One-hundred years ago today, Saturday, March 25, 1911 saw tragedy strike New York when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory became engulfed in flames on its 8th and 9th floors. In the space of 30 minutes, 146 workers died, of this total 123 were women including teenagers as young as 14 years.
By 1911, fire-safe factories had existed in some parts of the US for over 20 years, including firewalls, fire doors, fire stairs and automatic sprinklers. None of these existed in New York in 1911. The Triangle factory, typical of the garment trade in that era was housed in a loft building intended for storage, not manufacturing.
Unable to escape the factory, panicked workers leapt to their death while horrified New Yorkers watched from the street below. In the aftermath, over 350,000 lined the streets in the rain for the mass funeral held for the victims.
Despite widespread public outcry, the response to the fire was sadly predictable. The owners were acquitted of charges of manslaughter. They then pursued insurance claims and collected more than $60,000 above any loses they could prove – about $1 million in today’s dollars.
The tragedy did lead to improvements to workplace safety. A State Commission of Inquiry resulted in legislative changes; some 25 bills in total including more fire safety laws, compulsory fire drills, doors that opened outwards and remained unlocked.
The 100th anniversary of the Triangle Fire is a time for us to remember those that perished, and the struggles of previous generations. There is much contemporary relevance to this history. Immigrant labour remains exploited, women’s work remains undervalued, and workplace health and safety issues abound.
The resolve of garment workers in New York 100 years ago is worth remembering along with the tragedy that befell many of these workers. Their inspiring story must serve to strengthen our resolve to create the strong working-class movement.