March is Women’s History Month and I think it fitting, given the current labor struggles going on across the United States, to remember the Triangle Factory fire.
I first heard about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in a women’s history class I took my first year in college. My professor was discussing the intersection of suffrage and union organizing as it relates to the feminist movement.
In 1911 a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village…but the story truly begins with a strike.
The factory workers were women…many of them recent immigrants…who had been on strike for 11 weeks demanding better working conditions, shorter hours and better pay. Factory workers worked 13 hours days 6 days a week without breaks, earned $0.13 per hour, and were locked in while working. They were docked pay for all manner of things. Injuries on the job were common. During the strike, the women were beaten by police and subjected to harassment by people who felt they were out of line. They eventually won some concessions from factory owners, but they were unable to win the right to unionize. As a result, factory workers were unable to bargain for key improvements that would have improved their safety and work life.
On March 25, 1911 a fire broke out.
The shirtwaist fabric fed the flames.
While the management fled the building, the women working in the factory were not alerted to the fire. By the time they realized the building was ablaze, their options were limited. Some tried to flee by fire escape…only to have it collapse and send them hurtling to the ground. Some managed to cram into the elevator…others flung themselves down the elevator shaft to escape the flames.
The door was locked…so many lives were stolen by a condition instituted by management to “prevent theft”.
March 25, 1911…and New Yorkers crowded the street and watched in horror as women jumped to their deaths…as screams filled the air…as workers burned to death in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
240 workers were on the 9th floor when the fire began.
400,000 people filled the streets in mourning as the dead were buried.
The public, once indifferent to the strike and unsympathetic to the union cause, raised money for victims’ families and demanded change.
In the following years laws were passed to regulate safety and workplace conditions.
Workers formed the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which continued the struggle for better working conditions for sweatshop workers.
As we honor women’s history, we should honor the history of women workers and women in organized labor.
We should remember the women of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
100 years is too soon to forget that there is a reason workers organize.
United we bargain.
Divided we beg.
For more on the Triangle Factory fire visit PBS.org.