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

Photogallery Pope's Easter Prayer: Peace in Ukraine, Syria

Pontiff also calls for end to terrorist acts in Nigeria, violence in Iraq, and success in peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians More

Abdullah Holds Lead in Afghan Presidential Election

Country's Election Commission says that with half of the ballots counted, former FM remains in the lead with 44 percent of the vote More

Russia-Ukraine Crisis Could Trigger Cyber War

As tensions between Kyiv and Moscow escalate, so too has frequency of online attacks targeting government, news and financial sites 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.
Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politicsi
X
Michael Eckels
April 19, 2014
There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politics

There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Face of American Farmer is Changing

The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. Reporter Mike Osborne says a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like... and why they might not be so troubling.
Video

Video Donetsk Governor: Ukraine Military Assault 'Delicate But Necessary'

Around a dozen state buildings in eastern Ukraine remain in the hands of pro-Russian protesters who are demanding a referendum on self-rule. The governor of the whole Donetsk region is among those forced out by the protesters. He spoke to VOA's Henry Ridgwell from his temporary new office in Donetsk city.
Video

Video Drones May Soon Send Data From High Seas

Drones are usually associated with unmanned flying vehicles, but autonomous watercraft are also becoming useful tools for jobs ranging from scientific exploration to law enforcement to searching for a missing airliner in the Indian Ocean. VOA’s George Putic reports on sea-faring drones.
Video

Video New Earth-Size Planet Found

Not too big, not too small. Not too hot, not too cold. A newly discovered planet looks just right for life as we know it, according to an international group of astronomers. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Copts in Diaspora Worry About Future in Egypt

Around 10 percent of Egypt’s population belong to the Coptic faith, making them the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. But they have become targets of violence since the revolution three years ago. With elections scheduled for May and the struggle between the Egyptian military and Islamists continuing, many Copts abroad are deeply worried about the future of their ancient church. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky visited a Coptic church outside Washington DC.
Video

Video Critics Say Venezuelan Protests Test Limits of Military's Support

During the two months of deadly anti-government protests that have rocked the oil-rich nation of Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro has accused the opposition of trying to initiate a coup. Though a small number of military officers have been arrested for allegedly plotting against the government, VOA’s Brian Padden reports the leadership of the armed forces continues to support the president, at least for now.
Video

Video More Millenials Unplug to Embrace Board Games

A big new trend in the U.S. toy industry has more consumers switching off their high-tech gadgets to play with classic toys, like board games. This is especially true among the so-called millenial generation - those born in the 1980's and 90's. Elizabeth Lee has more from an unusual café in Los Angeles, where the new trend is popular and business is booming.
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.
AppleAndroid