Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

On this day in 1911 one of the deadliest industrial fires in US history exposed the need for stronger trade unions – and emboldened women garment workers to fight for them.

Today marks the 109th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, where 146 people died in around twenty minutes. In America, the day is a significant one: not only for the organised labour movement, but for the Jewish and Italian communities who remember how some of their first organised working class leaders galvanised around this moment, and for the feminist movement, who recognise this internationally poignant moment of women’s organisation during a bloody period for the garment industry.

In June 1900, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) was founded in New York City. The union was founded by several thousand militants, most of whom were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and Italians who toiled in New York’s vast shirtwaist industry. This sweated work was classified as ‘unskilled’ labour, and women faced being paid far less wages than their male counterparts for the pleasure. Additionally, the hours were long, the working environments crammed and filthy, and the female workforce faced daily threats of harassment and sexual assault from their foremen.

Spurred on by these poor conditions, the ILGWU resisted management goons and police provocation to grow into an organisation of thousands. Strikes in small shops erupted across New York, leading to physical attacks and several successful prosecutions of leading union organisers. However, the workers remained unfazed and carried on fighting in increasing numbers, with the immigrant union base recruiting their sisters, cousins and mothers into the organisation.

As the union grew, mass industrial action loomed on the horizon. The first large-scale ILGWU strike began in November 1909, when organisers called for a general shirtwaist makers’ strike. In what would later be dubbed the “uprising of the 20,000,” thousands of workers – who were predominantly Jewish and Italian women – struck for eleven weeks. Led by Clara Lemlich, a 23-year-old union leader who learnt her socialist politics in her Ukrainian shtetl of Gorodok – the strike not only caused major disruption to the garment industry but emboldened thousands of workers who experienced the power of solidarity for the first time.

The strike was immediately met with fierce hostility from the New York newspapers, and picket lines regularly faced mass arrests and violent battles. But after holding out for months, the ILGWU secured important contracts that met the demands for most of the shop workers in factories across the city, and set standards of decent employment legislation that are used to this day. 

However, one vital factory refused to budge. Located across three floors in the Asch Building in Manhattan was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, a shop known for its terrible working conditions. At Triangle, workers were known to put in regular 75-hour work weeks, surrounded by scrap material that accumulated on the shop floor for months at a time. Foremen would seal the floors shut with steel doors so workers couldn’t take regular breaks on their own terms, which led many to take cigarette breaks inside the works. Despite significant union pressure, the owners – Max Blanck and Isaac Harris – resisted workplace safety changes. Several of their factories had previously burned down when they were no longer profitable – and Blanck and Harris refused to install sprinkler systems in Triangle, too. It was this commitment to the aims of maximum profits that created the conditions leading to the tragic of events of March 25th 1911.

At around 5pm, just as the workday was ending, a fire broke out in the factory with approximately 500 workers still inside. Most likely started by a lit cigarette, water buckets placed around the floor to put out small fires were empty that day. As the fire spread, people struggled to get out of the overcrowded building. When women tried to escape through the four lifts in the building, only one was operational. When they turned to the fire escape, one of the exit doors had been locked by management to prevent theft or unauthorised breaks. The weight of the workers clambering onto the escape eventually became too much and it collapsed, crushing twenty people to death under the rubble.

The minutes ticked by as the fire grew rapidly. Though the fire department made it to the building quickly, their water hoses could not reach the factory which began on the 8th floor and thus, firefighters were forced to watch in horror as the flames grew higher.

As they became more and more desperate, women threw themselves down open elevator shafts whilst others burned alive at the bottom of a locked stairwell. When there was no alternative, women clutched each other and threw themselves out the windows of the Asch building to their deaths. Workers plunged to the pavement as the factory was swallowed up in flames, preventing police and firefighters from approaching the building. In just 18 minutes, 146 people were killed. The two youngest victims – Kate Leone and Rosaria Maltese – were just 14 years old. Police laid bodies out on the sidewalk for families to identify their loved ones.  To this day, it remains one of the worst industrial disasters in American history.

Despite the horrifying events and the safety violations, the factory owners faced little consequences. Blanck and Harris were acquitted on charges of manslaughter and paid the families of the victims a mere $75, despite receiving over $400 per victim in insurance compensation.

On April 5th 1911, 80,000 people attended a march on the streets of New York to protest the working conditions that led to the fire. The ILGWU, outraged by how preventable the fire was, urged members to rally together to call for dramatic reforms over working conditions. At a meeting days earlier, the Polish-Jewish trade unionist Rose Schneiderman called for workers to learn the lessons of the tragedy, telling them that “I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves.”

Spurred on by the anger, the State of New York set up a Factory Investigating Commission which helped implement progressive safety reforms and led to a further thirty-eight labour laws being introduced. The fire and subsequent outcry also resulted in the formation of what is now known as the American Society of Safety Professionals, an organisation of thousands of workplace health and safety officials. After watching their loved ones perish, the legacy that immigrant garment workers built following this disaster can still be seen in American workplaces today.

Though the events of the Triangle Factory Fire seem horrific and distant, the struggle of women garment workers continues in the 21st century. The rapid expansion and the poor regulation of the retail industry and consumer thirst for fast fashion has encouraged similar sweatshop practices in developing countries.

In 2019, over 50,000 Bangladeshi garment workers went on strike, calling for higher wages and protesting poor workplace safety and conditions. They fought violence from the police while occupying roads and refusing to leave until demands were met. This mass industrial action had been spurred on following one of the world’s worst industrial disasters just a few years earlier.

In 2013, the Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka collapsed killing 1,134 people, many of whom were women. Several children were also killed, as they played in the building’s nursery. The owner of the factory, Sohel Rana, had ignored safety warnings about the building and ordered workers to return following an evacuation. No one has yet been found guilty for the deaths of over a thousand workers in the collapse.

As Women’s History Month draws to a close, it’s clear that the fight for real dignity in the workplace is as important today as it ever was. Yesterday’s sweatshops have not disappeared but merely moved eastwards, where bosses continue to play the familiar trick of prioritising profits over human lives. There is no better way to honour the dead of 109 years ago than to fight for the living of today.