Just 100 Years Ago Today:
Saturday, March 25, 1911, was a raw and chilly day in New York City. Just because it was a Saturday, that did not mean a day off work for the five hundred employees of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, a typical urban sewatshop which occupied the top three floors of a ten-story building at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Square, in Greenwich Village.
The employees, mostly young women between the ages 16 and 23, worked ten-hour days Monday through Friday, and an additional eight-and-a-half hours on Saturdays, all for an average pay of $6 per week ($135 in today’s dollars).
At 4:45 PM the work day was finally winding to a close for the tired sweatshop workers when a fire broke out on the 8th floor. The actual cause of the fire was ultimately undetermined, but fire marshals concluded it was likely due to an unextinguished match or smoldering cigarette butt discarded in a bin of scraps under the table of one of the fabric cutters.
Smoking was prohibited on the premises, but that generally didn’t stop the workers from sneaking a cigarette now and then.
Given the incendiary nature of the material -- fabric for women’s blouses -- the fire spread rapidly until it engulfed the entire floor, and then spread to the floors above.
While there were a number of exits available to the workers, several stairway doors were locked -- “to prevent theft” was the official excuse of the business owners, but some of the survivors had another explanation: The doors were locked to prevent, in a tragic irony, “the girls” from taking unauthorized smoke breaks. Managers who had the keys to the doors escaped early, somehow neglecting to unlock the doors on their way out.
The building did have a single fire escape, but it was so flimsy that it quickly became overloaded with people trying to escape and crumpled, sending many to their deaths on the sidewalk below.
Within minutes so much panic had set in that the employees started leaping from windows to escape the flames. The sidewalks became so littered with the dead and dying that fire fighters had difficulty even getting into the building.
When the day was over 146 persons had perished in what remains the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of New York City and the fourth largest in the history of the country.
The owners of the sweatshop, along with many of their employees, had managed to flee to the roof of the building and they survived.
The owners were charged with manslaughter by a grand jury and went to trial but they were ultimately found not guilty; they were almost equally as fortunate in the civil trial which followed three years later -- they were required to pay compensation, but in the amount of only $75 per victim (about $1600 today). The owners’ insurance company in turn paid them $400 per victim (about $8500), so the “unfortunate incident” actually turned out to be quite profitable for them.
However, in spite of this, some positive things came about from the terrible tragedy that was Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.
Because of the public outrage over the causes of the deaths and the tremendous loss of life, the state of New York launched several investigations into workplace safety and workers’ rights.
During the investigations, the fire chief of New York City stated that there were over 200 similar factories where another conflagration was not only possible, but likely.
The investigations also focused on workplace sanitation and occupational diseases in addition to fire safety, and as a result the state of New York enacted new laws and established new standards and regulations to ensure worker protection on the job. With these modernized labor laws, New York became one of the most progressive states in terms of labor reform and worker protection.
The labor movement, especially the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, got a tremendous boost in membership and influence, as did the Socialist Party.
Rose Schneiderman, a union activist and a socialist, spoke at a memorial for the victims a week after the tragedy and tied the event to the necessity for union organization:
…you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us....I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.But by far the most lasting legacy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire came from a young woman who, by sheer coincidence, an accident of time and place, was an eyewitness on the ground.
Frances Perkins, a 28-year-old recent graduate student at Columbia University and head of the New York Consumers League, was enjoying a cup of tea near Washington Square when she heard the fire engines. She hurried to the scene just in time to see the doomed workers plunging to their deaths from the upper stories of the building.
Appalled by what she saw, Perkins became very active in the movement to reform working conditions and worked tirelessly on the Committee on Safety of the City of New York to improve factory safety.
In 1918 she was the first woman to be appointed to the New York State Industrial Commission, and she became its chair in 1926.
She ended up working closely with the New York governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt. When Roosevelt was inaugurated to the US presidency in 1933, he named Perkins to the post of Secretary of Labor, the first woman cabinet secretary in the history of the country.
As Secretary of Labor, Perkins put her tireless energy to work developing the sweeping reforms which were the hallmark achievements of the New Deal, most importantly, both the watershed Social Security Act of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, both of which had long-term positive results for the working men and women of the United States.
Later Perkins said that the New Deal actually started on March 25, 1911 with the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.
Now, just 100 years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy, we are engaged in a new struggle to preserve the worker protections and the regulations on business ultimately brought into existence by the outrage of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, a new struggle to prevent the overturn and disestablishment of the greatest achievements of the New Deal.
The Republican Party has made no secret of the fact that they want to roll back the New Deal and reinstitute the systems and the regulations -- or rather lack thereof -- and the kind of laissez-faire capitalism that made their industrialists so obscenely wealthy in America’s so-called Gilded Age, a time when labor was viewed as just another production commodity, another raw material to be used up and thrown out.
Are we not so very far away from a repeat of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy? All one needs to do is to look at what is continuing to happen in Wisconsin, not to mention the ongoing efforts in my own state to dismantle, piece by piece, the protections afforded by our own Department of Labor and Industries.
How many bricks can you take out of a wall before it collapses?
We must remain vigilant and keep fighting, so we don’t have to find out the answer to that question, and so we don’t have a repeat tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.
Let us always keep in mind the slogan of the old IWW: An injury to one is an injury to all.