March 2011 Issue
February 17, 2011

Triangle fire galvanized labor unions

Author: Bernie Mulligan
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: A police officer stands at the Asch Building's ninth-floor window after fire destroyed the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, killing 146 people. The factory owners were brought to trial for their role in the tragedy, but no one was convicted. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union Archives, Kheel Center, Cornell University.

(See related article "Triangle Factory Fire: A Teachers Guide" and media release "Remembering New York’s Deadly Triangle Shirtwaist Fire - Coalition program commemorates 100th anniversary of tragic blaze")

Callous disregard for workers and their safety caused the loss of 146 lives in a single factory fire in lower Manhattan 100 years ago this month.

On March 25, 1911, near the end of the Saturday workday, flames shot out the windows of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. The fire spread rapidly among piles of blouses and skirts. Screams shattered the end of another 60-plus hour work week. Workers smashed their hands on locked doors trying to flee. Others jumped down the empty elevator shaft. More than 50 plunged to their death from windows as onlookers watched in horror. Two dozen workers died when a flimsy fire escape collapsed, dooming them. Firefighters' ladders were too short to reach the fire-trapped 8th, 9th and 10th floors.

That night, grieving relatives of the mostly Jewish and Italian immigrant women and girls who worked at Triangle walked a path of pain after the bodies were laid out in rows at the 26th Street Pier on the Hudson River. The pier was known as Misery Lane because it was the place bodies were deposited after disasters.

"The Triangle story reminds me of the dramatic words of the great labor leader Mother Jones — 'Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living,'" said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi. "American workers today have protections because of the labor movement's work."

By 1911, America's cities were brimming with immigrants. Of the more than 2.3 million people who lived in Manhattan in 1910, about half were foreign-born, according to U.S. Census records. The flood of willing workers created a brutal competition for low-wage jobs and gave rise to deplorable sweatshop industries. Laborers began organizing, decrying long hours, low pay and horrible working conditions.

"In the autumn of 1909, a strike at the Triangle factory helped catalyze the largest labor uprising the garment industry had ever seen. Some 40,000 workers, mostly women, walked out of their shops and astonished New Yorkers with their endurance," wrote David Von Drehle in his book Triangle: The Fire that Changed America.

Two years later, the Triangle fire tragedy changed the plight of labor in America forever. The men and women who built America's unions made workplace safety one of their first major fights, along with opposing child labor and the 60-hour work week.

The tragedy's aftermath also brought an outpouring of support from politicians and clergy, social reformers and union leaders. They organized a mass rally against sweatshops, lobbied for new workplace and building safety laws, and helped strengthen the work of the New York State Department of Labor.

Central to the effort was Frances Perkins, a well-educated social activist who, by coincidence, was in the Triangle neighborhood when the fire broke out and saw workers jumping from the building. She and her organization, the Consumers League of New York, helped lead the charge to change the city's sweatshop culture.

Her allies were state Senate Majority Leader Robert Wagner and Assembly Speaker Alfred E. Smith. They helped pass legislation that made workplaces safer. Like Perkins, both went on to play major roles in Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal."

"Wagner was destined to become the legislative ramrod of the New Deal, pushing bills through the U.S. Senate to create Social Security, to guarantee unemployment insurance and workers' compensation, to build public housing and to protect trade unions," Von Drehle wrote. "Smith would become one of the country's greatest governors, revolutionizing New York and serving as a sort of prototype for 20th-century liberalism."

Perkins became Roosevelt's labor secretary, the first woman to serve in a Cabinet post.

She remained throughout Roosevelt's administration and was a staunch fighter for workers' rights. On the fire's 50th anniversary in 1961, as New York University opened new labs in the old Triangle building, she helped commemorate the tragedy and celebrate the reforms born from the losses.

"The Triangle fire anniversary is a reminder that the fight for safe workplaces continues today," said NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue, who oversees the union's health and safety work. "Our state has always been at the heart of this fight. As educators, health care workers and public servants, we should use this learning opportunity to pass on its important lessons to the next generation."

Preventable workplace tragedies

• March 19, 1958: Blocks from the Triangle site, 24 workers are killed and 15 are injured in a fire at the Monarch factory.

• Feb. 26, 2010: At a sweater factory in Bangladesh, 21 female garment workers suffocate from smoke inhalation in a fire. Heavily sealed windows, locked and obstructed exits and antiquated fire equipment are all factors.

• April 5, 2010: 29 miners are killed in West Virginia explosion at Upper Big Branch mine owned by notoriously anti-union Massey Energy Company, which has a long history of health and safety violations.

• April 20. 2010: 11 workers are killed and 17 injured when the Deepwater Horizon rig explodes in the Gulf of Mexico, causing environmental crisis.