America at the turn of the twentieth century was experiencing a tremendous influx of immigrants, mostly from impoverished parts of Central, Eastern and Southern Europe. Large proportion of the immigrants comprised of young Jews were escaping the political tensions and religious intolerance in their native countries, many of them saving their bare lives in pogroms. However, they were seen as economic immigrants rather than political refugees. New York was one of the most popular destinations of the consecutive waves of immigration which impacted the social, political, cultural and economical situation of the city. With every boat full of young, mostly healthy adults and teenagers desperate for any jobs, the employers were gaining cheap work force prepared to work longer and harder then the employees before them. Therefore, the workers were not in a position to demand adequate working conditions, sufficient salaries, limited hours or any sorts of benefits, which in turn empowered and enriched the employees whose businesses were prospering and expanding at a very fast rate. Contrastingly, New York also experienced another sort of growth, that of impoverished areas such as Lower East Side where the sweatshop and factory workers lived with their whole families many times in one room with no light or running water. These simplified paradoxes defined and characterized the Progressive Era and subsequently the reformist era.
The immigrants were negatively affected by unsanitary, cramped living, unsafe environment at work, long hours, minimal wages, language and cultural barriers, lack of health care, education and opportunities for personal development of any kind. Despite the pressing need for improvement on social and cultural level, the leaders of the Tammany Hall did not seek any constructive, long term solutions possibly because of the satisfaction with economic prosperity of the country in general and the city in particular. There were numerous attempts of the workers to gain power by organizing themselves into unions, but their possibilities were very limited due to the disequilibrium of the labor market characterized by high demands for jobs and virtually no demands for unskilled work force.
Perhaps the culminating point of the general discontent with the exploitation of workers in America was the tragedy in March 25th 1911 when 146 people died as a result of the poor working conditions. Most of the victims were young women and teenager immigrant workers employed by the Triangle Shirtwaist Company that resided at the eight, ninth and tenth floor of the Asch Building in Greenwich Village. The factory owners, immigrants themselves, Blanck and Harris not only failed to provide adequate safety conditions, but their policies and precautions proved to be detrimental in case of an emergency situation as was the fire on the March afternoon. The fire started on the eighth floor and with the aid of the highly flammable garments spread to the tenth floor in a very short time trapping dozens of workers in the building. Furthermore, in order to prevent thefts from the building, all doors except for one were kept locked at all times forcing the workers to evacuate via fire escape, elevator and only one staircase. Consequently, the elevators stopped working, the staircase collapsed under the excessive pressure of too many bodies followed by the collapse of the fire escape that had proved to be useless anyway because it ended in midair at the third floor. This dreadful tragedy claimed the lives of almost 150 people, but its aftermath possibly saved and improved lives of thousands of workers meaning that the victims did not die in vain. The public was enraged by the circumstances of the catastrophe and by the verdict of not guilty for the factory owners in a subsequent trial. As a result of the increasing pressure on the policy makers that now combined the effort of both workers and the affluent members of the community, several important social reforms took place. The New York State Factory Investigation Committee was in charge of inspecting and reporting poor working conditions and unacceptable treatment of the workers. Furthermore, the Democratic representatives in Tammany Hall changed their anti-reformist postures and began to play an instrumental role in passing new legislation to ensure and protect the rights of the workers. Moreover, the ideas of socialism started to resonate between the workers and the number and extent of strikes and picketing increased abruptly.
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Triangle: Fire that changed America
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