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The Struggle For Equality Of Labor At The Cost Of Life

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Did you ever wonder what it would be like to be a witness of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire? Have you ever imagined yourself walking down Green Street, and having bodies falling to the ground right next to you? Well, believe it or not, many people did witness this tragic event. One hundred sixty three people died in the fire because of the terrible conditions of the factory. As a direct result of the horrific workplace accident, people fought for better conditions and made new labor laws. The triangle shirtwaist factory fire was a terrible fire that killed many women and men and encouraged people to fight for labor equality.

Many women and men came to America in hopes of finding a job. They were all desperate and realized that if they didn’t find a job quickly, they would die. The immigrants had no old-age pensions, no social security, and no health insurance. With the exception of charities that would help immigrants, they had nothing. Therefore, all of them were willing to take any jobs that were available even if the pay was close to nothing. Many Italian men would work as peasants in the field, or construct buildings or subway stations. Immigrant Jewish men often would make random objects, such as buttons, toys, or handkerchiefs and walk around trying to persuade people to buy their merchandise. Unfortunately, women had no experience or interest in building structures, working in the field, or peddling merchandise. But, they did have experience in tailoring clothing. So, most of the women ended up in clothing sweatshops, with terrible conditions and close to no pay (Marrin, 49).

Sweatshops first began when a clothing manufacturers line started with the plantations in the Southern states. It laid on the backs of abused men, women, and children. Most sweatshops started in the owner’s house and employed their friends and family. Then, they would move into an apartment, and then eventually a building. Most sweatshops started to fail, due to the change in women’s fashion. Instead of having sweatshops, more factories started to form. The Triangle Factory was constructed as a sweatshop, but was called a factory (Marrin,59).

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company, a company that made shirtwaists, occupied the 8th, 9th, and 10th floor of the Asch building. It employed about 600 working men, women, and children (History.com). Although the ILGWU held a strike demanding higher pay and more practical hours, Blank and Harris, the owners of the company, ignored them and hired police thugs to arrest them (History.com). The factory had many terrible and dangerous conditions such as illegal stairways, lack of fire exits, a very flimsy fire escape, and only one working elevator. Also, the factory locked the doors during working hours to prevent theft(worldbookonline.com). Because of the dim lights, it was very hard for people to see, which resulted in many injuries and possible deaths(Lange, 46-49).

The factory had three different floors and different jobs on each of them. On the tenth floor, there were men cutting big stacks of cloth. On the ninth floor, there were 250 sewing machine laid out in 16 narrow rows. On the eighth floor, there were teenage girls who would cut the edges off of clothes and sorted buttons (Lange,49). On each floor, there were many strict supervisors who would watch over all the women and make sure they were following all the rules of the factory . If a woman had to go to the bathroom, they would be escorted to the bathroom. Workers described some of their grievances; “The forelady drives you. If you fix a pin in your hair or your collar, before you know it, there is a forelady saying to you, “It isn’t six ‘o clock yet. You have no right to fix your collar” (Marrin, 71). Women always got very frustrated when they weren’t given a second to breathe or fix their hair or collar. Many women found it annoying when the forelady would follow them and rush them.

The women on the tenth floor stood online five minutes before dismissal. The were all chatting on line to get their purses checked by the monitor. All the sudden, the operator got a call from the eighth floor that there was a fire and everyone should evacuate immediately (Marrin,49). The fire started on the eighth floor, and spread quickly. Thankfully, the doors were unlocked, so everyone was able to get out safely. An operator tried to call the operator on the ninth floor, but they didn’t pick up. They then called the operators on the tenth floor and warned them so all the people on the tenth floor were able to go to the roof and then make it down safely. That left the ninth floor. (Lange, 56)

As the fire started, the women on the tenth floor ran out of the building, not waiting for the monitor to check their purses. As the fire started to blaze, men got buckets and filled them with water and tried to put the flames out. Unfortunately, that did not work, so the men got hoses and tried to use it, but there was no pressure. Although the people on the 10th floor were able to get out, the women on the ninth floor were not as fortunate. (Marrin,110)

The women on the ninth floor tried to escape through the fire exist, but found the doors to be locked. The only unlocked door was where the fire was blazing. Some women tried using the rusty old fire escape, but after 20 women got down, it collapsed. There was only working one elevator on the Green street side and could only hold up to 10 people. Of course more people went in, breaking the cable and not allowing the elevator to go back up and save more lives. Some women had no other option but to jump. They all stood on railings, holding hands, and giving each other kisses. Some said prayers before jumping.(Lange, 57).

The firefighters finally arrived and rushed towards the scene. They started unloading all of their equipment and were ready to start to extinguish the fire. Firefighters started charging up the building with a large hose. The firefighters were not able to extinguish the fire in the windows because people were in them, and the high pressure would push them out of the window. They would have hurtled to their deaths. The firemen hoped to catch some people before they plummeted to the ground with sturdy ten-foot nets. Unfortunately, the nets failed and the force was too great. Either they bounced off the net and hit the ground. or crashed through the net and hit the pavement. After hopeless tries, the people in the windows decided to end their misery and jump. In the end, 63 people died from jumping (Marrin,113).

People were left shaken. The fire deeply affected the witnesses and the officers who saw the tragedy. Bodies were strewn in the streets with mourning men and women surrounding them. It was very hard to recognize the dead bodies due to the fire and the impact from the ground. The dead bodies were brought to a temporary morgue at “Misery Lane,” a very large shed. At midnight, the police let the anxious families in to identify their sister, mother, or daughter. Most people could identify their family member by a ring, locket, hair, or shoe. Chief Croker, the fire chief, went up to examine the remains of the fire. It was shocking for even this hardened veteran to see such a sight. The New York World reported “In the drifting smoke he had seen bodies burned to bare bones, skeletons bending over sewing machines.” Unfortunately, some women were trapped in the factory and not able to make it out. Those women were left die in the factory(Marrin,122).

In response to the fire, everyone started donate money. The Red Cross, WTUL, and ILGWU, and many other civic organizations donated a lot of money. The rich opened their purses and so did the poor regardless of how much money they had. Some donations arrived at newspaper offices. In all, they collected $3,411,000 in year 2000 dollars(Marrin,126). Also there were many marches such as the march organized by the ILGWU. On April 5, 1911, on a gloomy, rainy day, about 120,000 people marched from Washington Square to Fifth Avenue as a funeral procession organized by ILGWU. Many carried union banners that said “We Mourn Our Loss.” (Marrin,128)

The fire opened up the eyes of everyday citizens and helped them see the need for some labor laws. After the fire, the ILGWU proposed the Sullivan Hoey fire prevention law, requiring all the factories to have fire sprinklers. (Angelis, 88) As early as May, 1911, the FIC was investigating 1,836 factories. They made 8 new state labor laws in 1912, and an additional 25 in 1913, and another 2 in 1914. The first one increased the number of inspectors and almost doubled the buildings safety inspectors budget. The second one allowed more severe punishments for those who violated the labor code. The third one said that buildings being constructed as warehouses must be inspected and modified before being converted to factories. The last one said that children under 14 were not allowed to work in factories. The FIC did so much to change New York and really helped the people who worked there. (Angelis,93).

On December 4, 1911, Blanck and Harris, were ordered to court and were accused of killing only two lives, when really they were the people that caused 146 people to lose their lives. They were also ordered to court because the state labor code required the doors to be unlocked and they had locked them. On the way to the courtroom, Blanck and Harris were screamed at and called murderers by the families of victims. In the end, they each settled and had to pay $75 for each life that was lost.(History.com)

Dora was a blouse maker who worked on the eighth floor in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory and was a survivor of the fire. Dora said that her friend insisted that they leave early the day of the fire, but Dora refused and said that she would rather stay and make a couple more cents. In the end, she decided to leave five minutes early.Her friend went home and about 45 minutes later, Dora saw smoke and heard screams. She quickly ran the door but it was locked. There were screams surrounding her. Dora thought she thought she was going to die.

Dora, fortunately, was able to make it out of the fire alive. She said she doesn’t remember how, but all the sudden, the door opened up either from a policeman or a fireman. The fireman took them down to the sixth floor and then went back up. She went down to the lobby and there were about 20 or 30 crying people standing there and they were not let out of the lobby. When she was finally let out of the lobby, she realized that they hadn’t let her out because there were smashed bodies all over the sidewalk (cornell.com).After the fire, Dora exclaimed that she was so grateful to her friend. “I turned around and saw that the fire was already burning at the cutting table. My machine was in the first row next to the cutting table and if my girlfriend did not go home earlier, I am sure I would have been one of the first victims.” Dora explains here that her friend saved her life by convincing her to to go home earlier(cornell.com).

Dora walked home and got to her apartment and sprawled over the bed. Her family friend, Lois Salt, was looking all over for her body, until she finally came to her apartment and saw her. The both started bawling. Dora eventually got a job on Prince street, but she was on the twelfth floor so every time she looked down, she imagined that there was smoke was rising up and the she would have a panic attack(cornell.com). Then, she worked in Bijou waist co., until there was a strike which lasted 5 months. Although the fire left a scar on Dora’s life, she was able to move on and live a successful life.

There was a fire on March 25, 1911 in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. 163 people died and many were left injured. This caused many marches, fights for labor equality and donations in honor of the victims of the fire. Although the fire killed many people, the fire helped open the eyes of the New York citizens and caused them fight for labor equality. This fire is a reminder for all of us and we can learn from it too. The victims will forever remain in our hearts as we fight for the equality we all deserve.  

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