Death in the “fireproof” factory

The Triangle Fire, Centennial Edition

“The floods of water from the firemen’s hose that ran into the gutter were actually stained red with blood,” wrote reporter Bill Shepherd describing the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire a hundred years ago.

I looked upon the heap of dead bodies and I remembered these girls were the shirtwaist makers. I remembered their great strike of last year in which these same girls had demanded more sanitary conditions and more safety precautions in the shops. These dead bodies were the answer.

For the centennial of the 1911 fire that killed 146 garment workers in New York City, Cornell University Press has republished Leon Stein’s 1962 book The Triangle Fire. This book by a former garment cutter and editor of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) newspaper Justice does more than chronicle the disaster but puts workers’ struggles for better conditions and the factory owners’ greed at the center of the story.

Stein interviewed survivors of the fire and meticulously researched newspapers and other resources of the time to capture with breathless detail the events of March 25, 1911, when the fire broke out at the Asch Building near Washington Square Park where the Triangle factory was housed. Workers—the vast majority of them young, immigrant women—tried to escape the inferno, but couldn’t.

In some cases, workers trying to flee the quickly spreading fire found doors locked or impossible to get through because they opened the wrong way. Others crowded onto the one fire escape, which collapsed under the weight. Firemen raised their ladders trying to reach women as they stood on windowsills outside the factory, but it was no use. The ladders went up seven stories. Triangle was on the eighth through tenth floors.

Women on the ninth floor, where they stitched together the shirtwaists, began jumping out of windows to escape the flames, dying on the streets below.

According to a report in the Times afterward, the building was “fireproof,” since, Stein quotes the newspaper, “it showed hardly any signs of the disaster. The walls were as good as ever; so were the floors; nothing was any the worse for the fire except the furniture and the men and girls employed in its upper three stories.”

The workers killed or burned or maimed beyond recognition were a minor factor in the estimation of the building’s success during a fire, since this was the last thing on the Triangle bosses’ minds. They actually chose the location in order to skirt what factory laws that did exist.

In the loft building with its high ceilings, bosses could comply with the regulation that stipulated 250 cubic feet of air for every worker, and still crowd workers onto the shop floor—a calculation that would prove fatal during the fire as women struggled to get around the long work tables to escape.

Another deadly obstacle to escape for workers on the ninth floor was the fact that there was just one exit available at quitting time when the fire occurred—a 30-inch opening in the partition where the watchman inspected their pocketbooks as they left. The other doors were locked.

The Triangle bosses’ utter contempt for the workers continued in court eight months later, as the company’s defense attorney depicted the workers who testified as criminals who stole from the company and as ignorant immigrants who were too stupid to find their way out of the fire. The company heads were found not guilty.

Outside the halls of “justice,” however, the verdict was much different, as workers across the city—and the world—came to the aid of Triangle workers and their families. For many families, the slain women were the sole breadwinners, and after the fire, they struggled to find a means to survive.

The Triangle fire radicalized a new set of workers and made union militants even more determined to fight. Meetings took place all over the city to memorialize the slain workers—some organized by radicals and unions, others by government officials and charitable organizations—and in most instances, audiences of angry workers and their families let their anger be heard.

At one meeting, Stein describes what happened when a speaker tried to praise the mayor for heading up the relief fund, and “at the mention of the Mayor’s name, hisses broke out in all parts of the hall. He was part of a system that protected vested interests of wealth and tolerated the conditions that had caused the death of their comrades.”

When he warned of an angry worker who came to his office talking about planting bombs, “the immediate effect was far from what [the speaker] wanted for now…the hall filled with shouts: ‘Throw a bomb under City Hall.’”

No trade unionists could possibly forget Triangle’s significance—since just over a year before, it was the epicenter of a historic thirteen-week industry-wide strike that brought the New York City garment district to a standstill.

During the “Rising of 20,000,” beginning in November 1909, young women and immigrant workers led the strike against unsafe working conditions and poor wages. Defying those who advised caution, including some union officials, the young women organized a militant strike that stood up to the cops and the bosses’ goons throughout the garment industry.

In the end, they had won modest pay increases, a 52-hour workweek, and a 2-hour limit on night work, among other demands—and the ILGWU had signed contracts with 354 firms.

Unfortunately, Triangle wasn’t one of those firms, and the workers who had initiated the walkout there had to go back to work without a union. Stein quotes Miriam Finn Scott, who said:

They had to go back without recognition of the union and practically no conditions.

On the 25th of March…it was the same policemen who had clubbed them back into submission who kept the thousands in Washington Square from trampling upon their dead bodies, sent for the ambulances to carry them away and lifted them one by one into the receiving coffins.

But this didn’t mean the Triangle women stopped fighting—far from it. Stein quotes Triangle survivor Rose Safran:

I was one of the pickets and was arrested and fined several times. The union paid my fines. Our bosses won and we went back as an open shop having nothing to do with the union. But we strikers who were taken back stayed in the union, for it was our friend.

If the union had won, we would have been safe. Two of our demands were for adequate fire escapes and for open doors from the factories to the streets. But the bosses defeated us and we didn’t get the open doors or better fire escapes. So our friends are dead.

The lessons of the Triangle fire still ring true today, as bosses continue to defy and work around existing laws about safety on the job. As it was 100 years ago, it will take more than laws alone to guarantee decent working conditions. It will take workers organizing themselves in their workplaces forcing their bosses to make safe conditions a reality.

As a young worker and activist, Rose Schneiderman, told an audience gathered at the Metropolitan Opera House in April 1911:

This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death.

We have tried you citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us….

I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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