Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: The Triangle Factory Fire and You

What Do Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness have to do with YOU and The Triangle Factory Fire?

Since my wife Nancy is a teacher, on this Independence Day, I mulled over how some teachers might feel like trapped sweatshop workers in the early twentieth century. Was that what we’ve fought for, and what our founding fathers intended?

The Triangle Factory Fire

A fire broke out in the afternoon of March 25, 1911, in the top stories of the Asch Building in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company located in the Lower East Side in New York City. The blaze spread rapidly. Many workers could not escape because the doors had been locked by management to prevent workers from running away on their breaks.

Triangle Factory FireSome workers were killed when they jumped nine stories to the street below, preferring to leap to their deaths than smolder alive. The ninth floor fire escape led nowhere, twisted, and crumpled when factory workers tried to flee. Other workers waited to be rescued at the windows, but the firefighters’ ladders were far too short, and the hoses’ water could not even reach the top floors of the building. The Triangle Factory Fire took the lives of 146 workers. Most of them were young Italian and European Jewish immigrants, even as young as fifteen!

The Triangle Factory Fire  is one of the most horrible tragedies since the Industrial Revolution’s beginnings.  The factory was a typical sweatshop with long hours, woeful pay, and unhygienic working conditions.

Most of the Triangle Factory workers were young immigrant women who had come to the United States for a better, more prosperous life. As immigrants who struggled with language and a new culture, they were ready victims for the exploitation of factory owners.  They did not have a broad choice of workplaces. One factory was as awful as the next.

Sweatshop conditions in the early 1900'sA Triangle Fire survivor, Pauline Newman illustrated this point:

No one in those days could afford the luxory (sic) of changing jobs—there was no unemployment insurance, there was nothing better than to look for another job which will not be better than the one we had…We did not relish the thought of walking the factory district in search of another job. And would we find a better one?…What good would it do to change jobs since similar conditions existed in all garment factories of that era?…One gets used to a place even if it is only a work shop. One gets to know the people you work with. You are no longer a stranger and alone. You have a feeling of belonging which helps to make life in a factory a bit easier to endure. Very often friendships are formed and a common understanding established.

These relationships must have been vital for young new immigrants who had just arrived and had no friends or family in the United States.

After the Triangle Factory Fire…

Triangle Factory Fire

After the fire, the local chapter of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) staged a rally to protest the tragedy. The Womens’ Trade Union League (these women also fought for limiting the workday to 8 hourspromoted a thorough investigation of the fire. Right after the fire, factory owners Isaac Harris and Max Blanck claimed that the building was fireproof. A grand jury indicted Harris and Blanck, charging them with manslaughter in the second degree. They had violated section 80 of the Labor Code, that mandated that during working hours doors should not be locked .

Within a month of the tragedy, the governor of New York created a Factory Investigating Commission, which then passed factory safety legislation.  Although Harris and Blanck were acquitted with the help of cunning defense attorney Max Steuer, twenty-three civil suits were slammed against them. On March 11, 1913, they finally settled and paid $75 per life lost.

That’s a pittance, a tiny slap on the hand for the unnameable price for 146 lives lost- 146 hopes and dreams destroyed in a matter of 18 minutes- gone forever. 

Imagine the horror of being stuck inside that burning factory, unable to escape the locked doors, and smoldering in that terrifying inferno. Some of the Triangle Factory workers had been in the USA a few months, perhaps they didn’t even speak English yet- and others had been here a few years. Cornell University compiled a list of victims, where they were from, and how long they had been in the USA/or where they were born.

What Does the Triangle Factory Fire have to do with you?

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of HappinessIf you’re reading this post, chances are you are not shackled to a sewing machine or locked inside your workplace. Perhaps you’re miserable at your job (or you may love it). In developed countries today we have more options today than EVER, even if it doesn’t always feel like it. Many people forget that- they get stuck in a glum rut, and lock themselves up in the misery of their minds. Or they accept the mediocre status quo and don’t think that they can do anything to improve their lives.

Don’t let your past failures and current circumstances discourage you. You always have hope and a future- and your present situation does NOT determine your future. Your present CHOICES AND ACTIONS will determine your future successes.

If you’re a teacher (or a teacher’s spouse, like me), I know right now  many teachers think they have no options.  They’ve lost their mojo and fear has replaced their creative spark and passion for the profession. Many newer teachers flee education like Triangle Factory Fire workers jumping out of the building, and talented veteran teachers, fed up with the didactic drama- retire early.

School Teacher Salaries Slashed

Teacher SalariesSadly, state legislators shot down a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) that could increase school teacher salaries a tad in Washington state  in line with skyrocketing inflation.   And the Evergreen state isn’t the only state gouging teacher pay.

Nationwide teachers face dramatic salary cuts. Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam increased commissioners’ pay while proposing a demeaning slash in teacher salaries. In Broward County, Florida, some school teachers will see their pay cut by $3,300! (That’s a lot of groceries and a couple of mortgage payments that they’re missing. Sheesh). In the new state budget proposal, North Carolina  may cut supplemental pay  for teachers with Master degrees.  It’s easy for teachers to give up and feel trapped.  It’s painful for me, as a teacher’s husband to see how little teachers are paid–in light with the amount of degrees they hold, their dedication, and ardent professionalism.

BOTTOM LINE: The average teacher salary overall is insultingly low in comparison with other professions which require the same amount of education. In fact, the average teacher salary nationwide is $55,418 with New York at the high end ($73,398) and South Dakota at the low, low end ($38,804).   Between 2001 through 2012, teacher salaries‘ buying power has dropped 2.8%.  


Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

Despite  all the gloom and doom, remember our founding fathers words on the Declaration of Indepedence- you are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”   You may not feel free right now at all. Our nation wasn’t technically free on July 4, 1776- and we weren’t an independent nation until 1783. (For history teachers out there, forgive me if I have the details wrong, and let me know).

It’s time to declare your independence. No, I don’t mean run up and down your school hallways yelling with a giant flag in your hands. I mean it’s time to TAKE BACK your EMOTIONAL and MENTAL independence. Stop being locked in your mind, just like the Triangle Factory fire victims were locked in the sweatshop inferno.

Regardless of how strong your union is, or if you work in a private or public school– the sad fact is that you cannot wait for anyone to rescue you, not your government, not Oprah Winfrey, not Tom Cruise, not Ron Paul, not Matt Damon, not the Gates Foundation, or Jon Stewart. And you don’t have time to wait for the salary scale to increase at a snail’s pace, if at all.

Even if you love your job like my wife loves hers- you’ve got to have a Plan B. Are you making enough to afford the rising costs of groceries? Do you get to travel as much as you’d like, see your friends nationwide as frequently as you’d love to? Is that fun?  Do you get to support the charities you like or volunteer where you want? Do you REALLY think your pension will be enough and waiting for you when you retire? (Nancy has told me of teachers’ retirement getting slashed right and left nationwide).

Whether or not you adore or hate your job– there is hope. No one is LOCKING you in (although I have heard of some schools where the classroom doors lock when the bell rings)—the way to regain your RIGHT to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of happiness—is by finding a supplement (or replacement) to your teacher salary.  It’s not complicated, you don’t have to attend boring faculty meetings, or commute extra hours to a demeaning mall job.

P.S.  Nancy actually did some research on the Triangle Factory Fire for an economics class in graduate school. Most of the information for this post came from this site at Cornell University: It’s actually really interesting- if you’re a social studies or English teacher- it’s a great site for doing a lesson on the Triangle Factory Fire and its impact on the labor code.

P.P.S.  Speaking of Oprah Winfrey and Tom Cruise rescuing you–I love this funny clip from Will Ferrell’s Talledega Nights. Enjoy!~Kevin


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