Anniversary of factory fire a century ago reminds us of unfinished mission

One hundred years ago, on March 25, 1911, 146 mostly young immigrant women lost their lives in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. That fire changed the attitudes of the American public and the policies of the government. Out of that fire would come a series of reforms that we now take for granted: fire safety, building codes, factory and health codes. But still today our workplaces are not safe enough.

The fire consumed the top three floors of the building that Triangle occupied, in Greenwich Village, N.Y. Workers on the ninth floor were trapped. The doors were locked. Large canisters of oil were exploding in the stairwells, and several tons of uncut cloth were ablaze. Workers went to the windows, but the fire ladders didn’t reach them. Firemen pulled out nets to catch the women as they jumped, but they crashed through to their death.

Many people considered the fire an accident and a regrettable fact of industrial life. They looked to charities to tend to the families of the victims.

But Rabbi Stephen Wise and labor leader Rose Schneiderman rejected this notion.

As Wise said, “It is not the act of God but the inaction of man that is responsible.” Schneiderman, in an impassioned speech at the Metropolitan Opera, pointed her finger at the assembled “best people” of New York and told them: “I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. … Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”

The fire united workers and reformers. Frances Perkins, then a young social worker, came to the conclusion that safeguarding labor conditions was rightfully a state function. Together with the garment workers union and reform groups, she persuaded Tammany Hall to take up labor reform.

Al Smith and Robert Wagner, then leaders of the state legislature, created the Factory Investigating Committee, which they co-chaired. They rewrote New York’s labor, building, safety and industrial code, making the state a model that others soon emulated.

Perkins would become chief investigator of the committee and then commissioner of labor for New York state and secretary of labor for President FDR. The New Deal, she recalled later, “was based really upon the experiences that we had had in New York state and upon the sacrifices of those who, we faithfully remember with affection and respect, died in that terrible fire. They did not die in vain and we will never forget them.”

And so we remember them today.

But we also need to remember that hazardous working conditions remain a serious problem. More than 5,000 workers die on the job in the United States every year.

We cannot continue to turn our backs on them, even though they are not leaping out of windows en masse to their deaths.

On this day, 100 years after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, let us pledge to make our workplaces safe, once and for all.

Richard Greenwald, professor of history and dean of the graduate school at Drew University in Madison, N.J., is the author of “The Triangle Fire, The Protocols of Piece and the Making of Industrial Democracy in Progressive Era New York.” He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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