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1912 Labor Laws

The absurd extent that some laws went to to benefit the factory owners over the employees can be demonstrated by a single provision of the Labor Law, regarding the permitted number of people on a floor in regard to space. The air space provision simply states that there must be a minimum of 250 cubic feet of air space per person. In perspective, the floors are usually at least 10 feet high, so a room may comply with the legal requirement, while completely not improving the congestion on the floor.

This law ignores floor area, which makes an extremely overcrowded reality completely legal, and common. Samuel Gompers, President of the American Federation of Labor and a member of the Factory Investigative Commission, effectively stated that the employees were packed like “close-herded cattle” and at work “were locked in like penitentiary prisoners. ” These factory environments and the negligence by their owners were not uncommon by any means, and it was apparent that the majority of the public accepted these conditions until 1911.

The frequency of owners taking advantage of the desperate immigrant workers, most of them not knowing English or their rights, was common and public. The prevalence of factory fires with no real change in laws or conditions was widespread. Gompers captured the change in public opinion in his famous cohesive statement: ‘“It is true, that at times the community conscience requires a shock to arouse public activity, to secure changes and improvements and reforms. The fire of a few months ago… gave an impetus to corrective legislation, as perhaps no one other thing could have done… To win these reforms, women had to burn. ’

Only after the horrific death of 146 primarily young immigrant women, were changes to these conditions demanded and the public began to embrace factory reform. For example, in response to the increased activism the political leaders of Tammany Hall of New York, Smith and Wagner, were forced to alter their position on reform. Eventually, leaders of both parties started embracing factory and industrial reform, and were now supporting Newman, Lemlich, and Schneiderman, whom they were once fighting against with strikebreakers.

Quickly after the fire, the Fire Prevention Bureau was established in New York. The conditions of factories also improved dramatically after the Fire, mostly due to the immediate establishment of the Factory Investigating Commission on June 30, 1911 by Governor Dix, which sparked the reform movement. In its four year lifetime, the Commission gathered an abundance of information that directly lead to the creation of laws in response to the overwhelming health violations that were discovered.

As the years passed and more laws were created, the Triangle Fire’s importance grew because it sparked these in-depth investigations. The Commission gave preliminary reports for four consecutive years, that included recommended bills to the Legislature, many of which were subsequently passed. In 1912, laws were passed in regard to many of the immediate problems, including fire drills and alarms, automatic sprinklers, maternity leave, and fire prevention. In 1913, laws were passed involving fire escapes, exits, elevators, child labor, cleanliness, ventilation, and the size of rooms.

While these were deeper rooted problems, the quick turnaround of legislation in just two years is truly remarkable. These laws marked a new age of labor legislation in New York, placing New York in the lead in the country for protecting wage earners over helping owners. The work and importance of the Commission may be measured by the amount of laws it gave rise to, but it should be most remembered by the change it caused in the public’s eye; to no longer accept these horrendous conditions, simply to benefit the owners.

Although the factory conditions have improved greatly in this country since the Triangle Fire, it is unfortunately not that way still in many other parts of the world; the harsh environment of sweatshops, the unsafe conditions and the frequent occurrences of factory fires are still a reality. As put by Robert Ross, from Clark University, “it’s as if the 1911 conditions had been lifted up by an evil hand and dropped into Bangladesh. ” As specified by the Bangladeshi government’s Fire service and Civil Defense Department, 414 garment workers were killed from 2006-2009 in at least 213 factory fires.

The pattern of the conditions is “disturbingly uniform” with high ceilings, inadequate fire escapes and locked doors. The reason that this is still a reality is because it is simply cheaper for factory owners to violate laws than abide by them, and no matter the amount of labor laws in existence, there will never be enough inspectors to enforce the laws in every single factory. While part of this reality is due to the laws being ignored in the manufacturing countries, such as Bangladesh and China, Ross argues that “part of the blame … also lies with American consumers.

It is necessary to be aware that even a century after “the fire that changed America,” there are still many parts of the world that live in the 1911 reality. In all, it took the Triangle Fire, “the fire that changed America”, for factories to be effectively regulated and the public to be aware and opinionated in regards to the labor environments. Hopefully, conditions will continue to improve in other parts of the world without the need of a horrible, devastating accident.

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