Here’s a lovely historical confluence for you: today the House ratified the “fixes” in the Health Care Reform Bill Law. Today is also the 99th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which killed 146 women, most of them immigrants who spoke little or no English.

The women died in all kinds of ways: some were trapped in the burning building , some fell when the single fire escape that could be reached ripped away from the wall of the building, some jumped from windows and were impaled on the wrought-iron fence below, others suffocated from smoke inhalation.

But mostly the women–some of whom were as young as 15–died because there weren’t any rules in place about workplace safety, about fire codes, about workers’ rights. There weren’t even any rules mandating that fire engines have ladders long enough to reach the upper floors of buildings–the fire engines at the factory fire reached to the 6th floor, but the fire started on the 9th floor. 

A  jury acquitted the factory owners at trial, although a later civil suit forced the owners to pay the whopping sum of $75 per victim. The insurance company–the insurance company — later paid the factory owners about $60,000 in damages, which amounts to about $400 per victim.

Funny, you know, 99 years ago, in the aftermath of this disaster, when labor advocates and progressives started advocating and agitating for reform, they were told that the reforms would drive companies out of business; that it would be too expensive; that it was the workers own fault for not knowing English, because they couldn’t understand the shouted instructions of the firemen who were yelling at them to jump into the safety nets nine stories below. Frances Parker, one of the most outspoken reformers (who later went on to work for that notorious socialist, FDR) was told repeatedly that the government had no right to intervene in business practices.