On March 25, 1911, a fire that broke out in a bin holding scraps of fabric at the Triangle Waist Company, just down the block from New York City’s Washington Square Park, quickly spread, fed by cotton garments, tissue paper and wooden fixtures. Though the building that housed the clothing manufacturer was modern and advertised as fireproof, the cramped layout of the factory, a locked exit door, a flimsy fire escape that soon crumpled and inadequate fire department equipment brought a staggering loss of life. Within a half-hour, 146 workers had died, mostly young Jewish and Italian women, nearly half still in their teens. Two were only 14. More than a third of the victims jumped or fell from upper-story windows trying to escape the flames.
The 100th anniversary of the Triangle Fire is being commemorated by a remarkable array of events. As it does every year, Workers United, the union that represents garment workers, is sponsoring a ceremony at the site of the fire. (The building is now part of New York University.) Each year a fire department truck raises a ladder to the sixth floor, the highest its equipment could reach in 1911, painfully short of the eighth, ninth and tenth floors, where the fire occurred. Forums about the fire are being held in New York, Philadelphia, St. Paul, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and the City University of New York is sponsoring a conference on the fire and its legacy. HBO and PBS are airing documentaries. At least six Triangle-related plays and four musical theater pieces are being performed in cities across the country, including one composed by five-time Tony nominee Elizabeth Swados. Concerts, an art exhibit, a poetry contest and a forty-hour fast are being staged to mark the centennial.
The attention being given to Triangle stands out in a society that rarely remembers anything connected to workers’ lives, struggles or tragedies. Names like Homestead, Pullman and Flint, associated with decisive labor battles, mean nothing to most Americans. Yet even before the recent flurry of activity, the Triangle Fire occupied a modest niche in national culture, the subject of novels, historical studies, a film, plays, books of poetry, document collections, websites and even children’s books.
Why its prominence? After all, there were worse industrial disasters, including four mining accidents in the United States between 1907 and 1917, each of which killed more people than the New York fire. At the time, by one estimate, industrial accidents took at least 100 lives a day. And if Triangle was New York’s worst occupational disaster before 9/11, there were deadlier calamities, including the 1904 fire on the excursion ship General Slocum, which took well over 1,000 lives.
Triangle commands our notice in part because of the specifics of the disaster. There is something particularly horrifying about being trapped in a fire and plummeting through the air to escape it (so much so that ninety years later, on 9/11, newspapers and television generally refrained from showing images of people jumping from the World Trade Center). That so many of the victims were young and female added a layer of poignancy, as we commonly associate youth, especially young girls, with innocence, making their deaths seem even more undeserved than those of older victims of mining explosions and industrial accidents. And the Triangle Fire took place in the media capital of the country, receiving massive press coverage, including harrowing photographs difficult to forget.
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But if the horror of death, of young life snuffed out, figures centrally in the Triangle story, particularly as relayed in poetry, fiction and young people’s literature, the story looms large for another reason: it fulfills a deeply held belief, or at least a yearning to believe, that good can come out of suffering, that death does not have to be in vain. “Out of the smoke and the flame,” not only “downward dashed the girls,” as an Episcopal minister wrote at the time, but also came a host of government reforms, union advances and a political approach that at least for a while eliminated many of the worst horrors associated with industrialization.
The Triangle Fire occurred at a moment of radical challenge to the national structures of power. For more than a decade the union movement had been growing in size and strength, stretching from conservative craft unions in the American Federation of Labor to the radical Industrial Workers of the World, with emerging garment worker unions combining elements of both. During the two years before the fire, a wave of protests had swept through the garment factories of New York and other cities, beginning with the “Uprising of the Twenty Thousand,” a general strike of young female makers of women’s blouses, including those employed by the Triangle Waist Company. The struggle of the “girl strikers” proved epic. For thirteen weeks the clothing companies used thugs and police to try to break the walkout, while the strikers won support from organized labor, socialists and women’s groups, including prominent figures like multimillionaire suffragist and socialite Alva Belmont. The strike ended in a partial victory, union settlements with some 300 companies (though not Triangle) and a general improvement of pay and conditions. The next year, a cloakmakers strike brought the “Protocols of Peace,” an innovative agreement with the employers that solidified the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union and established a Joint Board of Sanitary Control to address the dangerous, unhealthy conditions that permeated the industry.
The garment strikes erupted from a world bubbling with the excitement of new ideas and movements—socialism, anarchism, women’s rights and industrial unionism. Even Theodore Roosevelt recognized that as a result of the rapid industrialization of the country and the enormous disparity of wealth it created, “The old laws, and the old customs…. are no longer sufficient.” What was called “the labor question” dominated political discourse—the issue of how to end the strikes and labor violence that had shaken the country and, more fundamentally, how democracy and economic inequality could coexist. Progressives and unionists sought to develop mechanisms to eliminate the worst abuses of capitalist society and give working people some say about their lives, on and off the job. Propped up by an expanding economy and a widespread belief in the idea of progress, a great optimism about the possibilities for change managed to survive the daily horrors of unrestrained capitalism.
The Triangle Fire catalyzed the forces of change. In its immediate aftermath, some unionists concluded that workers could depend only on themselves. Rose Schneiderman, an organizer for the Women’s Trade Union League, told a meeting at the Metropolitan Opera House, called to address industrial safety, “I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting…. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves.” Triangle spurred intensified union organizing, a crescendo that would peak in 1919, when one out of every five workers in the country went on strike, a figure never again matched.
But Triangle forced others to address the plight of factory workers, too. Democratic leaders in Albany, under pressure from the massive outpouring of public sympathy for the Triangle victims (some 400,000 people came out for a funeral procession), organized labor, the Hearst press, the socialists (one of whose leaders, Meyer London, got elected to Congress from the Lower East Side in 1914) and upper-class reformers like Wall Street lawyer Henry Stimson (who was to serve as secretary of war on two separate occasions), decided to embrace the cause of factory reform as their own. Two years after police with ties to Tammany were beating up strikers in front of the Triangle factory, up-and-coming Democrats Al Smith and Robert Wagner took charge of a state Factory Investigating Commission, staffing it with young female union leaders like Clara Lemlich, whose impassioned speech had set off the “Uprising of the Twenty Thousand,” and social reformers like Frances Perkins, executive secretary of the Consumers’ League. The commission’s detailed report led to dozens of New York State fire and factory laws (many copied in other states) establishing new safety requirements, limiting working hours for women and children, and restricting production in tenement homes.
The alliance linking New York Democrats with unions and progressive reformers persisted through the 1920s under the governorships of Al Smith and Franklin Roosevelt, before blossoming during the New Deal. Perkins, who had witnessed workers jumping out of the Triangle windows, became the first female cabinet officer as labor secretary. Wagner, by then a senator, wrote the National Labor Relations Act, which facilitated the triumph of industrial unionism. Thirty-five years after that, a similar coalition of unionists, reform-minded professionals and liberal Democrats (joined, for reasons of political calculus, by Richard Nixon) engineered the Occupational Safety and Health Act. By the time Rose Freedman, the last survivor of the Triangle Fire, died in 2001 at 107, the number of deaths from workplace accidents had fallen to fewer than half those at the time OSHA was passed and just a fraction of the toll at the time of Triangle.
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The unionization and reform that followed Triangle provides a feel-good element to an otherwise bleak story and accounts for some of its telling and retelling. Yet the triumphs—as remarkable as they were—proved limited in scope and durability. Government protections and benefits excluded many of the most exploited workers, like agricultural and domestic labor. And for garment workers, their moment of economic stability lasted only a generation or so; during the post–World War II decades, clothing manufacturers began leaving unionized production centers like New York City for rural and Southern locations, where organized labor was weaker and costs lower, and then for foreign shores. As the industry reorganized, sub-minimum and sub-subsistence wages, child labor and dangerous working conditions re-emerged, both in low-end shops in New York and Los Angeles that employed (as did the Triangle Waist Company) almost exclusively immigrant labor and in the vast archipelago of factories abroad—in Haiti, Central America, China and Bangladesh—where young women toil to feed apparel to American retailers.
The re-emergence of sweated labor in the garment industry previewed a broader degradation of work that has occurred since the 1970s, in the face of deregulation and economic restructuring. Many industries, like meatpacking, went from providing stable, well-paid, unionized jobs to operating dangerous facilities with low pay, poor benefits and high turnover. Manufacturing increasingly left the country (one reason for the drop in occupational fatalities). No one should have been surprised when in 1991 twenty-five workers died in a fire at a poultry plant in Hamlet, North Carolina, where doors were locked to prevent theft, just as at Triangle, or when two years later a fire at the Kadar toy factory near Bangkok killed more workers than at Triangle, the result of a similar combination of flammable materials strewn about, crowded conditions, inadequate exits and a lack of fire safety preparation.
Today, as a cult of deregulation, a rabid ethos of unrestricted capitalism and the ability of firms to play workers in one country against those in another have seemingly sent us careening back in time toward a pre–New Deal regime of labor relations, there is less domestic opposition to sweated labor than 100 years ago (though low-paid workers overseas have been increasingly militant, evident in the fusillade of strikes in China). Periodic waves of moral outrage sweep across college campuses in antisweatshop campaigns, but as an organized force, labor has weakened to the point that the percentage of privately employed workers who belong to a union is now lower than in 1911.
Given the enormous differences, politically, socially and culturally, between our time and the time of Triangle, it would be glib to draw specific lessons for today from the reformers who pulled some good from the ashes of the fire. But perhaps we can learn from their broad approach. The seemingly technical, incremental reforms that came in the aftermath of Triangle—requirements for sprinklers and fire drills and unlocked exit doors that open outward—were no more the result of modest thinking than the sweeping New Deal reforms like Social Security that came two decades later. Rather, they came out of a shared belief by socialists, unionists and even progressive presidents like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson that the society they lived in was fundamentally disordered, with institutions, rules and customs inappropriate for the needs of the people. The world needed reinventing. But if the spirit of revolution infused the air, so did the practical draw of social engineering and respect, grounded in daily experience, for the importance of even small changes in the conditions of work.
Today, the labor movement and progressives fight one dispiriting battle after another to defend wages, benefits, social programs and government protections from further dismemberment. Even the thrilling mobilization of labor and its allies in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana has remained, so far, defensive—necessary, but not enough even to win incremental advances. We live in a society that simply does not function for an ever-growing part of the population. It is too late to rally around restoring the status quo ante, an impossible and not particularly attractive ideal. Rather, like the social forces fused together by the flames at Triangle, we need to imagine a new way of being, a new set of customs and laws designed for our world of commoditization, financialization and globalization, which has brought so much wealth and so much misery—some new combination of regulation and self-organization. Only by recapturing the spirit of the reformers of a century ago, that the world belongs to us, to make right as we see fit, can we achieve even modest improvements in our daily reality.