“Now when laughing friends deride, the tears I cannot hide, I simply smile and say …. smoke gets in your eyes.” Those simple but eloquent lines were from a musical written by the great composer, Jerome Kerns, back in the 1930s. I could have written about that if only life was so simple. But I decided to expend my energies on something more substantive- the smoke that comes from a tragic fire that destroys both the eyes and the lungs. One fire in particular, that goes back to a little over a century ago, that produced such horror as to change the course of human existence in America. So let us go back to those thrilling days of yesteryear, as the Lone Ranger would have put it. To March 25, 1911 to be precise.
The advent of the 20th century saw a huge increased demand for off-the-rack, mass produced clothing that could be sold in department stores. Prior to that, presumably, most households made their own clothes, or obtained hand-me-downs from such places as the Salvation Army. New York, at the time, was a city of wide disparities between a lavishly rich handful of people, and a vast majority of dirt poor. But as the Industrial Revolution was gathering steam, new industries were booming; and none more so than the manufacture of off-the-rack men’s and women’s clothing in New York. Factories that made this clothing had sprung up almost like weeds. But few examined the labor conditions in these factories during that period. These factories employed almost all women, some as young as 14. They were mainly Italian or Jewish immigrants with a few Germans, and were forced to work under the most miserable sweat shop conditions. Clothing manufacturer employees generally had to work from 7 A.M. to 8 P.M. seven days a week. Even longer hours during the busy season. They were paid the enormous sum of $6 per week, and were often required to use their own needles, threads, irons, and even sewing machines. They had to work at tiny stations in poorly-lit, overcrowded spaces that lacked ventilation. There were no sprinklers or fire escapes. To say that they were fire traps waiting for disaster to strike would be an understatement.
One such manufacturer was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which was located in Greenwich Village. (Women’s blouses were often called “shirtwaists” at the time.) The factory was owned by Isaac Harris and Max Blanck , who were both rabidly anti-union. They were known as the shirtwaist kings because they could produce large volumes of garments for cheaper prices. It was a Saturday, close to quitting time, when workers began smelling smoke on the 8th and 9th floors of their 10 story building. The smoke rapidly became flames as a full-fledged fire broke out. Factory foremen had locked many of the escape exits with chains in order to keep out potential union organizers. Also to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks or stealing scraps of fabric. Perish the thought. Other doors only opened inward and were blocked by the stampede of workers seeking to escape with their lives. The New York Fire Dept. responded quickly but their ladders could not reach high enough to save the women on the 8th and 9th floors. Many women jumped to their deaths trying to escape what became a raging fire. In total, 146 girls and women died on that tragic day. But their deaths were not in vain, as they led to a new set of landmark government regulations.
Experts later concluded that the fire was likely caused by a cigarette dropped on a pile of scrap material that had been accumulating for almost 3 months. Owners Harris and Blanck were working on the 10th floor and managed to make it to the roof. From there they were able to cut over to adjoining buildings and thereby save their lives. They would later be indicted for manslaughter, but were never convicted. The judge told the jury that in order to be found guilty, the 2 men knew, or should have known that the exit doors were locked. Since that couldn’t be proved, they were set free. To their dying days they continued to rabidly fight the unionization of garment workers. As a result of this debacle, however, child labor laws were enacted as well as fire safety regulations, and other legislation to improve the lives of employees throughout the nation. The days of unbridled, laissez-faire capitalism were slowly being reigned in. Nevertheless, today there are many in Congress that would like to repeal virtually all laws that they believe hampers the full and free functioning of capitalism in our society. They consider such restraints on enterprise to be unconstitutional.
In 1902, shortly after Theodore Roosevelt became President, the coal miners of America went on strike. They worked long hours under the most unsafe and dismal conditions, and hadn’t had a raise in 20 years. Their lives were almost always cut short by the nature of their work, (inhaling coal dust 10 hours a day), or by the work hazards of mine explosions or accidents. America, at the time, ran on coal-from heating residences to providing energy to factories. Nevertheless, the owners of these coal mines adamantly refused to bargain with the miner’s union. They considered unions a form of socialism, and an infringement on their capitalistic rights. T.R. then threatened to nationalize all the coal mines. Angry coal mine owners told him he had no constitutional right to take such action. Roosevelt then responded that the constitution was written to serve the people-not the other way around. He further stated that the moral obligation to do what’s right for the people trumped any constitutional right. The owners finally and begrudgingly gave the miners a 10% raise and shorter working hours. But to the bitter end they refused to recognize the legitimacy of the miner’s union. Our current President might want to take a lesson from T.R.’s adamant defense of acting on behalf of the people.
Today, the political currents are running in favor of returning to the days of laissez-faire capitalism. Many in Congress, such as Senators Rand Paul, Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, given the chance, would love to repeal virtually all social legislation enacted from the days of T.R. or Franklin Roosevelt. There’s an election coming up in a few weeks. If you’re planning to vote, think carefully about which party heavily promotes less regulation and unencumbered capitalism. Which party, if given the opportunity, would turn us back a century, to the fun days of the the Triangle factory fire.