“The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred.”
– Rose Schneiderman, feminist, socialist, union leader, founding member ACLU, popularized the phrase ‘Bread and Roses,’ meaning workers’ struggle not only for fair wages but also for dignified treatment. From her speech memorializing working women killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, after her Women’s Trade Union League had already been raising alarm about unsafe conditions – including after the Newark, NJ factory where a fire killed workers just before the Triangle fire killed even more.
This is the 108th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the industrial ‘accident’ that might have been prevented – if stairways and exits weren’t locked (because the owners assumed workers would steal or leave early), if smoking (so common then) had been forbidden around all that fabric, if the lives of the women and girls working there – most recent immigrants – had been valued more. This was a landmark moment in history. The spark of action and change after the Triangle fire was driven by progressives. From that, and from the lives of those lost women and girls we have reform of workplace health and safety conditions, a drive to organize garment workers, and fire safety precautions. We had a labor movement – Look for the union label – that grew strong, built the middle class, made the American dream possible for millions, a labor movement now very much at risk.
All the progress of the last 100 years can be reversed in the face of union-busting governors with compliant state legislatures, even Democratic-controlled state legislatures. That’s it. Collective bargaining is about workers having a measure of self-determination, because history teaches us what happens when they do not.
When I was a student at NYU, on the Triangle anniversary, students would gather on the sidewalk outside the building where it happened, now part of the NYU campus, and write the names of the 146 people who died there in chalk. Lizzie Adler, 24 … Vincenza Belatta, 16 … Gussie Schiffman, 18 … Jennie Pildescu, 18 …. It escaped nobody that most of them were our age; young Jewish & Italian women, almost all. They weren’t afforded the education we were, years later in the same building as their sweatshop. NYU is tied to that tragedy; NYU law students in a nearby building rushed to the high floor windows in 1911, extending ladders over the divide like planks, and encouraging terrified women to crawl across – 100 feet in the air. They saved 50.
It was the end of the day, end of the workweek; cigarette, the likely cause. And the water buckets were empty. Just 16 months before, 20,000 garment workers had gone on strike, demanding shorter hours, safer conditions, and recognition of the Ladies Garment Workers Union. While some companies settled with their workers, Triangle remained an anti-union shop that disregarded the safety concerns. Triangle factory exists were locked; the doors opened in. When all three floors exploded in flames, bodies piled up at the doors. Fire quickly spread to Triangle’s 9th and 10th floors. There was panic. Of 4 elevators, only one worked, and only held 12 people at a time. To escape the flames, women threw themselves down the elevator shafts, or crowded onto the single rickety fire escape, which collapsed. In twos and threes, holding hands, they leaped to their deaths to the sidewalk below, where years later we would write their names in chalk. Yetta Dichtenhultz, 18 … Mrs. Dosie Lopez Fitze, 24 … Rosalie Maltese, 14 …
This was New York’s worst workplace disaster until September 11th, 2001. As students of history, you probably already know this. The makeshift morgue with 146 gruesome bodies laid out in open caskets for family to walk among and identify. The grief that turned to outrage. Maybe even the line you can trace between post-Triangle labor organizing and reform and the New Deal.
But did you know about the fire that preceded it – in Newark? At the Wolf Muslin Undergarment Company, more than two dozen women and girls died 4 months earlier. We only know about it because a retired Star Ledger reporter, Guy Sterling, wrote about it, and reminded New Jerseyans of their own history, even if the Triangle fire overtook history’s attention (as in this poem). The New York Times wrote about Sterling’s year of researching the Newark fire. Sterling is the guy who organized “Requiem for a Newspaper,” the community discussion at Rutgers-Newark as the Star Ledger left the city, and he’s the author of this book on Newark’s history. I found this video of Sterling discussing the fire, via scholar Rosie Uyola, who was educated at Rutgers.