The Fire Last Time

triangle shirt waist factory fireAmericans tend to be fascinated by what’s new and to be indifferent to the past, except when they can use “tradition” to reinforce current prejudices and power arrangements. This has had an unfortunate effect on how we govern ourselves. We forget important lessons, and repeat old mistakes.

A century ago, on March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers, most of them Jewish and Italian immigrant girls in their teens and twenties, perished after a fire broke out at the Triangle Waist Company in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Even after the fire, the city’s businesses continued to insist they could regulate themselves, but the deaths clearly demonstrated that companies like Triangle, if left to their own devices, would not concern themselves with their workers’ safety. Despite this business opposition, the public’s response to the fire and to the 146 deaths led to landmark state regulations.

Businesses today, and their allies in Congress and the statehouses, are making the same arguments against government regulation that New York’s business leaders made a century ago. The current hue and cry about “burdensome government regulations” that stifle job growth shows that the lesson of the Triangle has been forgotten. Here, to refresh our fading memories, is what happened.

One hundred years ago, New York was a city of enormous wealth and wide disparities between rich and poor. New industries were booming–none more so than women’s and men’s clothing. The new age had created a demand for off-the-rack, mass-produced clothing that could be sold in department stores. The Triangle company made blouses, which were called shirtwaists.

Few of those who bought the new ready-to-wear clothing gave much thought to the people who made them. The blouses, skirts, and sweaters were sewn in miserable factories, often by girls as young as 15 who worked seven days a week, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. with a half-hour lunch break, and often longer during the busy season. They were paid about $6 per week, and were often required to use their own needles, thread, irons, and even sewing machines. The factories were overcrowded (they often occupied a room in a tenement apartment) and lacked ventilation. Many were poorly lit fire traps without sprinklers or fire escapes.

In November 1909, over 20,000 shirtwaist makers from more than 500 factories, led by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), walked off their jobs. They demanded a 20 percent pay raise, a 52-hour workweek, and extra pay for overtime. They also called for adequate fire escapes and open doors from the factories to the street. Within 48 hours, more than 70 of the smaller factories agreed to the union’s demands, but many of the largest manufacturers refused to compromise. The New York City police soon began arresting strikers–labeling some of them “street walkers,” which was literally true, since they were carrying picket signs up and down the sidewalks. Judges fined them and sentenced some of the activists to labor camps.

But the strikers held out and by February 1910, most of the small and midsized factories, and some of the larger employers, had negotiated a settlement for higher pay and shorter hours. One of the companies that refused to settle was the Triangle Waist Company, one of New York’s largest garment makers.

That July, another group of garment workers–over 60,000 cloakmakers, mostly men this time–went on strike. As the tensions escalated, both union and business leaders invited prominent Boston attorney (and later Supreme Court Justice) Louis Brandeis to New York to help mediate the conflict. With Brandeis’s nudging, the two sides signed the “Protocol of Peace” agreement that set minimum industry standards on wages, hours, piece-rates, and workplace safety and health. But the Protocol’s weakness was that it was a voluntary agreement, not a government regulation, and not all manufacturers signed on. Once again, one of the holdouts was the Triangle Waist Company.

Owned by Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, who were known as the “the shirtwaist kings,” Triangle was one of the most rabidly anti-union firms. On March 25, 1911, on a Saturday at 4:45 p.m., close to quitting time, a fire broke out on the eighth and ninth floors of its ten-story building. Factory foremen had locked the exit doors to keep out union organizers and to keep workers from taking breaks and stealing scraps of fabric. Other doors only opened inward and were blocked by the stampede of workers struggling to escape. The ladders of the city’s fire engines could not reach high enough to save the employees. As a result, workers burned or they jumped to their deaths. Experts later concluded that the fire was likely caused by a cigarette dropped on a pile of “cut aways” or scraps of cloth that had been accumulating for almost three months.

News of the fire spread quickly, catalyzing public opinion, and energizing a broad coalition of unlikely allies. It included immigrants, muckraking journalists, clergy, unionists, socialites, and socialists. Rose Schneiderman, an immigrant worker, socialist, and fiery union organizer, found common cause with Anne Morgan, the daughter of Wall Street chieftain J.P. Morgan. Frances Perkins, a former settlement house worker who was at the time a researcher and lobbyist for the Consumers League (and who later became Franklin Roosevelt’s trailblazing secretary of labor) joined hands with Rabbi Stephen S. Wise to demand reform.

On April 6, 30,000 New Yorkers marched–and hundreds of thousands more lined the march’s route–behind empty hearses to memorialize the fire’s victims. Numerous rallies, broadsides and editorials called for legislative action–ranging from fire safety codes to restrictions on child labor. In response to the outcry, New York Governor John Alden Dix created the Factory Investigating Commission, a pioneering body with broad subpoena powers and teams of investigators, led by two savvy Democratic politicians, state Assemblyman Al Smith and state Senator Robert F. Wagner.

Smith, Wagner, and the Commission members traveled up and down the state holding hearings and visiting factories. Over two years, the commissioners interviewed almost 500 witnesses and visited over 3,000 factories in 20 industries. They found buildings without fire escapes, bakeries in poorly ventilated cellars with rat droppings. Only 21 percent of the bakeries even had bathrooms, and most of them were unsanitary. Children–some as young as five years old–were toiling in dangerous canning factories. Women and girls were working 18-hour days.

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