The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Triangle Shirtwaist Tragedy 110 Years Past

Mar 29, 2021

In March of 1911, 146 people, mostly women and girls as young as 14, died due to an enormous fire in a clothing factory in New York City. The doors and windows of the factory were kept locked and escaped.

One of the witnesses to the Triangle Shirtwaist fire wrote, “... the crowds, I among them, looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp....”

Such disasters in workplaces were common one hundred years ago. Our great grandparents could have been those immigrant workers facing locked doors and windows, 12-hour days, six-day-a-week work for $3 a week for women, $6 per week for the men who cut the cloth, with even less paid to two million young children working at the beginning of the 20th century.

The owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, who also owned other clothing factories, had been fined for other fires. When the factory owners were put on trial, they were found not guilty of manslaughter. The owners got payment from the insurers amounting to $400 per victim. But they paid only $75 to each family.

On April 2, 1911, a week after the fire, at a memorial for the Triangle Shirtwaist dead, Rose Schneiderman, a union activist and socialist, spoke angrily: “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.... 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.... 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.”