Friday, March 25, 2011

Baptism by Fire . . .

Today marks the 100th anniversary of one of the worst fires in American history: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. 146 people, mostly immigrant women and many of them just teenagers, died when the eighth floor of their factory caught fire at 4:30 on March 25, 1911. When the girls tried to escape, they found the only door was locked. When the fire trucks arrived twenty minutes later, the ladders only reached to the sixth floor of the ten-floor building, and the safety nets broke. Many died jumping from the upper floors:

I had counted ten. Then my dulled senses began to work automatically. I noticed things that it had not occurred to me before to notice. Little details that the first shock had blinded me to. I looked up to see whether those above watched those who fell. I noticed that they did; they watched them every inch of the way down and probably heard the roaring thuds that we heard.
. . .One girl climbed onto the window sash. Those behind her tried to hold her back. Then she dropped into space. I didn't notice whether those above watched her drop because I had turned away. Then came that first thud. I looked up, another girl was climbing onto the window sill; others were crowding behind her. She dropped. I watched her fall, and again the dreadful sound. Two windows away two girls were climbing onto the sill; they were fighting each other and crowding for air. Behind them I saw many screaming heads. They fell almost together, but I heard two distinct thuds. Then the flames burst out through the windows on the floor below them, and curled up into their faces.
The last girl out of the building, Katie Weiner, tried to cram herself into the over-crowded elevator shuttling terrified workers down, but was pushed back. She jumped into the shaft and slid down the cable, landing on the heads of other girls. She testified at the trial of owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, along with other survivors (155 witnesses in all), but the men were ultimately found not guilty of manslaughter because it could not be proven that they knew about the locked door, or that it had been locked intentionally to keep the girls in and at their sewing tables.

The Triangle Fire could be seen as little more than a terrible, tragic footnote in history, one of those "gosh, our grandparents and great-grandparents had it tough!" stories where we wipe our foreheads and thank our lucky stars that things are so much better now. But, recent events in Wisconsin, Ohio, and other states prove that these 146 people gave up their lives for a cause we still need to be fighting today. Their deaths started the drive towards unions, improved working conditions, and helped institute the first workplace safety laws. Now, some lawmakers are trying to take away the rights of labor unions to fight for their workers. When a union no longer has the power to demand better treatment for its workers and see results, how long will it be before we see another locked door? Will it take another Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire to wake people up? Lawmakers like Governor Walker of Wisconsin claim that taking away the unions' collective-bargaining rights is about money, that tax-payers pay when unions demand more money, and the state needs to combat the deficit.
I'm sure the owners of the Triangle Factory were thinking about money too. This is what happens when the bottom line becomes more important than the people. Let's remember the 146 people who died at the Triangle Factory, and let's make sure they didn't die in vain.

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