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The Legacy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Tragedy

Olivia Vangundy

March 25, 2015 marks 104 years since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire took the lives of 146 immigrant workers in New York City, a tragic event that altered the evolution of American manufacturing.

New Yorkers live and work surrounded by history. Commuters have passed through Grand Central since 1903, students have studied in the New York Public Library since 1895, and couples have strolled through Central Park since 1857. We embrace the city’s stories as we continue our own.

As you walk through Greenwich Village, you will probably pass through New York University’s campus. The Brown building at 23-29 Washington Place currently belongs to the university, but it was once known as the Asch building and home to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Over 500 immigrants tirelessly manufactured clothes on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors in the early twentieth century.

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Firefighters going through Washington Square Park to commemorate victims of the fire, 1911

On March 25, 1911, the factory floor was engulfed in flames. Within minutes, neglected rags strewn across the floor caught fire and trapped the workers, who were were mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women. They rushed to the doors, but found them locked. Out of desperation, many jumped out the windows and fell to their death while still on fire.

In the aftermath, it was discovered that factory owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, did not include emergency sprinklers or fire escapes in the workspace. They also locked all the doors, intending to prevent workers from taking breaks and stealing. The city didn’t enforce fire safety, labor, and sanitation laws, so factory owners commonly neglected the wellbeing of their employees and avoided such expenses. In hindsight, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was a disaster waiting to happen.

The city was livid; protests filled the streets. The people were determined to prevent this from ever happening again, and groups like the Women’s Trade Union League and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ League made their voices heard. A few months later, New York State established the Factory Investigating Committee (FIC) to investigate safety and working conditions across the state. Over 25 new bills proposed by the FIC were passed in the following years.

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America has made great progress with labor and safety regulations since the famed fire. Workplaces throughout the nation are held to legally enforced standards regarding sanitation, labor, safety, and environmental conditions. The Department of Labor alone administers and enforces over 180 federal laws, while there is also the Environmental Protection Agency and Federal Trade Commission. While improvements can and always should be made, American industry standards are now something to be proud of and the resulting quality of American products is clear.

Today these conditions still exist, but have been pushed overseas. On April 14, 2013, Rana Plaza collapsed in Bangladesh. It is considered the deadliest garment-factory accident in history with a death toll of 1,129. The collapse is attributed to initially building on unsteady land without proper authorization, constructing additional upper floors without permits, using the commercial space for industrial purposes, and using substandard construction materials. Despite visible cracks in the building, laborers were told they would be denied a month’s pay if they did not come to work that day; they were unaware of their rights to refuse unsafe work. A number of popular fast-fashion companies were manufacturing their products in Rana Plaza.

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Rana Plaza on May 12, 2013, three weeks after the collapse

In the early 1960s President Kennedy approved importing up to 5 percent of apparel sold in the US; today the US imports more than 95 percent of its apparel and 99 percent of its shoes from other nations. Many of the products we import and consume are manufactured by businesses that maximize efficiency and minimize expense by neglecting labor, safety, sanitation, and environmental standards. The U.S. Department of Labor has found that the garment industries in China and Bangladesh have a serious problem with child labor. In countries without strong oversight, it is harder to ensure that people are treated fairly in the production process, when so many businesses also lack transparency.

As consumers we can voice our opinions through our choices, so that there does not need to be another Triangle Shirtwaist Factory or Rana Plaza tragedy. We can demonstrate to governments working with factory workers that we will only support them if they create standards for their workers. We can support businesses that uphold high standards, and pass over those which don’t. We can demonstrate that we do care about the process through our buying power.