100 years since the Triangle Shirtwaist fire disaster


Ceremonies and events honouring the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire – which killed 146 garment workers, most of them young women, and spurred the first nationwide call for workplace safety – continued yesterday morning.

‘We hope you will share this special AFL-CIO Now feature on the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire with your friends, family and co-workers as a way to recognise America’s workers, past and present, who have sacrificed and continue to sacrifice so much to improve the lives of all workers,’ said the US union federation.

It added: ‘When word got out two weeks ago that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker had ordered the windows of the state Capitol building bolted shut during the ongoing protests against his attacks on public employees, it was a chilling reminder of a similar action by the employers of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory.

‘Nearly 100 years ago to the day of Walker’s order, which he rescinded after public outrage, 146 workers, mostly young immigrant girls, jumped to their deaths from the ten-story building, unable to escape a fire because factory foremen had locked all the doors.

‘The owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, were worried the workers would steal from the company.

‘Thirty dead bodies clogged the elevator shaft. All were young girls.

‘Three weeks before the Triangle conflagration, the Protective League of Property Owners had held a meeting, indignant over orders by Fire Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo to install sprinklers in warehouses.

‘Owners claimed the order amounted to a “confiscation of property.” The League wasn’t the only employer group to put profit over safety.

‘As the New York Times reported, Fire Chief Edward Croker: “spoke bitterly of the way in which the Manufacturers’ Association had called a meeting in Wall Street to take measures against his proposal for enforcing better methods of protection for employees in case of fire.”

‘His department had cited the Triangle building for lack of fire escapes just one week before the fire.

‘The working conditions at Triangle and other apparel factories had spurred tens of thousands of shirtwaist workers from more than 500 factories to walk off their jobs in November 1909.

‘Led by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), they demanded a 20 per cent pay raise, a 52-hour workweek and extra pay for overtime.

‘They also called for adequate fire escapes and open doors from the factories to the street. By February 1910, most of the small and midsized factories, and some of the larger employers, had negotiated a settlement for higher pay and shorter hours.

‘One of the companies that refused to settle was the Triangle Waist Company, one of New York’s largest garment makers.

‘The Triangle fire resulted in enactment of stricter job safety and health regulations in New York and across the country.

‘The ordeal of the victims, who are remembered here by Cornell University, has inspired countless memorials, tributes and documentaries, beginning April 30, 1911, when 50,000 New Yorkers marched behind empty hearses to memorialize those killed in the fire.

‘But as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire on March 25, it’s sobering to realise many of the lessons we thought had been absorbed must be re-learned again and again.

‘The Triangle fire, a symbol of unfettered Gilded Age greed, still stands burning before us – from lack of job safety and health protections, to neglect of the conditions endured by immigrant workers to the fundamental ability of workers to form unions and bargain for a better life.

‘The following three perspectives highlight how the issues behind the Triangle fire still have not been resolved.

America’s Immigrant Workers

‘When most of us think how the immigrant workers were treated at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, we are convinced such environments no longer exist in this country.

‘Not so, says Ai-jen Poo. As the founder of Domestic Workers United based in New York, Poo has helped lead a movement of some of the nation’s most invisible workers, those not covered by standard US labour laws and hidden from view in countless homes.

‘Last year, through the efforts of Domestic Workers United, the New York State Legislature enacted a precedent-setting law covering the wages, severance pay and sick days of the state’s estimated 200,000 nannies and housekeepers.

‘The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights is a model for domestic workers who, despite the odds, are joining together and demanding their basic human rights on the job.

‘ “Some of the industries today where many immigrant workers are on the job are unregulated and have fallen outside the protection of existing labour laws, including the right to organise”, says Poo.

‘But while these industries were once considered marginal, “they are increasingly defining the entire direction of this economy, where workers, whether immigrant or not, are experiencing dangerous working conditions, long working hours and low wages.”

‘This “shadow” economy, with its long hours, low wages and dangerous conditions in which people are overworked and yet still poor, is “more the norm,” says Poo – and worse.

Job Safety and Health

‘Last April, 99 years after the Triangle disaster, 29 miners were killed at West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch mine in an explosion that the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) says could have been prevented if the mine had been in compliance with federal mine safety rules. Massey Energy, the mine’s owner, has a significant history of safety violations.

‘The coal industry isn’t the only one where US workers die at work. In 2008, 5,214 workers were killed on the job, another 50,000 workers died from occupational diseases, and at least 4.6 million workers were reported injured.

‘The American Petroleum Institute, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Association of American Railroads, the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, and lobbies representing health care, banking, and telecommunication providers are lobbying to scale back the gamut of job safety and health laws that protect millions of workers.

And Republicans are doing their bidding

‘The Republican leadership is trying to drive home the message, in Speaker John Boehner’s words, that “excessive regulation costs jobs” and that the “path to prosperity” is by “getting government out of the way.”

‘Americans of earlier generations, who enjoyed the benefits of the Progressive Era and the New Deal reforms, and the political clout of a vibrant labor movement, understood this was nonsense, but it seems like the lessons of the past have to be relearned again.

‘When newly-elected Republican Governor Scott Walker proposed taking collective bargaining rights away from Wisconsin public employees early this year, Chad Goldberg joined tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of state residents to protest against the move.

‘He and others spent the night at the Capitol to ensure the governor didn’t shut them out, in addition to taking part in rallies during the state’s bitter winter.

‘The Wisconsin uprising has lasted for more than five weeks, sparking solidarity rallies across the country and generating support from as far away as Egypt and Australia.

‘Goldberg, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, notes the bitter irony that on the 100th anniversary of the Triangle fire, “Walker is turning the clock back in Wisconsin, refusing to work with unions or allow public employees to bargain over working conditions.”

‘ “The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire showed what can happen when employers refuse to work with unions,” says Goldberg, vice president of United Faculty & Academic Staff (UFAS), AFT Local 223.

“If the factory owners had negotiated with the garment workers’ union, which demanded a decent fire escape and better safety conditions, 146 lives would have been saved.”

‘The Republican-controlled legislature approved Walker’s proposal to gut collective bargaining, saying the action would help the state’s budget.

‘But Goldberg and others know the move was political, taking away the freedom of workers to bargain has nothing to do with balancing the budget.

‘In state after state, similar attacks on the rights of workers to bargain for good middle class jobs are aimed at gutting the strength of workers and stacking the deck in favour of CEOs and Wall Street.

‘Collective bargaining rights are a matter of basic fairness, says Goldberg. Collective bargaining “strengthens shared governance, needed checks and balances and accountability and improves working conditions.”

‘The Triangle fire “also showed how arrogance and oppression can galvanise the public to demand better treatment for workers,” he says. “The governor’s arrogance, the arrogance of the public legislators, the way they’re overreaching and the extremist nature of their agenda is really fuelling a public reaction in defence of workers’ rights and public services.”

‘The Triangle fire led to the growth of the garment workers’ union and the strengthening of fire, health, and labour regulations.

‘Today in Wisconsin, we’re seeing the same kind of public mobilisation to defend workers’ rights and the public services on which working families depend.’