Triangulating a Tragedy

Jewish Light Editorial

The horrific collapse in Bangladesh of a garment factory building, for which the confirmed death toll has now reached 705, is a painful reminder of an American horror a century earlier — the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City, causing 146 deaths and an unknown number of injuries. 

According to Hadassa Kosak of the Jewish Women’s Archives, the workplace at Triangle occupied the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of the still-standing Asch Building located on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place. Isaac Harris and Max Blank were the Jewish owners of the factory during the depths of the sweatshop era. On the day of the fire, about 500 workers were present, many of them young Jewish women  who emigrated from Eastern Europe.

Kosak notes that Triangle was an anti-union shop and the site of the famous 1909 Uprising of the 20,000 for union recognition, organized by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). That storied union, which would later be headed by the Jewish organizer David Dubinsky, sought not only better hours and wages, but safer workplace conditions. While other firms did settle with the workers, Triangle refused to grant their demands, and most of the union workers were dismissed.

The fire, which swept through the Triangle facility, probably started by an accidentally dropped lighted match in a bin full of fabric scraps. It spread rapidly through the densely packed area of the shop. While many of the workers on the eighth floor escaped onto the roof through the staircase, and those on the tenth floor escaped onto the roof, the workers on the ninth floor were trapped by the fire. The employers had kept the escape exits blocked to prevent theft and “stealing time” and to keep out union organizers and prevent sudden walkouts. 

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The one existing fire escape bent in the heat and under the weight of those fleeing, and the firefighters who arrived on the scene were not equipped with ladders of sufficient height. The desperate workers tried to escape by jumping onto nets, trampolines and blankets extended below, which collapsed under the weight of many women jumping at once. Others leaped from windows, their clothes ablaze, and were killed on impact, while the rest burned to death.

Scandalously, the owners of the death trap factory were acquitted in an ensuing trial. They collected their insurance and opened a new factory at a new address. They offered to pay one week’s wages to the families of the victims, and in 1914, they were ordered by a judge to pay damages of $75 to each of the 23 families who had sued.

The outrage prompted not only protest demonstrations but effective advocacy to assure that such tragedies would be prevented from happening again. In the wake of the public protests organized by the ILGWU and other unions and progressive groups, the New York State Committee on Safety was established. The commission, which included some major future New Deal activists and leaders, investigated work conditions in shops, factories and tenement houses, and was instrumental in drafting new factory legislation. These measures limited the occupants on each factory floor relative to the dimensions of the staircases, prescribed automatic sprinkler systems, and drafted employment laws to protect women and children at work.

These days it has become fashionable in some circles to trash labor unions and “excessive regulations” of businesses that engage in dangerous work. In addition, companies can circumvent a century of laws to protect workers by outsourcing their manufacturing facilities to countries like Bangladesh, India and China, none of which have adequate labor protections, and where building codes are either ignored, non-existent or circumvented by bribes.

The latest Bangladesh factory tragedy did get the attention of European Union Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht, who told Belgian media outlets that labor conditions in Bangladesh amount to “modern slavery.” 

He said that he would “consider” suspending Bangladesh’s access to an EU system that allows poor countries to export everything except arms free of quotas or import duties. 

Police have arrested Soha Rana, the building’s owner, and the owners of five of the garment factories housed in the building. No one yet has been charged with a crime. The mayor of the local council who issued the building permit without mandatory safety clearance has been suspended, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Exporting jobs is one thing — exporting them to facilities no better than the Triangle facility a century earlier is beyond reprehensible. The United States should take the lead in cracking down on American businesses that contract with such “slave labor” to manufacture their products. 

The U.S. Department of Labor should urge the World Trade Organization to make dealing with this scandal an emergency priority.

The poor souls of the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory of 1911 cry out from their graves for justice for their fellow workers who perished over a century later in conditions that are remarkably similar to those which took their own lives.