The Triangle Fire Anniversary Reminds Us What’s At Stake Without Labor Advocacy

Posted by | March 28, 2011 14:15 | Filed under: Top Stories

by Stuart Shapiro

Last week was the 100th anniversary of the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City.

On Saturday, March 25, 1911, the end of the workweek, many of the young men and women toiling at sewing machines and cutting cloth at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory near Washington Square Park were getting ready to leave for the day when flames suddenly burst from a trash can on the eighth floor. The fire spread quickly through the factory, which had no sprinklers and where fire drills were not required, consuming the ninth and tenth floors as workers tried in vain to put it out with buckets of water. They quickly unraveled a water hose, but no water came out.

Hundreds of workers raced to an exit door where a young man screamed, “The door is locked? The door is locked!” Dozens made their way onto freight elevators, whose operators risked their own lives to save 150 people, but those who were crowded out jumped down the shaft or out of the windows onto the street below. The wet sidewalks were covered with 146 bodies — mainly Jewish and Italian women struggling to earn a living making blouses in the sweatshop — many of them charred beyond recognition.

The horror of the fire and the dreadful working conditions which led to most of the deaths moved government officials to slowly begin to change labor policy.  The reaction from companies was harsh:

“We have been legislated to death.” – James T. Hoyle, Secretary of the Manufacturers’ Association, explaining his opposition to new laws proposed in the wake of the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. factory fire, May 19, 1914

“The regulations are killing us” – Congressional candidate George Pendergrass during the Nevada Republican primary, May 12, 2010.

The issues change but the rhetoric does not.  As Republicans propose bill after bill to roll back regulation, keep in mind the stakes here.  Regulations cost money.  They also save lives.  The victims of the Triangle Fire demand that we remember this simple fact.

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Copyright 2011 Liberaland
By: Stuart Shapiro

Stuart is a professor and the Director of the Public Policy
program at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers
University. He teaches economics and cost-benefit analysis and studies
regulation in the United States at both the federal and state levels.
Prior to coming to Rutgers, Stuart worked for five years at the Office
of Management and Budget in Washington under Presidents Clinton and
George W. Bush.

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