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Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

By Brandon Weber

I have a hard time watching this and not getting terribly angry. Those 123 young women and 23 men who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911, deserve to be remembered. But we're watching it happen all over again in developing countries that supply Walmart, Gap, and other marketing and retail giants.

Sorry/not sorry, I’m mad as hell, and I wish we could live in a world where we didn’t have to take this anymore.

Warning: some violent images. Link to video.

At 2:00, you'll see the cascading effects that the fire had on workers' rights and eliminating sweatshops in the United States. But watching it happen all over again in other parts of the world at 3:00 is heartbreaking. It was the same exact circumstances as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, word-for-word. At 4:24, how do they calculate the “value” of a human life? And the images at 6:40 — really? All for a $26 pair of pants?


Narrator: One hundred and forty-six people died that Saturday, 125 of them, young women. They were on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floor of the Asch Building in New York City, in Greenwich Village. They couldn't get out the main exit. They raced towards the exit gate, and the exit door was locked. When the police found the women's bodies, the next day, they could see their fingernails were torn off the women, as they clawed to try to get out. They were completely trapped in an inferno, and many of the workers went out of the window, and jumped to their deaths. Went a hundred feet down to Greene Street.

People on the ground looked at these bodies coming down, and they thought that they were bales of clothing. They were horrified when they saw that these were young women leaping from the building, and they did it so that their parents would have their bodies.

There was such outrage over the murder of these 146 workers that 100,000 workers marched in their funeral procession, 400,000 people lined the streets, and their cry was, "Who is going to protect the working girl?" Unions came together with religious organizations, women's groups, community groups, and they demanded change.

Automatic sprinkler systems were demanded. Fire exits could never be locked again and they have to open out the way. This all happened within two months and for the next 30 years the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire gave this momentum so that by1938 we had the Fair Labor Standards Act. We had minimum wage laws, time-and-a-half laws for overtime. Workers had the right to organize. By 1938, there wasn't any sweatshops in the United States. They had been wiped out. The middle class was built in this struggle coming out of Triangle. Now, we're seeing everything that the American people had won and struggled for is being destroyed.

On Dec. 14, 2010, just three months shy of the hundredth anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York, a fire broke out at the Hunan factory in Bangladesh in the outskirts of Dhaka. It was an 11-story building. It was lunchtime. There were workers in the cafeteria on the eleventh floor, and they started to smell smoke. They didn't panic. They did just what the workers did at the Triangle. They started to go towards the exit.

The workers tried to get out the exit and the flames were so great and the smoke was so dense, they had to retreat. They ran through the cafeteria to the other side of the building, the west side, and they tried to go out the fire exits, and the exit doors were locked. They were trapped. Those workers jumped off the top of the building from the eleventh floor. They leapt off the building for the same reasons so that their parents could have their bodies and they could be mourned correctly and they could be buried correctly. Workers on the ground thought these were bales of clothing that were being thrown out the windows. It's word-for-word, the exact same thing.

At the Triangle Factory, the exit door was locked. The exit door was locked at Hunan, a hundred years later, at the factory fire at Hunan in Bangladesh. And you know what the workers told us? They said that, often, management locks them, exit gates, during a fire, so that the garments can't be stolen. Twenty-nine workers were killed. Over a hundred workers were injured, 36 of them seriously and were hospitalized. The management paid the families of the deceased workers $2,080 as compensation. That's what a life is worth in the developing world now.

This is going on, still, in the global economy, today. Not one change. In fact, it gets worse. In Triangle they made 14 cents an hour, but when you adjust that for inflation that 14 an hour in 1911 is worth $3.18 cents today. The workers at the Hunan factory in Bangladesh in the outskirts of Dhaka, they're making at the top wage, 28 cents an hour. That means that they're earning, their wages in Bangladesh today are one-tenth of what wages were in the United States 100 years ago. We are racing to the bottom.

The workers work 12 to 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, so they can get one day, one day off a month. And they live in abject misery. In miserable hovels that are unimaginable. So, Bangladesh is now the third largest exporter in the world of garments to the United States. These are Gap children's jeans, toddler's jeans, shorts. These were made at the Hunan Factory fire. Gap was the major label. These jeans sell for $26.95.

The workers were paid 28 cents an hour to make these jeans. Hunan doesn't allow the workers to organize. When the workers in Bangladesh struggled for a 35 cent an hour wage, can you imagine, 3.5 million garment workers, 80% of them young women, they protested, they were asking Walmart, and Gap, and the other companies, for 35 cents an hour. You mean to tell me Gap and Walmart and the other companies couldn't pay 35 cents an hour? They wouldn't do it.

And the police went out, and they attacked the workers. They were beaten. They were attacked by the police. They were beaten with clubs. They shot rubber bullets at the workers. They sprayed them with these powerful water cannons to just knock them down and sweep them off the streets. They put a dye in the water so they could be arrested later.

My God, Walmart can't pay 35 cents an hour? When the workers went out and asked for that 35 cents an hour, the most modest amount, they were beaten.

The death of those 146, mostly young women, at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory way back in 1911 that led to all the progressive changes in the United States, which led to the middle class, that's being destroyed right now as we race backwards in the global economy. And just what happened at Triangle where laws were put in place to hold these corporations accountable. Now as all of our production has gone offshore, we need laws to protect the rights of these workers in the developing world.

We need to lift all ships. They've demanded enforceable laws to protect their products. The Gap label's protected on the intellectual property copyright laws. You make a knock-off of Gap, you're going to jail. You go to prison. They'll fine you. But when you say to Gap or Walmart or these other companies, can't we have similar laws to protect the rights of the 18-year-old women who made these garments? And they say, “No. That would be an impediment to free trade.”

We believe in fair trade, and we'll say to the corporations, "You bring your goods into the United States from anywhere. We'll take them. We'll take them from anywhere. But, you're not going to bring that product into the United States if it was made by a child. You're not going to bring that product into the United States if it was made by a teenagers who were stripped of their rights, forced to work 15 hours a day, 7 days a week for pennies an hour, with no right to organize."

We have the right to have legislation. This is what we worked on with United Steel workers. We have the right to have legislation that bans the import of child labor goods to the United States and sweatshop goods to the United States. Workers across the developing world, they will have their rights. This should be the legacy of the one hundredth anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. That we do in the global economy what we did in our domestic economy. I believe very strongly, as we race to this bottom in the global sweatshop economy, that this is the most necessary social movement of our generation, and God help us, God help the young people, if we fail.