The Triangle Shirtwaist fire

One hundred years ago Friday, a terrible tragedy occurred: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. It was, like the 1968 Farmington mine disaster that killed 78 miners, a defining moment in labor history that forced the nation to confront and change working conditions that should have been recognized as unacceptable long before.

One-hundred-and-forty-six people died in that awful fire, most of them young women. Some plummeted to their deaths from nine floors up; it was their only escape from the flames and smoke because most exits had been locked to prevent thefts.

Fire regulations, such as there were, were largely ignored, as were laws prohibiting locks on exit doors.

The tragedy galvanized union organizing and the creation of more stringent workplace safety regulations.

Too often in America’s history, it has taken such events to prompt necessary changes. The Farmington disaster, for instance, led to the passage of the federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act and the creation of the Mine Safety and Health Administration. More recently, the Upper Big Branch disaster killed 29 miners and highlighted the fact that too many safety regulations were being ignored or under-enforced.

Such events are important to keep in mind as some belittle the need for regulation. These laws were always put in place for a reason, and usually only after the blood of many innocents had made the need for them tragically and unequivocally clear.

Update: The Washington Post’s Harold Meyerson has a very good column marking the anniversary.

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