100 Years After the Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Name: Richard R. Palmer, MD

Question: I hope that prior to the 25th of March you will note on the show that March 25 is the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. (Perhaps you agree with me that after 100 years the public needs to be reminded that the gains made by the union movement did not come because of the benign choices of owners of businesses, and are capable of being reversed.)

Paul Solman: After interviewing the owners of a Chinese-staffed New York garment factory years ago, eavesdropping workers privately muttered derisively in their native language, saying how much less they earned than we’d been told, how much longer their hours were, how much worse their working conditions. (We learned this later when it turned out our camera man had understood the Chinese.)

The anecdote is a timely reminder, union supporters would say, as today marks the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire that took 146 immigrant lives in March of 1911, mostly the lives of East European Jews working in the surreally named “Asch Building” in Greenwich Village (Northeast corner of Washington Square Park). Many of the victims leaped from the top floors when they couldn’t get out.

View a photo essay of the fire and aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

Note that some viewers may find some of the images disturbing.

The factory was the city’s largest garment manufacturer, making “shirtwaist” blouses, as many as 500 workers, working from 7:30 am to as late as 9 pm during the busy season, six days a week, earning between $1 and $12 an hour. On average, wages seem to have been somewhere in the neighborhood of $3.00 to $3.50 an hour in today’s dollars, inflation-adjusted.

A grimly fascinating “oral history” of former worker Pauline Newman can be found at History Matters, including audio. Here’s an excerpt:

“They were the kind of employers who didn’t recognize anyone working for them as a human being. You were not allowed to sing. Operators would like to have sung, because they, too, had the same thing to do, and weren’t allowed to sing. You were not allowed to talk to each other. Oh, no! They would sneak up behind you, and if you were found talking to your next colleague you were admonished. If you’d keep on, you’d be fired. If you went to the toilet, and you were there more than the forelady or foreman thought you should be, you were threatened to be laid off for a half a day, and sent home, and that meant, of course, no pay, you know? You were not allowed to use the passenger elevator, only a freight elevator. And ah, you were watched every minute of the day by the foreman, forelady. Employers would sneak behind your back. And you were not allowed to have your lunch on the fire escape in the summertime. And that door was locked. And that was proved during the investigation of the fire. They were mean people.”

A 1909 strike at Triangle Shirtwaist, in which Ms. Newman had taken part, ended in failure. At the time of the fire, stairway doors in the 10-story building remained locked to prevent theft. The fire escape was defective. The owners, successful Jews who had emigrated to America only 20 years before the tragedy, escaped via the roof. They eventually received more than four times as much money from the insurance settlement as they paid out to the families of the dead.

Where does the following quote come from?

“The common wages of labor depend…upon the contract usually made between [workers and owners], whose interests are by no means the same. The workmen desire to get as much, the [owners] to give as little as possible. The former are disposed to combine in order to raise, the latter in order to lower…wages.

“It is not, however, difficult to foresee which of the two parties must…have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into a compliance with their terms. The [owners], being fewer in number, can combine much more easily; and the law, besides, authorizes, or at least does not prohibit their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen…In all such disputes the [owner] can hold out much longer…could generally live a year or two…. Many workmen could not subsist a week…”

Owners “are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labor.”

The date? 1776. The source? Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations.” (For “owner,” he used the word “master.”)

That, in short, is the world of work before unions had any political power, any legal standing, any legitimacy worth a tinker’s dam.

No wonder that those sympathetic to the labor movement insist that unions, and only unions, swung England and America away from exploitation in the years 1776 to 1911, righted an egregious power imbalance by exercising political power, wound up creating an increasingly prosperous “middle class.”

By contrast, the unsympathetic argue that the pendulum has swung too far; that labor has long been in the catbird seat; that “workmen” have used political power to extort extravagant benefits and self-serving, costly work rules; that unions have hamstrung American competitiveness, American prosperity.

It will come as news to approximately zero percent of you readers, regardless of whose side you’re on, that America’s union movement is up against it. As for labor conditions, after improving steadily since the year Wealth of Nations and the Declaration of Independence both appeared in print, they too seem under threat, at least in today’s version of the shirtwaist business.

According to a Cornell report on the occasion of the great fire’s centennial, “recent studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor found that 67% of Los Angeles garment factories and 63% of New York garment factories violate minimum wage and overtime laws. Ninety-eight percent of Los Angeles garment factories have workplace health and safety problems serious enough to lead to severe injuries or death.”

Skeptics are likely to scoff; sympathizers, to point to the fire of 1911 and say: “It can happen here. And it did.”

(For an earlier take on the union issue, specifically with regard to pensions, see my post of a month ago, What Do Wisconsin Protests Say About Organized Labor?. I’ll be answering more pension questions soon.)