Triangle Fire Remembered

Against the Current, No. 151, March/April 2011

MARCH 25 IS THE 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 145 workers, mostly young women immigrants. The factory, located on the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of the Asch building near Washington Square in New York City, employed 500 workers.

The “fireproof” building survived the 18-minute fire, but the one fire escape, which ended five feet from the ground, collapsed. Fed by flammable cloth and doors that opened inward, the fire burned so intensely that many decided to jump from the windows, and plunged to their deaths. Fifty-eight crawled into a ninth-floor cloakroom and were burned to death. Others died where they worked.

At a protest meeting a week later Rose Schneiderman, who had been a leader in the shirtwaist strike the year before, but which the Triangle Shirtwaist Company had successfully resisted, spoke from the floor:

“I can’t talk of fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from experience it is up to the working people to save themselves and the only way is through a strong working class movement.”

Yet despite the passage of important safety legislation, particularly the enactment of the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act, both public and private sector employees still work in unsafe environments. In 2009 alone nearly four million workers suffered workplace injuries and illnesses, with 4,340 fatalities. The words of Rose Schneiderman remain all too relevant today.

ATC 151, March-April 2011