In March of 1911, New York City residents watched in horror as fire leapt from the 10 story Asch building that housed The Triangle Shirt Waist Company. That day, 146 workers, mostly young Jewish and immigrant women, died. Over one hundred years later, there continues to be hundreds of deaths every year around the globe due to textile mill fires. Why is this still happening and what can we do to prevent it happening in the future?
‘One of the worst industrial disasters in American History occurred just over one hundred years ago at the factory of Triangle Waist Company (often referred to as the Triangle Shirtwaist Company), located near New York City’s Washington Square Park, the hub of the downtown community at the time, on March 25, 1911. Minutes before quitting time, a fire broke out on the eighth floor of the sweatshop. By the time the fire was extinguished, less than half an hour later, 146 workers – mostly young immigrant women- had perished. Many of them died publicly and in the most horrific manner imaginable- by throwing themselves, in some cases ablaze, out of the upper story windows of the burning building.
In the fashion industry today, the concept of zero-waste design (the financial and ecologically motivated movement to “leave not so much as a scrap of fabric on the cutting room floor) stands in stark comparison to the practices of dressmaking one hundred years ago, when a disregard for environmental hazards and a lack of concern for worker safety made such devastating accidents almost inevitable. At the Triangle, scraps of cloth, lace, thread, and paper patterns were strewn in bins at the workers’ feet, left on tables, and piled on the wooden floors. The air was filled with lint, and industrial oil was on hand to lubricate the sewing machines. There was an insufficient number of water buckets (used to douse small fires), the fire escape was rickety, the fire hoses were rotted through, escape routes (such as windows and doors) were impeded or blocked, thus trapping the workers inside. And to make matters worse, within this environment, smoking was common. As a result of these conditions, the flames tore through factory floors, burning and asphyxiating the people inside (Margolis, T., 2011).’ As a final insult, the doors had been locked and chained from the inside by managers to prevent theft. Even though some of the workers were able to make it to the door, they were not able to get outside. Some died there, only inches from freedom.
‘Until the twentieth century, the American workplace was largely unregulated. Growth of the factory system, combined with the American belief of freedom, produced an atmosphere ripe for corporate abuse of workers in nineteen century factories. Legal theorists argued that “liberty of contract” gave both workers and companies freedom to agree to wages and working conditions, such as the length of the work week. This view, however, assumed equal bargaining power between the workers and the company, which did not exist in practice (Rose, C., 2004).’ Fatigue from long work hours and blocked pathways and escape routes was a deadly combination for the Shirtwaist factory workers.
‘The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire ignited public outrage. The next year, more than 50,000 textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, led by the Industrial Workers of the World, nicknamed the “Wobblies”, went on strike. The workers faced arrest, violence at the hands of police and militia, and women and children were attacked by police as they attempted to leave town. Local, state, and federal government officials and law enforcement found themselves caught between laborers and industrialists as labor conditions and corporate demands faced off in conflict (Wilmoth Lerner, A., 2006).’
On June 30, 1912, an act to create a commission to investigate the conditions under which manufacturing is carried out became law. ‘The commission was authorized by the legislature to inquire into the existing conditions under which manufacturing is carried on in cities of the first and second class in this state, including matters affecting the health and safety of the operatives as well as the security and best interest of the public…so that legislation might be enacted to eliminate existing peril to life and health (Preliminary Report, 1912).’
Even though The International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) was founded in 1900, it did not see significant growth until after the Triangle fire. ‘The evidence of corporate disregard for the safety of the workers was a significant spur to the growth in membership of (ILGWU). The ILGWU became engaged in a series of ideological battles after 1920. By 1940, the ILGWU was one of the most powerful American unions, with more than 300,000 members. Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin Roosevelt, was one of a number of influential supporters of the ILGWU (Lerner, K.L., 2006).’
‘The Department of Labor, founded in 1913, and the 1914 Clayton Act, which protected the right to strike and boycott, helped labor unions to expand and advocate for workers. In 1935, as part of the New Deal series of laws, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relation Act (Lerner, K.L., 2006).’
It seems the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire spurred the community and the whole country to make vast changes. At the turn of the century, workers were regarded as unimportant and expendable. With the Triangle fire, people were starting to realize that things needed to change if they did not want to lose any more lives. ‘The Triangle Fire became a powerful impetus for labor reform, leading to over 36 new laws over the next three years to improve workers’ conditions (Rose Freedman, 2001).’
Unfortunately, America and many other countries are seeing the return of these unsafe conditions in the garment industry. In December, 1995, an explosion and fire at Malden Mills, a manufacturer of insulated fabric for winter clothing in Methuen, Massachusetts, injured 37 people, including several who were critically burned, and caused an estimated $500 million in property damage. In Bangladesh, between 2012 – 2013, thousands have died and been injured in scores of largely unreported fires in garment and textile factories. In 2013, seven people died in and Italian garment factory fire. The list goes on.
More than a century later, how could this still be happening? What can we do to protect the current and future workers from not only poor working conditions and forced overtime, but untimely and unnecessary death? We are facing the same obstacles now that we did a hundred years ago. Have we not learned anything? Many of the articles of clothing we wear now are made overseas where, often, the working conditions are worse that the ones that caused the Triangle Fire. As consumers, we must ask ourselves a few hard questions. Are lower prices at the store worth the price of what the laborers must endure to keep the prices low? What can we, as a community, do to improve the working conditions in the textile and manufacturing mills around the world? Each person must make decisions for themselves as to how far they will go to make these changes possible.
The changes following the Triangle Shirtwaist fire were swift and long-lasting. Unions were formed, thousands marched in protest in support and memory of the lives lost in this fire, commission were formed and laws passed. Slowly, it seems we are forgetting what our predecessors fought so hard to obtain. Let’s not allow the deaths of those 148 factory workers to be in vain. We cannot control the manufacturing plants in other countries, but we can stand up for the rights of the people who can’t stand up for themselves. One way to let them know that the neglect and abuse of the workers will not be tolerated is to boycott the sweatshops in which these garments are made. We can also let our government know that this will not be tolerated in our country, we can take the same steps that did starting in 1911, starting with protest marches and strikes. If we join together, we can make a difference.
As George Santayana (1863 – 1952) wrote, ‘Those who do not remember the past, are doomed to repeat it’.
Margolis, T. (2011). Constructing Memory and the Paradox of Empathy: Reconsidering an Image of the Triangle Fire. Afterimage,39 1/2(July-Oct.), 25-28. https://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A266457042/BIC?u=nhc main&sid=BIC&xid=ba13717a. From the Shapiro Library
“Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.” UPI Photo Collection, 2011. Biography in Context, https://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CT4099940105/BIC?u=nhc_main&sid=BIC&xid=3e7f2d78. Accessed 3 June 2019
“New York Worker’s Compensation Act.” American Decades Primary Sources, edited by Cynthia Rose, vol. 2: 1910-1919, Gale, 2004, pp. 281-283. Biography in Context, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/ CX3490200306/ BIC?u=nhc_main&sid=BIC&xid=52419ac8. Accessed 21 May 2019
“National Labor Relations Act.” Human and Civil Rights: Essential Primary Sources, edited by Adrienne Wilmoth Lerner, et al, Gale, 2006, pp. 260-263. Biography in Context, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/ CX2560000101BIC?u=nhc_main&sid =BIC&xid=6593e33d. Accessed 21 May 2019.
“Rose Freedman.” Gale Biography in Context, Gale, 2001. Biography in Context, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/K1650001964/BIC?u=nhc_ main&sid=BIC&xid=6181b236. Accessed 21 May 2019.
New York (State). Preliminary Report of the Factory Investigating Commission. Factory Investigating Commission, 1912. Hathitrust Digital Library, catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000962976. Accessed 16 July 2018.
“If Union Families Don’t Look for the Union Label, Who Will?” Family in Society: Essential Primary Sources, edited by K. Lee Lerner, et al., 2006, pp. 267-270, https://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX2688300108/BIC?u=nhc_main&sid=BIC&xid=e85f0689. Accessed 8 June 2018. (From the Shapiro Library)