On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floor of the Asch building that would change the treatment of workers, and how safety regulations were implemented in the workplaces of America forever. Poor workplace safety and policies led to the forming of unions and a further investigation into the rights of women in the workplace. The triangle waist company was a typical factory in Manhattan, at 23-29 Washington Place.
They produced women’s blouses known as “Shirtwaist”. This building consisted of low wages, excessively long hours, and unsanitary and dangerous working conditions. Many of the Triangle factory workers were women, some as young as fourteen years old. Most were Italian and European Jewish immigrants who had come to America in hopes of a better life for their families, but instead they faced lives of poverty, awful working conditions, and experienced what would soon become one of the worst workplace disasters in history.
The women were immigrants struggling with American culture, lifestyle, and learning a new language, this means they were easily taken advantage of by the new factory owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris (Illinois. edu).1 During this time women did not have much of a voice, which forced them to endure personal indignities and severe exploitation without justification. Some turned to labor unions to speak for them, but most were left to handle their issues alone. Supposedly, the owners of the building had no idea the exact wages the women were paid, nor did they have an exact number or record of the employees. These men could hardly speak English so the women had no way of communicating with them. The Owners put subcontractors in charge of wages and payment and this was often extremely low.
The factory usually employed roughly five hundred workers, and most were young immigrant women who worked nine hour days on weekdays plus a seven hour day on Saturday. Earnings for their exhaustive fifty-two hour work week ran between $7 and $12 a week, the equivalent of $176 to $302 a week in 2017 currency, or $3.38 to $5.80 per hour(Encyclopedia.com).
2 The workers were paid two dollars a day, were docked pay for their errors and for the needles and thread they consumed. Sometimes, they were docked more than they were paid(NVAD Database).3 In an interview with Pauline Newman, an employee of the factory she said “The operators, their average wage, as I recall – because two of my sisters worked there – they averaged around six, seven dollars a week. If you were very fast – because they worked piece work – if you were very fast and nothing happened to your machine, no breakage or anything, you could make around ten dollars a week. But most of them, as I remember – and I do remember them very well – they averaged about seven dollars a week.
Now the collars are the skilled men in the trade. Twelve dollars was the maximum.(history matters.edu)”4 The Triangle Factory was a non-union shop, although some of its workers had joined the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. Which was once one of the largest labor unions in the United States, and the first union that primarily consisted of female membership. They played a major role in women’s rights in the workplace in the 1920’s and 1930’s. After the fire occurred membership peaked, and it helped to solidify all workers unions not just the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (cornell).
5 Working conditions were terrible for the employees, and an accident was bound to happen eventually. Extra bathroom breaks were often denied forcing people to urinate on the factory room floor adding to the already unsanitary work space. Poor ventilation and locked factory room doors were common. Heaping piles of fabric scraps littered the factory room floors (NVAD Database).6 It was the end of the long work day for the six hundred employees of the shirtwaist factory and in a scrap bin underneath a cutter table in the northeast corner of the eighth floor of the Asch building a fire began. It was concluded by the Fire Marshal that a match or cigarette thrown into the scrap bin could have caused the fire. Others believe it was due to a sewing machine, but as suspenseful as it is, some say they think it could have been Blanck and Harris themselves.
During the 1920’s it was not uncommon for owners of factories and such to burn their buildings purposely to collect on the large fire-insurance policies they purchased. A more explicit justification for this conclusion comes from the fact that Blanck and Harris already had a history of burning four of their previous buildings. Although this matter raised suspicions arson was never investigated in this case Whilst arson wasn’t the case in this particular fire Blank and Harris are to blame for the tragedy this fire caused. Many safety precautions could have been in place to make this less fatal.
Because the owners had a history of burning their buildings to collect insurance they were unwilling to install sprinkler systems into their workplaces,(History.com)7 but that was merely the extent of problems the employees came in contact with on the day of the fire. There were four ways out: two stairwells, an outside fire escape , and the elevators. The staircases were steep and narrow, with steps measuring only two feet nine inches wide, barely wide enough for two people traveling in opposite directions to pass one another.
The iron fire escape leading to the rear courtyard was even more perilous, with steps only 17 inches wide. It had been installed because the property did not have three stairwells. The two elevator shafts contained two cars each: One set of elevators was for passengers, the other for freight(NFPA Journal).8 There was one elevator that held twelve people and the unlucky women that didn’t make it on chose to jump down the elevator shaft instead of burning in the building. There was a stairwell that led to an exit, unfortunately that exit was kept locked to prevent stealing. The women had one exit they could leave from at the end of their shift but were patted down to make sure they weren’t stealing any ribbons or piece of material if given the chance(The factory Girls p.15).
9 There was a delay for the firefighters to begin fighting the fire because the hoses were being used as a landing pad for those girls who still were trapped in the building because disturbingly when nets were used three girls jumped at once and ripped it. The fire truck ladders only reached seven floors, unfortunately. The fire, lasting only eighteen minutes, caused so many deaths. Forty-nine had burned to death, thirty-six were found dead in the elevator shaft, fifty-eight lost their lives jumping to the side was trying to escape, and two later died from injuries. One hundred and forty-five lives were taken on that day in 1911, most that could’ve been saved with safety in workplaces. Knowing that, this incident led to a major movement.
Just eleven days following the fire eighty thousand protesters marched down Fifth Avenue in New York City against the conditions that lead to the combustion, in addition the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union’s official day of mourning. The people demanded justice and restitution. Unions began to realize their strength and that together they could be more conscious of their rights and come together to prevent future tragedies. The unions demanded that Blank and Harris be put on trial (Cornell).
11On April 11 a grand jury accused Blank and Harris of Manslaughter in the second degree under section 80 of the labor code, which mandated that doors should not be locked during business hours at a factory. The trial began on December 5th, and on December 23 the jury acquitted the owners of any wrongdoing. The jurors task was to determine if the owners knew that the door was locked at the time of the fire. Blank’s and Harris attorney, Max Steuer, led the jury to believe that the men were not guilty.
Although so many of the workers who were involved in the fire testified that they were unable to open the doors and the door that was kept unlocked was completely engulfed in flames. Families of the victims as well as much of the public cried out for justice. Twenty- three individual civil suits had been placed against Blank and Harris. Finally, on March 11, 1914, nearly 3 years after the fire the owners of the Asch Building settled and paid $75 for each life lost (Cornell).12Although the trial may have been unjust, the community and many unions came together for relief work after the fire. Several progressive organizations came through to support the Executive Board of the Ladies’ Waist and Dressmakers’ Union, Local No.
25 of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union in their relief work for the survivors and the families of the victims. Some of these organizations included the Women’s Trade Union League, the Workmen’s Circle, and the Jewish Daily Forward. The executive committee didn’t stop there they also cared for the current young workers, distributed weekly pensions, and help get those injured in the fire back on their feet with a secure job and living arrangement after they recuperated from their injuries(Cornell).13 Taking place over one-hundred years ago may not seem relevant in terms of today, but it actually opened the nation’s eyes to poor working conditions and started an era of a labor movement that organized labor unions that fought for better wages, reasonable hours, and in all better working conditions.