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The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Trial emerged from one of the worst fire disasters in American history. The accident occurred in 1911 and involved a fire that engulfed Shirtwaist factory, New York. It led to the death of 146 people who died from burns, smoke inhalation, and physical injuries incurred by jumping from burning building floors to the sidewalk (Laye 3).
Many of the victims were young women and children (mostly minors) who came to America (from Europe) to seek employment. Excerpts from historical literatures show that the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory employed young girls of up to 12 years old. The oldest victim was 43 years old (Laye 3). The accident caused a national uproar regarding the safety of workers in American companies. In fact, after the incident, authorities accused the factory owners of manslaughter.
The trial involved two parties – the factory owners (Isaac Harris and Max Blanck) and the factory workers (Von-Drehle 291). This paper explores the details of the trial and its significance to America’s history. Sections of this analysis also show the major conflicts of the time and what they tell us about the larger social, cultural, and political issues in history (that relate to the incident).
Significance of the Trial in the Wider Historical Context
The Triangle Shirtwaist fire was one incident in a series of events that highlighted the plight of workers in American factories. Besides the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, other companies reported employee deaths from factory fires as well (although with significantly lower death tolls) (Von-Drehle 297). For example, a few months after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, a New Jersey sweatshop reported 25 employee deaths when a fire engulfed the factory (Laye 19).
In 1909, a group of employees working in different sweatshops around California organized a strike to detest the poor working conditions in the factories (Von-Drehle 291). These incidences show that before the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, many events highlighted the fragile workplace conditions that could “breed” disasters in American factories. This background informs the events surrounding the incident. Lange (67) says the Triangle Shirtwaist fire was a significant event in America’s history because it contributed to the country’s labor reform movement. Additionally, the trial helped to promote women’s rights in the workplace (Lange 67).
These contributions emerged from the raft of recommendations adopted after the trial. For example, one recommendation was the improvement of better working conditions for all workers, regardless of the jurisdiction level (state, local, or federal). This recommendation contributed to political reform at the New York City Council (this political body was often riddled with corruption) (Laye 4). The trial also recommended that all companies should allow workers to join unions, as a prerequisite for better working conditions in the workplace.
This recommendation helped to start the American Society of Safety Engineers (a union that focused on the welfare of working professionals in the industrial sector) (Laye 9). From the same recommendations, workers’ rights became an important consideration in America’s social and political development. Furthermore, they spread to other economic sectors as well (non-industrial sectors). These developments informed the construction of new human resource paradigms. In this regard, employers became more knowledgeable about the importance of employees in the workplace. Comprehensively, this analysis shows how the trial revolutionized what we understand today as employee rights.
What Major Conflicts of the Time does it represent?
During the start of the industrial revolution, factory owners were more preoccupied with profit making than employee safety. In fact, historical excerpts show that the factory owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company became rich because they exploited their workers (Laye 2). Closing the exit doors, to prevent theft and incidences of employees escaping, was common then (blocked exit routes trapped workers in the building when the fire started) (Linder 3). Witness accounts affirm this fact. For example, one witness said, “I pushed it towards myself and I could not open it and then I pushed it outward and it would not go. I was crying” (Linder 3).
Some employees also said that the company owners always locked the doors because they did not want the employees to pilfer shirtwaists (Linder 3). Blanck and Harris (the company owners) also admitted to this fact during the trial (Linder 3). In fact, even after the trial was over, they continued the practice (of locking exit routes) in their new company (Laye 5). Based on the evidence provided during the trial, safely, one could say profit making was the main concern affecting factory owners of the time. A counter concern was worker safety and well-being, but people did not give it much emphasis.
What might the Trial tell us About Larger Social, Cultural, and Political Issues in History?
By the turn of the 19th century, many immigrant workers (mostly from Southeastern Europe) trooped into New York seeking work and new opportunities for social and economic growth. Some of them made a huge fortune starting profitable ventures, while others failed in this regard and became vulnerable to exploitative industries that sought their services for low pay (Laye 3). The industrial giants also manipulated them and set different groups against one another to support the continued exploitation of the masses. Women and children were most vulnerable. Most of them had unemployed husbands and fathers at home (Lange 70).
The industrial revolution gave them an opportunity to supplement their income by working in factories. However, they received minimum wages and worked in dangerous workplace environments. Most of them worked between 50 – 70 hours a week without payments for extra work (Von-Drehle 291). Besides the low pay, companies also fined them for breaking needles (in the sewing industry) and occasionally required them to pay for the electricity used by their machines (even though the companies owned the machines) (Lange 70). Poor lighting also made it difficult for employees to work. For example, employees of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory had to move their machines close to the windows to allow them to get enough light to perform their duties (Marsico 23).
These conditions were strenuous for most workers. However, they were not exclusive to New York alone. Workers from other factories, around the country, also subjected their employees to the same working conditions (Marsico 23). Before the Triangle Shirtwaist trial, many employees were tired of their poor working conditions. Some of them resigned. For example, tens of employees walked out of a Philadelphia sewing factory in 1910 to protest the unfavorable working conditions in their workplaces (Marsico 23). Others organized strikes. However, the demonstrations were unsuccessful because factory owners colluded with local police and politicians to suppress such revolts (Laye 3).
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These events show that employee safety was a common concern among Americans during the start of the industrial revolution. However, workers did not enjoy the rights and protection that present-day employees do (Council for Economic Education 3). For example, companies were not required to have marked exits, fire extinguishers and sprinklers at their workplaces. Today, these installations are part of the building code. Although employee safety is a common requirement today, calls for the improvement of employee well-being emerged in 1878.
While some shirtwaist companies adopted moderate reforms to improve employee safety, Triangle Shirtwaist Company did not adopt any recommendations of the kind (Council for Economic Education 3). This is why it attracted national attention for the unfair treatment of its workers, after the fire. In this regard, the court found the company’s proprietors guilty of manslaughter (Laye 7). These events show the wider social, political, and economic context that informed the trial.
Although it took a lot of time to develop today’s expansive labor reforms, the outcome of the Triangle Shirtwaist trial changed how American companies operated. This trial helped the American government to realize that worker safety was important. Particularly, it helped societies (people and governments alike) to accept the economic cost of labor reforms.
Indeed, new state and federal guidelines came at a huge economic cost to employers and employees alike. This trial also helped to improve the profile of unions, which gained new members who wanted representation and protection from exploitative factory owners. In fact, it heralded a period when many American employees realized the strength they had in their numbers (especially when negotiating with their employers). Regrettably, despite the lessons learned from the Triangle Shirtwaist trial (and its significance to American history), exploitative companies are still there today.
Undoubtedly, despite the existence of worker safety and minimum pay laws, there will always be desperate employees willing to work for little pay. Therefore, the lessons we could learn from the trial and the prevailing factory conditions of present-day workers teach us that workplace safety is an ongoing and complex issue. Having a long-term solution to the problem requires a careful understanding of the underlying social, economic, and political issues that have prevented the realization of a lasting solution to the problem.
Council for Economic Education. Worker Safety – The Triangle Fire Legacy. 2014. Web.
Lange, Brenda. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, New York, NY: Infobase Publishing, 2009. Print.
Laye, Adam. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: Is anyone to be punished for this? 2014. Web.
Linder, Doug. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Trial. 2002. Web.
Marsico, Katie. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: Its Legacy of Labor Rights, New York, NY: Marshall Cavendish, 2009. Print.
Von-Drehle, David. Triangle: The Fire that Changed America, New York, NY: Grove Press, 2004. Print.