On November 22rd, 1909 Clara Lemlich of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union provokes, through her words, a general strike of Women Garment workers1. Within two days of her speech, 20,000 shirtwaist makers had walked off their jobs. By February of 1910 most of the companies recognize and grant the demands of the union. All except the owners of The Triangle Shirtwaist Company, Max Blanck and Issac Harris, while they agreed to shorter hours and higher wages, they refused to recognize the union, and their concessions did not equal those of the other business owners2. Then, on March 25th, 1911 the most tragic event of New York City’s twentieth century occurred; a fire broke out in the Triangle Waist Company.
This horrific loss of life was observed by many onlookers and resulted in the tragic demise of 146 workers, mostly young woman immigrants who either burned to death, or chose to die by jumping from the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of the Asch building3. This fire and the public observance of lives lost was the greatest tragedy of the time, it had a direct impact on society, it led to political reform and most importantly, changes in legislation that ensured the reform of the work place across our entire nation.
This observed tragedy united a society that until then was divided by cultural and economical differences. On April Sixth, 1911 over 350,000 people participated in the funeral march for the seven unidentified victims of the fire. Mrs. Raymond Robins the head of the National Trade Union League traveled from Chicago to take part in the processional. There was representation from the suffragists, and the Socialists, the poor and the rich. In the pouring rain, people from all cultures, races and religions gathered to pay respect for all the lives lost4. These people and people across the nation, having seen or read about this tragedy came together and united to ensure nothing like this would ever happen again.
The public outcry following the fire stirred the politics and the politicians of this time. No one wanted to take responsibility for the tragedy. The governor of New York blamed the city, the mayor refused to even visit the site, political cartoons bashed the current leadership and controversy prevailed5. The city government had in the past worked together with the police to protect the Triangle Shirt Company and it’s owners. The party of Tammany Hall quickly realized they would need to change their position, and focused on a new stance of reform6.
These leaders who historically supported boss politics, were collectively responsible for this tragedy and be it through guilt, or public demand they led the change and were themselves, changed by the tragic fire. The public outcry and demand for reformation of the workplace was finally being heard and acted upon. Pushed by the already publically developed and supported Committee of Safety, the party of Tammany established The Factory Investigating Commission (FIC), which led the legislation and laws related to workplace reform. The commission mandated workplace health and safety by establishing workplace laws and regulations related to fire prevention and safety, woman and children, sanitary conditions, work hours, injury prevention, compensation, and the construction and use of buildings; the commission implemented and was responsible for the changes that the people had demanded.
The young workers that perished in The Triangle Fire were among those who initially fought for the reform, they unwillingly gave their lives for the cause. It was however, this loss that led society to demand safer working conditions. Because of these 146 souls work became a safer, fairer place for all people. The laws and legislation still govern businesses and corporations. The Triangle Fire was and still is, a tragically ironic humanity-altering event.
1. Jo Ann E. Argersinger, The Triangle Fire (Boston, Bedford/St. Martins, 2009), 13.
2. Jo Ann E. Argersinger, The Triangle Fire (Boston, Bedford/St. Martins, 2009), 16.
3. Jo Ann E. Argersinger, The Triangle Fire (Boston, Bedford/St. Martins, 2009), 16.
4. Jo Ann E. Argersinger, The Triangle Fire (Boston, Bedford/St. Martins, 2009), 89.
5. Jo Ann E. Argersinger, The Triangle Fire (Boston, Bedford/St. Martins, 2009), 26.
6. Jo Ann E. Argersinger, The Triangle Fire (Boston, Bedford/St. Martins, 2009), 102.