On Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. factory in New York. The workers, mostly women and young girls, were trapped inside because the factory owners had locked the exit doors to prevent them from leaving to go to the bathroom during their 12-hour shifts (there was no bathroom in the building).
When firefighters arrived, their ladders weren’t tall enough to reach the upper floors of the 10-story building, and many of the women began to jump to their deaths. Of the 500 people in the building, including managers, 146 workers perished.
Oddly, the fact that so many workers died in one day wasn’t unusual at that time. On average in 1911, 100 workers died each day.
The shirtwaist makers, some 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. 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 Day After the Fire
The morning after the fire, 15,000 garment workers walked off the job, demanding a 20 percent pay hike, a 52-hour workweek and overtime pay. By the time picketing began the following day, 20,000 workers were striking. While many factory owners agreed to the terms, others did not, and hired thugs to intimidate the strikers and used political pressure to have the strikers arrested.
Most of the striking workers were women, and their struggle attracted the attention of wealthy and socially connected suffragettes like Anne Morgan, who was the daughter of J.P. Morgan, and Alva Belmont, who was married to William Vanderbilt. These women held rallies and fundraising events and even paid the fines of the workers who were arrested for picketing.
Anne Morgan and Alva Belmont hosted a meeting at the Metropolitan Opera House to demand action on fire safety, and 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, Secretary of Labor 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. The course of Perkins’ life had changed when she witnessed the Triangle Shirtwasit factory fire, leaving her office at the New York Consumers League to become the executive secretary for the Committee on Safety of the City of New York. She would serve as secretary from 1933 to 1945, and was the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet.
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