News / USA

A Century After Triangle Fire, Labor Struggles Remain

Factory blaze that left 146 dead energized the US worker movement

Fire ladders only reached the sixth floor, and onlookers watched in horror as more than 50 people on the ninth floor jumped to their deaths to escape the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
Fire ladders only reached the sixth floor, and onlookers watched in horror as more than 50 people on the ninth floor jumped to their deaths to escape the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
TEXT SIZE - +
Peter Fedynsky

On March 25, 1911, 146 people died when fire swept through an overcrowded New York City garment factory. The victims were mostly young immigrant women. The so-called Triangle fire fueled public outrage over unsafe and unfair working conditions, which had already been at the center of a bitter struggle between labor and management. A century later, the battle is not over for many workers.

The tragedy happened near quitting time on a Saturday at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which was located on the top three floors of the Asch Building. A discarded cigarette on the eighth floor set off the conflagration. People on the tenth floor, including the owners, were warned by telephone and escaped.

Most workers - who were on the ninth floor - were doomed by a locked door to prevent theft, panic, a dozen pails of water and a small elevator. At least 50 burned to death. Fire ladders could only reach the sixth floor, and onlookers watched in horror as more than 50 people jumped to their deaths. Nineteen fell into an empty elevator shaft. Twenty more fell from a shoddy fire escape.  

Leigh Benin, a professor at Adelphi University and co-author of a book on the Triangle Fire, says greed and cut-throat competition among garment industry owners contributed to the tragedy.

“Their drive for profits persuaded them to do something that was unsafe:  put too many people in that space with too few exits," says Benin. "And they certainly didn’t opt to have sprinkler systems, which could have been installed, and they resisted.”

Safety had been an issue two years before in a 1909 strike by 20,000 garment workers. They demanded better pay and shorter hours at a time when 14-to-16 hour work days were common. But garment industry owners not only hired goons and prostitutes to fight women on the picket line, they also bribed police to arrest strikers who defended themselves.  Additionally, the Triangle factory owners did not recognize the union.

An estimated 400,000 people - one of every 10 New Yorkers - braved the driving rain to pay their respects to victims of the Triangle fire.
An estimated 400,000 people - one of every 10 New Yorkers - braved the driving rain to pay their respects to victims of the Triangle fire.

The Triangle fire revived public memory of the strikes. An estimated 400,000 people - one of every 10 New Yorkers - came in a driving rain to pay their respects to victims of the fire.

“And people wondered, had they won that struggle more decisively, had the union been recognized, would this fire have been avoided,” says Benin.

After Triangle, government officials could no longer ignore the public.

“There was this tremendous sense in this country that somebody should do something," says Katherine Weber, author of “Triangle,” a history of the fire. "For the first time, government wasn’t just serving business, wasn’t just serving the interests of commerce, but was actually expected by the people of the United States to take care of people.”

In response, the government set standards for workplace safety, minimum wages and maximum hours. Those standards remain in effect throughout the United States, but not elsewhere.

Last year, a garment factory fire killed 21 workers in Bangladesh.
Last year, a garment factory fire killed 21 workers in Bangladesh.

Just last year in Bangladesh, 21 garment workers died in a blaze similar to the Triangle fire. Shanaz Begum lost her mother in the disaster.

"My mother went to the factory for her night shift duty and as the factory caught fire she could not come out because the gate of the factory was locked and she died," she says.

After the Triangle fire, a jury acquitted factory owners Isaac Harris and Max Blanck of deliberately locking a door to prevent theft. The decision further energized the labor reform movement. But now, those victories of U.S. labor 100 years ago could become an empty triumph, as Americans lose jobs that are shipped to countries without adequate labor laws.

The building where the Triangle fire occurred is now part of New York University.
The building where the Triangle fire occurred is now part of New York University.

“Labor, if it wants to prevent that truly horrible eventuality from taking place, needs to be an international movement," says Benin. "It needs to have solidarity across national lines. The corporations are already transnational or multinational. The labor movement has to be the same.”

The building where the Triangle fire occurred was donated to New York University and is now known as the Brown Science Building. Plaques commemorate the victims, and their legacy for the American labor movement is remembered every year.

You May Like

Abuja Blast Impacts Lives, Livelihoods

Officials say they are looking at ways to help bombing victims and boosting security More

Cambodia Technology Adviser Criticizes Cybercrime Draft Law

Phu Leewood says current criminal code can be used to prosecute offenders and that there is no need for a separate law More

Photogallery A Year Later, Boston Remembers Deadly Marathon Bombings

City pauses to honor victims and salute emergency workers who came to their assistance in frantic moments after blasts More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Google Buys Drone Companyi
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X
George Putic
April 15, 2014
In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ray Bonneville Sings the Blues and More on New CD

Singer/songwriter Ray Bonneville has released a new CD called “Easy Gone” with music that reflects his musical and personal journey from French-speaking Canada to his current home in Austin,Texas. The eclectic artist’s fan base extends from Texas to various parts of North America and Europe. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin.
Video

Video Millions Labor in Pakistan's Informal Economy

The World Bank says that in Pakistan, roughly 70 percent work in the so-called informal sector, a part of the economy that is unregulated and untaxed. VOA's Sharon Behn reports from Islamabad on how the informal sector impact's the Pakistani economy.
Video

Video Passover Celebrates Liberation from Bondage

Jewish people around the world are celebrating Passover, a commemoration of their liberation from slavery in Egypt more than 3,300 years ago. According to scripture, God helped the Jews, led by Moses, escape bondage in Egypt and cross the Red Sea into the desert. Zlatica Hoke reports that the story of the Jewish Exodus resonates with other people trying to escape slave-like conditions.
Video

Video Police Pursue Hate Crime Charges Against Kansas Shooting Suspect

Prosecutors are sifting through the evidence in the wake of Sunday’s shootings in a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri that left three people dead. A suspect in the shootings taken into custody is a white supremacist. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, he was well-known to law enforcement agencies and human rights groups alike.
Video

Video In Eastern Ukraine, Pro-unity Activists Emerge from Shadows

Amid the pro-Russian uprisings in eastern Ukraine, there is a large body of activists who support Ukrainian unity and reject Russian intervention. Their activities have remained largely underground, but they are preparing to take on their pro-Moscow opponents, as Henry Ridgwell reports from the eastern city of Donetsk.
Video

Video Basket Maker’s Skills Have World Reach

A prestigious craft show in the U.S. capital offers one-of-a-kind creations by more than 120 artists working in a variety of media. As VOA’s Julie Taboh reports from Washington, one artist lucky enough to be selected says sharing her skills with women overseas is just as significant.
Video

Video UN Report Urges Speedier Action to Avoid Climate Disaster

A new United Nations report says the world must switch from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources to control the effects of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the report (Sunday) following a meeting of scientists and government representatives in Berlin. The comprehensive review follows two recent IPCC reports that detail the certainty of climate change, its impacts and in this most recent report what to do about it. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble has the details.
AppleAndroid