Friday, March 25, 2011

A Sad Centennial, by Jack Simony

By Jack Simony

Today is the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on Manhattan's Lower East Side.  The horrific fire took the lives of 146 young immigrant women and teenage girls.  Crowds that gathered at the sight watched in horror as the young women and girls crowded the windows and either leapt to their deaths or were burned to death before the crowd's eyes...or both -- many of those who hit the pavement were already on fire.

The whole city grieved.  Investigations of the building showed that there was no sprinkler system, flammable fabric was strewn throughout the building, there were far too many sewing machines crammed next to one another, an open bucket of oil was kept on the floor to lubricate the sewing machines, the wooden floors were themselves therefore oily, boxes blocked exits and the second floor egress was actually locked, stairwell doors opened inward rather than outward, and there was no third staircase as was required by NYC building codes.

The National Women's Trade Union League pushed for legislation, New York City established a Board of Fire Prevention, and then-State Senate leader Robert F. Wagner led a Factory Investigating Commission to scrutinize manufacturing conditions generally.  That Commission wrote thirty six labor bills to improve workplace conditions.  Later, when he became a US Senator, Wagner pushed through the National Labor Relations Act, a.k.a., the Wagner Act, which, among other things, gave workers the right to unionize and engage in collective bargaining with their employers.

A Simony family friend has an odd story about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.  It seems his grandmother was one of the teenagers who worked there.  On the morning of the fire, her sister begged and pleaded with her not to go to work that day but to stay in their coldwater flat all day and not venture out, saying that she'd had a strange dream and feared for her sister's safety.  My friend's grandmother scoffed and prepared to leave for work, saying that she'd be fired if she stayed home, and they needed her salary, but her sister became hysterical, so she finally acquiesced and remained at home.  Weird.  My friend likely owes his very existence to his great-aunt: had his then-teenaged grandmother gone to work, she may well have perished that day.

- By Jack Simony

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