100th Anniversary of Factory Fire


July 22, 2013 marked the 100th anniversary of the Binghamton Clothing Company factory fire. The factory, located at 17 Wall St., stood 4 stories high and employed 150 women. On that July 22, 1913, the sweltering heat necessitated that all the windows and doors be open to catch what little breeze was coming off the Chenango River.

Estimates vary as to how many workers were there on that day. As a result of the infamous NYC Triangle Shirtwaist fire just 2 years earlier where 146 women lost their lives, fire drills had become routine. It should be noted that these drills were at the discretion of the factory owners. City, state and federal laws were weak or non-existent. One of the excuses that ran through almost all accounts of the fire goes like this. “Usually the girls could clear the factory in 20 seconds, but because the alarm gong sounded different and they had had so many drills before, many of the girls (sic) ignored it.” Another excuse parrots the patriarchal foundation on which our society is founded. “Many of the girls (sic) were in their mid-slips and stays and didn’t feel like dressing to go out in public.”

But there is a much simpler reason that doesn’t blame the victim and puts the responsibility square on the boss’s backs–profit. The Binghamton Clothing Co. manufactured men’s overalls. They paid their workers based on “piecework”. Piecework is a variety of wage labor in which workers are paid per unit of production instead of labor time. One of the great attractions of piecework to the capitalist is that piece rates set low enough require almost no supervision. In order to earn a living wage, the worker must work hard, fast and well to produce enough pieces. The cost of supervision is passed on to the workers as they internalize the discipline and impose it on themselves. Piecework to the experienced worker always carries the flavor of exploitation. To new and naïve workers this is not always apparent – the more you work, the more you get paid. Because they don’t have the experience – if they outperform past standards, the piece rate is lowered. The great novelist and socialist, Jack London, describes the psychological and physical costs that workers bear under such conditions of exploitation in his story, The Apostate, written around the time of the fire.

For a less literate example, fast forward to this writer at 17 working at EJ’s Boys & Youths Factory, still employing piece rates. My foreman, Mr. Burns, said to me, “Want to earn more money?” “Yeah”,  I replied. “Work faster!” was his answer.

By 3:00 pm the women on the upper floors had become trapped in the too narrow stairwell which acted as a chimney drawing thick smoke and fire seeking oxygen from the open windows and doors. Some women jumped from the windows; others ran burning into the Chenango River. Firefighters stood by helplessly as the fire engulfed the building. By 4pm it was over when the foundation collapsed.

The next day’s paper reported , “of the 125 girls on the payroll, only 17 have been accounted for as uninjured.”  Twenty eight women and 3 men died; 18 burned beyond recognition. A public funeral was held on July 28th at the Stone Opera House on Chenango Street with 20,000 (!) people in attendance. One can only imagine the feelings of those gathered. The contemporary labor leader, Mother Jones, while not there, could have those in Binghamton in mind when she said, “Pray for the dead but fight like hell for the living. ”That is exactly what happened. In the wake of Triangle and Binghamton, a movement was born and tougher laws, inspectors and fines were put in place. George F. Johnson ordered sprinklers in his (sic) factories, along with the eight hour day (but keeping piecework!) Visionary-no, Pragmatic-yes.

The 31 dead are buried in a common grave in Spring Forest Cemetery. At the gravesite stands a monument etched with their names. It stands as a sharp retort to those who want to erase the gains and sacrifices of hundreds of millions of working people around the globe who must daily refight the struggle to protect ourselves and humanity

Workers of the world unite! Isn’t it about time?



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