Reflecting on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

by Symi Rom-Rymer

One hundred years ago today, 146 immigrant women, primarily Jewish and Italian, died while trying to escape a fire that raged through the upper floors of the sweatshop where they worked. In closed-off rooms full of highly flammable scrape of fabric and swirls of cigarette smoke, anything could have set off the blaze; its cause has never been determined.

As we commemorate those who lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire this week, the tragic aspects often stand out the most: the avoidable deaths, the destitute families left behind and the seemingly heartless factory owners. It is especially chilling to remember that the factory owners themselves were Jewish and had helped to bring over many of the women who were killed in the fire.  They apparently cared enough about their fellow Jews to help them come to America, but not enough to secure their safety once they arrived.

But there were also more positive consequences, which are discussed less frequently. Many key aspects of our social safety net, however imperfect it may be, from building safety regulations to collective bargaining rights to social security, can trace their origins to the ashes of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. One of the most prominent examples of those who drew lasting lessons from the devastation was Frances Perkins, who later became the first female Secretary of Labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. While visiting a friend in Greenwich Village only a few streets away from the factory on the 25th of March, she and her friend heard the fire trucks and the screams of those trapped in the building.  As they stood on the pavement in front of the factory that day, they could do nothing but watch the women jump to their death.  It was a pivotal moment in Perkins’ life and a catalyst for the reforms that she would help to bring about under the FDR administration.  As labor secretary 22 years later, she helped to create social security, unemployment insurance, and legislation on bargaining rights, all institutions that many of us today take for granted.  As  Hilda Solis, the current US secretary of labor, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed reflecting on the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and its consequences, “Perkins clearly had the Triangle victims in mind as she weaved the nation’s social safety net.”

But much of the work that went into ameliorating the situation for immigrant garment workers, and others, after the fire came from within the Jewish community, not from national legislators. Even prior to 1911, Jewish activists had pushed for changes to sweatshop working conditions.  Many women played an important role in the reforms, among them the 23-year-old Claire Lemlich, who helped to launch the “Uprising of the 20,000” in 1909 that brought about a massive strike in New York’s garment district.

Following the fire, the Jewish labor unions agitated for greater protection for those whom the larger American society had largely ignored: its immigrant laborers and, specifically, its Jewish immigrant laborers.   Because these unions did not let the fire or its causes recede from the public’s mind, they also played a important role in universalizing the experience of immigrants in America and forever changed how non-Jewish Americans saw their Jewish neighbors.  As Richard Greenwald, author of The Triangle Fire, The Protocols of Peace, and Industrial Democracy in Progressive Era New York, explained in a recent article in the Forward, “The Triangle fire turned what was considered “a Jewish problem” into a national symbol of reform, and helped move Jews from the margins of society into the mainstream…It seemed to instantly become a national symbol of the dangers of unregulated workplaces and unprotected workers. It was no longer just a Jewish or an immigrant issue. It was an American problem now.”

So where are we today?  Judging from the heated debate in Wisconsin over collective bargaining and the traumatic stories from Hispanic and Asian immigrants forced to work in sweatshops in terrible conditions, the legacy of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire is far from secure.  A century may feel like a long time, but many of the same struggles remain.  Here, on the cusp of the next 100 years, let’s hope that we can continue to absorb and remember the lessons of the past as we move forward towards the future.

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