Today marks the 106th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which in twenty minutes consumed the lives of 146 people, mostly young immigrant Jewish and Italian women and girls who worked in the New York City factory. The youngest victims, Kate Leone and Rosaria Maltese, were just fourteen years old.
In the wake of what went down as the worst industrial disaster in New York history, labor activists mobilized the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and the wealthier Women’s Trade Union League to win worker protections that we still enjoy to this day. More than a century later, March 25 stands as a pivotal date in the history of feminism and organized labor in America.
Triangle carries a particular significance for Jewish-American radicals. Many of the most prominent leaders of the post-fire mobilization — including the seamstress, lesbian, and feminist socialist Rose Schneiderman — were Jewish-American women.
Remember this when some politician starts talking about job killing regulations.
After the 1905 and 1909 strikes, most factories had settled with the unions. But Triangle refused. Their thousands of peak-season employees were paid $5.50 an hour or less in 2016 figures, and had to work nine hours during the week and another seven on Saturdays. They fired union employees and resisted making any improvements in working conditions.
In the Triangle factory — located just off Washington Square Park, occupying the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of a building that is now part of New York University — workers endured cramped conditions, poor ventilation, and blocked fire exits (which were intended to deter walkouts). Other doors were locked to prevent employee theft; managers would only unlatch them at the end of the shift, checking women’s purses as they left for the day.
Just days before the Triangle disaster, Schneiderman had documented similar conditions at a shop in Newark, where fire escapes were blocked to prevent workers from stealing. There, twenty-five people had perished when the building caught fire. At Triangle, the toll would be well over one hundred.
On March 25, 1911 — which happened to be Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest — five hundred employees reported for work.
At about 4:40 PM, a discard bin that contained two months’ worth of cloth caught fire and quickly spread to the several hundred pounds of cloth surrounding the bin. The alarm sounded. Employees on the eighth floor managed to escape and warn those on the tenth floor. But workers on the ninth floor were trapped. The managers with keys to the locked doors had already fled. Twenty people made it to a flimsy fire escape, but it collapsed, and they fell to their deaths.
The only way out was the elevators. Three times, the elevators ran up to the ninth floor — until the heat buckled their railings. Desperate workers still on the ninth floor pried the elevator shaft doors open and plunged to their deaths, the impact of their bodies on the elevator warping its metal frame.
The sight on the street was equally horrifying: firefighters’ ladders couldn’t reach the ninth floor, so passersby watched as sixty-two people jumped to their deaths. Louis Waldman, a socialist who became a New York assemblyman, recalled the gristly scene: “Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies.”
These regulations don't kill jobs. Their absence enables the worst of the worst to kill and maim their workers.