Lessons of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

This past Sunday marked the 101st anniversary of the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory. This incident had, before the September 11th terror attack on the World Trade Center, the dubious distinction of being the worst fire-related workplace disaster in New York City history. The level of qualification present is an important element of its description, as there have been worse incidents of loss of life, in New York City, in fires, and in labor disasters generally. Despite this, the Triangle fire holds an iconic place in the history of labor relations and progressive politics.

In the standard narrative, the Triangle fire was the result of the unsafe working conditions and inhumane policies maintained at workplaces in the heyday of laissez-faire capitalism in the United States. The tragedy of its hundreds of deaths started a reform movement in government to create workplace safety regulations with teeth, resulting in the relatively safe working conditions we enjoy today. More complete treatments mention the strikes and protests by the labor movement leading up to the fire, and Tammany Hall’s obstructions and corruption. What comes out of this narrative is the clear message that the Triangle fire is why we have workplace safety regulations and that the government is exercising proper authority in enforcing them.

It is thus a cornerstone of the American liberal stance favoring state intervention, a stance which only makes sense in context of the American conception of an antagonistic political divide between government and private industry. It is used as a “teaching moment” in political discourse, an origin story for the state regulatory apparatus. In this, the standard narrative obscures the picture of how capitalism and the state interacted in the lead-up to the Triangle fire, and the role of mass action and organized labor. A fuller understanding of the meaning of the Triangle fire in both history and politics can only come from looking at it in the context of mass action and public outcry for reform. Moreover, contrasting the Triangle fire with other, similar disasters which have not become historical icons reveals the importance of that context: it turned the Triangle fire into a “spectacle of justice.” This term denotes a process by which public understanding of an event is heightened through a dramatic spectacle, which plays out in the public theater of mass protest actions and criminal trials, surrounding a claim of societal injury which must be rectified. In other words, what is it critical to understand about the Triangle fire is how prior mass action against the conditions that made the fire possible “set the stage” on which the fire became a highly visible offense against society, inciting mass public outrage and desire for change, which in turn forced or enticed power elites to create a just outcome in order to quell the public’s anger, a success which those power elites appropriated. Continue reading

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