After the fire, many city officials acknowledged there was a problem. Edward F. Croker, New York City’s retired fire chief, told the Commission that employers “pay absolutely no attention to the fire hazard or to the protection of the employees in these buildings. That is their last consideration.” His department had cited the Triangle building for lack of fire escapes just one week before the fire.
But the garment manufacturers, the Real Estate Board, and the bakery and cannery industry groups sought to stymie the Commission. The real-estate interests opposed city fire codes. After the Fire Department ordered warehouses to install sprinklers, the Protective League of Property Owners held a meeting to denounce the mandate, angrily charging the city with forcing owners to use “cumbersome and costly” equipment.
As representative of the Associated Industries of New York insisted that regulations would mean “the wiping out of industry in this state.” Mabel Clark, vice president of the W.N. Clark Company, a canning corporation, opposed any restrictions on child labor. “I have seen children working in factories, and I have seen them working at home, and they were perfectly happy,” she declared.
Terence McGuire, president of the Real Estate Board, summed up the business argument against regulation. “To my mind this is all wrong,” he declared. “The experience of the past proves conclusively that the best government is the least possible government.” The board warned that new laws would drive “manufacturers out of the City and State of New York.”
Smith, Wagner, and the political leaders of the time, fortified by a vibrant progressive movement, ignored these opponents of business regulation. In the first year, the Commission proposed and the legislature quickly passed a package of laws requiring mandatory fire drills, automatic sprinklers, and unlocked doors during work hours that were required to swing outward. They also created rules on the storage and disposal of flammable waste, and they banned smoking from the shop floor.
In the second year, the legislature passed additional reforms. They set the maximum numbers of workers per floor. They established codes requiring new buildings to include fireproof stairways and fire escapes. They required employers to provide clean drinking water, washrooms and toilets for their employees. They gave labor commission inspectors the power to shut down unsanitary tenement sweatshops. And they ruled that women could work no more than 54 hours a week and that children under 18 could not work in dangerous situations.
These pathbreaking state regulations, provoked by the Triangle fire, proved that government could play a powerful role in the lives of ordinary people. Other states followed suit, and ultimately President Franklin Roosevelt, prodded by Perkins, Wagner, and other veterans of New York’s progressive movement, introduced New Deal reforms ending child labor, establishing a federal minimum wage and a 40-hour week, and creating a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that would establish the right of workers to form a union that would bargain collectively with employers.
The Triangle company’s owners were indicted and went on trial for manslaughter, but they were found innocent when the judge told the jury that in order to return a guilty verdict, they had to find that the two defendants knew or should have known that the doors were locked. Harris and Blanck also continued to refuse to recognize the union. But the company never recovered from the fire and the controversy surrounding it, and in 1918, it closed its doors.
That didn’t happen to other city businesses. Contrary to the business leaders’ dire predictions, they did not suffer from the new regulations. The New York Times reported in July 1914, that, “[n]otwithstanding all the talk of a probable exodus of manufacturing interests, the commission has not found a single case of a manufacturer intending to leave the State because of the enforcement of the factory laws.” New York’s Seventh Avenue remained the headquarters of the nation’s garment industry for decades until production gradually moved south and overseas after World War II.
Ironically, 100 years after the Triangle fire, we still hear much of the same rhetoric whenever reformers seek to use government to businesses act more responsibly and protect consumers, workers, and the environment. For example, the disasters last year that killed 29 miners at Upper Big Branch and eleven oil rig workers in the Gulf could have been avoided had lawmakers resisted lobbying by mine owners and BP to weaken safety regulations.
Today, the leading foe of reform is the United States Chamber of Commerce, which is on a crusade against the Obama administration’s plans to set new rules on unsafe workplaces, industrial hazards and threats to public health. The Chamber labels every effort at reform a “job killer.” The Chamber’s most vocal proponent is Darrell Issa, the conservative California Republican who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. At the request of the Chamber and other industry lobbies, Issa recently launched a congressional assault on safeguards in workplaces and communities.
In January, Issa sent letters to more than 170 companies and business lobby groups–including Duke Energy, FMC Corp., Toyota, Bayer, the American Petroleum Institute, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Association of American Railroads, the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, and lobbies representing health care, banking, and telecommunication providers–asking them to identify “burdensome government regulations” that they want eliminated.
The business groups responded with a long wish list, including rules to control “combustible dust” that has resulted in explosions killing workers; rules to track musculoskelal disorders, such as tendonitis, carpal tunnel, or back injuries, that impact millions of workers at keyboards, in construction, or in meat processing; and rules to address workplace noise that leads to hearing loss. And Republicans listened. They are proposing to cut OSHA’s budget by 20 percent, which, coming on top of decades of cuts, would cripple an agency that has been effective at significantly reducing workplace injuries and deaths.
The Republican leadership is trying to drive home the message, in Speaker John Boehner’s words, that “excessive regulation costs jobs” and that the “path to prosperity” is by “getting government out of the way.” Americans of earlier generations–who enjoyed the benefits of the Progressive Era and the New Deal reforms, and the political clout of a vibrant labor movement–understood this was nonsense, but it seems like the lessons of the past have to be relearned again. That’s why it is important to recall the sordid circumstances in which 146 young women lost their lives at the Triangle Waist Company a century ago.
Peter Dreier and Donald Cohen
Peter Dreier teaches politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His next book, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century, will be published later this year by Nation Books. Donald Cohen directs the Cry Wolf Project.
Originally published in The New Republic.
Republished with permission.