Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is one of the most important--and tragic--events in American Labor History. In the late afternoon of March 25, 1911--just before quitting time that Saturday, in fact--a fire broke out on the 9th floor of the building housing the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. The Order Department, located on the 8th floor, immediately notified company management, located on the 10th floor, and persons on both of those floors escaped harm. But no one from the company thought to evacuate the workers located on the floor between, and as a result they were trapped. Some were able to escape to the roof of the building. Many more, fearing being burned to death in the fire, leaped to their death from the 9th and 10th floors of the building.
The factors that contributed to this tragedy were numerous--from New York Fire Department ladders that only reached to the 6th floor, to the cramped work quarters with wicker baskets full of scrap cloth and the oil impregnated floor in the factory. Many of the contributed factors may have been overcome, but a door the the stairway was locked (either to keep union organizers out, or to keep workers from leaving early); other doors that would have allowed the women to escape opened inward, and were blocked as the by now panicked women attempting to escape.

The fear of unionization was very much on the minds of the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. In 1910, the "Uprising of the 20,000" led to the unionization of many rival shirtwaist companies. Triangle was able to resist the unionization drive, and therefore also resist the demand of its workers to unlock the doors of the factory and to ensure that the fire escapes were functional. Those demands remained unaddressed on March 25, 1911.

This tragedy deeply touched many New Yorkers--one in ten, in fact, turned out to observe and participate in the memorial service held for the victims as many of them were taken to the cemetery in Queens. As a result of this tragedy, many new laws and ordinances were passed that attempted to address the concerns raised by this event--and unions were at the forefront, bargaining to gain many new workplace safety features.

The Cornell University Industrial and Labor Relations School has developed an online exhibit where a great deal of primary source material has been brought together--a terrific achievement, for which everyone involved gets a hardy thanks from this blogger. In light of the renewed assault on labor across the nation, this event should serve as a reminder of what life was like for workers without unions.