On March 25, 1911 in New York City, a garment factory owned by the Triangle Waist Company and staffed by mainly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women caught fire.
147 people died as a result of the fire, many of them having jumped to their deaths because the owners of the factory had locked the doors to the exits and stairwells to prevent them from taking unauthorized breaks.
The owners were found not guilty of manslaughter, and were later ordered to pay plaintiffs of a civil case $75 per victim, despite having received $400 per victim from the insurance company. One of the owners was later arrested for having locked the exits at another factory, and paid a $20 fine.
The response of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union to the tragedy prompted the introduction of many safety regulations taken for granted today, as well as limits on the number of hours women and children could work.
In April 1911, the socialist labor organizer Rosa Schneiderman said the following while speaking to factory workers she was organizing:
“I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting… We have tried you citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable, the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us.
Public officials have only words of warning to us—warning that we must be intensely peaceable, and they have the workhouse just back of all their warnings. The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable.
I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”
Remember the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire!