Bangladesh, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and Gov. LePage

From my History in Politics series:

Not many Americans could point out Bangladesh on a world map. Fewer still know that it was once a part of Pakistan and was called East Bengal, or that it is separated from Pakistan by 1,500 miles of intervening India. Its main reputation in the U.S. is that it is a place where clothes are made cheaply and find numerous buyers here. Lately, though, the textile industry in Bangladesh has suffered several serious disasters, culminating in the deaths of workers who were turning out those products.

The most serious disaster was the Rana Plaza collapse on April 24, 2013 of an eight story commercial building. The fatalities reached a horrendous toll of 1,127, mostly of garment workers who were ordered to work on the premises after warnings had been issued because of cracks discovered in the structure. Thus, “the deadliest garment factory accident in history” took place . More than twice as many people – 2,500 – were injured.

Owned by Sohel Rana, who had connections to the Bangladesh government’s ruling party, the complex had been designed for shops and offices, not heavy machinery whose vibrations were shaking the poorly built foundations. Workers who refused to come back to their jobs after the lower floors had been evacuated were threatened with losing a month’s pay if they stayed out.

Only the ground floor was left intact. The facilities at Rana Plaza manufactured for noted brand names like Benetton, Bonnemarche, Calvin Klein, J.C. Penney and Walmart.

Other textile industry disasters in the Asian country, particularly fires, have taken lesser numbers of lives such as in Baldia town, Karachi, where “Ali Enterprise” employed between 1,200 to 1,500 workers. The inferno there killed 289 persons through smoke inhalation, burns and stampede. At Tazreem Fashions garment factory, 112 employees were killed. The metal gates that hemmed in the work force were locked and the blaze, it was discovered, started in “an illegal ground floor storage area filled with flammable fabric.”

Coincidentally, that number of 112 was close to the 146 Americans who died 102 years earlier in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of March 23, 1911. – The plant, located on the upper floors of a building in lower New York City near Greenwich Village, produced a fashionable type of women’s blouses.

It remains to be seen what will happen in Bangladesh after the current furor dies down. But in the U.S., the trauma of the Triangle deaths led eventually to a wholesale revamping of worker treatment. It could be said that the victims, primarily young female Italian immigrants and newly arrived Jewish girls from Eastern Europe, had not died in vain.

The same deadly conditions existed in what was then the largest garment factory in New York City. Exits were barred, fire escapes blocked or unsafe, and only elevators could bring down the panicked young women until they malfunctioned because of the heat. New Yorkers were consequently exposed to the horrifying spectacle of these females and a few males jumping to their deaths from the upper stories and hitting the sidewalks below.

One person who was a witness to the tragedy was a social worker in the city named Frances Perkins. She came from an old Yankee family long settled in Maine, although she had grown up in Massachusetts, attended Mount Holyoke College and at this period was working for a Factory Investigation Committee in Manhattan.

Interrupting the tea she was having with a friend in nearby Washington Square, Frances Perkins rushed to the scene and looked up to see the falling bodies.

Her lifetime crusade for worker safety and humane social conditions in the U.S. had already begun but galvanized her efforts after the scandal of the Triangle fire. It led to a career that thrust her into the limelight as the first woman ever appointed by a U.S. President as a Cabinet member – Commissioner of Labor – where her successes against heavy odds were amazing. Called the “Mother of Social Security,” she left the nation its most popular and useful government program. Also, she helped guarantee that the working people of the United States would be treated fairly and paid their worth.

How many lives did Frances Perkins save? No doubt, countless. And despite the immediate menace of employers who maltreat their workers with impunity – getting off scot free like the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, two individuals named Blanck and Harris – who were acquitted of first and second degree manslaughter, lies the record of steady improvements in salaries paid and working conditions ameliorated that has propelled the U.S. economy to heights of excellence never hitherto dreamt of in world history.

To be sure, the forces of reaction in American public life have never entirely vanished. Some very wealthy people would welcome a return to Bangladeshi ways of treating employees. Arch right wing governors in States like Wisconsin and Maine have tried to cripple American trade unions. Downeast, Governor Paul Le Page even had a mural that included Frances Perkins’s portrait removed from the Maine Department of Labor building. If men like these had their way, bargaining rights would be denied or revoked where they exist, wages would approach starvation level, taxes would only be imposed on the poor and middle class but not the one percent who hoard their money overseas and refuse to invest in America. This is the nirvana that the Triangle owners Blanck and Harris enjoyed and that the Bangladeshi entrepreneurs will try to maintain even after all this loss of life. It is the future that the billionaire Koch brothers and others would love to impose on the United States.

We must all pledge not to become a Bangladesh once again.

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