The Triangle Waist Company, site of the fire that fanned the U.S. union movement into full flame, was housed, ironically, in the Asch Building.
On Saturday, March 25, 1911, it became an inferno, snuffing out the lives of 146 employees, mostly women, primarily immigrants, about two-thirds Jewish and one-third Italian, over one-half of them teenagers. Many were girls as young as twelve or thirteen years old. Child labor was routine at the time, as was weekend work.
Triangle’s owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, placed immense pressure on the women to force their treadle sewing machines, like racehorses in their final lap, to produce women’s shirtwaist garments ever-faster. Their goal, not surprisingly, was to raise the factory’s profitability in an increasingly competitive field.
The Asch Building stood in the heart of New York’s Greenwich Village. Triangle Waist Company, a million dollar a year business, was one of the best-equipped factories of its day. Still, it was a horrible sweatshop with few safety provisions and almost no protections for workers against unfairly low pay, discrimination, sexual harassment, and certainly no paid sick leave, health insurance, or vacation.
Precautions against fire consisted of twelve red buckets of water.
Tension Between Workers and Owners Escalates; Women Lead Change
Workers’ families’ bitter poverty made them grateful for their jobs, but a sense of injustice had begun to swell into organized protests for better pay and working conditions. The specter of unionization sharpened the divide between the workers and their bosses, who were not above hiring thugs to beat and harass workers participating in the demonstrations.
None of this deterred the courageous women determined to call attention to the workers’ plight, including their own. Women like Clara Lemlich, who speaking in Yiddish to a massive audience at Cooper Union in 1909, declared she had “no more patience for talk,” and called for a general strike. Thus began what became known as the “Uprising of 20,000.”
Significantly for Women’s History Month, this eleven-week strike marked a turning point not just in advancing employee unions and the concept of collective bargaining but also in forcing the entirely male leadership in needle trade unions to include women in their agenda. Even the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union was led by men for most of its history.
The Triangle factory owners, like the women who refused to abandon their picket lines, were immigrants–Jewish tailors from Eastern Europe. But poor as they were when they arrived on these golden shores, Harris and Blanck had one overarching privilege: their gender. With it came access to capital and a sense of entitlement to create a business and run it as they wished.
Tragedy Inevitable, Cowardice a Choice
By 1911, employee unrest was roiling the garment industry. Simultaneously, the absence of safety rules made it inevitable that someday, somewhere, a tragedy would occur.
Having been alerted to the fire’s presence by phone—certainly evidence of privilege in those pre-cell phone days—Harris and Blanck became profiles in cowardice. They escaped from their 10th floor offices by going to the roof and scrambling to the next building, leaving their workers trapped on the 9th floor. Fire ladders of the day went only as high as the 6th floor.
From the ashes of the Triangle tragedy sprang strikes all across the city. The union movement gained enormous support when the need to regulate working conditions became seared into public consciousness by 146 fire victims lying dead around what remained of the Asch building.
Wealthy women like financier J.P. Morgan’s daughter Ann began to take up the workers’ cause. Sympathy for workers began to show up in media reports.
Today, if you appreciate the minimum wage, workplace safety laws, or sick, holiday, and vacation leave, just to name a few, you can thank unions—but even more, the passionately committed women like Lemlich, Pauline Newman, and Rose Schneiderman, who contributed to fair and safe working conditions in ways more profound than the history books ever tell us. Frances Perkins, the first female cabinet secretary, whom President Franklin Roosevelt appointed secretary of labor in 1933, credited the Triangle fire as her defining moment:
[S]he watched helplessly as 146 workers, most of them young women, died in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Many, she remembered, clasped their hands in prayer before leaping to their deaths from the upper-floor windows of a tenement building that lacked fire escapes. It was, as Perkins later explained, “seared on my mind as well as my heart—a never-to-be-forgotten reminder of why I had to spend my life fighting conditions that could permit such a tragedy.
Around the country, federal and state legislation began to set standards for worker safety, minimum wage, fair treatment, and union rights to organize and bargain collectively with employers. But as activists like Rose Schneiderman have pointed out, women had to burn first.
From the Lower East Side in 1911 to the Wisconsin Statehouse Today
You can take a virtual walking tour of the Triangle Fire and events leading surrounding it here. And check out Maryanne Russell’s slide show of the chalk project here. There are dozens of commemorative events this year because of the 100th anniversary.
But it’s not just history. The Triangle Fire’s 100th anniversary is a cautionary tale for today. The selfishness, greed, and disregard for workers’ rights that led to the Triangle Waist Company carnage was doused but far from extinguished.
Harris and Blanck were acquitted on manslaughter charges. They got a million dollars in insurance money and quietly went back into business. Today, their legacy can be found in the likes of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who under the guise of legitimate state budget balancing is doing his best to destroy the right to collective bargaining under any circumstance.
Like a triangle’s three points, we can learn these three lessons from the Triangle Fire experience.
1. Women, the poor, and the otherwise oppressed or marginalized are the centrifuge of advances for social justice. They bear the injustices on their backs. Their pleas for fair treatment go unheeded until there is a catastrophic moment and suddenly, everything changes. They become the heroines and heroes as a new political narrative political is constructed.
2. There will always be a surfeit of greedy people willing to take advantage of others’ vulnerabilities–their dire need to feed their children that very day, their color or gender or language barrier–to line their own pockets. These people hold the power (as in whoever has the gold makes the rules) until that moment when avarice goes too far and people turn on them. The Triangle Waist Company and Tahrir Square have that in common.
3. All social movements eventually bloat. They may trip over their own success. But that doesn’t negate the righteousness of their mission. It simply means they must find ways to rejuvenate themselves. The public employee unions in Wisconsin might just have been given that chance. Perhaps the commemoration of the Triangle Fire, which happened a century ago, will illuminate this and bring forth a new era of progressive advancement for American workers.