Race to the Bottom
A Historical Vignette
by Tom Parquette
Part One of Four
American philosopher, George Santayana, wrote in "Life Of Reason I", that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. The words have been hacked and changed and twisted over the years since, but the intent and validity of the observation stand the test of time. And rightly so. Life and history itself are most certainly a learning process, whether the life is our own or another’s. And, whether the history is ours personally or that of our society collectively.
This writer has long had a fascination with historical events which should have or might have influenced the future much in keeping with Santayana's musings. That fascination increases enormously especially when there is evidence that given historical events haven't influenced or positively changed anything. So much for that.
The Asch Bldg.
This spring marks the anniversaries of two events in fire history which are or should be alarmingly similar in many, many respects. A few weeks ago, March 25th marked the 101st anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City. Most in the fire service have heard of this event insofar as it marked the milestone of being the largest industrial accidental loss of life by fire in our nation’s, and the world’s, history. There are varying definitions of the record holder of these dubious claims. We're not here to debate levels of severity. Suffice to say that the Triangle Shirtwaist fire was a horrific event in the history of modern mankind.
A typical garment district sweatshop.
Triangle Shirtwaist was a sweatshop garment operation in New York City which manufactured various clothing items using the labor of mostly young immigrant women. The business was located in the Asch Building (now called the Brown Building) at 23 Washington Place. The factory occupied the eigth, ninth and tenth floors of the 10 story building in Greenwich Village. The owners were Max Blanck and Isaac Harris. These two employed up to 500 immigrant women between the ages of 14 and 48 who worked on average some 9 hours each day plus Saturday for earnings of somewhere between $7 and $9 weekly.
On Saturday March 25, 1911 as the work day was ending, smoke was noticed as a fire flared up in a scrap bin under a cutter’s table in the northeast corner on the eighth floor. Blanck and Harris were at the factory at that time and had even invited their children to the factory that afternoon. The scrap bin the fire ignited in had not been emptied of accumulated cuttings for over two months. Smoking was banned in the factory but it was widely reported that employees were known to smoke anyway and even exhaled the smoke through their lapels to disguise or conceal it. 129 young women and 17 men died as a result of the Triangle Fire.
Triangle Shirtwaist on fire. (New York Times)
Fire exits, though mandated by City code even then, were not adequate and were in fact missing altogether in certain locations. The fire escape which was installed on the building bent under the heat and collapsed. It was later discovered to have been installed with substandard fastners and workmanship. The only fire supression of any kind in the building was the presence of a total of 27 buckets of water. Nine on each of the three floors. The employees were accustomed to and only knew of one way to exit the building, that being one of two freight elevators. One wasn't in operating condition. Exits had been locked and chained shut to keep the employees from leaving their sewing machines, sealing their fate.
New York Times archive
While the owners and their kids were escaping the holocaust using the roof and adjoining buildings, 50 of the employees were being incinerated on the three floors and 60 were driven to their death by jumping 90 to 100 feet to the street below. Of the 146 dead, 129 were immigrant women from 14 to 48. Of the total dead, 6 could not be identified until modern science caught up with history in 2011 and they were duly recognized and memorialized. There is closure for you.
Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were charged with multiple offenses resulting in death. A long trial worthy of Perry Mason resulted in an acquital of both men. A civil trial resulted in a 'victory' for the victims survivors. That 'victory' afforded a judgment of $75.00 per head. Blanck and Harris profited heavily from the disaster. They were able to induce an insurance settlement of $400.00 per death and a settlement which exceeded the material losses by some $60,000. Blanck and Harris had much experience in fires. At two other locations operated by these nefarious crooks, early morning fires were commonplace. Especially at the close of the garment selling season. The partners found fires profitably took care of carryover inventory and then some.
Max Blanck and Isaac Harris (ILGWU Archives)
Triangle Shirtwaist Company reopened in 1913 in a different location in the city. Within twelve months of it's reopening, Max Blanck was arrested by fire inspectors when a surprise inspection found another exit door chained shut. He was fined twenty dollars and given an apology from the judge for disturbing him.
Now, don't be mistaken. There was some good which resulted from this devastating event. After the fact, of course. Fire Chief John Kenlon identified some 245 factories in the City which were sitting ducks for the same type of devastation in New York. From the date of the fire until 1913 alone, 64 laws were passed including building access, fireproofing requirements, alarm systems, auto sprinklers, fire extinguishers not to mention comfort issues of rest rooms, eating space and hours of work. This, at the time, put New York on the map in the effort to improve not only employee safety, but the general public safety as well. The development of NFPA 101, the Life Safety Code can be directly attributed to the Triangle fire.
As for George Santayana, though. Well, it seems to me from my meager vantage point, that George was correct. And history proves him right once again. In fact, not once again, but rather 'many times', again!
We'll continue with "Race To The Bottom" Part Two tomorrow.
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