Sometimes history repeats itself — the first time as tragedy and the second time . . . as another tragedy. The horrendous fire that just killed 112 workers, mostly young women, at the Bangladesh garment factory echoes the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City in 1911 that killed 146 workers, again mostly women. Both fires will surely feature prominently in the “Black Book” of the crimes of capitalism when that enormous set of volumes is compiled. Damn this System that burns people to death — sacrifices of flesh and blood at the holy altar of profit.
Garment factories are often hot, noisy, crowded, dusty, dangerous places to work. Filled with plenty of cutting and trimming scraps for fuel, they can be conflagrations waiting to happen. Manhattan in the early 1900s had scores of ready-to-wear garment factories, using mainly Jewish and Italian immigrant workers who were paid by the piece, making an average of $6 per week. Two-thirds of all the women’s garment industry workers in the country worked in New York City. In 1909, a spontaneous citywide uprising of 20,000 shirtwaist workers — which began with a walkout at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company — led to some better wages and working conditions. Out of the “Great Revolt” of 60,000 cloakmakers the following year came an historic agreement for union recognition between the Manufactures’ Association and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (which grew into one of the most important labor unions in the country and which still exists today, after mergers during the last two decades with the textile industry union and the hotel and restaurant union, as UNITE-HERE). Women were at the forefront of these struggles, and the Women’s Trade Union League during this period, in bringing together upper-class, uptown progressives with the tenement-dwelling workers, played an important role in organizing broader support for labor struggles and reforms.
Just before quitting time on Saturday March 25th, 1911 a fire broke out on the 8th floor and spread within minutes through the three upper floors of a ten-story building off Washington Square housing the Triangle Shirtwaist factory (whose owners were still defiantly non-union). 500 people worked there, a very large-scale enterprise for the garment industry. Horrified workers ran to the only exit that remained fire-free only to discover that the doors to the stairs had been locked, possibly by management to prevent workers from leaving early or stealing a break. With the fire roaring, many workers chose to leap out windows to their death on the sidewalks below. Five girls held hands and jumped together. Police and firemen were unable to help save anyone: their fire ladders only reached to the 7th floor; firenets proved useless in catching hurtling bodies which crumpled on the pavement. Fifty bodies, many burned beyond recognition, were later found on the shop floors and thirty more were found piled up in the freight elevator shaft. The two owners, who escaped unscathed to an adjacent building from their 10th floor offices, go down in labor history as extraordinary bastards who resisted accepting any culpability for the fire or paying compensation to the bereaved families.
Although a sweatshop scene has returned to New York City in recent decades with the newer waves of Asian and Latin American immigrants, garment production is now largely an enterprise that takes place in Third-World countries. Companies set up at the cheap labor sources rather than labor relocating to them. With its overflowing supply of cheap labor to be exploited in the most densely populated country in the world, Bangladesh has now become the world’s second largest producer (after much-larger China) of ready-made garments. Three-fourths of its foreign earnings come from that source. Ninety percent of the 3 million workers in its 4,500 garment factories are women.
Workers in the Tazreen Fashion Ltd. factory near Dhaka manufactured clothes with brand names for retail at Walmart and Disney. When the recent fire broke out there on November 24th, management refused to let workers leave, telling them not to concern themselves, that it was just a fire drill. There were no emergency exits. Nor is this the first such incident in Bangladesh. Fires in unsafe, poorly-regulated garment factories have killed an astonishing 600 workers since 2006 in Bangladesh alone, and there have been fires in other producing countries. In September 2012, 250 workers perished in a textile factory fire in Karachi, Pakistan. Again, exit doors there were unconscionably (and illegally) locked.
Because it was in the thick of one of the world’s biggest cities and in a print-media center, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 attracted considerable attention — and outrage — and was a contributing factor to major regulatory reforms such as inspections to make sure exits are unblocked and open. Today, the existence of the Internet and global anti-sweatshop and labor solidarity groups makes it harder for crimes against workers to be swept under the rug. Nevertheless, deaths of workers on the job, many of which could have been prevented by better safety procedures, are a largely unspoken scandal in both “developed” and “developing” countries. Here in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of workers who died in “accidents” on the job in 2011 was 4,609, including 143 from fires and explosions. As long as capitalism exists, many bosses will continue to cut safety corners. Workers to them are not fellow human beings as ends in themselves but just another “factor” and expense of production.
For more history of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, see <ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/>.
Jay Moore is a radical historian who lives and teaches (when he can find work) in rural Vermont.