On a raw day in March just 100 years ago, a bell rang at the crowded Triangle Waist Company, at Washington Place near Greene Street, just off Washington Square. It was 5 P.M., closing time, and the girls got up from their sewing machines, grabbed their coats and rushed to the elevators.
Just then flames broke out in the litter near a sewing machine on the eighth floor. In a few seconds, a flash fire zoomed up from the eighth floor to the roof three stories above.
The tragedy that followed would become an important milestone in the history of labor in America and safety regulations that became enshrined in American law. But the dimensions of the immediate tragedy are unforgettable.
There was no sprinkler system in this loft building in lower Manhattan. The stairway exit on the Washington Place side was locked. Flames cut off many young women from the elevators. Many of the 600 employees tried desperately to get to windows amid suffocating smoke and flames. The sweatshop workers screamed for help but none came. Panic gripped the factory.
The fire and smoke made conditions unbearable. Women began to jump out of windows. In one case, a young man and a young woman, arms entwined, kissed and then jumped from a window together, falling to their deaths on the street outside.
One hundred and forty-six workers perished.
It was among New York City's greatest loss of life in a disaster until 9/11. And it helped change our laws, our politics and gave new strength to labor unions.
The people of New York were outraged. They turned out by the tens of thousands for the funerals. The dead were mostly Italians and Jews. There was a mass burial in Maspeth. A few months later, the owners of the factory were put on trial for manslaughter. After they were acquitted, angry people filled the streets. As historian Edward Ellis relates, they taunted the freed defendants. One man who lost his sister, shook his fist and yelled: “Not guilty? Not guilty? It was murder! Murder!”
Two up and coming young legislators, Alfred E. Smith and Robert F. Wagner, were moved by the tragedy to work for new legislation. New York’s labor code was rewritten. Unions reached out to recruit new members. Both Smith and Wagner were linked to Tammany Hall, the political organization that ruled New York. This tragedy inspired both to become liberal politicians and align Democrats with union power.
As we observe the 100th anniversary of the Triangle fire, unions are under attack from coast to coast. The governors of New Jersey and Wisconsin are taking on the unions. And many political leaders are denouncing unions as enemies of progress and economic well being.
Historian Joshua Freeman of Queens College told me the disaster in Washington Square brought government into “what had been perceived as a private relationship, between management and labor. Also, out of this tragedy grew an alliance between the Democratic Party and unions. In certain ways, it helped pave the way for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.”
For the last three decades, Freeman believes, “unions have been in decline. The spread of poverty and deregulation have contributed to the lessened influence of labor. The reformers and unionists of the past would be appalled by how much political power labor has lost.”.
The Triangle fire happened a century ago, a sad day in this city’s history. But tragedy brought change then. The unions made safety in the workplace their highest priority. They fought against child labor and the 60-hour work week.
Out of that tragedy came two great political leaders, Senator Robert Wagner and Governor Alfred E. Smith, who waged political wars for the underdog and tried to change society for the better. Wagner became the father of pro-labor legislation in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Smith, as leader of the State Assembly and Governor of New York pushed tirelessly for reform of building and safety laws and made New York probably the safest state in the nation.
The anniversary of the Triangle fire provides lessons of history. Progress can be costly. And we need to remember always the debt we owe to past heroes and heroines.