The Triangle Fire Remembered: A Turning Point in Worker’s Rights

To commemorate those who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, marchers carried shirts aloft.
To commemorate those who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, marchers carried shirts aloft.Photo by Jennifer Ha.

One hundred years ago, on March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, then one of the most modern garment factories in New York City, caught fire and 146 workers, most of them immigrant women and girls, burned to death or were killed leaping from windows. The workers were unable to escape, in part, because management had locked the doors to one of the stairwells and because the fire department ladders could not reach the eighth and ninth floors where the workers were located. The fire galvanized the labor movement and led to laws governing worker safety and wages. Dollars & Sense reporters attended more than a half-dozen events commemorating the fire. Here is what they learned.

Two Views of a March and Ceremony

By Jennifer Ha

Despite the cold weather, many hundreds of marchers joined in.
Despite the cold weather, many hundreds of marchers joined in.Photo by Jennifer Ha.

Waving shirts aloft on long sticks, a crowd marched toward Washington Place and Greene Street on March 25, observing the 100-year anniversary of the fire that ripped through the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, killing 146 garment workers, most of them immigrant women and girls.

At the Asch Building, the site of the fire, thousands of people, including descendants of the workers, gathered to commemorate their deaths, which gave rise to numerous workplace regulations and galvanized labor organizing.

Much of the talk, both among marchers and the officials who spoke at the event, including Senator Charles Schumer of New York and Hilda Solis, the Secretary of Labor, turned to unions — their historical importance and the threats that they have recently encountered.

A memorable moment came when John Delgado, the business manager of local 79 of the Construction and General Building Laborers, invited an immigrant worker to describe what it was like to work in a non-unionized workplace. Speaking in Spanish, with Delgado translating, the worker described working without bathroom breaks, benefits, insurance or overtime.

Schumer focused on the fight over collective bargaining in Wisconsin, where the legislature, at the request of Gov. Scott Walker, terminated the right of public employees to bargain on most workplace issues. “He might have won the battle, but he will lose the war,” Schumer said of Walker.

From the National Archives.
Demonstration of protest and mourning for Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of March 25, 1911. By an unknown photographer, April 5, 1911. From the National Archives.

George Gresham, president of United Healthcare Workers East, local 1199, also stressed the importance of collective bargaining. And Solis talked about the importance of protecting the most vulnerable workers, including immigrants.

Many marchers were union workers who handed out union flyers or held signs identifying their unions. “I came today to support my union,” said Joseph Sanchez, a health-care worker and a member of local 1199. “Without a union, we would have nothing.”

Emily Rosen, a retired teacher, said she came because her union made it possible for her to retire with a pension and live comfortably.

One speaker who could not be heard was Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose speech was drowned out by booing marchers, who objected to his plans to lay off teachers and his talk of reducing the pension benefits of public employees.

By Miguel Sanchez

As the frigid March wind blew, hundreds of demonstrators gathered to commemorate the 146 people who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911, on Greene Street, and to listen to speakers remind the public of the importance of collective bargaining.

Some people at the observance wore T-shirts that listed the names of those who died in the Triangle fire.
Some people at the observance wore T-shirts that listed the names of those who died in the Triangle fire.Photo by John Lee.

The ceremony area was barricaded with four-foot metal fences and guarded by police officers. “The only entrance is through Broadway,” said an officer guarding the fence.

At a police checkpoint, one officer turned away a junior high-school student, saying, “Only people with a NYU ID can get by this area.” With a sweaty palm, I flashed my Baruch ID and passed through.

Closer to the stage, several people held on to wooden poles, each with a blouse attached at the top. Each blouse had a sash, with a name on it, the names of the women who died in the fire.

Other demonstrators held up banners identifying the unions they represent. Some carried home-made posters; one poster read, “When it comes to corporate profits, life is an expendable commodity.”

The ceremony began with a prayer from Rabbi Michael Feinberg, on behalf of all the families of the victims of the shirtwaist fire.

Then Bruce Raynor, president of Workers United, spoke about the shirtwaist fire and said, “We honor their memory as we’ve been doing in this spot every year.”

Senator Charles Schumer of New York said he was pleased to honor one of the darkest and deadliest disasters of our nation’s history. Referring to Wisconsin’s legislation, pushed by Gov. Scott Walker, to strip union members of many right, he said, “We will not let right-wing ideologues and Scott Walker Republicans undo your loved one’s legacy.”

Some demonstrators waved red signs that read “We are all Wisconsin.”

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg was introduced, many people in the crowd booed. “I hate that guy,” said one man. “Who do you think wrote his speech?”

As the mayor spoke, one woman in the crowd yelled, “Stop union busting!”

Trying to Organize Nannies and Other Caregivers

By Megan Ruiz

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire brought about many changes in the laws and conditions under which women worked. But at a Domestic Workers United conference at the CUNY Graduate Center, the point was made that a great deal of inequality remains in the workplace.

Founded in 2000, Domestic Workers United, a New York-based organization, aims to give nannies, caregivers and housekeepers equal protection under the labor laws.

New York City alone has about 200,000 domestic workers, most of them immigrant women of color, according to Joycelyn Gill-Campbell, the organizing coordinator of the DWU, and many of them endure poor pay and long hours.

Speaking on the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, Campbell pointed out the similarities between the working conditions of sweatshop laborers and those of domestic workers, and explained how she became an activist.

Campbell, who came to to New York from her native Barbados, said she studied nursing and, to help with her expenses, worked as a babysitter for an investment banker, earning $271 every two weeks, which was not enough for her to live on.

“I remember going to playgrounds, and I listened to the way the nannies were treated,” recalled Campbell. “The live-in nannies could not have anything to eat until the family was finished eating; then they were allowed to go to the table and eat what was left. That’s when I realized I had to be their voice.”

Asked how the DWU could protect its members, Campbell replied with one word: education. “We educate them on the domestic industry and their rights,” said Campbell, adding that the organization offers nanny training courses as well as English classes, because many domestic workers are immigrants with poor English.

At a conference in 2003, the DWU began campaigning for the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which eventually passed the New York State Legislature and was signed into law in November 2010.

The bill “sets minimum standards for an industry that was previously uncovered by labor laws,” the DWU website says, and guarantees vacation pay, sick days, overtime and appropriate wages. Recently, the DWU has been working on the right to collective bargaining.

How Shirtwaists Helped Create the New American Woman

By Rosanny De Los Santos

The growth of factories in the late 1800s and the increasing number of women in the workplace led to more practical styles of clothing for women and a more political view of their apparel choices, panelists at the Fashion Institute of Technology said at a recent discussion commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.

By the early 20th century, clothing reflected not only the practical needs of the workplace – where structured, flowing dresses and machinery were not a good match – but also the growing emancipation of “the new modern American woman,” said Kathy Peiss, a panelist and history professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “Women dressed to claim dignity and respect in the workplace.”

Daniel Cole, a history professor a F.I.T., said the need to develop more comfortable outfits for women workers led to the creation of the shirtwaist, which was modeled on men’s shirts, in the 1890s. Shirtwaists also were typically worn without confining corsets.

Janie Bryant, a costume designer for the television show Mad Men, discussed the relationship between what women wear at work and their power. Referring to Joan, a character in the show who wears sexy clothing to attract the attention of the men she works with, Bryant said, “Joan’s clothing demonstrates that she understands all of her assets, and uses her femininity to gain power in the office.”

During a question-and-answer session after the panel, some women in the audience reflected on how they dressed at work. One woman who started working in the 1950s said she was not allowed to wear pants at work for many years, echoing a theme that emerged during the panel – about the role of men in imposing workplace dress codes.

The Fire That Changed America – David Von Drehle Discusses His Book

By Yu (Amy) Zhang

On a snowy night in late March, David Von Drehle, the author of “Triangle, the Fire that Changed America,” took a crowded audience at the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side, back in time to the day, a century ago, when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory went up in flames.

Drehle asked his listeners to imagine that they were on the ninth floor of the Asch Building, where the factory was located. He pointed out where the elevators, stairs and fire escape would have been. He walked the audience through the horrifying nine minutes during which 146 garment workers lost their lives.

“This was like the 9/11 event back in those days.” Drehle said. “Hundreds of New Yorkers witnessed workers jump to their death,” because the Fire Department’s ladders couldn’t reach the eighth and ninth floors, where the workers were.

Drehle recalled the heroism of two elevator operators, Joseph Zito and Gaspar Mortillalo, who risked their lives, traveling three times to get the workers on the ninth floor because the door to the staircase had been locked by management.

The deadly fire inspired workplace regulations in New York and throughout the United States. In the 1910s, Drehle explained, “on average, 100 workers died on the job every day across the country.”

After the Triangle fire safety became a powerful political issue. Charles Murphy, head of Tammany Hall, New York City’s Democratic political organization, gave the green light to the Factory Investigation Commission, which eventually led to laws on workplace safety, child labor and wages. “The train was running,” Drehle said, and people had to get on board “or get run over.”

Drehle, whose presentation was part of the museum’s Tenement Talks series, received a long ovation following his speech.

“I think it was great,” said one man in the audience. “I know the event through reading the autobiography of Frances Perkins,” who witnessed the fire. But he added, “I definitely learned more tonight.”

Then and Now: A Theater Production and the Issues It Reminds Us Of

By Fabio Ulerio

After a recent performance of Birds on Fire at the Theater for the New City, two labor activists asked the audience to consider how labor conditions in the developing world still suffer from many of the problems that characterized working life in New York during the 1910s and that led to the Triangle fire tragedy.

The play, written and directed by Barbara Kahn, captures the dreams, love, disillusionment and struggles of four immigrant workers and depicts the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire – whose 100th anniversary was last month.

For Birds on Fire, Kahn reviewed Cornell University’s online archives of the Triangle fire and interviewed Roslyn Bresnick-Perry, an 88-year-old former garment worker and author from New York City who showed her how shirtwaists were made and how the machines worked.

“Our director was pretty thorough with providing us with so much information on the fire itself and on the lives of the workers and the day to day of what they would have been doing,” said Amanda Yachechak, one of the actors, after the performance.

After the March 27 performance, Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum and an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School for International and Public Affairs, said that in Bangladesh alone, 1,400 workers died in factory fires between 2006 and 2009.

“In Bangladesh permits are bought,” she said. “Regulations do exist, but they are not enforced.”

Gearhart was accompanied by Babul Akhter, secretary of the Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Workers Federation, who with Gearhart’s help (he speaks little English), explained that in 2010, Bangladeshi garment workers protested for better wages, and several union leaders were subsequently arrested. Akhter was jailed for 30 days, he said, and charges are pending against him and others.

Gearhart said that after the protest wages were increased, but garment workers in Bangladesh still have a hard time supporting their families. Consumers in developed countries could help workers in developing countries by purchasing clothes only from manufacturers who pay fair wages and maintain good working conditions, she said, and she also urged the audience to get involved with watchdog groups.

“We are too far removed from those who make our clothes,” said Gearhart.

In Birds on Fire, four immigrant workers are depicted: Renzo, who worked in a mine as a child and who has come to New York from Italy; Rose, his Russian Jewish girlfriend who emigrated after her family was killed by the Cossacks, and two friends, Maddie and Nell.

Puppets are used to depict factory owners and politicians. In one scene, a character reads letters written to the factory owners and city officials by university professors and union leaders warning of safety hazards at the factory; the puppets eat the letters, dismissing the warnings.

The narrative explores the personal stories the workers’ struggles against the business, political and religious establishments. Renzo, for example, tells Rose about how, before he left Italy, he had been beaten nearly to death by mine workers when he had tried to escape the mines. A priest rescued him, but told him that God would punish Renzo for his disobedience. What type of God, Renzo asks, would allow children to be treated as slaves.

Rose recounts a dream in which her dead mother, blood spurting from the wound inflicted by a Cossack, and a rabbi both appear. The rabbi yells at Rose for being in love with someone who is not Jewish. Rose cries and tells Renzo she cannot believe in a God who would allow such a tragedy

During the second act, the union members sing Unite!, composed by Allison Tartalia, which captures the feelings of angst and determination among workers and union organizers at the time. The voice and appearance of one performer, Noelle Tate, is reminiscent of Clara Lemlich, a 22-year-old garment worker who, in November 1909, stepped up to the podium at Cooper Union, during an organizing meeting of shirtwaist factory workers, and spurred a hall full of workers to go out on strike.

Footage of Lemlich’s speech, included in a recent PBS documentary, Triangle Fire, shows her saying: “I have no more patience for talk. I move that we go on a general strike.”

Birds on Fire is playing until April 10.

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