Thank you to the girls and women of the Triangle Factory Fire

  • Minimum wage
  • Limit on hours worked per day
  • Unlocked doors in workplaces
  • Mandatory fire escapes at work
  • Mandatory fire alarms at work
  • Mandatory breaks per hours worked, including bathroom breaks
  • Child labor laws
  • Workplace inspections
  • Fire engine ladders that reach higher than 6 floors
  • Unions pushing for higher wages, shorter hours, and safe conditions

Believe it or not, you have a group of immigrant young women to thank for these rights.

Today is the 107th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. I’ve always been somewhat obsessed with this event in history, because these NYC immigrant girls and women, in their deaths, changed labor history.

Indulge me: Let me lay a little history on you, because it’s more relevant today than ever.

In the early 1900s, though factory work was known to be dangerous and difficult, the factory owners and the government agreed that the owners couldn’t possibly be expected to deal with regulations. It would be too difficult on them! It would eat into profits! And how could they be enforced? Impossible.

The owners in this case, two men named Harris and Blanck—themselves immigrants—employed primarily girls and women at their factory. The ladies sewed clothing all day long, with strict quotas on how many pieces they were expected to finish in an hour. Foremen wandered the aisles upon aisles of sewing machines making sure the women didn’t move to get a drink or go to the bathroom for 12 hours.

When the women agitated to unionize, the owners hired thugs to beat them up and paid off police to arrest them. Change only began to happen because society ladies—uptown women like Anne Morgan and Alva Vanderbilt Belmont—heard of the Lower East Side girls and lent their names to the cause.

In any case, just as unions that pushed workers rights were seeing movement, a fire broke out at the Triangle Factory. It’s thought that a foreman threw his cigarette into a pile of scrap fabric. There were no alarms. The workers tried to escape, but they were locked in—the doors had been locked to keep the girls in and the union organizers out.

In the end, 146 women and girls died. Of these, 53 jumped; 19 died in the freight elevator shaft (they jumped in an attempt escape the flames); 20 died trying to descend a rickety fire escape that came off the side of the building; 50 burned to death. Half were teenagers, some as young as 14. All were immigrants of that era—Italian, Russian, Jewish, Catholic.

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The fire brigade and shocked onlookers could do nothing as the girls plunged to their deaths. Over the next week, the families of these girls then had to ID them in a makeshift morgue. Can you imagine attempting to identify your 14-year-old daughter, who’d been burned beyond recognition, by her shoes?

Anyway, the men went on “trial,” which I put in scare quotes because, come on, did you really think they’d suffer? No, they were acquitted of manslaughter. And in fact, they took the insurance settlement and went on with their lives.

But in death, these girls and women changed history in all the ways mentioned above. Slowly, regulations were passed that ensured worker safety—32 new protections in all, including workplace inspections ensuring that the new regulations were followed.

So in this era of national conversation about the power of teenagers, the rights of immigrants, the shrinking of labor unions, the loosening of restrictions in the name of better business, I want to say thank you to these immigrant teenagers and women who died for our rights.

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