1911 fire shows perils of no regulation

It has become fashionable in certain circles to say that unions and government regulations are unnecessary nuisances, sand in the gears of the economy. The invisible hand of capitalism would take care of all our problems, if we would just let it alone.

It’s a free country, and the talking heads on Fox News have a right to say whatever they like. But this week, if they have any sense of decency, they should be silent. For March 25 was the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.

Sept. 11, 2001, was not the first time that New Yorkers watched in horror as people jumped to certain death to avoid a more terrible death by fire. On March 25, 1911, dozens of workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory made the same grim choice. They were blouse-makers (“shirtwaist” was an early term for “blouse”) — mostly women, mostly recent immigrants. They worked six days a week for as little as $7 a week. They worked in a crowded tinderbox of flammable material. And 146 of them died that day.

They died because there was no sprinkler system. They died because the flimsy fire escape quickly collapsed. They died because only some of them were able to make it through the single open door before it was blocked by fire — and the other door, which could have led to safety, had been locked by the owners. The owners said that they had lost perhaps $25(!) worth of company property to employee theft, so they needed to watch all the employees leave through a single door.

There was a law against locking employees in — but it wasn’t enforced. They had a union — but no law required the employers to recognize and negotiate with that union on issues such as wages, hours and safety.

But the Triangle tragedy shocked the conscience of New York and of the nation. And as David Van Drehle writes in his excellent book, “Triangle: The Fire that Changed America,” New York’s corrupt Tammany Hall political machine decided that there had to be some response to the public outrage. The New York Legislature passed laws requiring fireproof stairways, functional fire escapes, open doors that swing outward, sprinkler systems and fire drills. And, having been forced to face the conditions in which factory workers labored, they went beyond safety to pass a bill limiting the workweek to 54 hours.

Years later, politicians who served in that same New York Legislature expanded on those ideas at the national level. Robert Wagner, as a U.S. senator, passed the Wagner Act, requiring employers to recognize unions. Franklin Delano Roosevelt — whose labor secretary, Frances Perkins, had witnessed the Triangle fire — passed minimum wage and maximum-hour legislation.

We take all of these things — safety laws, labor laws — for granted today. But they were not given us by the invisible hand. They were the product of hard work and much suffering.

So the next time you hear someone question the value of unions, or government regulations, tell them they’re stuck in a “pre-3/25 mentality.” When they give you a puzzled look, tell them what happened on 3/25.

Tom Chamberlain (tomchamberlain@unions-america.com) is a retired firefighter and president of the Oregon AFL-CIO. This article originally appeared in the Salem, Ore., Statesman Journal and is reprinted by permission of the author.