On March 25, 1911 in New York City a horrific fire swept through the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory killing 146 women, men and children and injuring hundreds more. Most of the victims were women and most were working poor, Jewish and Italian immigrants. They died from the fire, smoke inhalation or by falling or leaping to their deaths to escape the heat and flames. The factory owners had locked the stairwells and exits to prevent workers from taking “unauthorized breaks”, a common practice at the time.
The result of this indescribable tragedy resulted in massive organizing for working people to demand safety codes and measures. It was, in many ways, one of the earliest examples of the regulation of industry. This was a major accomplishment considering this deadly day happened in the midst of the notorious “Gilded Age.” The excesses of the wealthy few were flaunted for everyone to see while the poor masses struggled to make ends meet, working 14 hour days and getting paid pennies for their hard labour.
In the years since there have been many other tragedies the world over where the poor, immigrants, people of colour and mostly women have suffered immeasurably from factory or housing fires or related disasters. In almost all cases industry has been let off the hook, allowed to continue its deadly practices at the expense of working people, children, animals and the living earth itself.
Thanks to the “market” dictates of global capitalism austerity, deregulation and the gutting or dismantling of social and physical safety nets has become the norm. Working people and the poor are told they must accept this in order to “grow the economy.” But these lies are as thin as the paper they are written on. And tragic greed-borne catastrophes are their hallmark.
The recent Grenfell Tower fire in London is the sorrowful sister to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. It is a testament to a duplicitous system of exploitation and greed on behalf of the wealthiest .001%. It may be too early to say what exactly caused the horrific fire in this residential tower in London in the early morning hours of 14th June, but it is not too early to say that the working poor, immigrants and people of colour are always disproportionately the victims of such tragedies. Prior to this event there were documented complaints about the “very poor fire safety standards” in the building and the questionable cladding that was apparently put up largely for cosmetic reasons because wealthy residents of the neighbourhood did not like the look of the towers.
The tower stands in Kensington and Chelsea which has one of the starkest divides between extreme wealth and poverty. It is on the Lancaster West Estate which houses poor, multi-ethnic families. As early as last November the Grenfell Action Group warned that “only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Association, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders.”
We have seen similar incidents around the world where the divides between the uber wealthy and the poor are growing sharper and in areas where real estate is in high demand. In neglected slums of Manila fires are an all too common occurrence. In Mumbai and Bangladesh we have seen this time and time again in sweat shops and shanty towns. The cries of the poor are seldom, if ever, heard. And this is by design.
Global capitalism cannot afford societies built on the values of mutual cooperation or respect of the dignity and inherent worth of all human beings. There is too much profit at stake to even allow this kind of conversation among the wealthy elite. But perhaps this tragedy, much like the one at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on that sorrowful day in NYC, will galvanize us all to challenge and dismantle this system of ruthless barbarity. Perhaps it will be a wake up call for us to begin constructing a world where the dictatorship of money is no longer acceptable.
In a very real sense we are all in that burning tower now and the wealthy and powerful are busy alighting the flames that will burn up the entire planet before our eyes. It is my hope that we will use this horrific and needless tragedy to awaken from our collective slumber and work to build the world that they will not permit. There isn’t much time left and irreparable damage may have already been done. But we owe it to those who have already been lost to let this be a rallying cry for a revolution of the heart.
My deepest sympathy to the victims and their families.
Kenn Orphan 2017