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.
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.
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.
“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.