Friday, March 25, 2011

A Tragic Reminder

It's ironic that on this one hundredth anniversary of the worst workplace disaster in NYC until 9/11, we're trying to hold onto ground that workers fought so hard for.
I had never heard of the Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy until college. One of the main buildings on campus at NYU was this factory, renovated and of course, upgraded to code. A code that didn't exist at the time of the fire.
Even then the magnitude of the tragedy, commemorated on a small bronze plaque, was unfathomable. People, mostly women, were locked into factories on the high floors, the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors, to prevent theft. There was one unlocked fire door on each floor, but in a twist, near that stairway was where the fire occured, engulfing it in flames.
The foreman with the key to the locked stairway was one of the first out of the building.
People slid down the cables of the freight elevators or jumped into the shafts, which prevented more people from being rescued. An exterior fire escape was already broken and buckled under the weight of dozens of people, who fell to their deaths.
It was Saturday, the end of a long six day work week. Nine hours, Monday through Friday, seven hours on Saturday. 146 people died that Saturday in March, of 500 employed on those floors.
In the aftermath of this tragedy came workplace safety rules and the rise of the ILGWU, one of the most powerful unions in the country. The owners of the building won a criminal trial, but lost a civil suit and were forced to pay $75 to each victim. Their insurance paid them $400 per casualty. They earned a profit in the deaths of their workers. Indeed, one owner even went back to locking fire doors at another factory and was fined $20.
We seem dangerously close to going back to those days. We ought to remember.