Out of Sight: The Long and Disturbing Story of Corporations Outsourcing Catastrophe

by Erik Loomis

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“Now capital has wings . . . capital can deal with twenty labor markets at once and pick and choose among them. Labor is fixed in one place. So power has shifted.”

—Robert Johnson, New York financier, circa 1993

On the morning of March 25, 1911, around five hundred workers started another day at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York City, as they did six days a week. Mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women, the workers could not have guessed that many of them would die that afternoon. Max Blanck and Isaac Harris owned the factory, making shirtwaists—a popular garment for women of the era—on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the Asch Building, just off Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. Like other apparel manufacturers, Blanck and Harris did not market clothing. Instead, they took orders from designers and department stores under contracts that allowed sellers maximum flexibility in a rapidly changing fashion world without responsibility for the workers. So long as Blanck and Harris made the clothes for the agreed cost, the stores asked no questions.

Clothing sweatshops could burst in flame at any time. Bosses crammed workers into tiny spaces and piled flammable cloth around them. The factories were hot and the air filled with fibers. Blanck and Harris had ordered the fire exits locked so that workers’ bags could undergo inspection for stolen cloth before they left. At about 4:40 p.m., just before the workers were to depart into the sunny afternoon, a fire started on the eighth floor, probably from a cigarette or match dropped in a scrap bin. When the fire started, workers on the eighth floor called up to the tenth to alert the bosses. Almost all workers from the eighth and tenth floors escaped. However, the ninth floor had no working telephone, and no one got the word to flee. By the time workers realized that smoke was rising from the floor below it was too late. Some workers escaped on the elevator before it became too hot to operate. Others got out via a fire escape, but it collapsed under the weight of the fleeing women. The fire department’s ladders were useless, since they reached only the sixth floor. More than one hundred young women were stuck on the ninth floor and faced the grim choice of burning to death or jumping. Many workers jumped, landing on the street below with a sickening thud. Others were burned beyond recognition. One hundred forty-six workers died that day. The Triangle Fire was the deadliest factory disaster in American history.

We think we remember Triangle today for the unique horror of its massive death count. But in fact we remember it because it spawned national outrage that led to long-term change in workplace safety. The fire itself was not an aberration for the time. Millions of American workers in the early twentieth century risked their lives daily by going to work. Coal miners died by the thousands from mine explosions and cave-ins. The Cherry Mine fire in Illinois in 1909 killed 259 workers. The Darr Mine explosion in Pennsylvania in 1907 killed 239. Meatpackers perished from electrocutions, meat hooks knocking them in the head, and tuberculosis. Falling trees crushed loggers, and timber mill workers lost limbs and lives after getting caught in saws and machines. Just a few months before the Triangle Fire, on November 26, 1910, a textile factory in Newark, New Jersey, caught fire and killed twenty-six workers. Each incident made newspaper headlines, but none of these disasters spawned national outrage or long-term change. Today, we have almost forgotten all of these earlier incidents.

What made Triangle stand out from all the other disasters of the time was its visibility. As the tragedy unfolded, a crowd watched from Washington Square Park—a fashionable area of New York City. Among the witnesses was Frances Perkins. At the time, Perkins was a thirty-year-old recent graduate of Columbia University and secretary of the National Consumers League, an organization of largely wealthy female reformers led by Florence Kelley, demanding manufacturers produce products in safe factories and without employing child labor. Before coming to New York, she volunteered for five years at Hull House in Chicago, where Jane Addams and other settlement house workers provided a space for social reform and community services to the immigrant poor. Deciding on social work as her career, Perkins had moved to New York to obtain a master’s degree.

Seeing smoke, Perkins rushed to the scene. More than fifty years later, she remembered, “Every one of them was killed, everybody who jumped was killed. It was a horrifying spectacle. We had our dose of it that night and felt as though we had been part of it all. The next day people, as they heard about it in all parts of the city, they began to mull around and gather and talk.” Seeing these deaths reinforced Perkins’s anger over the terrible working conditions of American factories that led to the Triangle disaster. She helped create the New York Factory Investigating Commission in June 1911, which had the power to document and regulate working conditions throughout New York. Within a year of its founding, the commission drew up eight bills that became law, including one that mandated automatic sprinklers and another that forced factories to register with the state for regular inspections. Perkins became one of the nation’s most powerful advocates for working Americans. She served as the nation’s first female cabinet secretary when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt named her secretary of labor in 1933. During her twelve years in the cabinet, she oversaw the implementation of the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act, leading to the greatest expansion of unionization in American history.

Before the Triangle Shirtwaist workers died that Saturday afternoon, New York textile workers had done all they could to make their struggles and dangerous working conditions known to the general public. In 1909, they walked off the job, led by a young Jewish immigrant worker named Clara Lemlich. In what became known as the Uprising of the 20,000, they struck for safer working conditions, shorter hours, and higher pay. One of the major targets of the strike was the Triangle factory. The employers hired prostitutes to pick fights with them in the streets, and police arrested and beat the workers. Lemlich suffered broken ribs from a police truncheon. Their struggle won the workers sympathy from wealthy female reformers interested in the plight of women workers, including Frances Perkins and Anne Morgan, daughter of the capitalist J.P. Morgan. The strike achieved limited gains, but poverty forced the strikers back to work after eleven weeks, without having won the safety improvements that would have prevented the Triangle Fire.

Nothing spurred meaningful reform until wealthy and powerful New Yorkers saw workers die. Before the fire, they could easily walk past the Asch Building and be ignorant of what went on inside. They could read about coal mine fires in Illinois, but the deaths of poor people in distant places did not spur them to action. But when Perkins and others saw for themselves the people who made the clothes die fiery deaths, they felt moral outrage. Thus began a process by which American factories slowly became safer places to work during the twentieth century.

Fifty-eight years later, in 1969, public outrage over corporate behavior again revolved around disturbing images that flashed before Americans’ eyes. Two events that year changed Americans’ views on how industry should treat the environment. First, on January 28, the largest oil spill to that point in American history took place off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, when a well blew out on an oil platform owned by Union Oil. Up to one hundred thousand barrels spilled. People watching their evening news saw sea lions and birds covered in oil, dead fish and marine wildlife, and a paradise spoiled.

The oil industry had long played a controversial role in Southern California. As the state’s beaches became a national attraction in the early twentieth century, tourists and developers protested the oil industry’s presence in that beautiful part of the country. Beachgoers in the 1920s found themselves between the picturesque Pacific and a sea of oil derricks on land. Local residents, led by oil workers’ unions, demanded the industry maintain the character of their towns and beaches. The oil workers’ unions held beach cleanups, advocated for drilling limits, and wanted their towns free of the filth of oil pollution, even though they depended on oil for their livelihoods. By the 1960s, much of the production had moved offshore, but oil derricks and refineries remained a major feature of the Southern California landscape.

Copyright © 2015 by Erik Loomis. This excerpt originally appeared in Out of Sight, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

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