Friday, March 25, 2011

The Triangle Fire: March 25, 1911

Today is the one hundredth anniversary of the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, which claimed 146 lives.  Although perhaps relatively little remembered outside the metropolitan area, it was a significant event and its legacy continues.  This is a sad and instructive story worth retelling.

But it is a story about more than a fire.  It encompasses immigration, child labor, worker safety, unionization, and politics and public policy.  Also at the heart of the story is the clash of aspirations—between a new start and a hopeful future meeting greed and exploitation.

New York City was in the midst of a great new wave of immigration at the beginning of the twentieth century. Millions were now coming from eastern and southern Europe, especially Jews from Russia and Italians from impoverished southern Italy.  The major destination was New York, with its famous Ellis Island processing center.

Many of these immigrants settled in squalid tenements in New York’s Lower East Side or Little Italy.  And they soon sought jobs to earn money for living or to send back home.  Thousands of women, including teenagers, gravitated toward garment work.

Initially, they toiled in makeshift factories in tenements, giving rise to the term “sweatshops.”  But two earlier immigrants, now entrepreneurs, realized that a dedicated factory could broaden production.  Although involved in various other factories, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris opened their flagship Triangle Waist Company in Greenwich Village.

The Triangle produced a significant amount of fashionable women’s blouses—shirtwaists—on the eighth, ninth and the tenth floors of the Asch Building.  The seamstresses working there were predominantly Jewish and otherwise Italian immigrants; there were a few men, some engaged in more skilled work. 

The wages were astonishing low and working conditions were appalling, and this prompted a widespread garment workers’ strike in 1909 and 1910.  Despite help from some outside sources, the strike eventually ended with only modest gains.  The biggest opponents of the strikers and improving working conditions were Blanck and Harris.

On March 25, 1911, a fire started in the Asch Building, possibly as a result of a cigarette thrown into a wastebasket.  The factory contained highly flammable material and within a half-hour on that afternoon, 129 women and 17 men were dead or dying.

Most of the victims were burned inside the workspaces while others died by jumping or falling down the elevator shaft or, even more incredibly, by jumping out the windows.  There was evidence that one exit door was locked to ensure that workers did not leave for the day with pilfered items.  A confluence of inadequate fire safety measures, including the lack of any previous fire drill, doomed the workers.

In the aftermath of the fire, New Yorkers demanded some action.  The owners were able to escape any criminal or even civil penalties.  But public officials saw the need for reform. 

Opportunistic Tammany Hall lined up for some reform in order to troll for votes from immigrants and labor while dedicated reformers such as future Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins helped to achieve shorter working hours and tougher safety regulations.  Rising state legislator Al Smith was able to effectively straddle both camps.

The Triangle workers’ legacy is an argument for governmental protections.  These modest workers also helped to further the urban labor movement.  Today much of these guarantees are taken for granted and, perhaps as a result, the importance of unions and collective bargaining is sometimes forgotten or ignored.

Men are not angels, as James Madison reminded us in Federalist 51, and the ability of countervailing forces to address corruption and greed remains essential.  Those who died one hundred years ago were unwitting martyrs who called attention to an industry then undergirded by exploitation.

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