Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire

triangle_fire_aAs I didn’t see it anywhere in the corporate media over the past few days, I thought that I should at least mention that March 25th marked the 100th anniversary of New York’s Triangle Factory Fire. The tragic event claimed the lives of 146 people, most of them young immigrant women, and galvanized the American labor movement. The following overview comes from the Cornell University archives.

…The International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union organized workers in the women’s clothing trade. Many of the garment workers before 1911 were unorganized, partly because they were young immigrant women intimidated by the alien surroundings. Others were more daring, though. All were ripe for action against the poor working conditions. In 1909, an incident at the Triangle Factory sparked a spontaneous walkout of its 400 employees. The Women’s Trade Union League, a progressive association of middle class white women, helped the young women workers picket and fence off thugs and police provocation. At a historic meeting at Cooper Union, thousands of garment workers from all over the city followed young Clara Lemlich’s call for a general strike.

With the cloakmakers’ strike of 1910, a historic agreement was reached, that established a grievance system in the garment industry. Unfortunately for the workers, though, many shops were still in the hands of unscrupulous owners, who disregarded basic workers’ rights and imposed unsafe working conditions on their employees.

Near closing time on Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Asch Building in the Triangle Waist Company. Within minutes, the quiet spring afternoon erupted into madness, a terrifying moment in time, disrupting forever the lives of young workers. By the time the fire was over, 146 of the 500 employees had died. The survivors were left to live and relive those agonizing moments. The victims and their families, the people passing by who witnessed the desperate leaps from ninth floor windows, and the City of New York would never be the same.

Survivors recounted the horrors they had to endure, and passers-by and reporters also told stories of pain and terror they had witnessed. The images of death were seared deeply in their mind’s eye.

Many of the Triangle factory workers were women, some as young as 14 years old. They were, for the most part, recent Italian and European Jewish immigrants who had come to the United States with their families to seek a better life. Instead, they faced lives of grinding poverty and horrifying working conditions. As recent immigrants struggling with a new language and culture, the working poor were ready victims for the factory owners. For these workers, speaking out could end with the loss of desperately needed jobs, a prospect that forced them to endure personal indignities and severe exploitation. Some turned to labor unions to speak for them; many more struggled alone. The Triangle Factory was a non-union shop, although some of its workers had joined the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.

New York City, with its tenements and loft factories, had witnessed a growing concern for issues of health and safety in the early years of the 20th century. Groups such as the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) and the Womens’ Trade Union League (WTUL) fought for better working conditions and protective legislation. The Triangle Fire tragically illustrated that fire inspections and precautions were woefully inadequate at the time. Workers recounted their helpless efforts to open the ninth floor doors to the Washington Place stairs. They and many others afterwards believed they were deliberately locked– owners had frequently locked the exit doors in the past, claiming that workers stole materials. For all practical purposes, the ninth floor fire escape in the Asch Building led nowhere, certainly not to safety, and it bent under the weight of the factory workers trying to escape the inferno. Others waited at the windows for the rescue workers only to discover that the firefighters’ ladders were several stories too short and the water from the hoses could not reach the top floors. Many chose to jump to their deaths rather than to burn alive…

As others have noted, it’s particularly important that we remember these tragic events today, at a time when our American unions are under assault, and the history of the labor movement is being rewritten.

Speaking of revisionist history relative to the labor movement, did you hear that the Governor of Maine has chosen to make it a priority to paint over a mural at the state’s Department of Labor showing the contributions of Maine’s workers? Here’s a clip from a recent editorial in the New York Times.

As Republican governors vie to become the most anti-union executive in the land, Gov. Paul LePage of Maine has stooped to behavior worthy of the pharaohs’ chiseling historic truth from Egyptian monuments. Mr. LePage has ordered that a 36-foot-wide mural depicting workers’ history in Maine be removed from the lobby of the state’s Labor Department.

The reason? His office cited some complaints from offended business leaders and an anonymous fax declaring that the mural smacked of official brainwashing by North Korea’s dictator.

This is what’s passing for democratic governance in a state with a noble workers’ history. The mural honors such groups as the state’s shoemakers and the women riveters who kept the ironworks going in World War II. Key workplace moments depicted include a paper mill strike against harsh working conditions and a tribute to pioneer lumberjacks.

All too “one-sided,” decreed the governor, who also ordered that the agency’s seven meeting rooms no longer be named after figures from workers’ history. The nation’s first woman cabinet member — Labor Secretary Frances Perkins — is buried in her beloved Maine, but her room name won’t survive. Nor will state residents be reminded of William Looney, a 19th-century Republican legislator who fought for state child labor reforms….

Speaking of “one-sided,” aren’t child labor laws kind of that way? I mean, they protect kids, but what do they really do for adults? Maybe once we get these terrible murals painted over with corporate logos and the heroic images of old, white captains of industry, we can move on to address that particular injustice. In the meantime, I’d encourage you to share the story of the Triangle Fire with your friends and children, emphasizing what a truly horrible inconvenience it was for the owners of the factory.

In all seriousness, it pains me to know not just that labor is losing power, but that, as a result, more people will lose their lives. It shouldn’t have to be that way. The sacrifices of these men and women in 1911, and all of those who were murdered by Pinkertons and their like, shouldn’t have to be made again. But, as they say, we’re cursed to keep forgetting our past, and the goddamned pendulum keeps swinging. Here’s hoping this time the fight isn’t so brutal, and the costs aren’t so great.


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  1. Posted March 28, 2011 at 3:08 am | Permalink

    The NY Times ran a few features on the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, including covers of the main NY newspapers the day after in 1911.

    The building, where the top 3 floors were devoted to the factory, is now home to bio, chem, and genetics divisions at NYU. It’s about a block from Washington Square Park, which I never knew until I stumbled upon it on a visit to New York about year ago.

  2. Kristin
    Posted March 28, 2011 at 5:41 am | Permalink

    Did you hear the piece on On the Media? It discusses how the event was treated by the various newspapers if the time, and how Taminy Hall used the tragedy for political capital. As unlovely as that was, it led to worker protection laws that were well overdue in the industrial revolution. That story about Maine is so sad.

  3. John Galt
    Posted March 28, 2011 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    It’s horrible that these women died, but it’s really their own fault. If they hadn’t been sneaking out and stealing scraps of fabric, the owner wouldn’t have had to lock the exit doors. And is it really the owner’s fault that women are flammable? That was God’s decision.

  4. Edward
    Posted March 28, 2011 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    It’s an insult to the memories of all these people that we don’t fight harder to protect the laws that their sacrifices brought about.

  5. Kim
    Posted March 28, 2011 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Very cool infographic on how unions succeeded in making your workplace safer in the 100 years since the deadly Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

  6. TeacherPatti
    Posted March 28, 2011 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Did anyone else see “Make It New, John” at the AA Film Fest? It was about John Delorean and the oodles of government money he got for his cars. At the end, there was a clip of a talk with 5 of the union car makers in Ireland (where the plant was). The timing of this scene was perfect with everything that is going on…the interviewer asked them if they had bad feelings towards Delorean and at least 3 of them said no, as he had done what he said he was going to do (build a factory and create jobs). Never mind that he and other corporate types walked away rich (okay, I guess Delorean did get hit later) while these workers were about to lose their jobs…they had no ill well towards him. I turned to my friend and said that is the reason I hate society…they should be roasting those motherfuckers on a spit in front of someone’s house.
    Only one guy got really emotional and awesome and was all, “We should fight this!!”…he eventually had to not be in the interview session b/c he was so pissed off. The greatest thing is that his name was Paddy :)

  7. Ted
    Posted March 28, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    I know it’s hard to see humor in any of this, but I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw the 1911 headline calling the 10-story building a “skyscraper.”

  8. Posted March 28, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    “they should be roasting those motherfuckers on a spit in front of someone’s house.”

    They should, but like today’s American workers, they are scared shitless of rich people. For all the tough talk and posturing that Americans do, they sure do turn to sheep in the presence of rich people.

    It’s embarrassing. My grandfather, union to the core, wasn’t in the least bit scared of big money.

  9. Redleg
    Posted March 28, 2011 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    Meanwhile, has given some wealthy tool a guest opinion spot railing against unions. Total Ass-hat. His ranting, if it were in their comments section, would probably be removed by their over zealous staff– But since they gave him the podium, its rather unlikely they’ll kick it out from under him.

  10. Alice Krum
    Posted March 29, 2011 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    Garment Workers Open University

  11. TeacherPatti
    Posted March 29, 2011 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    Pete, not only are people scared of big money, they cowtow it. I don’t know which bothers me more. I definitely don’t cowtow (is that spelled right?) and I hope I’m not afraid of it….
    We need some old fashioned union guys like Grandpa Larson.

  12. Tom
    Posted March 31, 2011 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Back then, labor organizers used to speak of the things that they were for, sometimes in a romantic way, and sometimes in a very clear and pragmatic sense. It’s time union leaders opened a pathway for visionary debate and discussion to occur publicly, and not be content with allowing businesspeople and academics to do so behind closed doors. There are a lot of great things happening in the world, but the past half-century has shaped labor leadership into a reactionary culture.

    In other words, as the weirdos with compassion for the downtrodden we have to have something to offer and ally with unions, who know how to fight for it.

  13. Zetta Cuttings
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 4:26 am | Permalink

    I believe it’s worth pointing out that this company no longer exists. Due to the excessive regulations put upon it, it could no longer generate the profits necessary to keep its owners interested. As a result, jobs were lost. While I too think it’s terrible that a few immigrants died, I think we need to look at the bigger picture. Companies need a certain degree of latitude when dealing with things like worker safety, and safety should never interfere with profitability.

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