A Fire at the End of the Day

'The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.' Labor activist Rose Schneiderman


At the end of the day, injustice is a matter of life and death. That fundamental lesson is also one of the lessons of women’s history. And there may be no better day than today to remember it.

Today, March 25, is the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (the “Triangle Fire”). The fire, which claimed 146 victims in 30 minutes, traumatized the conscience of the nation. It was a moment of profound intersections, in which the history of prominent individuals and “ordinary” women and men, of the labor movement and the women’s movement, and of diverse ethnic, religious, and class traditions, converged. And it was a moment that demonstrated, dramatically and tragically, the consequences of unrestrained privilege and power.

The New York textile industry had only recently weathered a lengthy strike that had brought some relief to the garment workers, in the form of contracts that focused on working conditions, and that stipulated fire safety measures, emergency preparedness standards, and the like. The strike had been galvanized by the testimony of a young Russian immigrant, Clara Lemlich. Her decision to speak in the union meeting on November 22, 1909, had turned the tide, and raised the voice of the rank and file women who worked the sewing machines and other low-wage jobs in the industry, a constituency neglected by male union organizers. Rose Schneiderman was another key organizer. The industry-wide strike that followed involved 20,000 – 40,000 workers, and concluded in February, 1910, with collective bargaining agreements between the Women’s Trade Union League and most of the New York employers.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, however, had held out. Unconstrained by labor agreements, the owners were at liberty to have fire hoses unconnected to any water supply, and doors locked to keep their workers at their posts, in the three crowded floors of the Asch Building occupied by the factory. When fire broke out near the end of the day on the 8th floor, and quickly spread to the 9th and 10th floors, the workers — mostly young immigrant women from Southern and Central Europe, many of them Jewish — were trapped. Some died trying to use a fire escape that ended in mid-air over a skylight, and that collapsed under the weight of those trying to use it, plunging them to their deaths. Others died by jumping from the 9th floor windows to escape the flames. Others perished in the blaze. Fire Department assistance was to no avail: their ladders reached only to the 6th floor, their nets were not strong enough to catch the victims who jumped from the top floors.

Shocked witnesses on the street looked on helplessly as the event unfolded — among them Frances Perkins. Perkins would later serve as Secretary of Labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, becoming the first woman to hold a presidential cabinet post in the US. She would bring to her position an understanding of the significance of labor relations touched by her experience on March 25, 1911, and of the perspective of labor gained in part from hearing Rose Schneiderman’s address to those gathered at the Metropolitan Opera House on April 2 to respond to the issues raised by the fire.

100 years later, the arrangements that led to the Triangle Fire and its tragic outcome are not things of the past. Sweatshop labor is a contemporary phenomenon. Government and management challenge collective bargaining in industry after industry. One of the harsh lessons of the Triangle Fire — that costly protections for the poor and powerless do not come from the goodness of the hearts of the powerful, but are put into place when society at large insists yet more powerfully, through the vehicle of its laws– has yet to be learned as fully as necessary. This is why, in New York, the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State commemorates the anniversary of the Triangle Fire with an annual 40-hour fast, calling participants to remembrance and renewed commitment.

At the end of the day, justice is a matter of life and death.

Readers of the Bible know what they are urged to choose.

Read More . . .

Cornell University’s ILR (Industrial and Labor Relations) School maintains a website devoted to the Triangle Fire, which includes full accounts from primary and secondary sources, and the recently updated, most accurate list of the victims.

The New York Times has devoted a special series of articles to the centenary of the tragedy, including profiles of prominent figures somehow affected by the fire — including Perkins, Rose Schneiderman, and Anne Morgan, and a discussion of the recent identification of hitherto unidentified victims of the fire.

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