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This Day in Resistance History: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and Union Protections

March 25, 2011

On this day in 1911, New Yorkers watched in horror as young women and children leaped from the upper floors of a garment sweatshop engulfed in flames. Just east of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was located on the upper floors of a commercial building and was run by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris. Aside from the owners and some male supervisors, all the employees were women. The seamstresses were mostly young immigrants, with the youngest employee being 10 years old. Most were between 16 and 25.

It was a Saturday, the “short day” of the week, and the weather outside was beautiful. The seamstresses were looking forward to their day off. They worked 5 nine-hour days. On Saturdays, they were allowed to leave an hour “early.”

But on some days, they were required to stay much later—some workdays stretched to 14 hours. No breaks for allowed—not to eat, not to go the bathroom, not to get a drink of water.

Their maximum pay, for a 14-hour day, was $2. In addition, Blanck and Harris made the women pay for the needles they used, the thread needed to sew garments, and the electricity that their machines used per day. Plus, they had to pay for any shirtwaist they made that was not perfect. Meanwhile, the two bosses were making approximately a million dollars a year.

The fire broke out at 4:45. Blanck, Harris, and the office workers fled. Neither Blanck nor Harris thought to send someone up to the factory floors to warn the workers there…or to unlock the doors. During the day, the women were locked into the factory with their sewing machines. This was a policy Max Blanck had instituted to prevent theft; each bag was checked as the workers filed out one by one. The doors were never unlocked until quitting time.

It was not until the seamstresses saw smoke and flames coming from underneath the doors that they realized what was happening. A few managed to get to a factory floor freight elevator, but they were hand-cranked lifts and were only able to make three trips total to rescue workers. Some women, trying to leap onto the top of elevators as they descended, died in the shaft.

The only fire protection provided by Blanck and Harris for the sewing rooms was 12 buckets of water, six for each floor. There was also a fire escape, weakened with rust and missing screws. It needed replacing. But the owners did not want to spend the money to do that.

Some women climbed out the windows to the roof, but then had nowhere to go. A few managed to get out to the rickety fire escape staircase. It collapsed as the first group of women went down it, killing 20 of the seamstresses.

Most remained on the factory floors, trapped by the locked doors and the encroaching flames. Many burned alive. Others leaped, some on fire, out the windows of the building. Approximately 146 employees died, most burned beyond recognition.

New York garment workers, including the employees of the Triangle factory, had gone out on strike two years before to protest these working conditions and form a union. At that time, the public was indignant and unsupportive. Blanck and Harris hired thugs to follow their young employees. They were beaten, and some were falsely charged with prostitution. One striker, dragged into court with a cracked skull and wearing a blood-soaked bandage, was told by the judge, “You are on strike against God.”

But this time, New Yorkers could not turn a blind eye to young women and children leaping out of windows to the street because they had been imprisoned in a locked sweatshop. Details of the fire and the abuses that led up to it shed a hard light on the conditions in the garment industry.

In April of 1911, Blanck and Harris were charged with manslaughter charges. In a classic her-word-against-his trial, the judge found that the surviving workers were unable to prove that Max Blanck knew that the sweatshop floor doors were locked. The two were acquitted, and collected a large amount of insurance, including $400 for each worker who died. In turn, they paid $75 to the family of each fire victim, pocketing the rest for themselves—and that was only after they appealed the court to pay nothing.

Two years later, Blanck was charged with locking the doors at a new factory he’d started with his insurance money. The judge made him pay a fine of $20.

But the New York State Legislature took a less lenient view of the issue. It created the New York State Factory Investigating Committee, which in New York City alone found 200 sweatshops with conditions as bad or worse than the Triangle factory. Labor laws were reformed throughout New York State.

And another outcome of this tragedy was that the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union was finally allowed to form without additional harassment. About 90 percent of the garment workers in the city joined. The ILGWU merged with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union in 1995.

This and similar unions were the ones who fought every step of the way to eliminate the capitalist abuses that the Triangle employees had suffered. Today, we have a five-day work week, overtime pay, breaks, days off for illness, fire alarms, sprinkler systems, and safety measures. We don’t have them because our benevolent employers value us or want to protect us; if left in their hands, we’d still have 14-hour days and water buckets. We have better working conditions because young immgrant women burned alive to help earn those rights, their deaths jumpstarting the union movement and labor reform laws.

The next time you listen to Rick Snyder or Scott Walker talk about dissolving union contracts and freeing capitalists, to “get out of their way” so they can make more money, think about these women and children and the thousands of others who died so that we have the right to form unions and protect workers.



7 Comments leave one →
  1. Dee permalink
    March 25, 2011 12:07 pm

    Great article Jeff! Thanks for the reminder of what we need to fight for.

  2. March 25, 2011 1:11 pm

    Dee, thanks for the feedback, but the thanks should go to Kate who wrote the article. Thanks for reading our blog.

  3. Candace Chivis permalink
    March 25, 2011 1:34 pm

    This is a fantastic article and very appropriate considering the union busting legislation that currently exists in Wisconsin and Michigan. During the 1909 strike, Blanck and Harris slightly improved conditions to lure striking garment workers to cross lines. I believe there was a slight increase in wages as well as tea and snacks served during the work day. This went away once the strike was over. Also should be noted that union busters would try to pit the Jewish and Italian workers against each other so they wouldn’t form a union. Since the majority of the women that died were Italian and Jewish this pretty much blew up in their faces after the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.

  4. Kate Wheeler permalink
    March 25, 2011 4:48 pm

    Candace, that’s interesting additional information.

    Typical of capitalists to use good cop-bad cop tactics to stop strikes and avert union formation–the beatings, the false charges, and then the little tea-and-cakes to put in an appearance of cooperating with better conditions. I hadn’t read about that.

    Thanks very much for posting it and for your other information…and the compliment.

  5. Rachel Thompson permalink
    March 6, 2012 12:04 am

    I just read a book about this fire and cried my eyes out. It was so sad.


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