Triangle Shirtwaist Fire: Lessons from a Tragedy

Market Street

Sol Bidek’s family lived in a tenement on Market Street in Hartford. They waited several days for word  from New York.  Finally, they got the news: their sister was safe.  The young garment worker had not been killed in the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.

The disaster occurred in the New York City garment factory on March 25, 1911. One hundred forty-six workers perished, mostly young Jewish and Italian women, some as young as fourteen. Their escape from the inferno was blocked by poor building construction, a lack of adequate fire escapes— and an exit door the boss had locked, workers said, so employees would not steal the goods.

The incident rocked the country. Newspapers were filled with shocking descriptions of working girls flinging themselves to their deaths from the tenth floor of the Triangle building onto the sidewalk below. Badly burned bodies were lined up in a makeshift morgue; it took days to identify those burned beyond recognition. (The names of the final six victims were only ascertained in 2011.) Triangle owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris never spent a day in jail, and even when they lost a 1913 civil suit, the company’s insurance policy awarded the two men more than they had paid out in fines to the victims’ families.

Triangle Shirtwaist sweatshop on fire

The Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy sparked union organizing efforts and a wide range of new safety laws. Yet even those reforms were vigorously blocked by manufacturers in Hartford and throughout the nation. If workplaces are safer today – and they are, thanks to state and federal OSHA laws and labor unions’ vigilance – it is in part because of the Triangle victims.

In 1911, Connecticut workplaces were extremely dangerous. On the very same day as the Triangle fire, Hartford’s Zephyriah Couture was crushed to death while he oiled a pumping engine at the Dunbar Brothers factory. In fact, during the thirty-day period before and after the Triangle outrage, fires destroyed five Connecticut businesses, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars damage. Couture and at least six other workers—mechanics, laborers, and trolley car conductors— were killed in separate incidents around the state. Others were permanently disabled, like Bridgeport worker Thomas Gray whose leg was amputated after an accident while repairing a freight elevator.

At Hartford’s State Capitol, debate raged over safety legislation and other laws that would protect workers’ right to organize effective unions. A West Hartford lawmaker pressed for tough new safety standards, charging that Connecticut’s factories and hotels were the worst he had seen in New England. The few fire laws that existed, he reported, were not even enforced. A spokesman for the Manufacturers’ Association argued that the present laws were adequate. A legislative move to reduce children’s work hours to fifty-eight hours a week was supported by those who feared for the minors’ health and safety. State Comptroller Thomas Bradstreet opposed the bill, arguing that “the boys and girls of the factories will take care of themselves.”

Rose Schneiderman

The growing movement for worker safety had many allies, which helped in part to offset the power of the big business lobby to obstruct reforms. Assistance came from sympathetic legislators including State Senator Thomas Spellacy (a local attorney who also defended striking workers arrested on picket lines), Consumers League head Mary Welles, and Rev. Rockwell Harmon Potter, pastor of Center Congregational Church, who spoke in the pulpit and at the state house in favor of labor and safety law improvements.

But working people themselves really led the fight for safer jobs. As the famous union organizer Rose Schneiderman told a New York crowd just days after the Triangle fire: “The life of men and women is so cheap! And property is so sacred! Too much blood has been spilled. I know from experience it is up to working people to save themselves. And the only way is a strong working class movement.”

Union label ad

Hartford’s Rebecca Weiner took that charge seriously. She was fired from the Sage Allen department store for trying to organize a union. Three hundred Hartford tailors at ten clothing stores were then locked out of their jobs when they refused to handle work from Sage Allen. Weiner and the other alteration tailors exposed the “insanitary conditions” of the store, according to the president of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). Hartford shops, the union reported, had no fire escapes even though they operated many floors above street level. Rebecca Weiner argued that without a union, “no working girl could ply her honest trade in the…polluting atmosphere that environs her struggle for a living wage and decent working conditions.” This strike was lost, but the union survived and still organizes immigrant workers in Hartford.

imageThe infamous Triangle Shirtwaist fire had another Hartford connection, one of the many acts of bravery that saved lives on March 25, 1911. George LeWitt was a Hartford High School graduate whose family lived on Windsor Street. On the day of the fire, George was studying law at New York University. He was in a school building directly across from the Triangle shop when he and other students heard workers’ screams and saw bodies falling. George raced to the roof and extended ladders to the desperate garment workers. At least forty young women were saved by the students’ action.

Today, the fight continues for safe workplaces. The labor/community coalition known as ConnectiCOSH stresses that workers need the proper protections, the right tools, complete training and independent monitoring to keep them safe. But accountability is the key to making sure that companies require workers to “do the job safe, not just quick” according to ConnectiCOSH spokesman Steven Schrag.  CEOs should be held personally responsible for adequate safety and health programs, the group says.

In Hartford’s Bushnell Park, near the Civil War arch, is a new Workers Memorial monument.  It was dedicated a few weeks after the 2010 explosion at the Kleen Energy construction site in Middletown that killed six workers and injured thirty. On the memorial is a quote from Mother Jones, who organized workers during the time of the Triangle tragedy. It’s a sentiment that should be remembered:  “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”

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