In the current climate of rampant, high-profile antisemitism (Galiano, Gibson, etc.), war on unions (Wisconsin), and the attack of women’s health rights, the centennial anniversary of the tragic Triangle Factory fire of 1911 seems eerily apropos. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was a tragic culmination of long standing inadequate fire and safety codes, and American willful ignorance of the exploitation of the immigrant / Jewish / female work force that largely comprised the garment and textile industries. Unfortunately, the unions that gained so much momentum as a direct response to the Triangle Factory fire have been on the descent, and are under aggressive attack in current legislature. But let me backtrack.
The product of the Triangle Factory, the shirtwaist, was essentially a blouse. Designed for utility, it was basically a feminized version of a man’s undershirt with a turned down collar and button-down front (for details on the history of shirtwaist dress, see Heather Vaughan’s informative article). In “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America,” David Von Drehle asserted that the shirtwaist crossed classes. Designed for mobility during a time when women were mobilizing to join the workforce and vote in their country’s elections, they were worn by clerks,
The shirtwaist “both symbolized and enabled a wave of women’s liberation,” the “perfect repudiation of corsets and bustles and hoops — all the ludicrous contraptions that literally imprisoned women in their own clothes” Von Drehle wrote. In 1910, nearly a third of all factory workers in New York State were women, most dressed in shirtwaists and skirts:
Textile and apparel production was one of the first and most aggressively exploited outcomes of the Industrial Revolution (Frederick Engels observed questionable practices in his own father’s factories way back in the mid-19th century, fueling his alliance with Marx):
Massive accidents were not uncommon:
One of the desired results of the Industrial Revolution was the large-scale (factory) production and wide-spread availability of a variety of textile products, to be purchased at burgeoning department stores like the one below (as opposed to producing clothes within the home, or collaborating with a seamstress and tailor). People loved the wide selection of clothes department stores could offer for immediate purchase and gratification, and this passion for an obscene variety of offered goods hasn’t left America since:
American immigrants, particularly Eastern European Jews, were eager for the opportunity to take garment factory jobs because they didn’t require fluency in English, and were actually open to women (clothing had historically resided within the female domestic duties). Workers toiled 14 hours a day 6 days a week for as little as $6 a week. Supervisors docked pay for late arrival, talking, taking too long in the rest room or missing Sunday shifts. Workers often sent half of their paltry paychecks to relatives back in their home countries. Pay varied by job, sex, experience, and age, but was generally inadequate to sustain basic family needs. The land of opportunity these immigrants had flocked to lacked adequate safety restrictions, wage requirements, and worker representation. Children were often employed, for reduced wages but equally abusive work environments:
During slack seasons, workers who were perceived as discontented would not be hired. In some shops, workers had to rent their chairs, pay for the electricity used by their sewing machines, and sometimes even supply their own needles and thread (!!). In the photo below, you can see the laborers are hustling over their work so they appear as mere blurs:
The New York garment industry doubled between 1900 and 1910, making it increasingly lucrative to bring those who had worked in their Lower East Side tenements…
…into the factories, which should have been regulated, but weren’t. Unions seized upon the factory conditions, and the Women’s Trade Union League additionally fought for more general respect for women in and outside the factories. Just two years before the Triangle Factory fire, the Women’s Trade Union League campaigned for the 8 hour work day and safe working conditions (you can see signs are in Yiddish):
Though this strike was hugely successful, the Triangle factory was one of a select few businesses that resisted the strike, hiring thugs and prostitutes to disperse the crowds (interesting tactic, right?).
A skyscraper in its day, the Triangle Factory Asch building was regarded as a model of clean efficiency compared with the sweatshops inside tenement apartments that had been commonplace. It was fireproof (it still functions as an NYU building today), had freight elevators, tall ceilings and windows that flooded the lofts with daylight. But in practice, these amenities fell short of safety for workers. On March 25, 1911, a fire from a waste paper basket went undetected because of the deafening hum of the sewing machines. Workers who fled to the ninth floor stairwell found the exits locked:
Many of the doors opened inwards, making it difficult to get through with a crush of frightened people. Those that packed into the elevators found that only so many could fit, and the over-burdened lift eventually plummeted down the shaft. And those that the fire herded to windows found the fire escape ladders too short to reach the ground. There were no sprinklers or fire drills. Just as we saw in 9/11 Twin Towers footage, 54 jumped out windows in desperation, rather than be consumed by flames:
An infuriating irony is that the 60-some executives on a higher floor were able to escape to the roof where they climbed down fortuitously placed painter’s ladders.
146 garment workers died in the fire. 102 were Jewish, 129 were women. Almost all were immigrants from Russia, Poland, Romania and Hungary. Though these workers were comprised of minority groups most Americans didn’t generally care about, the calamity resonated with many and brought to the forefront the dire factory circumstances many Americans were forced to live with.
Once the fire was extinguished, a long, painful process of identifying victims began:
And within a couple weeks of the fire, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union organized a funeral procession in Lower Manhattan to honor the victims. More than 120,000 people marched, and 300,000 people paid their respects on that dramatically rainswept day :
The Jewish Forward asserts the avoidable tragedy of the Triangle Factory fire made a Jewish / immigrant issue into an American issue. Public outrage soon followed, and was voiced in many scathing cartoons, which pointed out the aggressive greed of factory owners,
and the inadequacy of legal regulations:
The outpouring of grief and sympathy over the fire was expertly harnessed by unions. The leadership of people like Clara Lemlich Shavelson galvanized the women’s movement, immigrant and worker’s rights, and labor reform– all of which are furiously contested even today.
In direct response to the fire and pressure from unions, the New York Legislature enacted laws requiring automatic sprinklers in high-rise buildings, mandatory fire drills at large companies and factory doors that swung out. Labor regulations grew out of the fire, including a 54-hour week for women and child workers. In 1912 the New York State Legislature passed eight bills proposed by the Factory Investigating Committee, covering conditions and dangers including sanitation, rest periods, child labor, recent mothers, hour limits for women and children, and on-the-job injuries. And in 1913, the NYS Legislature passed 25 more bills recommended by the Fire Investigating Committee including fireproof stairways, doorway width, amount of lighting, fireproof building material, safe construction of fire escapes, and more. The unions even achieved a pension system for those too old to work any longer, all ideas that Franklin Roosevelt would bring nationwide in the New Deal (1933 – 36). In the two decades after the Triangle fire, the city building code was revised to require more exits in tall buildings (in the 1960s, just as the World Trade Center was being designed, those exit requirements slackened to increase the amount of rentable space).
Basic physical safety improved, but the discrepancy between wealthy corporations and the struggling factory worker remained a problem, as evidenced by the portrayal of this class struggle in film. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) famously portrays factory life and shocking class divisions, complete with aloof bosses and an entire self-appointed master race that unwittingly exploits the workers toiling deep underground. The technology-driven culture dehumanizes the workers while allowing the elite to live in a decadent paradise, willfully ignorant of those who make their world function — does this sound familiar?
Charlie Chaplin more humorously– but not less poignantly– portrayed the frenzied monotony of a factory job in Modern Times (1936). The awesome first 10 minutes are below:
His boss looms over him in gigantic TV screens, even while taking a smoking break in the bathroom (3:45). His body becomes so tuned to his single task that when he leaves for the day, the action becomes a tic he can’t shake (with hilarious but nonetheless poignant consequences, mistaking anything vaguely resembling a nut and bolt– like buttons on a woman’s skirt or blouse– for something he needs to tweak with his wrenches (6:35).
Though significant progress was made in the years and decades after the Triangle Factory fire, the issues at play then are sadly relevant today. Women still make a fraction of their male counterparts in almost all career paths. Only last year, 29 West Virginia miners died in the Massey Energy mine that had received 1,100 safety violations (including improper escape routes) but which was still allowed to operate for some reason. Currently 80,000 laborers work in New York State farms, who can be fired for attempting to unionize or to improve their working conditions (they are not eligible for overtime pay, disability, or unemployment insurance). Wage theft (the illegal withholding of owed pay) remains a rampant problem; unscrupulous employers who refuse to pay their non-unionized employees, denying their workers of needed payment and skirting taxes that could pay for teachers, pubic programs, public transportation, etc. 20th century unions did great work establishing laws for worker safety, but these laws are regularly violated. In the report “Working Without Laws,” the National Employment Law Project (NELP) documented that 21% of workers in the sample had been paid less than the legally required minimum wage ($7.25 per hour in New York state) in the previous week; 77% were not paid the legally required overtime rate when they worked more than 40 hours; 70% did not receive legally required meal breaks; and 42% of those who had complained or attempted to establish a union experienced a form of illegal retaliation by the employer.
The Jewish Forward rightly urges us to “Think about what was going on in 1911 — fierce competition among manufacturers, a large pool of under-skilled labor, lack of essential safety and economic regulations and generally uncaring attitudes about workers’ conditions, rights and welfare. This all-too-familiar scenario hasn’t gone away at all, and only labor’s vigilance will keep it from returning to our door here at home.” It is possible to produce a profitable product and pay living wages, though this is still seen as risky because ethical companies like Knights Apparel are competing with sweatshops. It’s clear that corporations will not do this willingly. Denis Hughes, president of New York State’s AFL-CIO, pointed out unions have been villainized in part because they don’t get credit for admirable actions like lobbying for legislation to cover health care costs for rescue workers injured after 9/11 (Jon Stewart was more loudly credited). “It was a tremendous win, but it wasn’t reported as ‘a labor victory,'” Hughes said. Peter Ward, head of New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council points to the corporate control over mainstream media as root problem of union’s nonexistent or unflattering publicity. Ward pointed out “We had the largest financial crime in history culminate in 2008. We had major mortgage brokers falsifying documents, huge investment firms participating in what can only be described as Ponzi schemes. The entire world knows it. But somehow unions are taking the hit for the resulting fiscal crisis.”
Injustices perpetrated against immigrant workers were (and are) injustices against America and humanity at large. In the midst of all these anti-immigrant laws (Arizona), how quickly we forget that America was built by immigrants. We are practically all descendents of immigrants who fled their respective countries for better lives in this so-called land of opportunity. As the garment and textile industry has shrunk in America (moved overseas for even cheaper labor), the textile and garment unions have shrunk. Largely supported by Yiddish socialists, these unions have been instrumental in fighting for basic worker and civil rights, in and out of the garment industry. Our country is in a serious financial crisis, and yes, we all must make concessions. But it’s downright unethical to ask those who would have the flimsiest job security, the lowest wages, to sacrifice those privileges we should all have. As a freelancer who would pay (even more) exorbitant amounts for basic health care without the collective bargaining of organizations like the Freelancer’s Union or Media Bistro, I feel the attack on unions is an attack on me, too. The Triangle Factory fire was important because it transcended the garment industry, the “Jewish problem”, and even the working class. It was an American failure, and the current attacks on women, immigrants, workers, and unions remain an American failure.
- PBS documentary on the Triangle factory, viewable online
- wonderful pictoral timeline of the evolution of the shirtwaist style
- PBS premiered the film “Made in LA” in the fall of 2007, documenting recent sweatshop abuses in Southern California.
- the Jewish Women’s Archive Top 10 Jewish Women in Labor History
- excellent Cornell website outlining the Triangle Factory Fire: photos, primary sources, reform, unions, commemoration
- NYU exhibition “The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: One Hundred Years After” through May