On Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. Firefighters arrived at the scene, but their ladders weren’t tall enough to reach the upper floors of the 10-story building. Trapped inside because the owners had locked the fire escape exit doors, workers jumped to their deaths. In a half an hour, the fire was over, and 146 of the 500 workers—mostly young women—were dead.
Many of us have read about the tragic Triangle fire in school textbooks. But the fire alone wasn’t what made the shirtwaist makers such a focal point for worker safety. In fact, workplace deaths weren’t uncommon then. It is estimated that more than 100 workers died every day on the job around 1911.
The shirtwaist makers’ story was so compelling because it brought attention to the events leading up to the fire. After the fire, their story inspired hundreds of activists across the state and the nation to push for fundamental reforms. For some, such as Frances Perkins, who stood helpless watching the factory burn, the tragedy inspired a lifetime of advocacy for workers’ rights. She later became secretary of labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The shirtwaist makers, as young as age 15, worked seven days a week, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. with a half-hour lunch break. During the busy season, the work was nearly non-stop. They were paid about $6 per week. In some cases, they were required to use their own needles, thread, irons and occasionally their own sewing machines. The factories also were unsanitary, or as a young striker explained, “unsanitary—that’s the word that is generally used, but there ought to be a worse one used.” At the Triangle factory, women had to leave the building to use the bathroom, so management began locking the steel exit doors to prevent the “interruption of work” and only the foreman had the key.
The “shirtwaist”—a woman’s blouse—was one of the country’s first fashion statements that crossed class lines. The booming ready-made clothing industry made the stylish shirtwaist affordable even for working women. Worn with an ankle-length skirt, the shirtwaist was appropriate for any occasion—from work to play—and was more comfortable and practical than fashion that preceded it, like corsets and hoops.
Years before the Triangle fire, garment workers actively sought to improve their working conditions—including locked exits in high-rise buildings—that led to the deaths at Triangle. In fall 1909, as factory owners pressed shirtwaist makers to work longer hours for less money, several hundred workers went on strike. On Nov. 22, Local 25 of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) convened a meeting to discuss a general strike. Thousands of workers packed the hall.
Nineteen-year-old Clara Lemlich was sitting in the crowd listening to the speakers—mostly men—caution against striking. Clara was one of the founders of Local 25, whose membership numbered only a few hundred, mostly female, shirtwaist and dressmakers. A few months earlier, hired thugs had beaten her savagely for her union involvement, breaking ribs.
When the meeting’s star attraction, the American Federation of Labor President Samuel Gompers, spoke, the crowd went wild. After he finished, Clara expected a strike vote. Instead, yet another speaker went to the podium. Tired of hearing speakers for more than two hours, Clara made her way to the stage, shouting, “I want to say a few words!” in Yiddish. Once she got to the podium, she continued, “I have no further patience for talk as I am one of those who feels and suffers from the things pictured. I move that we go on a general strike...now!” The audience rose to their feet and cheered, then voted for a strike.
The next morning, throughout New York’s garment district, more than 15,000 shirtwaist makers walked out. They demanded a 20-percent pay raise, a 52-hour workweek and extra pay for overtime. The local union, along with the Women’s Trade Union League, held meetings in English and Yiddish at dozens of halls to discuss plans for picketing. When picketing began the following day, more than 20,000 workers from 500 factories had walked out. More than 70 of the smaller factories agreed to the union’s demands within the first 48 hours.
Meanwhile, the fiercely anti-union owners of the Triangle factory met with owners of the 20 largest factories to form a manufacturing association. Many of the strike leaders worked there, and the Triangle owners wanted to make sure other factory owners were committed to doing whatever it took—from using physical force (by hiring thugs to beat up strikers) to political pressure (which got the police on their side)—to not back down.
Soon after, police officers began arresting strikers, and judges fined them and sentenced some to labor camps. One judge, while sentencing a picketer for “incitement,” explained, “You are striking against God and Nature, whose law is that man shall earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. You are on strike against God!”
The struggle and spirit of the women strikers caught the attention of suffragists. Wealthy progressive women like Anne Morgan (daughter of J.P. Morgan) and Alva Belmont (whose first husband, William Vanderbilt, presented her with a home so lavish, it was worth $150 million in today’s dollars) believed that all women—rich and poor—would be treated better if women had the right to vote. Alva saw the labor uprising as an opportunity to move the women strikers’ concerns into a broader feminist struggle. She arranged huge rallies, fund-raising events and even spent nights in court paying the fines for arrested strikers.
The coalition of the wealthy suffragists and shirtwaist strikers quickly gained momentum and favorable publicity. Fifteen thousand shirtwaist makers in Philadelphia went on strike, and even replacement workers at the Triangle factory joined the strike—shutting it down.
A month into the strike, most of the small and mid-sized factories settled with the strikers, who then returned to work. The large factories, which were the holdouts, knew they had lost the war of public opinion and were finally ready to negotiate. They agreed to higher pay and shorter hours but refused even to discuss a closed shop (where factories would hire only union members and treat union and nonunion workers equally in hiring and pay decisions).
At a series of mass meetings, thousands of strikers voted unanimously to reject the factory owners’ proposal. They insisted on a closed shop provision in which all employees at a worksite were members of a union. For these young women workers, the strike had become more than taking a stand for a pay raise and reduced work hours. They wanted to create a union with real power and solidarity.
While a closed shop became standard practice in later decades, at the time, their insistence seemed radical. The issue unraveled the alliance between the union and the wealthy progressive women. But by then, only a few thousand workers were still on strike, from the largest, most unyielding companies—including Triangle.
In February 1910, the strike finally was settled. The few remaining factories rehired the strikers, agreed to higher wages and shorter hours and recognized the union in name only, resisting a closed shop. Local 25, which prior to the strike represented only a few hundred members, now had more than 20,000. However, workers at Triangle went back to work without a union agreement. Management never addressed their demands, including unlocked doors in the factory and fire escapes that functioned.
A week after the fire, Anne Morgan and Alva Belmont hosted a meeting at the Metropolitan Opera House to demand action on fire safety, and people of all backgrounds packed the hall. A few days later, more than 350,000 people participated in a funeral march for the Triangle dead.
Three months later, after pressure from activists, New York’s governor signed a law creating the Factory Investigating Commission, which had unprecedented powers. The commission investigated nearly 2,000 factories in dozens of industries and, with the help of such workers’ rights advocates as Frances Perkins, enacted eight laws covering fire safety, factory inspections and sanitation and employment rules for women and children. The following year, they pushed for 25 more laws—entirely rewriting New York State’s labor laws and creating a State Department of Labor to enforce the laws. During the Roosevelt administration, Frances Perkins and Robert Wagner (who chaired the commission) helped create the nation’s most sweeping worker protections through the New Deal, including the National Labor Relations Act.
Clara Lemlich became a full-time activist, after being blacklisted by the garment industry association, and founded a working-class suffrage group. She later organized mothers around housing and education issues. Even in her last days at a nursing home, Clara helped to organize the orderlies.
Cornell University ILR School, Triangle Fire Online Exhibit; Jewish Women’s Archive; Sachar, Howard M. A History of the Jews in America, Knopf: 1992; Von Drehle, David. Triangle: The Fire that Changed America, Atlantic Monthly Press: 2003; Wertheimer, Barbara M. We Were There: The Story of Working Women in America, Pantheon Books: 1997.