Via the Nation, Remembering the Triangle Fire.
It was the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of the city of New York until September 11, 2001. The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers who either died from the fire or jumped to their deaths. The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, which fought for better and safer working conditions for sweatshop workers in that industry.
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...
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 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.
A century ago this week, in Lower Manhattan, a young social worker named Frances Perkins was having tea at the Greenwich Village townhouse of her friend, the socialite Margaret Morgan Norrie. They were interrupted by clanging fire truck bells. Then they heard the anguished screams: “Don’t jump!”
They raced out of the townhouse and ran toward the commotion: a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, just off Washington Square. Flames and black smoke shot from the top floors, and as they watched in shock, young girls and women, some alone, some clutching hands, inched up to the windows’ ledges — and jumped to their deaths.
Perkins would describe the scene in lectures later: “They couldn’t hold on any longer. There was no place to go. The fire was between them and any means of exit. It’s that awful choice people talk of — what kind of choice to make?” She added: “I shall never forget the frozen horror that came across as we stood with our hands on our throats watching that horrible sight, knowing that there was no help.”
The sewing factory employed more than 500 people, who worked long hours for low wages, in wretched and unsanitary conditions. They turned out “shirtwaists” — blouses with puffed sleeves and tight bodices popularized by the “Gibson Girl.” The factory owners had locked the fire-escape doors. The seamstresses were trapped when fire raced through the sweatshop just before closing on March 25, 1911.
In less than 20 minutes, 146 people, mostly Italian and Jewish immigrant women and girls, were dead. The last six victims were officially identified just a few weeks ago. Triangle outraged the public and offered a grisly example of how powerless workers were without collective bargaining, because unionized garment workers received better pay and had safer conditions. And it galvanized Frances Perkins.
Twenty-two years later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her secretary of labor, the first woman to serve as a Cabinet secretary. During her 12-year tenure, she directed the formulation and implementation of the Social Security Act, one of the most important pieces of social legislation in our history. Among other extraordinary accomplishments, she helped create unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, and the legislation that guarantees the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively. She also established the department’s Labor Standards Bureau, a precursor to what is now the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Perkins clearly had the Triangle victims in mind as she weaved the nation’s social safety net.
David Von Drehle is the author of the 2003 book “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America,” which recounts the history of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and its aftermath. He spoke with Linda Ocasio of The Star-Ledger editorial board about the historic significance of the Triangle fire and its continuing hold on the American conscience.
Q. Why does the tragedy remain compelling?
A. It speaks to people, because so many strands of our history come together in the story: American labor history, immigrant history, women’s history, New York City history, Jewish history. It was a crucial milestone in the political awakening of Eleanor Roosevelt. She later joined the board of the Women’s Trade Union League.
And also for Frances Perkins, who was an eyewitness to the fire and was on the Factory Commission that led to reforms. She became the first female cabinet member during FDR’s presidency, secretary of labor, and took the reform agenda into the New Deal. Perkins was an eyewitness to the fire.
It was a catalytic moment in the Democratic Party, which became a reform rather than a conservative party. It’s also a meaningful story to young people. They really relate to the Triangle workers; so many who died were teenagers themselves. It’s a piece of history they can relate to.
Q. Is Triangle still relevant to today’s unions?
A. I think the story continues to be important to the union movement generally, and especially the needle trades and textile workers of Unite, the successor to the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. Triangle speaks to the difficulties of the modern labor movement.
The issues of 1911, when 100 or more American workers were dying on the job every day — it was clear why workers would want to be part of a union. There were virtually no regulations on safety or hours to be worked, no minimum wage, health benefits or compensation for injury on the job. Workers were powerless, fired without cause.
The labor movement today is sort of in a struggle to make its value clear to workers and employers. But polling indicates there is still a strong philosophical belief that people ought to have the right to organize and bargain as a group. That sort of ground-level condition is still there, though not as strong as it used to be. A lot of people see teenagers locked in dangerous factories as different from schoolteachers arguing over merit pay and layoffs. People don’t equate them.
Q. How can unions still invoke Triangle to raise awareness of labor conditions?
A. One of the best things the current garment union does is call attention to work done for American consumers that doesn’t meet our standards for worker safety or compensation. Our ability to influence laws of Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia is limited, but it’s important to keep the issue in the public eye. It’s important in the United States.
The American worker in 1911 was at 50 times greater risk of losing his life on the job than workers are today. There’s been an improvement. Still, there are U.S. sweatshops. The story is how Triangle came to have such an influence, through organizing, voting, raising awareness, working within the system. That story is still relevant to solve the problems we have today.
Q. Have you been surprised by the attention to the Triangle fire anniversary?
A. The amount of energy that’s gone into commemorating the fire has only increased year by year, and this year, in New York and all over the country, it’s mind-boggling to me, given that this is a story almost completely forgotten in the 50 years after the fire. It was largely forgotten until “The Triangle Fire” by Leon Stein was published in 1961 at the 50th anniversary of the fire.
I couldn’t have done my book without his. My book was the first attempt to compile a list of survivors. Then Michael Hirsch took my list and ran with it. He put together the definitive list of fatalities. Another milestone in this was the Kheel Center at Cornell University, which became a repository for old garment union records and Stein’s papers.
Q. And the building where the fire took place still stands.
A. The building is still there (at Washington Place and Greene Street in the West Village). I lived for a time in the neighborhood and walked by the building all the time. It does add another compelling layer to the whole story, the fact that it’s right there in the center of everything, a block from Washington Square. It gives it a living quality a lot of history doesn’t have.