Triangle at 100: Back to the Future?

The Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911 led to major changes in our labor laws, writes Eric Alterman. But many of those gains have been rolled back.

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The burned-out remains of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York's Greenwich Village neighborhood are shown in 1911. The fire killed 146 workers, mainly young immigrant women and girls, and became a touchstone for the organized labor movement. (AP Photo/File)
The burned-out remains of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York's Greenwich Village neighborhood are shown in 1911. The fire killed 146 workers, mainly young immigrant women and girls, and became a touchstone for the organized labor movement. (AP Photo/File)

The centennial anniversary of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist fire occurs Friday, March 25. It will be marked with forums, plays (musical and dramatic), academic conferences, and art exhibitions in numerous American cities, as well as documentaries airing on both PBS and HBO.

These events recall the day when, just as work was about to let out, a tremendous fire broke out on the eighth floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company’s factory in New York City. One of the exit doors remained locked the entire time and the city’s fire department’s ladders only reached up to the building’s sixth floor, which was 30 feet below the burning embers.

The flames only burned about 30 minutes. But they ended 146 lives—mostly immigrant teenage girls, almost all Jewish or Italian. Rather than burn to death, more than a third of them died either jumping or falling out of the windows.

Triangle had only recently been a target of a 20,000-person, 13-week general strike by the city’s garment workers: the so-called “Uprising of the Twenty Thousand.” The workers were demanding higher wages, safer conditions, less brutal hours, and the right to unionize.

The strikers fought off company thugs and corrupt cops with support from fledgling labor organizations, Jewish social service organizations, Lower East Side socialist clubs, women’s groups, and the occasional progressive multimillionaire, like the suffragist socialite Alva Belmont. Some 300 companies agreed to settle but Triangle was not one of them.

The following year, as CUNY’s Josh Freeman recounts, “a cloakmakers strike brought the ‘Protocols of Peace,’ an innovative agreement with the employers that solidified the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union and established a Joint Board of Sanitary Control to address the dangerous, unhealthy conditions that permeated the industry.”

The strikes, the fire, and the conditions that inspired them led to a new sort of class consciousness among almost everyone who encountered them.

Around 400,000 people turned out for the funeral procession. Democratic politicians started to change their tune under pressure from the unions, the crusading newspapers of William Randolph Hearst, and more than a few sympathetic members of the ruling establishment, including most particularly Louis Brandeis and Henry Stimson. Even ex-President Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, came to recognize, “The old laws, and the old customs … are no longer sufficient.”

New York Democrats Al Smith and Robert Wagner oversaw a state Factory Investigating Commission. They hired a dedicated staff including the now-famous young labor leader Clara Lemlich. Her beautiful speech, given in Yiddish and taken from the Biblical oath, proclaimed: "If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither from the arm I now raise." It helped set off the original strike and continues to inspire today.

The commission’s report led to countless improvements in New York state fire and factory laws. These were mimicked in many other cities, reducing the level of exploitation and improving the health and safety of the workers who toiled in them.

While the story of the fire and the changes in the city’s laws is reasonably well-known, what is often not nearly so well-understood is the manner in which it led directly to the New Deal. Unions continued to work with state Democrats during the reformist governorships of Al Smith and Franklin Roosevelt until the latter’s presidency.

Frances Perkins, FDR’s secretary of labor, was America’s first female cabinet member. She witnessed the fire and the shocking sight of the young flinging themselves to their fiery deaths. She later called March 25, 1911, as the day the New Deal began.

Meanwhile, Robert Wagner became a senator and helped write and pass the famous Wagner Act, or National Labor Relations Act, which paved the way for unions to organize the workforce without fear of government intervention on behalf of the bosses.

Today, many of those gains have been lost. Freeman notes, “a cult of deregulation, a rabid ethos of unrestricted capitalism and the ability of firms to play workers in one country against those in another have seemingly sent us careening back in time toward a pre-New Deal regime of labor relations.”

And time rushes backward when measured in terms of the health and safety of our workers. Twenty-five workers burned to death in 1991 in a chicken-packing plant in Hamlet, NC. The exit doors were locked, just as at Triangle.

Meanwhile, private-sector unions are weaker than at any time since the Wagner Act was passed. Tom Robbins writes in the Jewish Daily Forward that in 2009, “Figures showed that, for the first time, public sector workers covered by union contracts outnumbered private sector workers.” The latter now make up less than 7 percent of the eligible workforce.

Is it any wonder that conservative politicians, funded by the likes of the Koch brothers, have launched their present assault on public service unions in so many states simultaneously? As the right-wing Wall Street Journal editorial writers warned back then, “The agenda for American political reform needs to include the breaking of public unionism’s power to capture an ever-larger share of private income.”

That’s why some conservative legislators want to cut off entire families from food stamp eligibility if one of its members goes on strike. That’s why the governor of Maine wants to cover up a 36-foot-wide mural of the state’s labor history, which includes images of worker strikes and “Rosie the Riveter.” Blaming teachers, caregivers, firefighters, and the like helps keep people’s minds off the folks who really caused the financial crises that left states and localities in their current state of crisis.

“Large moneyed interests control the media,” explains Peter Ward of New York’s Hotel and Motel Trades Council, who has fought to keep a union label on the city’s hotels. “They have the largest megaphone, and organized labor has no way to combat that. … we had the largest financial crime in history culminate in 2008. We had major mortgage brokers falsifying documents, huge investment firms participating in what can only be described as Ponzi schemes. The entire world knows it. But somehow unions are taking the hit for the resulting fiscal crisis.”

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a columnist for The Nation, Moment, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama.

For more on the Triangle fire and its legacy, go to the Forward’s special supplement here.

The Center for American Progress is hosting a screening for the film, "Triangle: Remembering the Fire," on March 25. For more details and RSVP information, click here.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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