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Triangle Fire: Burning into the Conscience of the United States
During the early 20th century, there was a great surge of immigrants in search of the American Dream in the United States, which promised the opportunity to pursue economic success and personal liberty. Rather than being welcomed by beautiful, comfortable homes and streets paved with gold as they dreamed of moving to America, small and ill-conditioned tenements located in the Lower East Side of New York City and fast-paced jobs with demoralizing working conditions for meager pay welcomed them instead. Immigrants had come to understand that the American Dream depended on their willingness to work, even if it would cost them their life. However, one of the deadliest industrial crises took place on March 25th, 1911. A fire broke in Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in downtown Manhattan burning 146 individuals, mostly immigrant women, teenagers even, into ashes, and burning a hole into the conscience of America because it could have been prevented. Although these immigrant workers would do anything for these jobs, these workers demanded more labor rights and improved the working conditions for Americans through a massive strike called Uprising of the 20,000 because of successfully changing the public opinion on meager pay and hours, lack of personal space and safety measures, and ill-treatment by their employers in the workplace.
The Uprising of the 20,000 was a strike that emerged as a result of the demoralizing working conditions. The prevalent business competition in the early 20th century caused factories to operate at breakneck speed with little to no government regulations due to laissez-fair, a policy which claimed that the economic system should be free from government intervention. Thus, it prevented the government from ensuring the factory workers’ safety and well being. The employers freely did what they wanted, which was to have continuous manufacturing to get as much cloth turned into a product at the lowest possible price, regardless of the well-being of their employees because according to Rose Schneiderman, a prominent union leader, there were a vast amount of employees for one job that it did not matter much if these workers were burned to death because in the eyes of the employers, these immigrants were dispensable in a snap of a finger (Argersinger 105). According to Clara Lemlich, the leader of the Uprising of 20,000, many workers worked for seven days straight and for long hours, from seven in the morning to eight in the evening for meager pay with only a half-hour break to rest and eat (Argersinger 56). The workers in the factory earned three to seven dollars per week at most depending on the work that they do. Moreover, they get charged about two dollars whenever a cloth had been damaged and when there was a low demand for clothes. These deducted wages posed limitations on what the workers could afford; the workers ate dry cakes for weeks (Argersinger 56). Since they never had enough money to purchase new clothes and hats, they took worn-out clothes from women who earned six to seven dollars a week. Also, the factory did not provide a safe and comfortable environment for its workers as working stations were described as crowded. The women and young girls had to hang their belongings on hooks along the walls rather than having their own lockers (Argersinger 56). The owners fit hundreds of workers on each floor. It was arranged in a way that every possible space on the floor was occupied by a machine, hardly leaving elbow room or personal space for workers. No necessary safety precautions were implemented because the law did not require them; it was an option. Therefore, there were no fire drills, no plans, and even sprinklers in the factories; it was a man-made disaster waiting to happen. Other than their bosses deducting their salaries without disclosing the reasons why they did so, their bosses also treated them poorly. The women were viewed as part of the machines producing clothing because the employers did not treat them with respect as they used offensive language to talk to their workers and were yelled at and even called them names every day (Argersinger 56). At the end of the day, employees were searched like thieves. They were searched for stolen cloth and other materials from the factory (Argersinger 11). These conditions resulted in a hostile working environment for immigrant workers because they should have felt secure and respected in the workplace. Fortunately, the relationship between the workers and the public was not only different but better. The uprising of the 20,000 was the first large strike of women in the country, mainly teenage immigrants many of whom did not speak English. They demanded change by wanting to reform labor laws and alongside them were middle class and upper-class women supporters, which attracted widespread attention. They fought for the rights that should have been given to them in the first place: the right to be free from any type of harassment in the workplace, the right to fair wages and hours, and the right to a safe workplace free from potential safety hazards. Due to this, the state of New York was forced to pass new laws that guarantee workers’ safety. Although these new laws were too late for those who perished from the fire, it improved America’s working conditions overall. The documents suggest that workers are humans, they should be working in a place where they are safe in cases of emergency or accidents and the workers should be able to enjoy the fruits of their hard labor. It improved the public’s perspective on working conditions and strengthened unions. It made people realize that many do not take caution of horrible conditions unless a great disaster, like the Triangle Fire, happens.
The Triangle Fire on March 25th, 1911 was one of the deadliest industrial catastrophes in the history of the United States of America as numerous lives were taken and thousands of women mourn for the victims of the fire. On a larger scale, it served as a cautionary tale, which redefined the American industrial workplace because it made people realize the significance of working conditions. In the end, it encouraged fire prevention and inspired state and national safety codes to become more of a routine to prevent this disaster from happening ever again.
- Argersinger, Jo Ann E. The Triangle Fire: a Brief History with Documents. Bedford/St Martins, 2016.
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