Before 9/11, there was March 25, 1911. On that day, 146 mostly young immigrant women died in a factory fire at the notorious Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village. While there had been other disastrous fires, such as the fire that destroyed the ship the General Slocum, none gripped the imagination of New York or saw such a response as the Triangle Fire. In a few short years, New York had the most progressive fire safety codes, improved labor laws, and a new active reform movement. The Triangle Fire changed New York.
The Triangle factory was well known in New York City. In 1909, it provided the spark for what was to become the largest strike of women workers in US history, the “Uprising of 20,000” shirtwaist makers. New York City’s garment industry was marked by miserable working conditions, poverty-level wages, and a host of petty abuses workers were forced to endure. The vast majority of garment workers were recent immigrants – the majority being Eastern European Jews and Southern Italians. Most garment shops were small operations, with fewer than 25 workers. Profit margins tended to come through the sweating of labor. Shop owners, often just one step from both poverty and the sewing machine themselves, subcontracted for work with larger shops or middle men called jobbers. The contracted for the number of garments and the price per garment – piece rate. They then contract workers, paying them per piece. The margin between what they were paid and what they paid was their profit. With enormous competition, piece rates constantly fell, forcing shop owners to further sweat labor.
In the fall of 1909, an incident at Triangle brought 400 workers at the shirtwaist factory to the picket lines. (Shirtwaists were women’s blouses.) Triangle was unique in many ways. First, it was a large, modern factory employing hundreds of workers in an industry of small sweatshops. Second, Triangle’s owners owned factories outside New York City. Triangle also had a pattern of fires that was at best suspicious. And, lastly, Triangle was fiercely antiunion. These 400 workers, manly immigrant women, demanded better treatment. Quickly the strike spread to other shops eventually becoming an industry-wide general strike and spreading to Philadelphia.
The young workers were aided by a number of groups. Most important was their union, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the forerunner of today’s UNITE HERE!. The union was joined by middle- and upper-class women from the Women’s Trade Union League, a reform-minded organization dedicated to helping working-class women. In addition, ethnic and immigrant groups as well as the Socialist Party aided the workers efforts.
The strike was a bitter affair. Many shop owners hired thugs and prostitutes to disrupt the picket lines and abuse strikers. The city’s police all too often sided with the owners arresting strikers. And, the City’s magistrates jailed workers for disorderly conduct, declaring as one judge did that the workers “were on strike against God.” Elite women, including Eva Morgan, niece of one of the richest men in America, J.P. Morgan, aided the strikers. Some walked picket lines as a display of feminist solitary. When socialite Mary Deier was arrested along with strikers, it made front-page news. Morgan, put up her Fifth Avenue mansion as bail for arrested strikers. With public support behind the strikers and the busy season approaching many smaller shops began to settle with the union. For them, it was better to have a season than not. Over time, most of the manufacturers settled with the union and workers returned to work.
Triangle, with its vast resources, never settled. Instead, it used scab labor to keep its New York City factory open. And, it shifted production to its Westchester shop. While most other workers celebrated better conditions and higher wages and middle class reforms patted themselves on their backs, Triangle’s workers returned to work gaining nothing.
In 1910, the industry witnessed an even larger and more important strike, the “Great Uprising,” as the strike of 40,000 clockmakers was called. This strike was better organized than the 1909 strike, and also involved mostly male workers. What set this strike apart from the previous one was the presence of key industrial reformers, particularly Louis Brandeis. Brandeis was then a prominent corporate attorney and industrial reformer. He would soon become an important Supreme Court Justice, due partly because of his actions in New York City in 1910. Brandeis believed that the problems in the ladies garment industry could be solved through an industry-wide trade agreement between responsible partners – organized labor and a trade association. He believed that if these groups could come together they could eliminate the problems, become more efficient producers and be more profitable, sharing those profits with their workers. The agreement that was signed was the Protocol of Peace. The Protocol set minimum industry standards on wages, hours, piece-rates, and safety and health (called sanitation). Brandeis believed that if a floor on wages was established employers could not sweat labor. Instead they would have to find more efficient means of production to remain competitive and profitable. In short, to survive, garment manufactures would need to modernize or die. To police this system, Brandeis enlisted organized labor. The ILGWU was authorized to organize all shops in the city, to force them to join the trade association and sign the Protocol. In exchange for the police work, workers got improved wages and conditions. In addition, they began to participate in what Brandeis called industrial democracy, they were industrial citizens with rights at work.
Brandeis was called a genus and the Protocol were heralded as the solution of America’s labor problems. Academics and reformers came to New York City to study the Protocol and replicate it in other cities and in other industries. The thought that the most chaotic, primitive, and anarchistic industry in the country could be tamed, was attractive. Brandeis and others believed that not only would the Protocol solve economic problems in the industry, but it could solve the social problem of the sweatshop. Furthermore, it was a private agreement that could move the industry into the modern era of the 20th Century, out of the darkness of the 19th. In reality, the Protocol was never as complete or perfect as the press reports. But, it was clearly better – much better – than what preceded it. Quickly, Protocolism spread to other sectors of the garment industry. So, that by 1913, it covered almost eth entire industry.
So, on that faithful Saturday in March 1911, when smoke was seen at the Triangle Factory, New Yorkers were instantly reminded of 1909, the Protocol and how limited even those gains were. The Triangle Factory was running on a six-day (mandatory) workweek. Things were functioning as normal when the workday ended. There were by 1911, 500 workers working at Triangle. The factory occupied the top three floors of the modern Asche Building on the corner of Greene and Washington Streets in Greenwich Village. Triangle had moved out of the Lower East Side and had moved into a new loft-style factory. The building was ironically billed as fireproof. And, in fact it was as the structure survived the fire and is now the main classroom building at NYU.
We might never definitively never know the exact cause of the fire. Most likely, it was caused by a carelessly tossed lit cigarette. While this was the spark, there were pre-existing conditions that made what could have been a minor fire, a death trap for 146. Triangle management kept the doors to the shop locked to prevent workers from stealing, but also to stop union organizers from gaining access to the shop. Large chains locked one escape route. One stairway was used to store large barrels of oil – which ignited during the fire. And there were tons of scap cloth that turned into fuel for the fire. The internal fire safety system never worked. There were hoses that fell apart and water that would not go on. As the fire started on the 8th floor, workers notified management on the 10th floor. Most of the workers on these floors escaped. But, no one notified the poor workers on the 9th floor. Trapped, without exit, some choose to jump to their deaths onto the streets below rather than burn to death.
The site of young women jumping to their deaths shocked New Yorkers. Thousands came to the site and watched with hope as the City’s new Hook and Ladder tried to reach the 9th floor workers. But, the ladder only went as far as the 6th floor. Fire hoses couldn’t reach the top floor because of poor water pressure. And, fire nets could not catch those who jumped. All New York City could do is watch in horror helpless as its citizens died.
Frances Perkins, future Secretary of Labor in the 1930s and 1940s under FDR, was then a young social worker who lived nearby. As she watched the carnage, she was struck by the fact that she knew these workers. They had struck in 1909 and she had helped them then. Now, they lay dead. She asked how this could happen and what could have be done to stop, and how could it be stopped from ever happening again. When asked years later about what sparked the New Deal (social/political programs of Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression of the 1930s), she replied that it began on March 25th 1911.
In a future issue, I will pick this story up and look at how the fire led to the largest and most important series of reforms in New York. In a few short years, New York had rewritten it labor and factory codes and redefined the relationship between labor and the state. By 1915, New York City was at the forefront of reform. Leading this reform effort was an unlikely pair of young and inexperienced politicians. Al Smith and Robert Wagner. Smith, Wagner, Perkins, garment workers and their allies together, for better of worse, remade New York politics. The system they created lasted for over 50 years, parts of which are still with us.
As the anniversary of the Triangle Fire approaches, I believe it is important to remember what was lost and what out of that terrible tragedy was gained.
Richard Greenwald was raised in Middle Village and educated at Our Lady of Hope and Christ the King High School. He received his PhD in American History from New York University. Currently, he is an Assistant Professor of History and Assistant Department Head of Humanities at the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point. He is the author of numerous articles on New York City and working-class history. He is the author of the forthcoming The Triangle Fire, the Protocols of Peace, and Industrial Democracy in Progressive Era New York (Temple University Press, 2005) and co-editor of Sweatshop USA (Routledge, 2003). The views expressed here are his only and do not represent the US Merchant Marine Academy or the Federal Government.