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Triangle Shirtwaist Co. Factory Fire’s Legacy Under Threat

March 28, 2011

100 Years after the Triangle Shirt Factory, we’ve come a long way in worker safety.  But we’re still not there.

Taken from the Huffington Post, 3/25 / Written by: Andrea Stone and Marcus Baram

“We have been legislated to death.” – James T. Hoyle, Secretary of the Manufacturers’ Association, explaining his opposition to new laws proposed in the wake of the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. factory fire, May 19, 1914

“The regulations are killing us” – Congressional candidate George Pendergrass during the Nevada Republican primary, May 12, 2010.

r-TRIANGLE-FIRE-large570Susan Harris’s voice grows hoarse with emotion when she discusses last year’s BP oil spill and the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, two of the biggest industrial accidents in the nation’s history. But the 62-year-old artist from Los Angeles gets even more passionate expressing her disappointment that the two incidents have not prompted more safety rules, instead lost amid a backlash against government regulations to protect worker safety and health.

“How do people become so hard? It’s disgusting,” she says. “What are our priorities as a country? It’s really ironic that this is happening right now on the anniversary of the fire.”

Harris is referring to Friday’s 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, in which 146 workers, mainly young immigrant women, were burned to death or jumped to their deaths. The workplace tragedy, which was caused by dramatically unsafe conditions and blocked exits, inspired dozens of reforms, later helping pave the way for the New Deal, and invigorated the union movement.

That tragedy has a special poignancy for Harris — her grandfather, Max Blanck, was the owner of the factory and was tried for manslaughter due to the unsafe conditions, which included a locked door that trapped dozens of young seamstresses in the burning ninth-floor room of the Asch building.

Haunted by the tragedy, Harris recalls how she did not even find out about her family’s legacy until she was a young teenager and stumbled across her grandfather’s name in a book — the family changed its name slightly in the wake of the accident. “It has affected me deeply. As I grew up, I reflected more on what was going on in my world,” says Harris, who has met with relatives of victims and created an art exhibit to honor the victims’ memories. “I definitely became more sensitive to workplace conditions — when I see and hear about young women working in sweatshops in Bangladesh, females who are raped on their way out of work, it has an effect on me. Look at what is happening today — people are trying to deregulate all these important workplace protections at an exponential rate.”

Harris is referring to an assault that has only grown in the first few months of the Republican-led House of Representatives. The GOP’s budget proposal includes slashing $99 million from the Occupational and Safety Health Administration, a 40 percent reduction in the budget of the federal agency most responsible for making sure the nation’s workplaces are safe — Democrats claim that translates into 8,000 fewer workplace hazard inspections and 740 fewer whistleblower discrimination probes.

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