March 15, 2011
Lessons learned from the Triangle Waist factory fire
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But the garment manufacturers, and the real estate, bakery and cannery industry groups, sought to stymie the commission. After the fire department ordered warehouses to install sprinklers, the Protective League of Property Owners denounced the mandate, angrily charging the city with forcing owners to use “cumbersome and costly” equipment.
A representative of the Associated Industries of New York insisted that regulations would mean “the wiping out of industry in this state.” Mabel Clark of the W.N. Clark Co., a canning corporation, opposed any restrictions on child labor. “I have seen children working in factories, and I have seen them working at home, and they were perfectly happy,” she declared.
Terence McGuire, president of the Real Estate Board, summed up the business argument against regulation. “To my mind this is all wrong,” he declared. “The experience of the past proves conclusively that the best government is the least possible government.” The board warned that new laws would drive “manufacturers out of the City and State of New York.”
Fortunately, Smith, Wagner and other political leaders, fortified by a vibrant progressive movement, ignored these opponents of business regulation. In the first year, the commission proposed, and the legislature quickly passed, laws requiring mandatory fire drills, automatic sprinklers and unlocked doors during work hours. They also created rules on the storage and disposal of flammable waste, and they banned smoking from shop floors.
The next year, the legislature passed additional reforms. It set maximum numbers of workers per floor and established codes requiring new buildings to include fireproof stairways and fire escapes. It required employers to provide clean drinking water, washrooms and toilets for their employees. It gave labor commission inspectors the power to shut down unsanitary tenement sweatshops. And it ruled that women could work no more than 54 hours a week and that children younger than 18 could not work in dangerous situations.
These path-breaking state regulations, provoked by the Triangle fire, proved that government could play a powerful role in the lives of ordinary people. Other states followed suit, and, ultimately, Roosevelt, prodded by Perkins, Wagner and other veterans of New York’s progressive movement, introduced New Deal reforms ending child labor, establishing a federal minimum wage and a 40-hour work week, and creating a National Labor Relations Board giving workers the right to unionize and bargain collectively with employers.
The Triangle company’s owners were tried for manslaughter but were found innocent when the judge told the jury that to return a guilty verdict, they had to find that the two defendants knew or should have known that the doors were locked. But the company never recovered from the fire and the controversy. In 1918, it closed its doors.
That didn’t happen to other city businesses. Contrary to the business leaders’ dire predictions, they did not suffer from the new regulations. The New York Times reported in July 1914, “Notwithstanding all the talk of a probable exodus of manufacturing interests, the commission has not found a single case of a manufacturer intending to leave the State because of the enforcement of the factory laws.” New York’s Seventh Avenue remained the headquarters of the nation’s garment industry for decades, until production gradually moved south and overseas after World War II.
Ironically, 100 years after the Triangle fire, we still hear much of the same rhetoric whenever reformers seek to use government to make businesses act more responsibly and protect consumers, workers and the environment. For example, the disasters last year that killed 29 miners in West Virginia and 11 oil rig workers in the Gulf of Mexico could have been avoided had lawmakers resisted lobbying by mine owners and oil-well owner BP to weaken safety regulations.
Today, the leading foe of reform is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is on a crusade against the Obama administration’s plans to set new rules on unsafe workplaces, industrial hazards and threats to public health. The Chamber labels every reform effort a “job killer.” Its most vocal ally in Congress is Darrell Issa, the California Republican who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. At the request of the Chamber and other industry lobbies, Issa recently launched a Congressional assault on safeguards in workplaces and communities.
In January, Issa sent letters to more than 170 companies and business lobby groups — including those representing the energy, auto, oil, chemical, health care, banking and telecommunication industries — asking them to identify “burdensome government regulations” that they want eliminated.
The business groups responded with a long wish list, including rules to control “combustible dust” that has resulted in explosions killing workers; rules to track musculoskeletal disorders such as tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome or back injuries that impact millions of workers at keyboards, in construction or in meat processing; and rules to address workplace noise that leads to hearing loss. And Republicans listened. They are proposing to cut Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s budget by 20 percent, which, coming on top of decades of cuts, would cripple an agency that has been effective at significantly reducing workplace injuries and deaths.
If the Triangle fire occurred today, the Chamber would surely call mandatory sprinklers and fire escapes “job killing” regulations. It would call for “voluntary solutions” to sweatshops and firetraps, and ask to get government off the backs of private employers.
The Republican message, in House Speaker John Boehner’s words, is that “excessive regulation costs jobs” and that the “path to prosperity” is by “getting government out of the way.” Americans of earlier generations — who enjoyed the benefits of the Progressive Era and the New Deal reforms, and the political clout of a vibrant labor movement — understood this was nonsense, but it seems like these lessons have to be relearned. That’s why it is important to recall the sordid circumstances in which 146 young women lost their lives at the Triangle Waist Co. a century ago.
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