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.
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

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants 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.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs