Visit the Triangle Factory Fire web site and read pages under "The Story of the...

Visit the Triangle Factory Fire

web site and read pages under "The Story of the Fire". Also read My First Job by Rose Cohen

After reading the history of an early 20th century industrial fire that resulted in many worker deaths. And after read an account of one of the survivors of that fire as she describes her first day working in a sweatshop – a job she began while still a child.

  • Discuss that survivor’s first day on the job.
  • Develop an insight into why people are motivated to make collective efforts to ensure basic levels of safety in the workplace and protection from exploitation by their employers.
Expert Answers
Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Cohen's narrative details the fundamental challenge that workers in sweatshops face.  Much of her narrative describes the fear and exploitation that governed workers in structures where their voices were secondary to the demands of management and profit.  Cohen displays this at different points in her narrative. One example is when she wanted to go home, as her father instructed, at the end of the day.  However, when it came time for her to go home, she realized that the workplace setting was not conducive to her exercising freedom:

Seven o'clock came and everyone worked on. I wanted to rise as father had told me to do and go home. But I had not the courage to stand up alone. I kept putting off going from minute to minute. My neck felt stiff and my back ached. I wished there were a back to my chair so that I could rest against it a little. When the people began to go home it seemed to me that it had been night a long time.

The language in this description substantiates the life that Rose and others experienced in the sweatshop setting.  When she describes lacking "the courage to stand up alone," it serves as a fundamental statement about the nature of worker's rights in the workplace during the time of Industrialization. Additionally, the physical pain she experiences was not acknowledged in the face of producing more and generating more money for those in the position of economic power.  When Rose comes to work the next morning, it becomes clear that the environment has not changed:  "I had just time to put away my coat and go over to the table, when the boss shouted gruffly, 'Look here, girl, if you want to work here you better come in early. No office hours in my shop." Cohen's first day on the job is a reflection of how the life of a worker during the time period of Industrialization was predicated upon a silencing of voice and a denial of dignity in the workplace setting.

Cohen's challenges were not isolated.  Millions of workers experienced the same challenges and the same conditions.  The exploitation that Rose and other workers experienced was brought to public light in the Triangle Factory Fire. Corporate profit overtook worker safety.  The desire to produce more overcame the need to protect workers.  Many businesses featured individuals in the position of power who cared more for corporate welfare than the general welfare of their workers.  These conditions governed life for the workers in the Triangle Factory, and specifically Rose Cohen.  Her narrative reflects why people are motivated to ensure basic levels of safety in the workplace.  The exploitation of workers was the pretext under which the suffering of workers in the fire took place:

Many of the Triangle factory workers were women, some as young as 14 years old. They were, for the most part, recent Italian and European Jewish immigrants who had come to the United States with their families to seek a better life. Instead, they faced lives of grinding poverty and horrifying working conditions. As recent immigrants struggling with a new language and culture, the working poor were ready victims for the factory owners. For these workers, speaking out could end with the loss of desperately needed jobs, a prospect that forced them to endure personal indignities and severe exploitation.

Since the factory was a non- union workplace, workers' rights were violated in the worst of ways.  Exploitation in the factory was common.  The "personal indignities" that workers experienced were common occurrences, being most evident in the way in which so many of the workers died in the fire.  The sight of seeing workers jump out the windows to avoid the flames for so little galvanized action. As a result, people were convinced of the need to ensure basic level of safety in the workplace and protection from exploitation by their employers.  Rose Cohen's story as well as the narrative of hundreds of others result in shifting the nation's focus, something still needed today as sweatshops still exist and corporate profit remains unchecked in many settings.