Today’s New York Times ran, as the site’s cover story, a series of pieces on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, an industrial tragedy that killed or injured over 200 workers, and lent urgency to both the organized labor and Progressive movements.
The facts of the disaster remain remarkable: a small fire broke out on the eighth floor and, because the factory owners had not installed alarms, reached the ninth and tenth floors without warning. Women ran to the exits, but found them locked to prevent theft, and to ensure that they could not leave without the foreman’s knowledge. The only key was in the hands of that foreman who, of course, had left at the first sign of trouble, consigning his workers to their wholly unnecessary deaths.
Desperate to escape, 62 women tried to jump to safety from the burning ninth floor. None survived.
In the wake of the tragedy, New York’s legislature, until then held at bay by corporate lobbyists and a conservative court, finally modernized its labor laws. Today’s tea party would destroy that legacy, because to them, “Progressives,” “unions,” and “regulation” are dirty words. How many of us have to die or suffer until we learn, again, that corporations can’t be trusted to look to the public welfare? That’s not their job. It is the government’s.