History of the Factory Investigation Committee
A fire at the Triangle Waist Company shirt factory on March 25, 1911 killed 146 employees, mostly women and girls. The public reacted with shock, and an immediate local investigation revealed the prevalence of unsafe and unhealthy conditions in factories, including lack of fire prevention measures or escapes, and inadequate sanitary conditions. The results of this investigation and public pressure following the Triangle fire convinced the Legislature that a full-scale investigation was warranted.
In response, the Legislature established the Factory Investigating Commission (Laws of 1911, Chapter 561). The President of the Senate, Speaker of the Assembly, and Governor appointed the nine-member Commission to study issues related to the health and safety of workers, the condition of the buildings in which they worked, and existing and additional necessary laws and ordinances. Commissioners included Senator Robert F. Wagner (Chair), Assemblyman Alfred E. Smith (Vice- Chair), and American Federation of Labor President Samuel Gompers.
Between 1911 and 1915 the Legislature charged the Commission with investigating factory sanitary and safety conditions, wages, and other related issues such as living conditions of workers. The Commission appointed directors for each investigation, and field agents were hired to carry out on-site inspections of factories and other work sites.
Investigation of factory conditions began in the fall of 1911. The Commission selected Dr. George M. Price to direct the sanitation investigation. In September 1911, Price organized a group of field workers to carry out inspections. The Commission also chose H.F.J. Porter to direct field investigations related to fire hazards. While the inspections were being carried out, members of the Commission met in occasional Executive Sessions to make further plans for the investigation, receive reports of investigators, and agree on recommendations.
Commission staff issued questionnaires to businessmen, professionals, labor leaders, local government officials, engineers, fire department officers, and other individuals asking for suggestions for improving the conditions of and the laws and ordinances regarding manufacturing. The Commission solicited and received from such persons detailed comments concerning the issues under study.
Beginning in October 1911, the Commission conducted public hearings in New York, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Schenectady, and Troy, taking testimony from hundreds of city and state officials, manufacturers, labor leaders, and working men, women, and children. Information gathered from these hearings was used along with that collected through field investigations, questionnaires, and correspondence to draw conclusions about the conditions under which manufacturing was carried out and to develop recommendations to improve conditions. The Commission continued to hold hearings on issues under investigation until January 1915.
Information collected by the Commission and staff was compiled into several reports, including the two main reports, "The Fire Hazard in Factory Buildings" and "Sanitation of Factories", published in the Preliminary Report of the Factory Investigating Commission (1912). To improve sanitary conditions, the Commission's report to the Legislature recommended registration of all factories with the Department of Labor, licensing of all food manufacturers, medical examinations of food workers, medical supervision in dangerous trades, and better eating, washing, and toilet facilities. To lessen the fire hazard, the Commission recommended an increase in stairwells and exits, installation of fire walls, fireproof construction, prohibition of smoking in factories, fire extinguishers, alarm systems, and automatic sprinklers. The Commission's other reports summarized investigations of and made recommendations concerning women factory workers, child labor in tenements, and occupational diseases such as lead and arsenic poisoning.
Through laws in 1912 (Chapter 21) and 1913 (Chapter 137), the Legislature provided for a continuation of the Commission's work. The Commission proceeded with its investigation of sanitary conditions and was assisted in its study of the fire hazard by Francis Perkins, then Executive Secretary of the New York Committee on Safety. Perkins wrote a report on the fire hazard in mercantile establishments for the Commission.
The Commission also began several in-depth studies. Investigators looked into child labor, including health and safety questions, schooling, and enforcement of the labor and education laws. Another study concerned night work of women, some of whom were found to have worked as many as 20 hours in a 24-hour period. The Commission also initiated a separate study of hours worked and physical conditions in department stores.
From its study of the deficiencies in the Labor Law, the Commission concluded the entire law needed reworking and that the Department of Labor should be reorganized. The Commission recommended creation of a Bureau of Inspection to centralize inspection work, a Division of Industrial Hygiene, and a Section of Medical Inspection. In 1913, a number of the Commission's recommendations became law, including reorganization of the Department of Labor, prohibition of night work for women, and fire prevention, safety, and health regulations.
Work continued through 1913 on: investigation of fire, safety, and health conditions; the proposed recodification of the Labor Law; a study of duplicative building inspection functions; and other studies such as one concerning prison contract labor in shirt manufacturing. The Commission's work resulted in more legislation in 1914, including laws relating to sanitary conditions and women and children's working hours in stores.
The legislation renewing the Commission in 1913 also presented it with a new charge: to study wages in all industries and recommend as to the advisability of establishing minimum wage or other wage legislation. This became the Commission's most ambitious project, the General Wage Investigation.
In the summer of 1913, Howard B. Woolston and Albert H.N. Baron were appointed Director and Assistant Director of the wage investigation. Realizing that a complete study of all industries would be impossible in the time allotted, the Commission decided to study a few industries in depth and to study several others to a limited extent. As a result of the preliminary study of department stores the previous winter, the Commission chose to study the mercantile industry in depth. They also chose the confectionery, paper box, and shirt industries. These industries were characterized by a large proportion of women workers, low pay, and a large number of workers in relatively few establishments throughout the state (a large number of establishments would make field investigations more difficult). Limited studies were also done on a number of industries including silk mills, sugar refineries, umbrella factories, longshoring, dress pattern shops, and button factories.
A staff of field agents, statisticians, and tabulators was hired, and the field investigation began September 15, 1913 in New York City. Field agents compiled information on weekly and annual earnings from each firm's records; collected data cards from and interviewed employees for individual background and work data; and interviewed employers for general business information.
The New York City investigation continued through February 15, 1914. When the Commission was authorized to continue its work for another year (Laws of 1914, Chapter 110), field agents began a four month investigation of upstate firms. Once again the Commission sent out questionnaires and letters, this time seeking opinions on minimum wage legislation including recommended types of legislation, how it might be administered, what effects it might have, and what other government action might be taken. The Commission also continued to hold hearings on these issues through January 1915.
The Commission issued its final report in February 1915. While the wage investigation covered all workers, the findings presented in the report concerned mainly women and minors. The report maintained that wage legislation for men had generally been declared unconstitutional and that far more women than men received wages low enough to merit protective legislation. The report concluded that many women and minors received too low a wage to maintain a decent standard of living and recommended legislation to create a Wage Commission which would in turn establish Wage Boards to determine the amount of wage necessary for women and minor workers.
The Commission's recommendations for minimum wage legislation were not enacted in law, nor was its proposed recodification of the Labor Law. In fact, wage legislation was not enacted until 1933. However, the Commission was directly responsible for the passage of a number of laws, including laws concerning physical examination of children before authorizing their employment; prohibition of employment of children under age 14 in canneries or tenements; compulsory education; manufacturing in tenements; working hours for women and children; fire alarms and fire drills; automatic sprinklers; fire prevention methods; fire escapes and exits; sanitary eating, washing, and toilet facilities; cleanliness, lighting, and ventilation in the workplace; and building inspections.
The work of the Factory Investigating Commission brought the inadequate conditions in which thousands of workers labored to the attention of the public and the government. The Commission's work represented a new level of government involvement in, and regulation of, labor conditions. Their reports and recommendations resulted in legislation raising standards for health and safety conditions, ultimately affecting all workers throughout the state.