Long work tables and back-to-back chairs became deadly obstacles to workers trying to escape when fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in 1911, killing 146 workers.
As we stare into the murky future of organized labor, and hear how President Trump intends to reduce safeguards for workers, it’s worth considering the roots of union organizing. There was a time when safety laws were rare and largely ineffective. And there was little to no enforcement, especially where immigrants worked low-wage jobs, even in dangerous conditions.
A foundational moment for union organizing and worker safety was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City more than a century ago, on March 25, 1911. The fire caused the gruesome deaths of 146 people, many of them teenage girls. It was a disaster of such magnitude it spurred union organizing like nothing before it, and led to radical changes to workplace safety regulations and practices.
The Triangle Shirtwaist factory in Manhattan’s Asch building employed hundreds of workers, as many as 600 by some estimates, most of them immigrant women and girls. It was a true sweatshop: the work week was long and arduous, sometimes lasting eighty or more hours for a paycheck of $15. The Asch Building’s owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, who were known as New York’s “shirtwaist kings,” subcontracted their factory space to other businesses that hired garment workers and pocketed a portion of the profits. Subcontractors paid the workers whatever rates they wanted.
Conditions were ripe for disaster. The Asch building had four elevators, but only one worked, and it was located at the end of a long, narrow corridor. There were two stairwells, but the management kept one permanently locked—purportedly to keep workers from stealing or leaving before their shift ended. The other stairwell was also situated at the end of a long corridor, with a door that only opened inward. When it came time to clock out, workers were directed to exit via this single stairwell, where all pocketbooks were inspected. There was no sprinkler system, and the fire escape was small and shaky—woefully inadequate to support dozens of fleeing workers.
On Saturday, March 25, a fire broke out in a rag bin. An attempt to put it out was fruitless, as the firehose was broken, the water valve rusted shut. As people began to panic, every safeguard that would have worked had it been in decent condition failed. The elevator carted a few dozen workers down before breaking down in the heat. The first casualties were women who had been waiting to use the now-inoperable elevator but instead plunged down its shaft to their death—preferring that to a fiery demise.
Workers who fled using the stairwells found themselves trapped at the locked doors, trampled, and eventually consumed by the fire. A few, including the owners, managed to escape by heading to the roof and jumping to surrounding buildings.
Sixty-two people jumped or fell from the factory windows.
Arriving firefighters told of the horror of watching young women hurl themselves out of windows to their deaths on the street below. Some arriving onlookers puzzled at the bundles of garments and clothing piling up on the sidewalk around the building, only to recoil in shock when they realized these were the bodies of young women who had plunged to their deaths only moments before. The Firefighters’ ladders were too short to reach the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors where the fire raged, and their flimsy safety nets “ripped like paper.”
In less than twenty minutes 146 people lost their lives.
But that was not the end of the story.
On April 5, eleven days later, 80,000 people joined the mourners on New York’s 5th Avenue. Though previous efforts by the Triangle Shirtwaist workers to unionize had been thwarted by the building’s owners, some of the surviving women and girls were members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), and joined workers from other shops around the city to demand better oversight and enforcement of workers’ safety.
The ILGWU, in collaboration with wealthy suffragettes like Anne Morgan (daughter of J.P. Morgan) and Alva Belmont, proposed an official day of mourning. More than 350,000 people joined the funeral march. The union also organized relief efforts for the survivors, including orphaned children and injured women who needed support while recuperating. Organizations like the American Red Cross got involved as well.
While a grand jury indicted the owners on manslaughter charges, a jury found them not guilty. Various civil suits resulted in settlements requiring the building’s owners pay $75 per life, but the insurance policy paid Harris and Blanck $400 per life. The two actually made a profit of $60,000 from the disaster. They opened new factories, and in the years that followed, inspectors cited them multiple times for locked doors, inadequate fire escapes, and other safety violations.
The Triangle Shirtwaist fire led to New York State passing legislation mandating fire safety and other workplace safety regulations, and a newly-created state Department of Labor was tasked with enforcing those rules. Some of the rights guaranteed by the National Labor Relations Act in 1937 were a result of fallout from the fire, including the rights of workers to collectively address safety issues on the job, and to walk out if those safety issues persist.
The tragedy also spurred union organizing drives according to Bruce Raynor, president of Workers United, a group that grew out of the ILGWU. “It created a strong garment workers union,” he told the Associated Press on the fire’s centennial. “It helped to really start the modern labor movement.”
International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union Archives, Kheel Center, Cornell University
Mourners from the Ladies Waist and Dressmakers Union Local 25 and the United Hebrew Trades of New York after the Triangle fire. The impact of the fire was heightened by the thousands of people who witnessed the horror, including Frances Perkins, who became the Secretary of Labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In this time of renewed attacks on working immigrants and lower-wage workers, the Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy seems especially poignant. A recent survey of garment workers in Los Angeles reveals that 80 percent of workers in that industry receive no safety or health training when they start a job. Half report a lack of first-aid services in their factories, and some say they work for as little as $1.90 an hour.
In 2012, at the Tazreen Fashion Factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, 117 garment workers making clothing for the U.S. Marines and Walmart were killed in eerily similar circumstances. As in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory disaster, management had locked exit doors, and workers jumped to their deaths to escape the fires. Another workplace tragedy struck Bangladesh the following year when more than 1,000 people died after a factory building collapsed.
Although the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire occurred more than a century ago, workers around the world remain vulnerable to low wages, abuse, and treacherous conditions. We need to live up to the true spirit of unionism and do everything we can to provide for the safety and well-being of workers everywhere.