A Watershed Moment in the Labor Reform Movement

It was Saturday, March 25, 1911. The bell signaling the end of the workday had just sounded at 4:45 pm and the employees of the Triangle Waist Company were getting ready leave.

They had just worked six straight days and most would likely come back on Sunday to work a seventh day or risk losing their jobs. It was then that the fire broke out, likely started by a match or cigarette improperly discarded into a bin of fabric scraps that had not been disposed of for several months. It was noticed almost immediately but the buckets of water provided for emergencies like this were not enough. It spread quickly, fueled by the wooden floors, machine oil, and the bins full fabric. Within minutes, the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the “fireproof” Asch Building in New York City was aflame.

While the employees on the 8th and 10th floors escaped the fire, the 300 employees on the 9th floor received no warning. Their first indication that there was a problem was the appearance of smoke and flames coming through the buildings windows from the fire raging below. Choking on the acrid smoke, they fled from the flames any way they could.

The 9th floor had access to two elevators and two staircases, though one staircase exit was kept locked to prevent theft and unauthorized breaks. The elevators made several trips, ferrying victims to safety while others used the only accessible staircase. It was only a few minutes before the staircase became impassable due to thick smoke and flames and the elevators could no longer make the trip up to the 9th floor. Others attempted to use the fire-escape, built in lieu of the required 3rd staircase but it was not up to code. Weakened from the heat of the fire, and possibly already damaged before the fire started, it collapsed under their weight. Others tried to use the elevator car cables to climb their way down.

With nowhere left to go, people climbed onto the building’s ledges, waiting for a rescue that wouldn’t happen because the fire department couldn’t reach them. Others chose to jump rather than be burned alive. Witnesses described women leaping from the windows, their skirts ablaze. Many of those witnesses later said that the sound of their bodies hitting the pavement continued to haunt them long after the fire. In all, over 80 people fell to their deaths.

download.jpgThe first firemen entered the 9th floor at 5 pm, but it was already too late. As they extinguished the flames, they found the bodies of the remaining workers. Most had died near the windows, others were found near the locked Washington Place door and a few were discovered in the middle of the loft, unable to navigate the narrow spaces.

It only took fifteen minutes for the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire became the deadliest industrial disaster in New York history. Of those that died, 123 were women and 23 were men. Almost half of the victims were under the age of 20. Two of the victims, Kate Leone and Rosaria Maltese, were only 14 years old.

The 9th floor loft was tightly crammed with eight wooden tables with less than five feet of space separating them. Most of the remaining space was filled with boxes, oil barrels, and equipment to run the 240 sewing machines located in the room. In some areas, the pathways were as narrow as ten inches.

Most of the employees were poor immigrant women of Italian and Jewish descent trying to support their families. They were expected to work extra hours and shifts even though they would not be paid overtime. A sign posted at the exit told them: “if you don’t come in on Sunday you need not come in on Monday”. Workers made as little as $1.50 a week; they were docked pay for sewing errors and for the needles and thread they used. It wasn’t uncommon for workers to finish a week owing money to their employers.

Going on strike brought many risks, not just the threat of losing their job. During the strike of 1909, in which 20,000 garment factory workers took to the streets, the owners of the Triangle Waist Factory hired prize fighters and prostitutes to antagonize and assault the striking workers. Bribed policemen wrongfully arrested the strikers and corrupt judges sentenced them to jail.

While the factory owners finally capitulated to the striker’s demands, not much had changed by the time the fire happened. The factory owners still held the power and the workers were desperate to support themselves and their families. Women were limited in their job prospects, immigrant women even more so. If they lost their job, there was no guarantee that they would find a better one. They had friends and family members working at the factories and the truth was, many factories were worse.

images.jpgOutrage over the fire was swift and fierce. Over the next few weeks, families identified the bodies. In some cases, the bodies were so badly burned that they could only be identified by the belongings they had with them at the time. Even so, six of the bodies remained unidentified for 100 years until researcher and genealogist Michael Hirsch uncovered their identities by researching missing person reports, employment records, and newspaper articles.

The public demanded that the owners be held accountable for the deaths. In May 1911 Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the owners of the Triangle Waist Factory, were indicted for first and second-degree manslaughter for the death of Margaret Schwartz, a 24-year-old Hungarian immigrant who died trying to get through the locked staircase exit. After deliberating for only an hour and fifty minutes, the jury returned with a verdict of not-guilty. Unsatisfied with the outcome of the criminal trial, a lawsuit was brought against the two men for the wrongful deaths of the victims. They were found liable and ordered to pay the families $75 per victim. This was a mere drop in the bucket after the insurance company settled their claim for $60,000 more than their reported financial losses, roughly $400 for each of the victims that died.

Change began quickly in the months and years following the tragedy. The Bureau of Fire

Prevention, The Citizens Committee for Public Safety, the Industrial Board, and the Factory Investigating Commission were created in the wake of the fire to draft legislation to protect workers and to prevent another disaster from happening again. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) doubled their efforts to investigate and identify unsafe working conditions and non-compliant factories, organizing factory workers and empowering them to make their working conditions part of their contracts.

Twenty years after the fire, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal made many of those reforms federal law and was drafted with the help of Labor Secretary Frances Perkins. She had witnessed the fire and had been a driving force behind many of the state and local reforms that came immediately afterward. When FDR picked her to head the Department of Labor, a position she held for twelve years, she became the first female cabinet member and the first woman in the presidential line of succession.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire became more than a tragic moment in history. It invigorated the labor reform movement and helped create the protections workers enjoy today. Unions continued to grow in popularity among the working class, giving voices to the workers and empowering them to demand change. They created funds to help support striking workers so they didn’t have to worry about their families going hungry or becoming homeless. Government agencies like the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), which regulates safe and healthy working conditions, can trace its roots back reforms made in the wake of the fire.

At an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the fire, David Dubinsky, then President of the ILGWU, said: “These were our martyrs because what we couldn’t accomplish by reasoning with the bosses, by pleading with the bosses, by arguing with the bosses, they accomplished with their deaths.”

If You’re Interested:

http://trianglefire.ilr.cornell.edu/victimsWitnesses/victimsList.html?victimid=124

(a list of victims including their vital statistics)

https://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1017&context=triangletrans (the complete transcript of the criminal trial)


Kimberly Albertson, Guest Blogger

You can find Kimberly on Twitter at @historyfan1804

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