One hundred and ten years ago today, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City caught fire, causing the deaths of 146 workers locked inside. Most of the 123 women and 23 men were recent Italian and Jewish immigrants in their teens and twenties: the oldest victim was 43-year old Providenza Panno, while the youngest victims were 14-year olds Kate Leone and Rosaria “Sara” Maltese. Most of the victims succumbed to fire or smoke inhalation inside the building, their deaths as invisible to bystanders outside as their daily toils had been in life. But witnesses also watched helplessly as 62 of the victims jumped or fell to their deaths from the 9th floor of the burning building. One of the deadliest and most infamous workplace disasters in American history, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire sent a deep shock through New York and the country as a whole, marking a turning point for the labor movement. The political establishment in New York awakened to the social crisis of immigrant labor abuse, a flurry of progressive legislation was passed, and the owners of the Triangle Waist Company, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, were disgraced. A closer examination of the details, however, reveals the broader societal reasons for the disaster which have largely persisted and continues to endanger, maim, and kill poor workers in the United States and around the world today.
The fire likely started from a lit cigarette tossed into a fabric scrap bin by a male worker or supervisor, as few women smoked at the time, but the fire jumped quickly through the cotton dust to the heaps of lightweight fabric all around the factory. Soon, the entire floor was roaring in flames -- the buckets of water hanging from the walls not nearly enough to slow the spread -- and workers attempted to flee. The floor only had two narrow staircases: within minutes, one was completely blocked by flames, while the other was found to be locked from the outside. Locking the doors of a factory was common practice at the time to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks or from stealing material from the company. The elevator operators for the two elevators servicing the 9th floor, Joseph Zito and Gaspar Mortillaro, both valiantly saved many workers’ lives by continuing to take people down from the burning level until the elevators failed. About 20 workers crammed themselves onto a fire escape, only for the poorly installed emergency escape to collapse and drop the workers to their deaths. Most of the remaining people trapped on the factory floor asphyxiated and burned. But at least a few dozen more chose to leap 100 feet to their deaths instead of die by fire. Louis Waldman, a New York Socialist state assemblyman and witness to the tragedy, years later wrote of the night: “Horrified and helpless, the crowds -- I among them -- looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies.”
At the time, the factory was considered state-of-the-art, with modern, well-maintained equipment, and the 10-year old building itself was designed to be fireproof -- indeed, the building was still structurally sound after the fire was put out. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was for a time held up as the model factory, head and shoulders above the typical sweatshop of the time. But there were no laws at the time mandating an anti-fire sprinkler system in factories, building codes were outdated for taller buildings and were rarely enforced anyway, the workers compensation law that was passed two years prior was ruled unconstitutional the day before the fire, and both government and law enforcement had largely sided with factory owners in labor disputes for decades. With a seemingly endless number of work-seeking immigrants in New York ready to be exploited, Harris and Blanck, like most factory owners of the time, had little incentive to care for the safety of their workers.
A week after the fire, socialist union activist Rose Schneiderman, who helped lead a strike for waistshirt workers two years earlier in the Uprising of the 20,000, gave an impassioned public speech about the victims in which she argued that only worker solidarity could bring about positive change for workers: “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… The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.” Others in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) and in the broader community turned to the government for greater workers’ protections. Frances Perkins, who later went on to be the first woman to serve in a US Cabinet and who had a large part in shaping the New Deal, headed a new Committee on Public Safety in New York City in the wake of the fire. Having witnessed the fire firsthand, Perkins would dedicate the rest of her life to labor reform. The work done by Perkins and her committee convinced the New York political establishment to take immigrant labor issues seriously, and led to the New York State Legislature forming their own Factory Investigating Commission. In just a couple years, the State’s Commission conducted interviews and investigations in hundreds of factories to determine how common dangerous working conditions were and what regulations were required to keep workers safe.
Blanck and Harris were indicted on first- and second-degree manslaughter charges, but avoided conviction. During the trial, in a disturbing echo of modern conspiracy theories around “crisis actors” giving false testimony about mass shootings, eyewitness and survivor Kate Alterman’s testimony was scrutinized, and the defense attorney convinced the court that she had likely been coached to slander Blanck and Harris. Just two years later, Blanck was caught locking workers inside a factory again. He was fined the minimum amount: $20.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was one of those moments in history that suddenly gripped the country and convinced huge swaths of the public that radical change was necessary: like the Boston Massacre in 1770, Bleeding Kansas and John Brown’s Raid in the 1850s, the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago in 1886, and the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis just last year. After each of these violent tragedies, after witnessing or hearing accounts from eyewitnesses, people all over were inspired to cause change, and a bevy of social movements working for reforms and solutions rose up. But 110 years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, sweatshops still produce the majority of our clothes, underclass workers still toil in dangerous and restrictive jobs, and immigrants still struggle for basic rights. What’s worse, the labor movement that made such gains for working people in the first half of the 20th century has been gutted by the last few decades of deregulation and concerted anti-union rhetoric from some politicians.
In the past decade, union organizers have allied with workers who don’t have unions for the Fight for $15 campaign. Starting with smaller campaigns at the local and state level in 2012, the Fight for $15 is now a national issue. This effort continues to expose not only the ubiquity of jobs that pay below a living wage, but also all the attending hardships that lead to shorter lifespans and unnecessary suffering. The covid-19 pandemic has thrown the inequity into an even starker light: consider “essential workers” in the last year being denied hazard pay and forced to risk their lives during a deadly global pandemic. The cause of improving conditions for working people intersects in multiple ways with women’s issues, immigration issues, the everyday difficulties of poverty, and so much more. We must not wait for the next tragedy to act; the tragedy has been happening all around us. Support workers’ struggles for better pay and working conditions. Participate in strikes, disruptions, boycotts, and other collective actions to force corporations and politicians to provide workers with necessary benefits, a living wage, and human dignity.
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Blakemore, Erin. “How a tragedy transformed protections for American workers.” National Geographic. 25 March 2020 (accessed 25 March 2021). https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/triangle-shirtwaist-factory-fire-transformed-protections-american-workers
Liebhold, Peter. “Why the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Makes for a Complicated History.” Smithsonian Magazine. 17 December 2018 (accessed 25 March 2021). https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/triangle-shirtwaist-factory-fire-makes-complicated-history-180971019/
“The Fire that Sparked the Labor Movement.” AFGE. 23 March 2018 (accessed 24 March 2021). https://www.afge.org/article/it-took-1-fire-and-146-dead-workers-to-change-workplace-safety-laws/
“Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.” AFL-CIO. (accessed 24 March 2021). https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/triangle-shirtwaist-factory-fire-makes-complicated-history-180971019/
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