Lessons of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

This past Sunday marked the 101st anniversary of the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory. This incident had, before the September 11th terror attack on the World Trade Center, the dubious distinction of being the worst fire-related workplace disaster in New York City history. The level of qualification present is an important element of its description, as there have been worse incidents of loss of life, in New York City, in fires, and in labor disasters generally. Despite this, the Triangle fire holds an iconic place in the history of labor relations and progressive politics.

In the standard narrative, the Triangle fire was the result of the unsafe working conditions and inhumane policies maintained at workplaces in the heyday of laissez-faire capitalism in the United States. The tragedy of its hundreds of deaths started a reform movement in government to create workplace safety regulations with teeth, resulting in the relatively safe working conditions we enjoy today. More complete treatments mention the strikes and protests by the labor movement leading up to the fire, and Tammany Hall’s obstructions and corruption. What comes out of this narrative is the clear message that the Triangle fire is why we have workplace safety regulations and that the government is exercising proper authority in enforcing them.

It is thus a cornerstone of the American liberal stance favoring state intervention, a stance which only makes sense in context of the American conception of an antagonistic political divide between government and private industry. It is used as a “teaching moment” in political discourse, an origin story for the state regulatory apparatus. In this, the standard narrative obscures the picture of how capitalism and the state interacted in the lead-up to the Triangle fire, and the role of mass action and organized labor. A fuller understanding of the meaning of the Triangle fire in both history and politics can only come from looking at it in the context of mass action and public outcry for reform. Moreover, contrasting the Triangle fire with other, similar disasters which have not become historical icons reveals the importance of that context: it turned the Triangle fire into a “spectacle of justice.” This term denotes a process by which public understanding of an event is heightened through a dramatic spectacle, which plays out in the public theater of mass protest actions and criminal trials, surrounding a claim of societal injury which must be rectified. In other words, what is it critical to understand about the Triangle fire is how prior mass action against the conditions that made the fire possible “set the stage” on which the fire became a highly visible offense against society, inciting mass public outrage and desire for change, which in turn forced or enticed power elites to create a just outcome in order to quell the public’s anger, a success which those power elites appropriated.

The Triangle Shirtwaist factory, which took up the eighth through tenth stories of the Asch Building (now Brown Building) at 23-29 Washington Place, was owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris. It produced shirtwaists, called blouses today, and employed between 500 and 1000 people who worked nine-hour weekday shifts, and a seven-hour shift on Saturdays. Within a half hour of the start of the fire, in the afternoon of March 25, 1911, 146 people died. Some burned or suffocated to death, while others fell or jumped from the building. The proximate cause is not completely clear, and could have been sewing machine part overheating or a carelessly discarded cigarette butt. Either way, cotton, when packed loosely, burns with explosive quickness. The factory had many waste-bins filled with discarded cotton material and paper, and either trigger contacting these contents would have caused a blaze to spread with terrifying quickness. There was no alarm system in the building that could easily be set off to warn all the occupants. While a bookkeeper on the eighth floor was able to send a warning by telephone to the tenth floor, where the owners , management, and clerical employees were, so that they could escape to the roof, nothing could be sent to the ninth floor, as it lacked a direct telephone line from the eighth floor. By the time workers there received any warning the fire had already reached them.

There were only a few exits available. While they were still operable, two freight elevators ferried workers to the ground level. There was a fire escape, but it was shoddily constructed and collapsed while in use, sending 24 people plummeting to their deaths. This left two stairwells. One exited to Greene Street, and while flames blocked downward escape, employees could use it to reach the roof until fire and smoke blocked it off completely. The other stairwell, to Washington Place, would become a legendary focal point of anger because its door on the ninth floor was locked shut from the outside. This was apparently a precaution against unnecessary interruption of work and theft of goods, although Harris would later admit that the losses from such theft did not amount to more than $25 per year ($610 adjusted for inflation). The toilets were accessible from this door, and workers had to ask for permission to leave. The locked doors of the Triangle factory, standing for managerial avarice and a lack of basic dignity for workers, became a focus of spectacle, a sort of profane icon, for later retellings of the story and at the trial of the owners, but the events at the time offered ample opportunity for public shock. The 62 workers who jumped to their deaths in desperation were a highly visible and shocking manifestation of the inhumane conditions at the Triangle factory.

However, while the Triangle fire still has relevance today, a similar fire in New York City in the early 20th century with a death toll an order of magnitude higher has faded from the public memory. Understanding this event and how it differed from the Triangle fire provides the key insight into how a spectacle of justice forms and endures in history, and the importance this has for the cause of social justice. This other disaster occurred aboard P.S. General Slocum, a passenger ship that plied New York City’s waters from 1891 until 1904, when it caught fire in the East River and sank, killing 1,021 passengers. While few remember this catastrophe today, it was well known to New Yorkers at the time of the Triangle fire, and some drew comparisons between the two events. There are, in fact, a number of interesting points of comparison. Both the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and the P. S. General Slocum had a history of accidents and mishaps. In both cases, a fire started by casual negligence killed many, and some of these deaths could be attributed to inadequate or shoddy safety precautions and escape systems. And both resulted, ultimately, in increased government safety regulations. So why has one of these events become a pivotal moment in U.S. history, and the other faded from memory? To put it metaphorically, a spectacle has greater impact when mass struggle sets the stage.

Struggle itself might be a sufficient contrast, actually. The Slocum was a tour boat that attracted very little widespread attention before it sunk, but its disastrous end created a political and public relations crisis in which both the government and the shipping industry were compromised, and due to its magnitude, it simply could not be ignored. The government quickly launched an investigation which uncovered widespread deficiencies in safety measures in the shipping industry and prompted a swift response in legislation. Prior to the fire, however, there was no mass conflict between customers (passengers) and business (shipping lines) over fire safety on ships. In contrast, the Triangle fire occurred in the context of mass struggle between workers and employers, which made a difference in terms of the power relations at play. There had been other deadly fires in the garment industry before the one as the Triangle factory, and the safety issue was among grievances over which labor and capital were in conflict. Unlike the case of the Slocum, which attracted the attention of the president and resulted in a swift push for better fire safety standards for ships and enforcement thereof, the government did not swoop in to address the loss of life in prior factory fires with regulation. The fact that workers had to fight for improved safety measures despite known and proven dangers shows a key difference in priorities, in government, business, and public perception, between customer or consumer safety and workplace safety. When it comes to workplace safety in factories, after all, owners at the time typically didn’t have to worry about workers quitting, since there are always plenty more, and they could rely on the government to back them in any conflict with organized labor.

While labor unions, socialist activists and muckraker journalists had all been agitating against poor working conditions, including poor fire safety, at factories prior to Triangle, the corrupt Tammany Hall government, beholden to business interests, was a roadblock to progress. Blanck and Harris themselves had a history of fires at their factories, including two at Triangle, and were staunchly anti-union. In 1909 an incident at the Triangle factory, in which workers were fired for attempting to organize, incited a walkout of 400 by the factory’s workers and a call for an industry strike by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). The Women’s Trade Union League helped the Triangle workers organize a picket and resist intimidation by employer-hired thugs and the police. After a month of strike action, the ILGWU called a mass meeting, at which several luminaries of the labor movement, including Meyer London, Morris Hillquit, Joseph Barondess, and Samuel Gompers, spoke. These leading men of organized labor in traditionally male industries made abstract statements of support while urging moderation in response, unwilling to commit to any immediate action. In the midst of this quagmire, Clara Lemlich, an immigrant seamstress, demanded to speak. She made a rousing speech, identifying herself with the ordinary women workers whose livelihoods were at stake and calling for a general strike, ending the leadership-driven stagnation in uncompromising terms. Thousands of workers answered her call, inciting a mass strike action called the Uprising of 20,000. The city government actively sided with  employers, sending police to arrest hundreds of strikers. After handing down a sentence for “incitement” to workers on a picket line, a magistrate summed up the combined business and government position: “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!” In spite of this, the Uprising was a partial success, winning higher wages and better conditions from the management of many factories, but no union recognition. It would take the later Great Revolt of 1910, another clothing industry general strike which attracted about 60,000 workers and protestors, to win union recognition and create a system of labor/management arbitration that still exists in most union contracts today.

Aside from the practical gains these actions accomplished, there was an intangible side effect which had significant consequences, and marks another major difference between the Triangle fire and the Slocum disaster: prior publicity. The Slocum had a history of minor accidents, but this did not provoke any mass public outrage or protest movement. The scale and intensity of the mass actions preceding the Triangle fire made the people of New York City well aware of the problems in the garment industry. A huge segment of the city’s population was looking on, and this audience cut across class lines. The Uprising, while led by women and immigrants, had the support of the press, religious leaders, and many observing upper-class New Yorkers; it specifically attracted the patronage and sympathy of wealthy women, who even joined pickets as the (derisively labeled) “Mink Brigade.” The numbers of the strikers mirrors the the outpouring of mass sympathy after the fire, when 100,000 mourners joined the funeral march down Fifth Avenue.

So, mass action by organized labor had set the stage and drawn an audience, but what drama would play out upon it? In a sense, the fire itself was the “opening act.” When placed in the larger context of strikes and class struggle, there is something perversely poetic about the Triangle factory fire. It was a walk-out from Triangle that set off wave of strikes, and the factory’s owners slipped effortlessly into the role of antagonist. Blanck and Harris, stridently opposed to organized labor, refused to accept the terms which the Uprising had forced on many other factories. They had fired the original Triangle workers who walked out after they had fired other workers for attempting to organize. They sought scab replacements, and hired “company goons” to harass the strikers. When they were charged with manslaughter for the deaths of their employees in the fire, the drama moved on to the institution which has the public function of providing a spectacle of justice: the courts.

The most potent symbol of the fire at trial was the locked Washington Street exit door, a profane icon which stood for the callous inhumanity of the factory’s management as much as it evinced a possible crime on their part, linking the Triangle proprietors to the deaths of hundreds of their employees. Their defense lawyer, Max D. Steuer, well known for his skill at trial, made two critical defensive ploys. First, he repeatedly asked the star witness for the prosecution to recount her testimony, about her friend being trapped by the locked door, and then pointed out that she used several distinctive phrases each time. This, he alleged, implied that her testimony has been coached from a script she had rehearsed in advance, with the possibility that union agitators were using her to give false testimony. Secondly, in regard to the physical evidence of the door lock, he pointed out that it hadn’t been recovered for over two weeks after the fire, implying again the possibility of a trick by organized labor interests, as they could have tampered with the lock in the time since the fire. With these arguments, he successfully diverted the outrage to another target by severing his clients’ link to the iconic lock and providing a new one to replace it: the shadowy agenda of labor radicals. This reveals that as much as public sympathy may have been aroused by the causes for which unions were fighting, the unions themselves were suspicious to many New Yorkers. Ultimately, Blanck and Harris were acquitted. Later, they were sued in civil court by the families of the victims and settled for $75 ($1,830 adjusted for inflation) in compensation per death. However, thanks again to their lawyer, their insurance company did not contest their claim for damages, which was $60,000 ($1,464,000) higher their actual documented losses, effectively “compensating” the owners by $400 ($9,760) per death.

This is possibly the starkest difference in outcomes from the Slocum fire. In that case, several people were indicted for criminal negligence and manslaughter, among other charges, including the captain of the ship, William H. Van Schaick, a safety inspector, and several officers of the company. Ultimately, only the captain was convicted, but this seemed to have made all the difference. Other responsible parties had escaped any serious consequences, either being let off on a technicality (a mistrial in the case of the inspector, which also resulted in the case against the company officials collapsing) or having to pay only minor fines and compensation. Despite these close similarities to the evasion of consequences by Blanck and Harris, Captain Van Schaick, having been vilified in the press prior to the trial, made an effective scapegoat, and his conviction convinced the families of the victims and the public that justice had been done.

When, in the eyes of the public, the ritual of the trial fails to provide the expected just denouement, the risen outrage must be channeled in other ways. Much like the mass action buildup, post-fire protest and outcry for change cut across class and political lines. Journalists such as William Randolph Hearst and progressive movement activists rallied public opinion for political change through the press and policy think-tanks, and union membership grew from 30,000 to 250,000 between 1909 and 1913. Where all this energy would flow was not clear. Socialist and labor activists pressed for radical direct action, not compromise, but this outlet would ultimately not be pursued. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and others sought compromise and a solution within the system: they worked with Tammany Hall, officials like Al Smith and Robert Wagner, and reformers like Frances Perkins. This union/government alliance put safety laws and regulations into place. While Tammany Hall, Smith and Wagner acted “within a month,” they were latecomers to a scene already defined by unions, private reform-minded protestors, and journalists. The public outrage that resulted from the Triangle fire was both an opportunity and a threat which the political system needed to contain and harness for its benefit. The Tammany Hall government, which had used corrupt patronage in the past to secure both business owners’ and workers’ votes, now cast in with workers because unions had made them powerful and rallied public support to their side. In this way, the political system co-opted the concerns of both the public and the radical elements of the mass movements for change, and not only preserved itself, but became the hero of the day.

Thus, the standard narrative plays up the reformist role and subsequent political career of “Great Men” such as Al Smith. The preceding strikes, when mentioned, focus on the courage and initiative of Clara Lemlich, a dramatic “Great Woman” to fold the importance of this movement under, and to construct the union hierarchy she challenged as another obstructionist “system,” equivalent to, and thus absolving, the business and political interests against reform. The injury caused by this preceding movement’s apparent failure to prevent the Triangle fire, along with the injustice of the legal escape of Blanck and Harris, cried out for a hero to set things right, and the government stepped into this role, even though previously, it had suppressed that movement on behalf of of businessmen like the Triangle proprietors.

Absent any mass action buildup, would the Triangle fire be ignored like others before it, or would it, like the Slocum fire, generate controversy in its own right and inspire a regulatory response? It’s unlikely that it would have been completely ignored. As noted, contemporaries compared the Triangle fire to the Slocum disaster, and this suggests that it would have attracted attention and outrage in any case, as would the lack of any serious punishment for the negligent owners. However, the fact that it was actually a struggle on the part of workers to improve workplace safety, and the fact that the government was more often on the side of the businesses that opposed greater safety regulation, suggests that any legislative response would likely have been weaker, and slower to appear, as the monied interest was, clearly, stridently opposed to having to take up any burden in providing safe workplaces, and still would have been able to rely on their political allies to shape any response to their benefit. In any case, mass action was not only a “force multiplier” for political change, it magnified and politicized the significance of the fire such that it remains the iconic example of why we need workplace safety regulations. For this reason, it is vital that the story of the Triangle fire not be reduced to a parable of the government’s proper role in regulation. The resistance of both the government and business interests to change and the struggle which masses of ordinary people had to take up to improve their lives cannot be forgotten if we are to safeguard the gains which tens of thousands of workers fought for and, ultimately, which hundreds of others died for. Without an understanding of the mutually reinforcing relationship between mass action by organized labor and laws protecting workers, we are prone to believe lies about the obsolescence of labor unions given the regulatory apparatus, or the unnecessary bureaucratic burden with which the government oppresses businesses, forcing them to take measures that should be left to the market to decide.

None of this is to suggest that the government’s role in enforcing safety regulation is wrong, unimportant, or unjust, or that Lemlich and Smith were not bold persons taking positive action against an ineffective system. What this analysis does, rather, is to show that the “top-down” focus on state soteriology in the standard narrative has hidden the vast social forces already in motion, which allowed the Triangle fire to spur fundamental reform, and thus downplays the importance of mass action in working for change. It is thus critical to remember the role that years of mass action leading up the the Triangle fire played in securing a wide-reaching and cross-sectional audience. By creating this audience, the forces of organized labor primed the people of New York City to interpret the Triangle fire on their terms. In the wake of the fire, the spectacle of hundreds of dead workers, the outrage of the locked door, and the villains’ escape from justice all combined to motivate the public audience to force their representatives in government to take action to prevent such disasters. Seeing either a threat to, or the opportunity for advancing, their careers, politicians finally took the action for which workers had been fighting for years against state-backed business interests. It is as if the mass movement of workers gathered kindling, to which the Triangle fire provided a spark, and the resulting fire forced an otherwise hostile and apathetic government to switch its loyalties. This is what must never be forgotten.

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