When we think of desperate people holding hands on a flaming building and leaping to their death, Americans are not generally thinking of the history of labor unions. But on March 24th, 1911, one couple held hands and lept to their death, to be followed by some 140 others, in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire. Bystanders watched helplessly:
Down below on the street, people started to notice the smoke billowing from the 8th floor. One of the bystanders observed a bolt of cloth come flying out the window and hit the pavement. Instinctively, he remarked that Harris was trying to save his best material. As the people on the street moved closer, out flew another bolt. It was then that the realization hit them that it wasn’t bolts of cloth at all but bodies plummeting to the pavement below.
The thousands who watched as the workers jumped flaming to their deaths were instrumental in changing support in favor of labor unions and building codes in New York City. Years before the fire, the women who worked their went on strike to fight for better working conditions, little things like a 52-hour work week and unlocked doors on the factory floor. At the time, the concern about locked doors was that the foreman did so to prevent women from using the bathroom. After a month of striking, the women at the Triangle factory were not able to agree with the bosses on the important sticking points of having a closed shop and collective bargaining. They returned to work, still locked in the building from 7am to 8pm every day.
A bit more about the fire, so that we can appreciate the tragedy that occurred a hundred years ago today:
Within three minutes, the Greene Street stairway became unusable in both directions.Terrified employees crowded onto the single exterior fire escape, a flimsy and poorly-anchored iron structure which may have been broken before the fire. It soon twisted and collapsed from the heat and overload, spilling victims nearly 100 feet (30 m) to their deaths on the concrete pavement below.
One bystander said,
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 emotions of the crowd were indescribable. Women were hysterical, scores fainted; men wept as, in paroxysms of frenzy, they hurled themselves against the police lines.
Two brave elevator operators were able to save dozens of lives, but could not go back for more when the weight of the bodies leaping down the shaft stopped the elevator. He later testified that “he heard bodies hitting the top of the car — blood was dripping on him and coins bouncing through the shaft.” No escape from the elevators, nor the fire escape, nor the locked doors, where firemen later discovered 19 bodies, pressed and melted.
The Centennial of this horror comes at a strange time in our nation. This month, as I’m sure you’ve heard, Scott Walker signed into law a bill in Wisconsin that eliminated collective bargaining, effectively gutting the power of unions in his state. I say you may have heard because the people of Wisconsin made it known they don’t support such a bill. I say you may have heard, moreover because thirteen states are bringing forth similar legislation. The general attitude of many is that labor unions are an interesting theory, but there’s no room for them in the budget. Many more people believe that unions are nothing but a nuisance. In Maine, the governor has just painted over a state funded mural because it depicted the history of labor
The question of what labor unions have done for this country seems to be hanging on everyone’s lips. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is a fine example of what life was like before labor unions had power. Immigrant teenage girls working overtime in a crowded factory with locked doors, disgusting conditions, 7 days a week for less than a dollar a day: the situation at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory is what we in the States call a sweatshop. We like to think we don’t have them, that we are somehow better than growing economies like China and India because Americans have a strength of character that makes sweatshops so beneath the average citizen as to be unfathomable. And in this belief they would be right. Not in the way these apathetic Americans think: it’s as though they believe the heavens opened up and sprayed fairy dust and eight-hour work days upon the land, crushing the Indians but bringing a nation of prosperity and rainbows and fair working conditions. That fantasy would be bull shit.
Americans have weekends and building codes and minimum wage only because many people of great resolve stood up for workers rights and formed powerful labor unions. When I say they stood up for their rights, I mean that they faced firing squads and fought militias and died. When I say that they died I mean that they chose to die struggling for their beliefs instead of from black lung or drowning in the blood of a slaughterhouse floor or leaping from the tenth floor of a factory because the bosses have locked the doors and the foreman has fled with the keys.
The tragedy of one hundred years ago would not happen today. But as we let history slip away from us, it may be what the future holds.