Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

How it inspires the struggle for workers’ rights.


A long-awaited memorial for the victims of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire will open on October 11 at the site of the disaster in Greenwich Village, New York City. The tragic deaths of 146 people, almost all of them young immigrant women, reverberated in the American consciousness, and led to the transformation of labor law during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration.

The dedication of this memorial coincides with one of the biggest years for American labor in decades. Last month, thousands of United Auto Workers union members walked off the job. The Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild walked the picket line together for the first time since 1960. And last week, 75,000 workers for Kaiser Permanente began the largest healthcare worker strike in American history.

In pivotal moments like these, leaders demonstrate where their loyalties lie. As we remember the injustice of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, and celebrate the advancements that workers have secured this year, Democrats have an opportunity to reinforce their historical bond with the American working class. Any elected official who claims to be pro-worker will be remembered for the actions they take right now.

We still remember what the key players in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire did and didn’t do 112 years ago. The owners of the factory, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, locked the building’s exit doors on the assumption that workers would try to steal materials. To cut costs, they left the building without proper ventilation, overhead sprinklers, and sturdy stairwells. We remember their greed, and the blood on their hands.

At the same time, we remember and revere those who took action. Organizations like the National Women’s Trade Union League worked to establish bodies like the Factory Investigating Commission (FIC). Their efforts resulted in the passage into New York state law of 36 bills addressing labor issues.

One of the members of the FIC was Frances Perkins, who witnessed the fire. “It was a horrifying spectacle,” she said. As a result, she devoted her life to the labor rights movement, and eventually became Roosevelt’s secretary of labor, the first female cabinet member, and one of the architects of the New Deal. Perkins later said that the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was “the day the New Deal was born.

The lessons from this period—for labor and progressives—continue to resonate in our current political climate. Some garment workers in California still make as little as $1.58 per hour, while employers spend over $400 million annually to bust unions. Unfortunately, efforts like these have succeeded: Union membership reached an all-time low in 2022.

But as we know from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, attempts to quash labor can inspire workers to organize. That same year, over 200,000 American workers went on strike—representing a 52 percent increase from the year before. This year, workers have blown past that figure, with over 350,000 having struck as of September 15.

Last month, President Joe Biden joined striking UAW workers and became the first sitting president to walk a picket line. It was a historic decision that even FDR declined to make, one that sets a precedent for future leaders. Other Democrats like Elissa Slotkin, Gary Peters, and Sherrod Brown have joined the UAW strike, too—a simple yet powerful gesture to communicate that the party stands with labor.

And Biden is not just walking the line. He’s walking the walk. He has appointed pro-union members to the National Labor Relations Board, and antitrust watchdogs to the Federal Trade Commission. His Department of Labor has raised wages, expanded overtime protections, and made other key commitments to worker’s rights.

But there are also politicians, including Democrats, who pretend to embrace the working class with no intention of acting in workers’ favor. The day after Biden joined the UAW picket line, Donald Trump staged a rally, supposedly in support of striking autoworkers—although almost no actual union members were in attendance. Still, he got the headlines he wanted: The New York Times shamefully wrote, “Trump to Woo Striking Union Members in Detroit, Skipping 2nd G.O.P. Debate.”

Republican Senator Josh Hawley joined the picket line, despite opposing the Protecting the Right to Organize Act. So did Senator J.D. Vance, who received a sarcastic reception from his Democratic colleague Representative Marcy Kaptur: “First time here?”

And as ridiculous as these Republican overtures may seem, they can’t be dismissed out of hand when Democrats have been steadily losing favor with working-class voters of all races.

That’s why Democrats—and Biden, the self-identified “most pro-union president in American history”—should double down on labor issues ahead of 2024. Biden’s path to victory depends on replicating his 2020 success with Rust Belt blue-collar workers, whose votes often hinge on whether they are in a union or not. The easier it is to join a union, the more workers will do so; the stronger influence those unions have, the more robust the Democratic Party will be.

Supporting the labor movement goes beyond the Democrats’ electoral stakes. A true rebound of union organizing and power could transform the American economy, reducing income inequality, and rebuilding the middle class that arose during New Deal–driven unionization.

After she witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire firsthand, Frances Perkins said it felt “as though we had all done something wrong.” If Democrats fail to persuade voters that they are the party of labor, the party may find itself echoing those words.

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