Monday, May 20, 2013

Laufer: The 1911 Triangle Factory Fire

Joshua Laufer

The 1911 Triangle Factory Fire’s Effects on The US Working Class
The purpose of this paper is to examine the Triangle Factory Fire in 1911. Primary emphasis will be given toward managerial negligence, hazardous working conditions, economic oppression, and the new demand for safer, fairer labor conditions. The goal is to provide a conceptual overview of these factors, and the relationships therein with regard to the United States working class.

The Triangle Waist Company was a factory in the early 1900s. Located in Manhattan, the garment factory owners subcontracted the jobs to people who hired workers, and took a part of the profit. Two years prior to the fire, an incident known as the Uprising of the 20,000 caused 400 working employees to leave the scene. A developing group of middle-class white women known as The Women’s Trade Union League assisted the female workers to picket.1 A year later, the strike would lead to an agreement in the garment industry providing for a grievance system. The structure of the agreement involved raising the wages of workers, improving working conditions, and lowering the amount of hours.
Sadly for the employees, not all the garment companies were willing to accept the agreement. Unprincipled managers of the Triangle Waist Company chose to run the factory 1
under their own rules. Many immigrants who may not have received full documentation, and wanted to stay out of the eyes of the government would be drawn to working in the industry; those in charge knew the work was desperately needed regardless of the unfair conditions.
On a typical work day, around closing time, a fire on the top floor of one of the buildings took 141 lives of the 500 employed at the Triangle Waist Company. The New York Times wrote, “Three stories of a ten-floor building at the corner of Northwest Green Street and Washington place was burned last evening between the hours of 4:40 and 7 o’clock, and while the fire was going on, 141 young men and women—at least 125 of them mere girls, were burned to death or killed by jumping to the pavement below.”
The victims on the top floors could not escape due to flames blocking the stairwell. They were left with the choice to burn to death, suffocate from the smoke, or jump from the ninth floor down to the New York City sidewalks where people at the incident were said to be shouting for the workers to not jump.
In the midst of the horrifying event, this did not stop me from taking the leap down. Taken directly from the New York Times headlines on March 26, 1911, the day after the fire occurred, an excerpt captures a glimpse of the intensity of the scene. The girls rushed to the windows and looked down at Greene Street, 100 feet below them. Then one poor, little creature jumped. There was a plate glass protection over part of the sidewalk, but she crashed through it, wrecking it and breaking her body into a thousand pieces.”2
The fire was said to have burned down all three floors within a half-hour. The victims had little time, and nearly no available options to escape the burning flames, and thick toxic fumes. The managerial powers during this time were able to take complete advantage of the workers. Most of those employed at the triangle factory were young Jewish, and Italian women. Already struggling to cope with the language and culture of America, these new immigrants were perfect prey for those hiring. Little concern was put into how well the workers would be handled inside their own workplace: managers instructed as they pleased, knowing that those who spoke out could be easily replaced due to the high demand for jobs.
For the workers in many garment factories, including the Triangle company, managers would lock the workers in, disallowing them from going to the bathroom, or taking any sort of break. According to an article from the ILR school at Cornell University, “They and many others afterwards believed they were deliberately locked—owners had frequently locked the exit doors in the past, claiming that workers stole materials.” The failure of management to compensate for the worker’s safety can be linked to the high death toll at the factory fire.
From an article that contains a sixty-year-old man reflecting back during the early 1900’s, “Millions of immigrants poured into the cities, trying to get jobs and make a better life.”3
Despite the terrible conditions put out by the hands of management; ultimately, it was never a necessity to make any changes for the highly sought after and necessary jobs. Due to the higher economic status, and therefore reputation of the owners, workers knew that by speaking up against the unfairness of the circumstances, they faced the risk of being exploited, and possibly losing out on future jobs. Management took full leverage in knowing that these immigrants seeking out jobs for a more fulfilling life would be desperate.
The suffrage of the workers did not stop with their careless management. A trickling effect from the owner’s negligence resulted in highly hazardous working conditions and extremely low wages. The occurrence of the factory fire revealed the inefficiencies of fire inspections at the turn of the twentieth century. “For all practical purposes, the ninth floor fire escape in the Asch Building led nowhere, certainly not to safety, and it bent under the weight of the factory workers trying to escape the inferno.” Workers faced long days inside unsafe buildings, bad ventilation with overcrowded rooms, and as mentioned, sometimes even being locked in.
Like many sweatshops at this time, the Triangle Factory was known to be unsanitary, containing too many people inside one room, and foul smelling. Workers were lucky if they were paid minimum wage. An excerpt from an article by Eyewitness to History recalls the events by those who directly lived it. “An old Italian saying summed up the disillusionment felt by many: ‘I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here, found out three things: First, the streets weren't paved with gold; second, they weren't paved at all: and third, I was expected to pave them.’”4 It is well known that immigrants perceived America in the nineteenth century as a place filled with opportunity, and a potentially well-fulfilled life. The quote exemplifies a common misconception that many immigrants had of what the American Dream truly was.
It is apparent that the working class faced economic hardships, hazardous working conditions, and a lack of managerial efficiency. The Triangle Factory Fire was a historical event that heavily influenced the development of trends toward safer working conditions. Groups like the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, as mentioned earlier, and the Women’s Trade Union League formed to protect the workers, and to strive toward more suitable workplace conditions.
The fire was a major turning point for the beginning of newly-formed unions to protect employees. The tragedy had a major impact on the way all garment factories were to be run in the future. In an excerpt from Samuel Gompers, “...the last convincing point in evidence was reached of the lawlessness, the unrestrained avarice, the merciless disregard of human life which for more than a decade has marked the concentration of clothing manufacture under the control of employers directing the work of hundreds or thousands of employees, who were meantime taking advantage of every means possible to reduce wages and deprive their employees of the protection of the law or the trade union.”5
The Triangle Factory Fire exploited the company’s hazardous working conditions and demonstrated a catastrophic outcome. Along with the mistreatment from overhead and low wages, the demand for worker’s protection and rights in the garment factories would begin to circulate around newer industries. The impact ultimately had a positive effect on the United States working class’s right to unionize, and protect themselves from potential abuses of power.

1 Sione, Patricia, Sweatshops and Strikes of 1911, 1998, (accessed 02, May, 2013).

2 N.A., 141 Men and Girls Die in Waist Factory Fire; Trapped High Up in Washington Place Building; Street Strewn with Bodies; Piles of Dead Inside (New York Times, New York, 1911) p. 1

3 "Immigration in the early 1900s," EyeWitness to History, (2000) (accessed 02, May, 2013).

4 "City Life at the turn of the 20th Century," EyeWitness to History, (2000). (accessed 02, May, 2013).

5 Samuel Gompers, Hostile Employers See Yourselves as Others Know You, (American Federationist, N.A., 1911) p, 365-61.

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