So now we are to have Senate hearings on the deadly conditions in Bangladeshi garment factories, and so must pretend to discover what we have known all along — in seeking to save a few dollars on our next trip to the mall, we are willing to let other people suffer the worst horrors of our own past.
More than a hundred years ago, we were willing to ignore the awful conditions that prevailed in factories and sweatshops here in America. Then came the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, in New York’s Greenwich Village, on Mar. 25, 1911, when 146 garment workers died in the space of 15 minutes. Many of them perished by falling or leaping from the ninth floor of the factory building, crashing through a glass roof, impaling on the spikes of an iron fence, smashing on the paving stones below.
The spectacle of so many workers — almost all women, many of them teenagers — dying in broad daylight, on the streets of a pleasant Manhattan neighborhood before a crowd of stunned and helpless onlookers, made their plight impossible to deny.
At the time, the average American workplace was a battleground. According to the historian Beverly Gage, “almost a hundred [workers] were killed each day in industrial accidents.” They died, for the most part, in falls and in fires, in cave-ins and explosions, smothered and scalded and dragged into the machines they operated. The lethal workplaces were construction sites or mines or tenement sweatshops, far from the eyes of the public that so benefited from their forced sacrifice.
The Triangle Fire pulled their deaths out into the light. The owners of the factor, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, routinely locked staircase doors to prevent their workers from stealing pennies worth of fabric in their handbags — though they admitted under oath that they had never suffered more than $15 worth of theft in any one season. The owners had no means of fire prevention on hand beyond a few buckets of water — and a long history of suspicious fires that burned up excess inventory for big insurance payoffs.