“My girls, my pretty ones, going down through the air. They hit the sidewalk spread out and still.”
~Triangle Shirtwaist Company Assistant cashier Joseph Flecher
At quitting time on a Saturday one hundred years ago, a fire began on the eighth floor and raged through the ninth and tenth floor of the Asch building in New York City where 500 workers, mostly immigrant teenage girls were trapped in their Triangle Shirtwaist Company workrooms. One of the ninth floor exit doors had been locked, the fire escape collapsed, and the elevator, filled beyond capacity with fleeing workers, stopped working. The tragedy was compounded because the Fire Department ladders only reached to the sixth floor, and their safety nets deployed to catch the falling bodies broke under the weight. Yet the fire was quickly brought under control and within a half hour it was all over.
And it was indeed all over for the 146 employees, mostly young women, who died that day. Thirty of them lay twisted and broken on the pavement after they had jumped to their deaths from the flaming ninth floor. Inside the building skeletons were discovered bent over sewing machines, while others bodies were found burnt to bare bones. It wasn’t until a full century later that researcher Michael Hirsch was able to complete the identification of the dead, finally providing names of six of the dead whose bodies were never claimed.
Beatings in the Streets
In 1909, the first major strike of working women called the Uprising of 20,000 took place in New York and Philadelphia. Teenager Clara Lemlich, who had been badly beaten on a prior occasion by police, interrupted the union organizing speech at Cooper Union by Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), yelling “I am tired of listening to speakers who are talking general terms. What we are here for is to decide whether or not we shall strike.” Clara Lemlich galvanized the crowd and strike they did. Twenty thousand women and girls left their sweatshop jobs, filled the streets and stayed there for thirteen months.
New York Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was one of the targets of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). Working conditions for both men and women were inhumane, filthy and dangerous, but women were routinely laid off in slack periods, and in the female-dominated garment industry where sweatshop conditions prevailed, employees had to pay for their cutting and sewing supplies and were subject to whatever pay subcontractors to the company established. Here is a first hand account by Rose Cohen about her first twelve hour day on the job at the Triangle Factory.
Striking women and girls did not receive special treatment because of their gender. They were taunted, beaten, jailed– and murdered– right along with striking men. The Uprising was no less brutal. Women also worked for less pay and had less job security even in unionized organizations. Historical accounts tend to gloss over this fact. These women realized that without the vote, they could not effectively challenge their sweatshop working conditions and female labor leaders began demanding the vote for women.
Trial by Fire
Thirteen weeks after the Uprising of 20,000 began, these women won a 52 hour work week, a promise that employers would provide supplies, no punishment for striking, and an equal division of work in slack seasons. In addition, almost a half million women had petitioned Congress for the vote. It appeared that there would be better days for workers.
The Triangle fire began on the eighth floor of the building when a lit cigarette – smoking was prohibited – ignited rags between the cutting tables and quickly spread to the ninth floor through the stairwell. There was telephone communication about the fire between the eighth and tenth floor but no one responded to the call on the ninth floor.
Workers on the tenth floor ran to the roof when they found that the fire was burning so intensely in one of the ninth floor stairwells that escape to the street was impossible. All but one of them were rescued. Workers on the eighth floor used the one fire escape until it collapsed and they filled the one person elevator to capacity until it too stopped working.
On the ninth floor, some of the workers were able to initially escape via one of the exits but the fire became so intense that it was quickly impossible to use. The other exit door into the remaining stairwell had been locked from the outside to keep the women from taking breaks during working hours or removing materials. These trapped workers were faced with the decision of either being burned alive or jumping to their death.
Manslaughter charges were brought against the owners of the company for the death of Margaret Schwartz who burned to death on the ninth floor. The courtroom was filled with the angry relatives of the victims. The jury deliberated for less than two hours and found the owners not guilty of knowing that the door was locked. The defendants left through a private exit and ran to the nearest subway station with an angry mob in pursuit yelling “Justice. Where is justice?”
The trial was not the end of the efforts to achieve justice for workers. Public outrage led to the establishment of a Factory Investigating Commission that thoroughly reviewed safety and working condition in New York factories. Subsequent remedial factory legislation mandated the use of sprinklers and inspections of fire escapes. Labor laws were substantially reformed.
Maintaining that unequivocal position of “never again” requires perpetual vigilance and commitment. US Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis recently described conditions in the sweatshops that exist today in California.
“In 1995, 75 Thai immigrants were freed from a so-called factory in the City of El Monte, California… They had been forced to eat, sleep and work in a place they called home. Their employer confiscated their passports and kept them like slaves. Threatened with violence to themselves or their families, the workers hunched over sewing machines in dimly lit garages bound by barbed wire, sewing brand-name clothing for less than $2 an hour. Most of them were women.”
Solis also cites the unsafe working conditions that caused an explosion in a West Virginia coal mine last year, killing 29 miners in one day. The wretched treatment of workers and neglect of safety regulations remain with us.
The state of Maine has pending legislation sponsored by Tea Party governor Paul LePage which would roll back the state’s child labor laws.
And women still only make 80 cents for every dollar in wages that men receive. Where is the vigilance and commitment?
On Friday March 25 New York City will commemorate the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The name of each victim will be read, followed by the toll of a fire bell. Perhaps with renewed resolve we will once more utter those words – Never again.