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Unions, Big Business and the Forgotten Lessons of a Disaster that Killed Dozens of Workers 100 Years Ago this Month

On March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers perished after a fire broke out at the Triangle Waist Company in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

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Owned by Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, who were known as the “the shirtwaist kings," Triangle was one of the most rabidly anti-union firms. On March 25, 1911, on a Saturday at 4:45 p.m., close to quitting time, a fire broke out on the eighth and ninth floors of its ten-story building. Factory foremen had locked the exit doors to keep out union organizers and to keep workers from taking breaks and stealing scraps of fabric. Other doors only opened inward and were blocked by the stampede of workers struggling to escape. The ladders of the city’s fire engines could not reach high enough to save the employees. As a result, workers burned or they jumped to their deaths. Experts later concluded that the fire was likely caused by a cigarette dropped on a pile of “cut aways” or scraps of cloth that had been accumulating for almost three months.

News of the fire spread quickly, catalyzing public opinion, and energizing a broad coalition of unlikely allies. It included immigrants, muckraking journalists, clergy, unionists, socialites, and socialists. Rose Schneiderman, an immigrant worker, socialist, and fiery union organizer, found common cause with Anne Morgan, the daughter of Wall Street chieftain J.P. Morgan. Frances Perkins, a former settlement house worker who was at the time a researcher and lobbyist for the Consumers League (and who later became Franklin Roosevelt’s trailblazing secretary of labor) joined hands with Rabbi Stephen S. Wise to demand reform.

On April 6, 30,000 New Yorkers marched—and hundreds of thousands more lined the march’s route—behind empty hearses to memorialize the fire’s victims. Numerous rallies, broadsides and editorials called for legislative action—ranging from fire safety codes to restrictions on child labor. In response to the outcry, New York Governor John Alden Dix created the Factory Investigating Commission, a pioneering body with broad subpoena powers and teams of investigators, led by two savvy Democratic politicians, state Assemblyman Al Smith and state Senator Robert F. Wagner.

Smith, Wagner, and the Commission members traveled up and down the state holding hearings and visiting factories. Over two years, the commissioners interviewed almost 500 witnesses and visited over 3,000 factories in 20 industries. They found buildings without fire escapes, bakeries in poorly ventilated cellars with rat droppings. Only 21 percent of the bakeries even had bathrooms, and most of them were unsanitary. Children—some as young as five years old—were toiling in dangerous canning factories. Women and girls were working 18-hour days.

After the fire, many city officials acknowledged there was a problem. Edward F. Croker, New York City’s retired fire chief, told the Commission that employers “pay absolutely no attention to the fire hazard or to the protection of the employees in these buildings. That is their last consideration.” His department had cited the Triangle building for lack of fire escapes just one week before the fire.

But the garment manufacturers, the Real Estate Board, and the bakery and cannery industry groups sought to stymie the Commission. The real-estate interests opposed city fire codes. After the Fire Department ordered warehouses to install sprinklers, the Protective League of Property Owners held a meeting to denounce the mandate, angrily charging the city with forcing owners to use “cumbersome and costly” equipment.

As representative of the Associated Industries of New York insisted that regulations would mean “the wiping out of industry in this state.” Mabel Clark, vice president of the W.N. Clark Company, a canning corporation, opposed any restrictions on child labor. “I have seen children working in factories, and I have seen them working at home, and they were perfectly happy,” she declared.

Terence McGuire, president of the Real Estate Board, summed up the business argument against regulation. “To my mind this is all wrong,” he declared. “The experience of the past proves conclusively that the best government is the least possible government.” The board warned that new laws would drive “manufacturers out of the City and State of New York.”