Friday, March 25, 2011

Fire: a centennial

There has been a lot of buzz about the evilness of unions, & I will even grant you that union-might has been damaging to some parts of our lives, but I think it also worth looking at why unions happened & why most of us are glad they existed, even if we sometimes wish they would go away now.  Today seemed like a good day; it is the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.

To highlight, on March 25th 1911 a fire broke out on the 8th floor of the Asch Building just east of Washington Square Park in Manhattan.  People on the tenth floor could be (& were) contacted by telephone, but there was no fire alarm in the building & the warning the building was on fire came on foot, with the fire itself.  Ultimately 146 people died (the last six victims were only officially identified February 2011) & 70+ were injured.  Most of the victims were young immigrant women, still the people generally hired to do the same work in the garment industry today whether it happens here in the US or overseas.

The reason(s) for the high death toll are straightforward:

-access to exits (& entrances for firemen) was blocked either by clutter, opened inward, or might have been actually locked.  I think it is worth noting that while locking what we now know of as "fire doors" (largely because of this fire by-the-by) is & was a code violation, I myself have worked in two places that did it routinely; the supervisors could see no other way to keep the riff-raff they hired from sneaking out for a quick cigarette or stealing or whatever.  This practice, obviously still around, was as-good-as standard at the time of the fire.

-fire company ladders did not reach above the sixth floor (this was more an available materials versus laws of physics thing than a failure, exactly) & the fire escape bottomed at the second floor.  It could have brought people within range of the ladders, but it collapsed under the weight of people trying to leave the building & was neglected & perhaps damaged before the fire ever broke out.  More than 60 people died in the  fire escape collapse or jumping from windows into inadequate life nets which tore under the impact.  Again the laws of physics were at play; the nets could have handled people jumping from lower heights.

-the fire company was quickly on-site, but again, because of the sixth floor limit on the ladders, the blocked doors, & other more grisly reasons, they could not reach the fire.  Police lines were erected to prevent people from rushing into the building while it burned.

-most of the victims' first language was not english, nor was any other single language spoken by a clear majority of factory employees; it would have been impossible to communicate anything to this panicked crowd, even if there was a way to communicate with them, which there mostly wasn't.  Nevertheless, no emergency plan was in place: employees had never been instructed on how to respond to a fire, how to get out safely, no fire drills were ever conducted (nor were they required by law).

The owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company were tried & acquitted for manslaughter; they later agreed to pay $75 to the families of 23 victims who brought suit against them.  It is worth noting both men were in the building with members of their family when the fire broke out & survived by evacuating to the roof with a number of others.  There was a lot of press at the time about their greed, but they were very much men of their time & the conditions of their factory were typical, despite a recent catastrophic fire in a Newark factory.  Making these men out to be monsters keeps us from examining our own potential failures. 

Less than a year later, sweeping changes were already being drafted to upgrade building codes, their regulation & enforcement.  The ILGWU (International Ladies Garments Workers Union) already existed & had called a successful strike the previous year; working conditions were among their grievances.  Following the fire, the ILGWU became one of the most powerful organizations in the United States.  Another less-clear result was the rise of the suffragist movement.  It is certainly not a fluke that the people who suffered most in these working conditions had no political voice. 

As for the Fire's centennial, there are events planned at the building site as well as other places around the country, but maybe the best way to honor the day is to remember when you look at those people sitting in protest in state houses & other public spaces, maybe what they want is not a free-ride for life or even no-charge-to-them Viagra.  Maybe what they want are the same ordinary protections you would want in their place.

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