The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Trial is one of the significant trials in the history of America’s Industrial Revolution. It involved hundreds of factory workers who were exposed to an unsafe work environment and unjustly treated within the criminal justice system. Nevertheless, its aftermath resulted in an overhaul of the legislative and policy framework governing the safety of workers in their work environment and building codes.
On March 25, 1911 a deadly fire struck the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of the Asch building in New York resulting in a death toll of 146 people, 145 of whom were factory workers comprising young women. The investigations revealed that most of the deaths could have been avoided had the factory observed the workplace safety guidelines. For instance, the only usable exit was locked whereas the one open was opened inwards. As a result, most workers on the eighth floor were trapped during the inferno. Accordingly, Harris and Blanck, the co-owners of the factory were indicted on charges of manslaughter by a grand jury.
The issue before the court during the trial was predicated on article 6 of section 80 of New York’s Labor Law. Therefore, the jury had to determine whether or not the death of Margaret Schwartz was due to the fact that the door was locked during the fire incident and whether or not the defendants knew that the door in question was locked. The standard of proof was beyond reasonable doubt, and the jury was so instructed by the judge.
The prosecution sought to prove that the escape door to the ninth floor was locked resulting in the death of Margaret. On the other hand, the defense argued that the fire cut off the usable escape door which was open. The jury eventually found the defendants not guilty. The reasoning behind the verdict was grounded on the fact that the jury did not believe that the defendants knew that the door was locked despite the fact that the jury itself concurred that the door was locked.
This paper criticizes the verdict on the grounds that the jury did not have to find that the defendants knew that the door was locked since the law presumes that the defendants ought to have known that the door was locked.
While sympathizing with the victims and regretting the incident,this paper takes the view that the fire had some positive impacts despite the horrific implications of the tragedy. It formed an impetus for the formation of Factory Investigating Commission which was clothed with unprecedented powers. The Commission was able to investigate over 2000 factories and gave recommendations which prompted the enactment of legislations and formulation of building codes that guaranteed the safety of workers in their workplace both in the State of New York and beyond.
Additionally, invaluable lessons were learned by the New York Fire Department. For instance, the inability of the fire department to put out fires beyond seventh floors of buildings was addressed.
Moreover, it heralded the formation and upsurge of membership into the existing trade unions such as the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) to which the sensitization of workers as to their rights is credited. Most importantly, the movement is credited for lobbying for women voting rights in the country. As a result the working conditions of workers across the country were improved.
In conclusion, the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is a reflection of the irony in beautiful laws on paper and ugly implementation of the said laws. Whereas the tragedy is regrettable, it had significantly positive implications on the rights of workers to healthy and safe working conditions. It was a catalyst for reform in the labor industry whose legacy is enjoyed by women todate.
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