International Women's Day
The Women of the Triangle Fire
Revolutionary Worker #1046, March 12, 2000
March 25, 1911--It had been a long work day for the workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Five hundred of them were packed into the three crowded top floors of the Asch Building, within sight of Manhattan's Washington Square.
Hundreds of women bent over their sewing machines turning out tailored women's blouses, one after the other, as their feet pumped floor pedals to drive the bobbing needles. A few gas lights cast long shadows across the factory lofts and left the workers straining to see in semi-darkness. The floors were littered with piles of scraps. And the stagnant air was heavy with a haze of cotton fibers.
Women were paid by the garment--and even the fastest and most skilled could barely bring home $4 in a six or seven-day work week. It hardly covered the rent for tiny rooms in the nearby cold-water tenements, and it was often not enough to feed the workers' families.
Many children were forced to leave their grade schools and follow their parents into the sweatshop. In the "children's corner" of Triangle, school-age kids worked as "cleaners," trimming threads from the garments that were piled up around them in stacks of hundreds.
Foremen paced the floors of the Triangle factory--watching every move and timing bathroom visits. One worker pointed out that many bosses bought the newly invented rubber-soled shoes--and they would sneak up to overhear the workers' hushed conversations in Yiddish, Italian and a half dozen other languages.
Firings were common for even minor infractions, even for staying home sick--and especially for any connection with the energetic socialist organizing efforts in the ghettos. A sign tacked on the wall read: "If you don't come in on Sunday you need not come in on Monday."
No Warning, No Protection
No one knows how the Triangle fire started. But only a year before, during the great strike known as the "Uprising of the Twenty Thousand," the workers in this factory had warned that the place was a firetrap. At 4:50 p.m. on March 25, long yellow flames spread rapidly on the eighth floor, feeding on the scraps of cloth.
Someone screamed out a warning, "FIRE!" The narrow spaces between the rows of tables filled with women trying to escape to the stairs or the tiny elevators. The workers had nothing at hand to fight the fire. The only thing they could do was warn others and try to escape.
There had never been a fire drill--few workers even knew there was a fire escape that descended the narrow vertical air shaft in the very center of the building. Those who could rushed down the front stairs before the flames blocked it off. A waiting elevator was packed. Women crawled in over the heads of those standing in the elevator, until there was no room or air left. The elevator cage descended a few times to the ground floor and then stopped working.
Up above, the eighth floor became a mass of flames. Someone telephoned the tenth floor and alerted the office workers there. Many of them had time to find their way to the roof. And the two sweatshop owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, escaped with them.
On the ninth floor, however, the workers had no warning. Flames seemed to erupt everywhere at once, flaring from underneath the worktables. Smoke quickly filled the floor. It was a death trap. Charred skeletons were later found still bent over some machines. Others workers jumped on the work tables as their clothes caught flame, and died there.
Piles of bodies were later found huddled behind exit doors. Foremen had locked at least two major exits--after accusing the workers of stealing rest breaks and scraps of cloth. Other exit doors opened inward--and became extremely difficult to open in the press of frantic people.
A few made their way toward the rear fire escape. Under the weight of 20 workers, the flimsy fire escape itself started to twist and come undone. It collapsed, sending the workers falling through the haze.
From the Ledges
Many workers simply couldn't get to any door and the flames quickly drove them off the factory floor. Women jumped or fell into the elevator shaft--at least 20 bodies were later found at the bottom.
Many were forced out the windows. They lined up on the narrow ledges outside, looking down to the crowded street below.
The first hook and ladder crew--Company 20--came rushing up Mercer Street. And the horrified on-lookers who had gathered from nearby factories and university classrooms demanded: "Raise the ladders!" The team of firemen quickly cranked the lifting gears as a hush fell over the crowd. The ladder rose to the sixth floor--and stopped. It could reach no higher. On the ninth floor ledge, the dress of one girl suddenly flared up in flames. She tried to leap to the top of the ladder, 30 feet below her. She missed and plunged to her death.
Firemen tried to use their hoses to protect those trapped on the ledges. It didn't work. To the horror of onlookers, the flames forced more and more workers onto the ledges. There was literally no room and those closest to the window caught fire.
A working class organizer wrote: "I was coming down Fifth Avenue on the Saturday afternoon when a great, swirling, billowing cloud of smoke swept like a giant streamer out of Washington Square and... two young girls whom I know to be working in the vicinity came rushing toward me, tears were running from their eyes and they were white and shaking as they caught me by the arm. `Oh,' shrieked one of them, `They are jumping."'
Often the young workers, who had been comrades in life and work, hugged each other close and jumped together. The firemen's nets were useless--the force of the falling bodies tore through the cloth, and even cracked the sidewalks underneath.
The New York World wrote that "screaming men and women and boys and girls crowded out on the many window ledges and threw themselves into the streets far below. They jumped with their clothing ablaze. The hair of some of the girls streamed up flames as they leaped. Thud after thud sounded on the pavements."
The firemen's horses panicked at the smell of blood and the horrifying sound of bodies hitting ground. They reared on their hind legs, their eyes rolling. As their teamsters tried to lead them away, several horses wrenched themselves loose and bolted wildly down the crowded streets. The firemen could do little but drag dozens of bodies of the fallen workers into piles that grew along Greene Street.
Not a Thought to Lives and Safety
The feverish city seemed to freeze in horror. 146 workers died. The name Triangle Shirtwaist Company was quickly telegraphed and discussed around the planet.
March 25, 1911-- It was one of those days in history when countless eyes focused in on a single defining event, when lies buckled under the weight of facts, when hidden injustices suddenly became undeniable.
For a century, the United States had promoted itself as a "promised land"--as a refuge for the poor of Europe to make a wealthy future. But on that one horrifying afternoon, the whole world could see the desperate exploitation that awaited immigrant workers in New York.
Colonial powers of Europe and the United States insisted that their "Christian civilization" had a moral superiority that gave them the right to rule over "barbaric peoples." But when young girls plunged in flames onto New York City streets, this smug self-praise stood exposed. Suddenly, there were countless questions about the lives and treatment of the eight million "factory girls" in the U.S.
New machinery, methods and efficiencies of modern industrial production had been hailed as the hope of humanity. But that terrible day, March 25, suddenly revealed that capitalist use of technology had gone toward profit--and not a moment's thought had been assigned to the safety or survival of the workers. On those crowded factory floors, there had been no sprinkler systems, no fire hoses or axes or chemical extinguishers, no emergency lighting--no way to fight the fire at all. Half of New York's working class spent their days above the seventh floor--but not a single fire crew had equipment that could rescue them.
Grief and Determination
"I looked upon the heap of dead bodies and I remembered these girls were shirtwaist makers. I remembered their great strike last year in which the same girls had demanded more sanitary conditions and more safety precautions in the shops. These dead bodies were the answer."
Bill Shepherd, newspaper reporter
I would be a traitor to those poor burned bodies if I came here to talk of good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting. The old Inquisition had its rack and its thumbscrews and its instruments of torture with iron teeth. We know what these things are today: the iron teeth are our necessities, the thumbscrews, the high powered and swift machinery, close to which we must work, and the rack here is the `fire proof' structures that will destroy us the minute they catch fire.
Rose Schneiderman, strike leader,
at the memorial meeting
While there was a shock in many places over the horrors of the Triangle fire, the working people of New York already knew the dangers and suffering they lived with. And they knew that these deaths could have been avoided.
Two years before, in November 1909, the women of Triangle Shirtwaist factory had joined the "Uprising of the Twenty Thousand"--in a general strike of garment workers from 500 different sweatshops in New York. The strike had been heroic and hard-fought. The workers--and especially the many young women--had stepped out of the shadows and taken over the streets of New York, raising their demands for dignity, living wages, shorter workhours and union recognition. In many sweatshops--including the Triangle Shirtwaist factory--the workers demanded fire escapes and open doors.
After weeks of hard strike, the workers in some shops won their demands--but the strike was broken in others. Many capitalists simply refused to negotiate. The owners of Triangle Shirtwaist Company, the largest manufacturers of the tailored women's blouses (which were called "shirt waists"), hired strikebreakers and waited to starve out the workers. The women and men returned to work at the Triangle factory with a partial settlement--but their safety demands were rejected.
When 146 workers died in the Triangle fire, the masses of people responded with sorrow and a deepening class consciousness. On April 2, a huge memorial meeting was held at the Metropolitan Opera House. Morris Rosenfeld, "the poet laureate of slum and sweatshop," took the podium.
Neither battle nor fiendish pogrom
Fills this great city with sorrow;
Nor does the earth shudder or lightning rend the heavens,
No clouds darken, no cannon's roar shatters the air.
Only hell's fire engulfs these slave stalls
And Mammon devours our sons and daughters.
Wrapt in scarlet flames, they drop to death from his maw
And death receives them all...
On this Sabbath
When an avalanche of red blood and fire
Pours forth from the god of gold on high
As now my tears stream forth unceasingly.
Damned be the rich!
Damned be the system!
Damned be the world!
Heavy rains soaked the crowds of hundreds of thousands on the day the workers of Triangle were buried. Working people, dressed in black, filled the streets, joined by many better-off women and suffragettes--and marched past sidewalks packed with onlookers and mourners.
The newspaper America wrote: "It was not until the marchers reached Washington Square and came in sight of the Asch building that the women gave vent to their sorrow. It was one long-drawn-out, heart-piercing cry, the mingling of thousands of voices, a sort of human thunder in the elemental storm--a cry that was perhaps the most impressive expression of human grief ever heard in this city."
Police captains mobilized their forces, fearful that they would lose control of Washington Square Park and of all New York.
The Legacy of Triangle
"It is an undeniable fact that several millions of men and women in the United States are today engaged in occupations that yearly take their toll of human life and health as inevitably, as inexorably as the seasons roll in their grooves."
Solidarity journal, 1904
"We accept and welcome, as conditions to which we must accommodate ourselves great inequality of wealth and environment, the concentration of business, industrial and commercial, in the hands of the few, as being not only beneficial, but essential for the future of the race."
a leading monopoly-capitalist
There was tremendous debate and struggle within the larger ruling class over how to respond to the fire. Many factory owners widely insisted that "government regulation" was un-American and even unconstitutional.
But, meanwhile powerful forces within the ruling class were determined that they, and their system, would be protected from a tremendous danger that was building in the ghetto tenements of New York City. The immigrant garment workers of New York were being forged--by the brutality of the system, by their experience in many countries, by the active organizing of revolutionaries and socialists--into a powerful class conscious force. They were starting to play a major role in the development of a new, massive, revolutionary current within the working class in the U.S.
Government agencies--at the city, state and federal levels--felt intense pressure to show they could enact reforms. Official commissions released research, documenting the nightmares in U.S. mines and factory sweatshops--and the ways that tens of thousands every year died in capitalist production. The New York City Council and legislatures around the U.S. started a publicized burst of safety ordinances and protection laws. Inspectors were hired. New firefighting techniques were developed.
But the truth is that the machinery of capitalism ground on ruthlessly after the Triangle fire--despite the reforms and new laws. Within three days Harris and Blanck, the owners of the Triangle Company, resumed operations at a new location a few blocks away on University Place. They quickly blocked off one fire escape at this new factory to set up two extra rows of sewing machines. Eight months later, these sweatshop profiteers were acquitted in court of all guilt in the Triangle fire. The capitalist press widely blamed the fire on a worker's cigarette.
Over the decades since 1911, capitalism continued to spread, penetrating and restructuring human life on this planet like an uncontrolled cancer--bringing with it the plague of industrial death, poisoning, explosions, lung diseases and nightmarish conditions for working people.
In just the last decade, the explosive growth of new sweatshop districts have produced new "industrial massacres" that mirror the Triangle fire. In 1991, 25 workers died behind locked doors in Hamlet, North Carolina-- in a "modern" chicken factory that had no sprinklers or fire alarms. In 1993, 188 workers died, trapped behind locked doors in a fire at the Kadar Industrial Toy Company in Thailand. Barely a month ago, on January 31, 2000, a fire broke out in a building housing eight sweatshops on Manhattan's 36th street, killing garment worker Bienvenido Hernandez and injuring several coworkers.
Today, the fire at Triangle shirtwaist factory remains a vivid symbol of capitalism's heartless nature, which has not changed one bit over the last century.
After watching a recent PBS documentary on the Triangle fire, Sandra, a garment worker in Los Angeles, told the RW: "We're watching something that happened in 1911, and now we're in the year 2000--and absolutely nothing has changed! In fact we're even worse off now! Today there is advanced machinery and technology, and supposedly the worker could be in better conditions. After that fire, people fought for laws and regulations, and supposedly workers should have better health conditions, work eight hours and get paid the minimum. If these laws exist, where are they?" (See RW No. 1045)
Those women workers of Triangle and their fellow garment workers in New York left behind a powerful legacy of struggle that is celebrated every year. In 1910, delegates at Copenhagen's Second International Conference of Socialist Women proclaimed that March 8 would be International Women's Day--in honor of the "Uprising of the Twenty Thousand" and the fighting women workers of New York City.
On March 8, 1911, just days before the Triangle fire, the first celebrations of International Women's Day were held in the streets of Germany, Austria, Denmark and several other countries.
Reflecting on the women who took to the streets in the Uprising and those who died at Triangle, Sandra says: "You know, it is a very heavy chain we're living with today. The woman is always pushed to think of advancing her family, and she knows what it is to fight for others. She lives under the oppression of generations and she knows that her daughter will follow the same path, it's all laid out. When the woman fights she often fights with a bigger vision, a bigger push, a strong motivation that united in struggle our situation can change. This is what we saw in the Uprising of the Twenty Thousand. Their movement sparked another one for broader change. They weren't fighting for themselves, they were fighting for all the poor people."
In honor of the women fighters of our class, in memory of our dead in the Triangle fire, the banners of International Women's Day 2000 say: Break the Chains! Unleash the Fury of Women as a Mighty Force for Revolution!
"We laugh from joy when we hear those words," says Sandra.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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