On the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire anniversary, a government that dishonors it


March 25, 1911: Horrible, but avoidable

It happened on March 25, but there had been warnings for years. Factory owners across America amassed fortunes by exploiting what was, at the time, a seemingly inexhaustible resource: immigrants. Newly arrived Europeans were expendable. They had a weak political voice, so crossing them had little negative impact for politicians and none for businessmen, since few laws existed to protect them.

So children labored alongside mothers. Women labored all a day, sometimes as much as 75 hours a week, with no days off, forbidden to so much as speak. They frequently lugged their own machines to work. Girls of 15 made $3.50 a week. Factory doors were locked so they would not waste time gossiping, or stretching their legs, or breathing fresh air. And when they went home, hunched and raw after spending all the daylight hours doing piecework, they often slept in rooms with seven or eight family members, none of them able to earn enough money to reverse their plight.

Demands for protections surfaced but rarely took hold. Child labor protests were the cause célebre, and momentarily. In 1909, a fifth of Triangle’s workers took to the streets with some 20,000 other degraded women, all of them too desperately poor to take a passenger train let alone lose their jobs, in a strike. These weary, foreign-tongued women in threadbare clothes made a rare appearance in Union Square during the daylight to open eyes. Some people clucked their tongues and said, “Yes, yes. Something really ought to be done” — and did nothing except express momentary dismay. But to many others, these protestors were considered anti-American agitators — unclean ghetto scum whose laziness was an affront to the American Dream. Many were arrested, and some sent to work camps. Even though those as American as Mark Twain were emphatic supporters of labor movements, booming industry (backed by police) retook focus and power, and the girls’ warnings faded from novelty and the public eye.

The building on fire, 1911

The building on March 25, 1911

But on March 25, 1911, in a factory on the upper floors of a building on the east side of Washington Square Park in New York City, time ran out. A fire began. With no rules in place to keep the floor clear of loose rags, it spread with breathtaking speed. Women scrambled for the doors, but they were locked. They rushed for the windows, but they were too high to be reached by fire truck ladders. They began flinging themselves out of windows, smashing on the sidewalks below, crashing through the pavement, and, skirts still aflame, impaling themselves on fencing. Some desperate girls found a fire escape, but it hadn’t been inspected, and it came loose, dashing more of them to the ground. Bystanders gathered, unable to assist the trapped women, while the streets piled with bodies. The gore filled the gutters, and the smell of blood caused the horses pulling the fire trucks to rear back in fear. The warnings were made horrifically real.

By dinnertime on March 25, 146 had been murdered by something that could have been avoided: the callousness of commerce. It was more than just an accident. If the image of people leaping to their deaths reminds us of 9/11, that’s apropos, because like the 9/11 of its day, the Triangle fire was a source of paralyzing horror and a bellwether of change. Public opinion turned. How could a prosperous, civilized country have allowed the conditions that killed these women — and, even on March 26, threatened countless more across the country? Hastily, with an acknowledged shame, the system changed. Labor and safety laws, weak at first, were ushered into place.

The Triangle site today

The same view today, scrubbed of meaning

The real changes were deeper. No longer would most Americans trust industry to police itself, without oversight by law or a government interested in the greater good of society. Unions surged in popularity.

Back to how it was: Demonize the employee

Here we are. It’s a mournful irony indeed that on the 100th anniversary of such a milestone in the humane execution of our national business, the right wing, and heedless windsock politicians such as Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Rep. Tom Niehaus of Ohio, are taking a sledgehammer to unions. Their ire is currently directed at public sector unions. As if high school teachers are fatcats who wickedly milk the system. As if being able to stand up for yourself is something you should only be allowed to do if you don’t work for the state.

It’s shameful ignorance of who we are, a modern crime against our history, that the sacrifice and idealism of our ancestors 100 years ago could be so summarily discarded at the very moment they should be commemorated.

In March 2011, there ought to be parades to honor the centenary of the day our industry civilized. Instead, conservative partisans are attacking unions, seizing a political moment to demonize a largely productive entity and feed their own wealth, and disrespecting the process that made America an industrial power that was admired by the rest of the world.

Throughout the majority of our history, American industry was a free-for-all, with no rules to look after the greater good. Look at slavery, for goodness’ sake! Left to its own devices, American business trampled people. And it would have remained so if people hadn’t taken control of their own conditions and created the industry they wanted to have.

It’s no accident that unions took hold in this country at the very moment our consumer culture added rocket fuel to our national economy and propelled us to the very stars in the 20th century.

Yes, there are corrupt unions — but it’s also true that there are corrupt politicians and CEOs, so any argument of moral superiority over organized labor quickly collapses upon itself. I also believe that all-powerful employers can do a hell of a lot more societal damage than all-powerful employees. And I do not believe that history bears out the oft-repeated saw that unfettered capitalism is naturally for the best. Even Adam Smith did not advocate the abuse of workers or the elimination of government involvement.

We created unions because we needed them. Business was abusing the people because it could get away with it. Unions were designed, at their purest form, to protect the lives of the workers who provide the engine of any business. Opponents lazily call them communist, but it can be argued that if an employer cannot run a business in a humane manner and still make a profit, it has no place in a civilized country. Besides, why shouldn’t workers have as much of a voice as businessmen have?

Collective bargaining is one of the few defenses Americans have against the all-powerful corporation. We can thank the 146 Triangle victims for kicking that off in a real way.

Triangle Fire morgue

Products of an anti-union shop on March 25, 1911

Unions can also protect industry itself. In Germany, where trade unions are far more powerful than they are here, they have helped prop up flagging businesses at moments when they were weakest. When an American enterprise might have shut up shop, Germany’s indomitable guilds repelled change. That may frustrate entrepreneurs, but it nonetheless it helped create an economy that is just as productive as ours despite the fact the average German takes about four times as much vacation as the average American.

In the final analysis, American businesses exist to make money for their owners. Innovation is not necessarily at the top of the list of things that are produced in much quantity by that mandate. Cutting corners, or refusing to modernize, or pressuring workers to give up more and more of themselves (including personal health), are just three destructive things businesses do yet still generate profits. And let’s not forget that there is no economic system that is impervious to greed. Without a force that resists potential abuses, greed wins.

I work three blocks from from the building where the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire happened, in a building that was, at the time, Wanamaker’s. It was a mammoth department store taking up two city blocks where those women’s handiwork, created from despair, was almost certainly offered for sale.

The old Triangle space now belongs to New York University, where I attended graduate school. The streets that once ran with gore are now lined with coffee bars and student hangouts. The fire escapes are now secure and regulated. So is my office, and so is every workplace in the country. I have never been a member of a union in my life, but I can thank unions for forcing men of profit to do the correct thing by their fellow man — a Christian principle, after all.

We all assume a level of safety where we work because of what happened on March 25, 1911. We take the fruit of collective bargaining for granted. Visit a sweatshop in Indonesia or China or Bangladesh and you may begin to grasp how things could be, and how they once were.

Of course it’s easy for a Tea Party reactionary to paint all unions as wasteful when they have no true understanding of what they actually contributed to our quality of life. It’s easy to dismantle America if you don’t understand why it was built the way it was. If you want to know the value of what you own, know your history.

The Republicans have spent the past few years vigorously demonizing unions. Let’s not fool ourselves. They’re desecrating the overwhelmingly positive influence of unions because their members contribute mostly to Democrats. The right wing wants to decimate Democratic funding. So they claim unions are guilty of bleeding the American businessman of his profits, that commerce cannot continue if they exist, and that we cannot afford them.

This March 25, I remind them that those was the same arguments that employers gave on March 24, 1911.


Child labor strikers, 1909: Dishonored this month for the sake of partisanship

18 Responses to “On the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire anniversary, a government that dishonors it”

  1. maria hartmann

    Thank you for this. I am a teacher of 25 years, currently teaching at Mendham High School in Mendham NJ. Today I ran the PBS video presentation of The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire for my students. I will be at the ceremony beginning at noon on the 25th at the Brown Building because I have been inspired to do so by the Gray Gallery exhibit, the current national climate of using unions as scapegoats, and the thoughts of my grandmother and her sisters who grew up with all of those other poor Italian immigrants on Elizabeth Street- fighting and toiling for the illusive American Dream.

  2. Pedro Bonilla

    I find it offensive to compare the struggles of the Union movements at the turn of the century and the terrible working conditions to the situation today in Wisconsin and other places.

  3. sww1rb

    “Pedro Bonilla says: I find it offensive to compare the struggles of the Union movements at the turn of the century and the terrible working conditions to the situation today in Wisconsin and other places.”

    You don’t think there’s the slightest possibility that, if unions are forbidden, we could return to conditions like this in the future. After all, that’s what gave unions their toe-hold to form in the first place…abhorrent working conditions and unfair treatment by SOME employers. Had ALL employers treated their employees humanely and fairly to begin with, unions would never have had the purchase to form and grow.

  4. Neener86

    Great commentary. As a child, I was fascinated with this story, first discovered in the pages of my Dad’s issues of “Firehouse” magazine. As an adult, I can appreciate the rules that we now have in place due to the terrible suffering these women and men endured. As with the Titanic, it took a great tragedy to make people sit up and take notice. Let’s not let the blind-eyed politicians of today make us learn this lesson over again.

  5. Jim

    Conditions in the workplace are the same as in 1911? Wow. I think you’ve lost all touch with reality. It’s the $45 / hour to turn a screw or the tenure of teachers who are either too old or incompitent that cant be fired that are the problem. Unions are not used for improving working conditions for their members. They are used for political purposes only – to contribute to candidates that with perpetuate the union workforce. Nothing for workers.

    I live in Detroit and I know that unions served a very useful purpose back in the day. But now they are just a drain on our society.

  6. Aaron

    Great post, thanks! As for the few posters claiming to not see the connection between then and now I offer 2 simple thoughts. #1.) “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” – Edmund Burke #2.) Triangle Fire Returns: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=noL8nFSzsDc

  7. Dilbert Fizzwinkle

    The unions were put in place to protect the workers from the sleazy politicians and businessmen at the turn of the century. Who in the hell is going to protect the public from the sleazy unions that run roughshod over everyone now?

  8. Becky

    This was a horrible tragedy that led to reforms that were much-needed. However, I find it disgusting that people are using this tragedy to push unions’ interests and to try to justify their existence. Yes, while unions had a purpose years ago and led to reforms, they no longer hold such a purpose today. We now have laws that regulate the workplace and safety issues that were not in place when the fire happened. What purpose do unions serve? I think a man from Ohio said it best: he said that unions allow them (whatever union it was) to DICTATE their pay and benefits, etc. That is what unions have become.

  9. mjholt

    Wonderful essay. The points you make are essential to the issues today and have been drowned out by a polemic-orients propaganda machine run by the super wealthy.

  10. Karen Fort

    For the last fifty years the rich have gotten richer and the poor have gotten poorer. Look it up. The power of the purse has the working people between a rock and a hard place. Do we have to regress to extreme disparity of income before our culture supports collective bargaining as the only way for the un-privilaged to get a fair shake ? Could unions improve and evolve, sure. But meanwhile the military industrial complex, wall street and the increasing numbers of citizens of RICHistan lay waste, literally, about them, upon the working poor and barely middle class. Yeah, yeah, I know, some union workers pace themselves. Have you ever mopped floors for eight hours a day? Of course they pace themselves. Wouldn’t you? The simple question is, do we , or do we not, want a repeat of that awful fire. It made even the shareholders who profited ashamed of themselves. Let’s strive for some balance here and now.

  11. Jimbo53

    Comparing the need for unions 100 years ago, to what they stand for now is just absurd. It’s apples and oranges. The US over the years has passed laws that protect workers from the abuses that happened at the turn of the century. Unions today do nothing but involve themselves in politics; support candidates with no input from their membership (and spend the members money while doing so), and make the country less competitive in the global marketplace. That’s why so many manufacturing jobs have gone overseas. If Unions are still needed, why has their population dropped so much over the years, and why are they so afraid of eliminating check-off? After all, if I want to belong to an organization, of my own free will, and that organization is looking out for my best interests, then I would voluntarily be sending in my dues……right?

  12. dragonet2

    nowadays it is the shareholders and the owners/leadership/etc. of business that are to be paid, and the rest of us be damned. profit is more important than running a fair, honest business and treating ones’ employees respectfully, because the EMPLOYEES ARE WHY YOU MAKE A PROFIT.

    There are several people who have commented on how bad unions are, stupidly and gleefully. That teachers are stupid and overpaid. And other such BS. Where do you live? In KS and MO, teachers are paid real close to the edge of poverty in a lot of cases.

    And Jimbo53, do you know anything at all about European unions? Employees are treated well in Europe because of unions and they haven’t been bought out by the profiteers. I’m guessing you are a business owner or someone else like that, who sees their employees as just tools to do x, y and z, as they are told and they’d better toe your line or their asses are out. You don’t care if they do a good job, you just demand they produce.

    This will eventually play out in the U.S. I’m not sure how it will end, it may end in slavery of the labor and a plutocracy of businesses. I don’t see much else happening because education and whatever had led to people becoming sheep who pay a lot of attention to the f-king celebrities and nothing to things that affect their work lives or health or anything sles.

    We’re pretty much doomed.

  13. Conrad R

    What a scumsucking pig you are for trying to correlate those events in 1911 to the situation in Wisconsin. Disgusting. Typical liberal trash.

  14. Joanna Barouch

    I went on a walking tour of sites related to the fire yesterday afternoon. The walk included a stop at the photography exhibit you mentioned. It was an enlightening experience.
    Anyone who believes that sweatshops no longer exist needs to do a little more research. In New York’s Chinatown, for one example, sweatshops absolutely do exist. Who do you think is making those knock-off Louis Vuitton and Coach bags you’ll find on every street corner? Who is reaping the rewards from the tourists who buy them? The workers? My guess is no.
    Is it possible that without unions America would revert to the “standards” of 1911? Of course it is. The regulations in place today are a direct result of the Triangle fire (thank you, Frances Perkins). There’s no guarantee those regulations would remain with no one to enforce them.
    Although I was a union member for many years I do not endorse everything they do. I see them as a necessary evil. If businesses like Whole Foods and Wegmans can do without unions and keep their employees happy, why can’t that model serve other industries?

  15. Jimbo53

    Dragonet2, it’s obvious that you have never run a business, or even understand its primary reason for existing….it is to make a profit, otherwise it cannot continue to exist. And, yes, I have owned a business, and run some for others. All of them have been small entrepreneurial enterprises where all people were treated well and with respect, as part of a team. Any businessman worth his salt knows that creating a successful enterprise requires that. Any companies that don’t, eventually fail. Look at the companies that are listed as “the Best Places to Work”….they are all successful; they make a profit; they treat their people well, pay them fairly, and in almost all cases, they are non-union.
    The point of my comment was that to draw parallels to the abuses in 1911 at Triangle (and in many businesses during that time in history), and the need for Unions today, is ludicrous false logic. Those abuses have been addressed legislatively. And to address Joanna Barouch, yes sweatshops exist, and they are illegal, and should be shutdown. No, it is not possible for us to revert to the conditions of 1911, because laws have been passed to protect workers. But, why do they (sweatshops) exist, if Unions exist? These sweatshops exist because they are criminal enterprises, and should and are shutdown, whenever they’re detected.
    Bottom line, Unions served their purpose back in the day, but today are anachronisms that don’t serve their members long-term best interests; put huge amounts of money into the pockets of their management, and make enterprises less competitive in the global marketplace.
    Anyways, this is fascinating/horrible history, and teaches us, so we don’t make the same mistakes in the future

  16. MTB

    Its a joke to compare that Fire with the government union employees of Wisconsin. The Wisconsin “workers”, and i use that term very loosely, want hand outs from the TAXPAYERS. They want the TAXPAYER to pay for their retirement, medical, vacations, etc……shame on them…shame on unions!