Remembering Triangle Shirtwaist

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

Firemen work at the scene of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in the Asch Building on New York's Washington Place, in this March 25, 1911, AP file photo.

One hundred years ago today, on March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers, mostly women and mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants, some as young as 14, died in a horrific fire. Most, if not all, of their deaths could have been avoided.

In a surprisingly passionate article in Fox Business, which I urge you to read, Elizabeth MacDonald writes

It was a fire that would change America’s labor laws and worker safety standards forever.

It would electrify a fledgling labor movement, galvanizing women workers into pushing forward the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, which fought to stop sweatshop worker abuses, child labor abuses and countless other labor infractions — labor infractions that continue at oil rigs and coal and other mines around the world.

Blame greed. Blame graft. Blame the union-busting efforts of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company and its two owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck. Blame their inhuman treatment of the cutters and sewing machine operators, 450 of them packed into three floors of the 10-story Asch Building, at Washington Place and Greene Street, in New York’s Greenwich Village.

The fire department ladders could reach only to the sixth floor.

Now owned by New York University and renamed the Brown Building of Science, it has been designated as a National Historic Landmark.

The fact that the building still stands testifies to the fact that the workers didn’t have to die. They’d tried to form a union to improve their working conditions. They knew they weren’t safe. A year before, the owners were cited for labor violations. Early in 1911 the fire chief lost a battle to improve safety conditions at Triangle and other sweatshops, defeated at the hands of Wall Street and Tammany Hall, the Democratic Prty’s monumentally corrupt political machine.

The fire broke out at quitting time. Frightened workers, who had to climb down eight to ten flights in the best of times, found one of the two stairway doors locked. Management wanted them all to leave through one door so guards could check for attempts to steal fabric and thread.

The shop foreman and the two owners escaped through a door to the rooftop, unknown to the workers, who were left to fight their way through the flames or jump to their deaths.

MacDonald continues

So why the horrific, unnecessary loss of life?

Because it was cheaper to buy fire insurance policies than invest money on fire prevention.

So, no warning systems, no fire sprinkler systems, only about two dozen buckets of water, no fire drills (not mandated by law yet), and no occupancy limits.

Workers weren’t told about the one escape route to the rooftop…

Workers were already fighting for better working conditions and pay, but the Triangle fire brought the matter to public attention. Conditions began to improve.

Now the radical right wing of the Republican Party is trying to roll back workers’ rights to the days before Triangle. If you haven’t yet made up your mind about whether it matters to you if labor unions flourish, remember Triangle and picture yourself at your sewing machine one minute, with no one to watch your back, and jumping to escape fire the next.

Workers and their allies all over the country will be gathering today and through the weekend. Here you can find out about these events. And, if you can’t join them, see streaming video of a walk from New York’s Union Square to the old Asch Building, starting Friday, March 25, at 10:30 a.m. Eastern time. Walkers are gathering there starting at 9:30.

Related links:

Walk Like an Egyptian

The Lesson of Upper Big Branch Mine

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