Leon Stein wrote The Triangle Fire in 1962. Stein, who died in 1990 was the editor of Justice, the official publication of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.
The Triangle Fire recounts the horrific story of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire, when 123 young women and 23 men died in a New York sweatshop that had locked doors and utterly inadequate escape routes. This is a very timely book. This kind of tragedy is what happens when employers of defenseless and desperate poor women ignore fire laws (which weren’t all that great anyway) and lock their employees into their workplace, just to maintain complete control and perhaps make a few more dollars. While industrial accidents are scarcely unknown in this country, they happen regularly and often on a much larger scale in third world countries where so many of our clothes, electronics and other consumer goods are made. (William Greider’s excellent introduction to The Triangle Fire does an excellent job of recounting some of these more recent tragedies.)
Stronger unions, better fire laws and arguably better fire enforcement all ensued after the Triangle Fire, but the fire didn’t need to happen and all those workers certainly didn’t need to die. Ironically, Stein writes that because of the way the owners were permitted to overinsure their buildings, they may well have profited from the fire. The sad fact remains that 146 immigrant women, mostly Jewish and Italians, were killed — many of them by jumping out the windows of the sweatshop to avoid being burned to death.
This book is a strong reminder that workers need protection from their bosses, who cannot be relied upon to put safety first. Safety regulations, effective enforcement and constant vigilance are required to prevent industrial tragedies. Unfortunately the strong anti-government, anti-regulatory fervor that has gripped Washington doesn’t bode well for protecting our workers, and this country’s current leadership has given no indication whatsoever that it cares about the safety of American workers, much less the safety of third world workers who make so many of our products. To the contrary, the focus seems to be on freeing the rich of all those nasty curbs on their freedom to get richer on the backs of everyone else.
This is a relatively short and very clear book. I recommend it because it tells an important story about one of this country’s most disastrous industrial tragedies and because it reminds us how vulnerable this country’s workers still are.