Honoring the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Victims, Recognizing the Importance of Unions
On March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers, most of them women and most of them Eastern European Jewish immigrants, died in New York City’s worst industrial disaster–the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The tragedy was avoidable. Overcrowding, flammable materials on the ground, locked doors (which varying accounts attribute to the factory owners either trying to prevent theft or to keep out union organizers), inadequate fire escapes, and an insufficient response by firefighters all contributed to the severity of the fire and the number of casualties. Many of these factors could have been mitigated if the women at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory had a greater say over the conditions under which they labored. As such, the centennial anniversary of the fire is an ominous reminder of what society could once again look like if our elected officials choose to shackle organized labor.
A year before the fire, the Triangle Shirtwaist workers joined other garment workers in the largest women’s strike in American history to demand shorter hours, better pay, safer working conditions, and union representation. The factory owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, repressed the strikers, hiring prostitutes and police to beat them. After 11 weeks, they eventually acceded to some of the workers’ demands, but refused to recognize a union, denying the women a democratic voice in the workplace to continue to improve conditions.
After the fire broke out, the labor movement cast Harris and Blanck’s efforts at union suppression as the major cause of the scope of the tragedy. Citing the Woman’s Trade Union League’s agitation against overcrowding and locked doors and for better fire-escapes, American Federation of Labor leader Samuel Gompers wrote in the aftermath of the fire:
A stumbling-block [the union] is, indeed, to such concerns as the Triangle Waist Company–the only persistent and effective stumbling-block to be found in the way of the inordinate pursuit of wealth, even with the wealth stained with human blood; aye, soaked with it.
Gompers believed that, when left to their own devices, employers’ profit motive can drive them to subject their workers “to every manner of neglect, indignity, and slave-driving, and then on occasions burn them alive.” He warned of the consequences of yielding to the Harrises and Blancks of the world, who denunciate “the trade union that seeks to protect their employes [sic] from discrimination or exploitation, fraud or fire.”
Thankfully, and in large part because of the labor movement, most (though by no means all) workers are no longer subject to working conditions as repressive as those under which Harris and Blanck’s employees labored. The fire launched a flurry of workplace condition reforms at the state and local level in New York, which served as a model for the rest of the country. In recognition of the pivotal role that the fire played in labor reform, F.D.R.’s labor secretary, Frances Perkins, called the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire “the day the New Deal began.”
But reforms, once secured, are not necessarily permanent. Across the United States, we are witnessing an unprecedented attack on the right to organize, typified by the successful attempt to eliminate collective bargaining rights for most state employees in Wisconsin and similar efforts in Indiana and Ohio. We can honor the memory of the workers who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire by fighting to protect the rights established, in part, because of the consciousness raised from these workers’ tragic deaths.
In January, when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker unveiled his anti-union agenda, he said, “You are not going to hear me degrade state and local employees in the public sector…But we can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots.” Statements like this ignore the reality that unions have been the force in society that has secured fairer wages and better working conditions for all Americans. We are all indebted to unions whether or not we receive a pension or a health insurance policy secured through collective bargaining. 100 years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, let’s take stock in the advances that organized labor has achieved and steel ourselves for the fight ahead to ensure that those gains remain intact.