Sunday, March 27, 2011

The LuLac Edition #1522, March 28th, 2011



I had forgotten all about the 100th anniversary of the big fire at the Triangle Waist factory until I started reading Ron Reagan’s book, “My Father at 100”. In the book the younger Reagan outlines events in the year his father was born. The big story 100 years ago last week (1911) involved one of the biggest fire disasters in the nation's history. About 150 young women died in or near the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City when the fire broke out. Most were trapped because employers had locked the doors to prevent workers from leaving early. The disaster led to the establishment of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and to legislation mandating improved safety standards. The Triangle Waist Company factory was located on floors 7-9 of what was known as the Asch Building at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street in New York City. (The building is now the Brown Building of Science, part of NYU.) Immigrant women, most only 16-23 years of age, worked six days a week making shirtwaists, a type of blouse that was popular in that day. Workers' pay was based on a per piece basis, so they worked quickly and with concentration, scraps of fabric mounting up under the machines as no one could afford to take the time to clean up. It was almost 5 p.m. on Saturday, March 25, when the fire broke out, probably from a carelessly tossed cigarette. Notification of the fire primarily came to the workers via smell or flame. A bookkeeper on the eighth floor phoned management on the tenth floor to warn them to evacuate, but the floor workers had no such warning. Exits from the work floors were limited. There were two sets of stairs, a fire escape (that did not go all the way to the ground) and two freight elevators. The women ran first to the stairways and discovered one already was engulfed in flames; the door to the other staircase was locked. (Factory workers were often locked in during work hours to keep them on the job and to prevent pilfering.) The freight elevator operators attempted to make several runs up and down to rescue the women, but after a couple of runs, the women were so desperate they pried open the floor gates to the elevator and jumped into the shaft, hoping to ride on the top of the elevator to safety. The elevators could not bear the extra weight and could no longer go up for other victims. The fire escape may have already been in poor repair, but even if it had been sound, it soon twisted under the heat of the fire. That left the windows. Women crowded at the windows, first for air, and then hoping that they could be rescued. Fire engines, some of them horse-drawn, were powering to the area around the building, but as they raised the ladders, everyone in the building and on the street saw the problem: The ladders could extend only as high as the sixth floor. The hoses shot water at the fire, but the streams could barely reach the seventh floor. In a scene of desperation that would be replicated at the World Trade Center 90 years later, the victims felt they had no other option -- they held hands and jumped. The firemen's nets proved inadequate to catch the jumpers, and most fell through to the sidewalk, dying quickly of their injuries. Voices Ignored Garment factory workers in New York City had struck only two years before (1909) for better working conditions and better pay. They made some inroads at the smaller shops but a big factory like the Triangle Company could afford to hold out longer than the workers. As a result, the workers' concerns were never addressed until the fire. Out of the ashes came modernization of the state's labor laws, better oversight of workplaces by the fire department, and a stronger and more unified International Ladies Garment Workers Union. The American Society of Safety Engineers also was founded the following October. And what happened to the factory owners? Because they had been notified of the fire, they went from their tenth floor offices to the roof and escaped to another building where they were able to descend to the street. Later, they were acquitted in the criminal trial against them because prosecutors were unable to prove beyond a doubt that they knew the exit doors were locked; they lost a subsequent civil suit and had to pay about $75 per deceased victim. The fire and the reaction to the deaths by the owners spawned the labor unions of the early part of the 20th century. Sad to say that in 100 years, workers are still treated unfairly. Companies will put themselves up to code and safety regulations but only because they have to. The attempt by the Republican party to have unions give back things won through the years tell us that the almighty dollar preempts the worker. And the beat goes on.


The 6th District Republicans had a successful Spring Fling in Wilkes Barre though the temperature barely hit 40. The GOP had a nice crowd on hand Sunday afternoon.


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