The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire: A Lasting Legacy?

By Michelle Kornblit

One hundred years ago today, on March 25, 1911, the disastrous Triangle Shirt Waist Factory fire killed 146 workers, mainly women, due to unsafe sweatshop conditions. This industrial calamity stands out in history as New York City’s worst occupational disaster before 9/11, and the harrowing details of the disaster were the catalyst for radical reforms in the labor and employment sphere, many of which we take for granted today as basic worker’s rights. Occurring at a time when the union and labor movements were growing and demanding serious changes to the unrestrained capitalism that facilitated dangerous and unhealthy working conditions, the horror of Triangle Shirt Waist Fire captured the public’s attention. The massive outpouring of sympathy and solidarity of workers following the tragedy forced the nation’s leaders to recognize, in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “The old laws, and the old customs… are no longer sufficient.”

The Triangle Waist Company factory occupied the top-most floors of the Asch building, just one block east of Washington Square Park, in New York City. The factory produced women’s blouses (“shirtwaists”) and employed approximately 500 workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women. The Triangle employees worked nine hours a day on weekdays, plus another seven hours on Saturdays. Charles Kernaghan, the executive director of the National Labor Committee, estimates that when adjusted for inflation, the Triangle Shirt Waist employees were making the equivalent of $3.18 an hour.

The factory fire began on the 8th floor at the end of the workday on March 25, 1911, from a cigarette butt dropped into a bin holding scraps of fabric. The fire quickly spread, fed by flammable fabrics and working materials, accelerating through each floor by the cramped layout of the factory. There was neither an audible alarm system nor a means to contact employees on each floor of the building to warn them of the fire. There were no fire prevention or extinguishing equipment on the site. Although each floor had a few exits, many of the doors to the stairwells and exits were locked during work hours. One fire escape soon collapsed under the overload of terrified employees and the heat of the flames. Dozens of employees escaped the fire by climbing up to the roof, if it was accessible from their floor, and others were able to jam themselves into elevators while they were still in operation. Some of the victims pried the elevator doors open and jumped down the empty shaft. The weight of their bodies and the heat destruction of the rails eventually rendered the elevators inoperable.

Available technology such as sprinkler systems, fire walls and adequate fire escapes could have prevented the fire or at the very least, limited its scope. But, as such safety measures were not required by law, they were not installed in the factory. Inadequate fire department equipment, including ladders that only reached the 6th floor, devastatingly short of the eighth, ninth and tenth floors where the fire occurred, and flimsy life nets that were torn by the height and impact of falling bodies, contributed to a staggering loss of life.

Within a half-hour, 146 workers died: 129 women and 17 men. Nearly half of the victims were still in their teens, with the youngest being two fourteen-year-old girls. More than a third of the victims, approximately 62 people, tragically jumped or fell to the street pavement from the eight, ninth and tenth floors of the building, trying to escape the flames. The large crowd of horrified bystanders gathered on the street, included Louis Waldman, later a New York State Assemblyman. He described the scene years later, saying, “When we arrived at the scene, the police had thrown up a cordon around the area and the firemen were helplessly fighting the blaze. The eight, ninth and tenth stories of the building were now an enormous roaring cornice of flames… The emotions of the crowd were indescribable. Women were hysterical, scores fainted; men wept as, an in paroxysms of frenzy, they hurled themselves against the police lines.”

Company owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were indicted on charges of first and second-degree manslaughter, having survived the fire by fleeing to the buildings roof when the fire began. An all male jury acquitted the two owners, the defense having argued that the prosecution failed to prove that the owners knew the exit doors were locked at the time of the fire. A subsequent suit enabled plaintiffs to win compensation in the amount of $75 per deceased victim. In 1913, Blanck was arrested for locking the door to his factory during working hours, and fined a mere $20.

The tragedy received massive press coverage and the disturbing photographs of the victims and testimonies of eye witnesses contributed to overwhelming public sympathy for the victims, with as many as 400,000 people attending the funeral procession up Fifth Avenue on April 1, 1911. The public outrage over the acquittal of the Triangle Company owners, contributed to a pro-worker sentiment that caused a wave of workplace reforms, union advances and a crucial shift in the public policy on worker safety, which sought to eliminate many of the hazardous working conditions associated with American industrialization. The fire only intensified the growth of the Ladies Garment Workers’ Union, which two years before the Triangle Fire had organized a general strike of young female makers of women’s blouses. The “Uprising of the Twenty Thousand” had included women who were employed by the Triangle Waist Company, and evidences the entrance of women into political discourse and the struggle for better working conditions and worker’s rights.

Union organizing only intensified after the event, reaching an epic peak in 1919, when one out of every five workers in the U.S. went on strike. Rose Schniederman, an organizer for the Women’s Trade Union League, spoke passionately to a meeting of women shortly after the Triangle Fire demanding that worker’s safety be addressed, stating, “I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship… Too much blood has been spilled. 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.”

In an era that was in uproar with new ideas and movements, the question of how to end workers’ strikes and address the serious abuses of industrialization and economic inequality dominated the discourse. The Triangle Fire galvanized public opinion and forced the nation’s leaders to begin advocating a progressive agenda of pro-labor and pro-worker safety laws, delivering more humane labor laws and many of the fire and building codes that protect workers today. For example, new legislation required that there be a certain amount of space per worker, employee breaks, and the right to a safe, clean and sanitary working environment.

The Triangle also spurred an important alliance of New York Democrats with unions and progressive reformers that would persist through the New Deal and help make New York State one of the most progressive states in terms of labor reform. New York State created a Factory Investigating Committee to “investigate factory conditions in this and other cities, and to report remedial measures of legislation to prevent hazard or loss of life among employees through fire, unsanitary conditions, and occupational diseases.” The State Committee’s detailed report in 1915 helped to create and modernize the state’s labor and fire laws, many then copied in other states. For example, requirements for sprinklers and regular fire drills became standard practice for every workplace. In the next 3 years, New York State enacted nearly 40 labor laws, and in 1935, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act, which improved worker’s rights throughout the county and strengthened the gains of the burgeoning union movement. These laws were the first of many created to protect worker’s safety, providing a foundation for later laws in the twentieth century, such as the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, that significantly changed the reality of the American workplace.

While the improvements and reforms in workplace following the Triangle Fire provide some reparation for the tragedy, the triumphs are limited in both scope and permanence. As the factory industry reorganized over the years, influenced by labor reforms and union pressures, many factory businesses, especially clothing manufacturers, began leaving unionized centers like New York City for rural locations and eventually for foreign shores. With today marking the centennial for the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, we tend to assume that the conditions that led to such a catastrophe couldn’t possibly exist today. However, in some of our country’s industrial and manufacturing sectors, dangerous working conditions have re-emerged, fraught with minimum wage violations and child labor, as factories began to rely heavily on immigrant labor. There has been a trend since the 1970s towards greater deregulation in factory and manufacturing industries, with unionized jobs that were once stable and well paid, becoming low paid jobs with poor benefits and a high employee turn over rate. Many people in the United States see parallels between the Triangle Fire victims and the plight of undocumented workers who labor in factories, farms and construction sites.

Furthermore, one reason for the drop in occupational deaths in the United States has been because the manufacturing sector is shrinking, having mostly left the United States for foreign countries where it is cheaper to produce goods, especially in places with less stringent labor laws and workplace safety practices. On May 10, 1993 at the Kader Toy Factor near Bangkok, Thailand, 188 people were killed and over 500 seriously injured in what is now considered the worst industrial factory fire in history. The factory produces toys for international export designed for major toy companies such as Disney and Mattel. The factory was poorly designed and built, with flammable materials not disposed of properly, crowded working conditions, inadequate exits, locked external doors, and un-insulated steel girders which caused the entire factory to collapse during the fire. It is evident that the trend of many foreign factories is for the employers to flout workplace safety and worker’s rights (if there are any at all) in order to keep manufacturing and international export cheap, with the tacit consent of foreign governments who prefer economic growth and prosperity to the safety of workers.

For many, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire tragedy resonates in our nation’s undocumented workers and the plight of workers abroad. If one of the legacies of the Triangle Fire has been the need for laws requiring workplace safety and stronger unions, scores of workers are still left unprotected. Without the effective ability to organize to demand better working conditions, compounded with our tacit acceptance as consumers of sweatshop products from abroad, for many workers around the globe, not much has changed since 1911.