The Triangle Shirtwaist fire, 100 years ago today

THE TRIANGLE SHIRTWAIST FIRE, 100 YEARS AGO TODAY…. Republican policymakers have traditionally opposed unions and worker rights, but the anti-labor crusade that’s underway is striking in its aggressiveness and broad scope. The basics of American worker rights — concepts like collective bargaining and prohibitions on child labor — are suddenly under fire from a radicalized GOP that has lost all sense of limits.

With that in mind, it’s important to reflect on the Triangle Shirtwaist that occurred exactly 100 years ago today. Harold Meyerson’s column this week offered a timely reminder.

The seamstresses were just getting off work that Saturday, some of them singing a new popular song, “Every Little Movement (Has a Meaning of Its Own),” when they heard shouts from the eighth floor just below. They saw smoke outside the windows, and then fire. As David Von Drehle recounts the ensuing catastrophe, in his award-winning book “Triangle,” just a couple minutes later the ninth floor was fully ablaze.

The fire engines that rushed to the scene did not have ladders that reached to the ninth floor. The fire escape — which didn’t reach all the way to the street anyway — was not built to accommodate more than a few people and soon collapsed. The stairwell that led to the roof was already burning, and after a few minutes was consumed by flames. The other stairwell led down to the street, but the door was padlocked from the outside so that the men and women who worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company would be compelled to use just the one stairwell or the two elevators to exit, lest any of them elude inspection and make off with leftover scraps of cloth.

The elevator operators made runs up to the ninth floor several times before their cables stopped working, and before desperate sewers sought to escape by jumping down one of the elevator shafts, hoping to find a softer landing atop the descending elevator than on the sidewalk nine stories down.

But many, facing the choice of death by fire or death by impact on the city streets, chose the latter and leapt. Down they came, some already engulfed in flame — first a few, then a torrent, before the horrified crowd that had gathered by the building, which was just off Washington Square in the heart of New York’s Greenwich Village.

When it was over, 146 people had either died by fire or jumped to their deaths. Most were young women, almost entirely Jewish or Italian immigrants, many still in their teens, one just 14.

Fortunately, we haven’t seen many tragedies like this in modern America, but our fortitude is not the result of luck. There was a movement — you may have heard of it; we call it the labor movement — that fought hard to change the conditions that led to the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. We take it for granted today — just like we tend to forget that unions brought us weekends, 40-hour work weeks, and sick leave — but workplace health and safety regulations weren’t part of our daily lives 100 years ago. On the contrary, men, women, and sometimes children were at great personal risk just going to earn a living every day.

At the time, there were voices on the right decrying “big government” for trying to impose burdensome regulations on private enterprise, wondering why the free market couldn’t just be left alone to work its magic. They tried to break up organizers, and sent thugs to commit acts of violence against those who would try to create workplace safety standards. Republicans of the era said efforts to protect workers would “wipe out” whole industries and cause economic calamity.

Those voices were wrong, as the tragedy in New York a century ago today helped prove. In time, Democrats and unions worked together to create worker rights that wouldn’t otherwise exist. The country was safer and stronger as a result.

In 2011, unfortunately, these fights continue. Indeed, in the wake of right-wing gains in the midterms, the efforts to turn the clock are suddenly being fought with a reactionary zeal we haven’t seen in a long while.

With the 146 victims from the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in mind, here’s hoping today’s right loses this round, too.