This Day in History 3/25: The 1911 Triangle Fire

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Even though it’s sunny, it’s a little cloudier in the Neighborhood.

Today is a rather somber anniversary especially in light of the collective argument in this country about the role of government in people’s lives.

We can quibble all we want about how much of a role government should play in our everyday lives.  Yet those who wish government had no role in society should heed the 146 ghosts who haunt the Brown building (formerly the Asch building) in Washington Square in New York.

On March 25, 1911, the greatest industrial disaster in New York’s history occurred when a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory at the above building.  Occupying the 8th floor of the building, the immigrant workers who worked there toiled under the most miserable conditions.  Fire escapes and safety procedures were nonexistent.  The heaping piles of cloth and thread made the entire floor a firetrap.  Exits were routinely blocked by rows of sewing machines, mostly to keep workers focused and to keep out union organizers.  In 30 minutes, 146 people were dead.  At least 41 of them died when, seeing that there was no hope, these women leaped from the 8th story windows to their deaths on the street below.

The fire highlighted working conditions in New York like never before.  Rich and poor were equally appalled at the carnage.  It was these workers, and many others, who fought for general strikes in 1909 and 1910 to organize reforms that would have saved many lives.

Yet even in this suffering, hope would rise.  Progressive reformers and Tammany Hall politicians, including State Senate leader Robert Wagner and Assembly speaker Al Smith, joined forces to finally right the wrongs that killed those women.  The 1912-1913 Factory Commission toured factories all over the state, and found equally wretched conditions in many of these places–if not more so.   The commission’s findings resulted in important reforms in workplace safety and workers’ rights, thus paving the way for the future social reform programs of the New Deal and Great Society.  A witness to the fire, Frances Perkins, who became Franklin Roosevelt‘s Secretary of Labor, recalled that the real start of the New Deal was March 25, 1911, the day the Triangle burned.

Today many people would argue  that Washington is overreaching its authority in instituting programs regulating banks and large investment enterprises–and there is a point here, to an extent.  When it comes to market downturns, the logical solution is to do nothing and let the natural rhythms of the market take their course.  Macroeconomics 101 should have taught us that.  Overregulation and overstructure, along with irrational greed, usually leads to market abberrations and speculative bubbles.  So the government probably has a boundary that it shouldn’t cross.

However, government is not like the “guns and butter” charts and graphs we had to painstakingly study in college (or cram through at the last minute, in my case).  The messiness of humanity, the suffering of people, and especially the fickle nature of an electorate cause government leaders to act less for the market than for the people, for good or ill.  Safety laws, social welfare and poor relief do not just happen by themselves, no matter what the monetarists say.  They were fought over and struggled and wrenched from a society that saw these “negative growths” as a hindrance, without seeing the long-term benefit.  Abuses are there, to be sure, and welfare reform and contraction are necessary.

Nevertheless, to those that believe social reform has no place in government, I would ask them to hear what the 146 ghosts of the Triangle fire have to say. Their suffering speaks for us all.

To find out more, read David Von Drehle‘s book about the fire.  My review of it is linked below:

http://flakmag.com/books/triangle.html

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One response to “This Day in History 3/25: The 1911 Triangle Fire

  1. Pingback: Review of “Triangle Fire” from PBS’ American Experience | Mr. D’s Neighborhood

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