or did it? The narrative goes that people pulled together, unions were formed, better working conditions and better pay were demanded, and eventually gained.
Yet in a recent Op-ed in the Washington Post current secretary of Labor, Hilda L. Solis, writes:
Combating garment sweatshops is, sadly, still on the labor secretary’s agenda. In the past fiscal year, the department’s Wage and Hour division conducted 374 investigations and collected $2.1 million for 2,215 workers, primarily in the major U.S. garment centers of Southern California and New York. In these cases, vulnerable immigrant workers have been deprived of minimum-wage pay, overtime pay and safe working conditions — all the haunting echoes of Triangle.
Solis also compares the Triangle fire to the recent disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia:
Both Triangle and Upper Big Branch became calls to action. New York quickly implemented groundbreaking workplace safety laws and regulations, including fire exits. But nearly one year after Upper Big Branch, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, part of the Labor Department, still needs additional tools that only Congress can provide. And OSHA needs better tools, such as stricter penalties against employers who put their workers’ lives at risk, and stronger protections for whistle-blowers.
In both cases, if these workers had a voice — a union — and the ability to speak up about conditions, these events probably could have been prevented, because unions play an important role in making workplaces safer. In both cases, they had tried to organize and faced virulent opposition.
The Triangle fire and the Upper Big Branch explosion a century later make clear to me that workers want and need that voice — about wages and benefits, yes, but about more, too. Collective bargaining still means a seat at the table to discuss issues such as working conditions, workplace safety and workplace innovation, empowering individuals to do the best job they can. And it means dignity and a chance for Americans to earn a better life, whether they work in sewing factories or mines, build tall buildings or care for our neighbors, teach our children, or run into burning buildings when others run out of them.
Curse all you want about autoworkers making $50 an hour leaning on a broom, but unions aren’t something we should let slip away. Unless of course, you believe that corporations always have our best interests in mind. Some of them do, but others would prefer to let their workers fall before watching their bottom lines fall.
And as Solias writes, “We must always be a nation that catches workers before they fall.”
Support garment workers around the world, be an engaged consumer.