Skip to Content

A century of progress?

Workers are still being killed in fires in garment factories because of locked doors.

March 25th will be the centenary of the greatest workplace disaster, prior to 9/11, in America’s history – the infamous fire at the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory in New York. Because of a locked door, 146 people died, most of whom jumped to their deaths on the street nine storeys below, obviously preferring a quick and painless end over being burned to death.

The Triangle Company occupied the top three floors of the ten-storey Asch building at the intersection of Washington Place and Greene Street in Greenwich Village. Architect Joseph Asch had boasted his building was fire-proof, which structurally it was. This didn’t mean everything in it was.

No one knows exactly what started the fire, but the most likely explanation was a cigarette end that had not been extinguished, was thrown into a barrel of unused clothing material. Smoking was prohibited for the obvious reason that the materials were flammable. Some of the cutters constantly defied this ban, believing themselves to be a cut above the other employees (no pun intended) and as such, thought the law didn’t apply to them. Workplace snobbery being another of the many ways capitalism divides worker against worker.

The fire began around 4:45 p.m. which was quitting time for the near 500 employees. Factory manager, Sam Bernstein, the brother-in-law of one of the owners, Max Blanck, attempted to douse the flames rather than sound the alarm, an action that cost many lives.

The fire, which began on the eighth floor, sped rapidly to the ninth and tenth, cotton being very flammable. Many did escape, some in the elevators (a few even threw themselves on top of it) and some made it to the roof. Ladders were extended from a nearby building to the roof.

Among those who scaled them were the owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, (betcha couldn’t see that one coming.)

Twenty four died on the (ahem) fire escape, which did not extend to the ground and was too flimsy to hold that much weight and collapsed.

Though the fire department was called and arrived quickly and extinguished the blaze in thirty minutes, their ladders could only reach as high as the sixth floor. Those who died did so because the door on the Washington Place side of the ninth floor was locked. Controversy raged between whether it was locked to prevent people leaving early or to make them leave by the Greene Street door, then enveloped in flames. The usual procedure was, when they left by the Greene Street door, they would have their handbags checked to see they were not taking home products they had made. In other words, the company had to protect their legal theft as opposed to illegal theft. Whatever the reason for the locked door it made no difference to the deceased. Their choice was death by fire, or jumping.

Most of them were young immigrant women from Italy and the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. Though no one knows what their thoughts were, it’s possible that Jewish girls, having seen in the pogroms, what fire could do to their bodies, jumped so they would be identifiable. Those who remained in the building were identified by a shoe or a lock of hair, or jewellery; six were never identified.

Nothing should have been surprising about the fire which was a tragedy waiting to happen, especially at a time where there was so little workplace safety legislation in effect in America.

In the early 20th century, approximately 40,000 people lost their lives every year to workplace injuries: in mines, foundries, factories and on railroads. What made the Triangle fire sensational is the fact that so many died so quickly, so horrifically and in America’s most populated city.

For three months officialdom did nothing about it except point fingers. State governor, John Dix, said he was “powerless”, an amazing comment, which was interpreted as, “I don’t care.” Mayor, Bill Gaynor, told his secretary to deal with it, who then referred the matter to the Fire Chief, Ted Croker. This worthy had risen to power by the patronage of his uncle, Richard Croker, once head of Tammany Hall, the most powerful political organisation in America. Croker blamed the Building Department, who blamed the Fire Department.

State Labour Commissioner, John Williams, said it didn’t come under his jurisdiction and building owner, Joseph Asch, said he had fulfilled all his obligations. Harris and Blanck said the doors were never locked during working hours. The head of the reformist Socialist Party of America, Meyer London, sneered that, whilst safety reform should be enacted, it probably wouldn’t be, and that nothing would be done about the tragedy.

The press understandably demanded that someone be held accountable. William Randolph Hearst, even created his own panel of experts in engineering, real estate and fire prevention to suggest new laws for safer workplaces for his paper, American, to advocate.

For a time, it looked like London would be proved right, but a young man, ambitious for political office, District Attorney, Charles Whitman, persevered in his attempts to prosecute the owners.

Whitman interviewed survivors and hired a detective to go to the ninth floor and find the lock of the door that opened onto the Washington Place stairs. This lock showed it had not been opened, whereupon the detective, Barry Flood, secured an indictment against Blanck and Harris, whom he arrested.

The defendants obtained the services of Manhattan’s most successful attorney, Max Steur, who had himself once been a garment worker.

Steur, knowing he couldn’t prove the door was unlocked, resorted to cheap tricks like examining the handbags of survivors to see how many garments they could possibly have smuggled out. This was done in attempt to create sympathy among the jurors and to show the reasoning for keeping it locked.

Blanck and Harris, naturally enough, said they weren’t aware of any doors being locked during working hours. Steur emphasised it would be ridiculous if they were locked, considering the constant coming and goings of delivery people, errand boys and salesmen etc. All this was ludicrous when one considers that, when a fire prevention expert inspected the premises in 1909, he noticed the door on the Washington Place side was locked during working hours. Survivors, themselves, had said Harris was constantly checking to see the door was locked.

Judge Thomas Grain, charged the jury to decide, beyond a reasonable doubt, whether or not the defendants were aware the door was locked during working hours. The jury concluded they were not aware of it, so they were acquitted.

The “innocent” partners successfully filed insurance claims that worked out to about $400.00 for every dead worker.

Civil lawsuits were brought against the owners by the relatives of the deceased, but since Steur again defended them, nobody got a penny. Instead, twenty three relatives managed to get the princely sum of $75.00 each from an insurance company.

It is of small, if any, consolation to the relatives of the victims that the fortunes of the Triangle Company gradually declined, and by 1918 had ceased to exist. By 1920, Harris and Blanck split up, neither being prosperous after.

A person who took a great deal of interest was Frances Perkins, herself an eyewitness to the fire. Fifty years later she unveiled a memorial plaque to the victims, at the sight of the tragedy. Perkins became America’s first female cabinet minister, when President Roosevelt appointed her Minister of Labor in his New Deal government. This proved women could run capitalism just as incapably as men.

During the century since the fire, laws concerning workplace safely have been passed and enforced, till by 2006, (the last year this author could get figures for), only two percent of all deaths by accidents in the US were workplace related. As necessary as such legislation is, it is nevertheless merely an improvement within capitalism. But, as long as capitalism lasts, such events will occur. The fact they occur less frequently is no reason to defend capitalism

Obviously, they will happen more in countries where safety laws either don’t exist or are not enforced. In Bangkok in 1993, nearly 200 workers died in a toy factory, where the doors had been locked by their bosses to prevent them from taking toys home. There are other examples, especially from Bangladesh (see boxes).

Despite the tremendous technological advances we’ve seen, life hasn’t changed much under capitalism. Nor, can it be argued, such events are history in capitalism’s greatest power. In 1991, in Hamlet, North Carolina, 25 people died in a fire at a poultry plant, also because of locked doors.

With the profit motive being the main determining factor in production, it would be naive and idealistic to expect capitalists and politicians, who attempt to administrate capitalism, to care. Perhaps, nobody said it better than software capitalist and investor, Kevin O’Leary, who expressed his feelings on altruism by saying, “The emotional tie that I have at the end of the month is when I count the cash.” He also told a prospective business partner, “There’s something nasty about you and I like it.”

Socialists cannot say with any degree of certainty that there will be no workplace deaths in a socialist society. The exact nature of work and the workplace will be determined by the needs of society and the technology available. What socialists can say, is that with the abolition of money and therefore the profit motive, the very death blood of capitalism, priority will be given to workplace health in general and safety in particular. Events like the Triangle Fire will never occur again.

STEVE SHANNON

“Several hundred protested in Dhaka and Gazipur yesterday, after locked gates were blamed for the death of 21 people in a fire at a Bangladeshi factory that made sweaters for H & M. Most of the victims of the blaze were women who suffocated on the top floor of the seven storey Garib and Garib factory. The nephew of one of the victims said that the gates had been locked, trapping them. The National Garment Workers Federation said, “These workers were killed by the factory’s blatant disregard for worker safety.”  (Times, 27 February 2010)

“Fire tore through a Bangladesh garment factory, killing at least 25 workers who made clothes for Western retailers including Gap and injuring more than 100. Most of the victims died after jumping from the 11-storey building, witnesses said. Workers said that some of the exits were locked” (Times, 15 December 2010).