March 25, 2011
Cross-posted from AFL-CIO Now
We hope you will share this special AFL-CIO Now feature on the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire with your friends, family and co-workers as a way to recognize America’s workers, past and present, who have sacrificed and continue to sacrifice so much to improve the lives of all workers.
When word got out two weeks ago that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker had ordered the windows of the state Capitol building bolted shut during the ongoing protests against his attacks on public employees, it was a chilling reminder of a similar action by the employers of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory.
Nearly 100 years ago to the day of Walker’s order—which he rescinded after public outrage—146 workers, mostly young immigrant girls, jumped to their deaths from the 10-story building, unable to escape a fire because factory foremen had locked all the doors. The owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, worried the workers would steal from the company.
Hyman Meshel worked on the eighth floor. When the rescue crew found Meshel, who was still alive,
the flesh of the palms of his hands had been torn from the bones by his sliding down the steel cable in the elevator, and his knuckles and forearms were full of glass splinters from beating his way through the glass door of the elevator shaft.
Thirty dead bodies clogged the elevator shaft. All were young girls. Among the many victims, the New York Times reported the day after the disaster, were two girls:
charred beyond all hope of recognition, and found in the smoking ruins with their arms clasped around each other’s necks….
Three weeks before the Triangle conflagration, the Protective League of Property Owners had held a meeting, indignant over orders by Fire Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo to install sprinklers in warehouses. Owners claimed the order amounted to a “confiscation of property.” The League wasn’t the only employer group to put profit over safety. As the New York Times reported, Fire Chief Edward Croker:
spoke bitterly of the way in which the Manufacturers’ Association had called a meeting in Wall Street to take measures against his proposal for enforcing better methods of protection for employees in case of fire.
His department had cited the Triangle building for lack of fire escapes just one week before the fire.
The working conditions at Triangle and other apparel factories had spurred tens of thousands of shirtwaist workers from more than 500 factories to walk off their jobs in November 1909. Led by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), 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. 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.
The Triangle fire resulted in enactment of stricter job safety and health regulations in New York and across the country. The ordeal of the victims, who are remembered here by Cornell University, has inspired countless memorials, tributes and documentaries, beginning April 30, 1911, when 50,000 New Yorkers marched behind empty hearses to memorialize those killed in the fire.
But as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire on March 25, it’s sobering to realize many of the lessons we thought had been absorbed must be re-learned again. And again. The Triangle fire, a symbol of unfettered Gilded Age greed, still stands burning before us—from lack of job safety and health protections, to neglect of the conditions endured by immigrant workers to the fundamental ability of workers to form unions and bargain for a better life.
The following three perspectives highlight how the issues behind the Triangle fire still have not been resolved.