Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire, 100 years later

Legislative Reform at State and Local Level

The successful legislative impulse following the Triangle fire can best be understood in the context of the Progressive Era reformist movement. At the turn of the century, many quarters of society were concerned about the effects of unregulated economic development. Among the middle classes there was an uneasy feeling about the lack of a social safety net for the lower classes and about low wages, long hours, unsanitary conditions in factories, and crowded conditions in immigrant urban districts. This situation was believed to be at the source of militant strikes, radical working class politics, poor public health, low educational levels, and corruption in politics and government. The Progressive movement wanted to correct what they saw as rampant social ills and reform society. The National Consumers' League, the Association for American Labor Legislation, and the National Women's Trade Union League are just a few of the most important Progressive Era organizations concerned with the well-being of workers. Founded at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, these organizations worked hard to investigate conditions in factories, farms, and anywhere else the lower classes labored. They lobbied for protective labor legislation, drafted bills, and campaigned relentlessly to promote pro-worker legislative change.

The National Women's Trade Union League (NWTUL), founded in 1903, became the most vocal and effective champion of protective legislation for working women, but went beyond a legislative agenda. Composed mainly of middle and upper class women, it sought alliance with working class women, and worked with them to promote labor organizing. At the time union leaders, like Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of labor, were suspicious of alliances with the middle class. They thought that the solution to workers' problems rested solely in union organizing and in the independence of organized workers from other classes. Yet women leaders like the ILGWU's Rose Schneiderman and Pauline Newman advocated for both union organizing and legislative reforms, and worked tirelessly with the NWTUL to push for legislative reform.

After the fire, the NWTUL was able to respond immediately in an organized fashion to channel the outrage into action. They sent out a questionnaire about factory working conditions through local newspapers, and collected hundreds of responses from factory workers. They were thus able to document the extremely unsafe conditions in which many were forced to work. Armed with this evidence, the NWTUL drew from their social connections and spearheaded the formation of the Citizens' Committee for Public Safety, composed of twenty-five prominent citizens. Together they called a mass meeting at the Metropolitan Opera House, which was attended by thousands of citizens, including a variety of public figures, reformists, clergymen, union people, and politicians. They approved a resolution urging the state legislature to form a Bureau of Fire Prevention and to appoint a permanent citizens' committee to obtain new protective labor legislation.

Under pressure from the reformers, the city government acted as well. In October 1911 the New York City Board of Aldermen passed an act creating the Bureau of Fire Prevention, aimed at ending confusion over the responsibilities of various city departments and agencies for inspections, codes creation, and enforcement. In the next few years, the new board made changes to the Municipal Building Code, which provided a measure of protection by requiring the existence of safety devices such as fireproof materials and stairwells, fire alarms, extinguishers, and hoses. They also prohibited smoking in factories by 1916.

Frances Perkins, secretary of the New York City Committee on Public Safety and future Secretary of Labor under FDR, witnessed the Triangle fire and was shocked by the event. Her words, spoken a little more than 50 years later, capture her own feelings and those of her contemporaries. "I can't begin to tell you how disturbed the people were everywhere. It was as though we had all done something wrong. It shouldn't have been. We were sorry. Mea culpa! Mea culpa! We didn't want it that way. We hadn't intended to have 147 [sic] girls and boys killed in a factory. It was a terrible thing for the people of the City of New York and the State of New York to face." Like the other members of the committee, she thought that reform could be more effectively achieved through action at the state level. They convinced Governor John Dix of the merits of their point of view, and he suggested they consult with Assemblyman Alfred Smith and Senate Majority Leader Robert F. Wagner, two Tammany Hall Democrats. The two politicians submitted a resolution to the legislature to appropriate funds for an investigative commission, and on June 30 1911 the resolution passed, approving the appropriation for establishing the Factory Investigative Commission (FIC).

Taking advantage of a sympathetic Democrat-controlled House and Senate, public opinion demanding action, and a favorable economic climate, the reformers obtained funding to study much more than fire safety in New York City garment shops. They extended their investigation to the whole state, a vast range of trades, and a number of issues including low wages, long hours, child labor, and unsanitary conditions. During the first year of its work, the commission sent investigators to workplaces and held public hearings all over the state, hearing 222 witnesses, including factory workers, public officials, union leaders, and civic leaders. They produced 3,000 pages of testimony and drafted 15 bills, seven of which were defeated in 1912 due to Republican opposition, but passed in the following years.

The commission did focus special attention on the problem of fire hazards. New York ex-Fire Chief Edward Croker, an impassioned critic of the existing poor regulations, testified with many others on the deplorable conditions in factories, the inadequacies of code books, and the confusing array of overlapping mandates of city agencies and departments. In response, the commission recommended that a Bureau of Fire Prevention be formed to investigate whether proper safety measures were in place, such as functioning smoke alarms, fireproofed materials and stairwells, automatic sprinklers, and fire drills.

During its second year of investigations, the commission proposed 28 bills, which among other things mandated more stringent requirements for new and old buildings as well, and required that factory doors remain unlocked during hours of operation. Importantly as well, the new legislation reorganized and increased funding to the New York State Department of Labor. It assigned broad powers to the department, and provided for the creation of an Industrial Board to promulgate the Industrial Code, a set of rules and regulations having the force of law. In the following year, the commission solidified its work on the regulation of working conditions, particularly for women and children.

By 1915, the recession and subsequent turn in political directions made it problematic to continue appropriations for the commission. After four years of work, the commission ended its investigations. Thirty-six of the laws it drafted were enacted by the New York State legislature. These laws would serve as a model for other states. Twenty years later, the New Deal passed similar legislation at the federal level, with the aid of many of the same individuals who were responsible for the overhaul of the New York labor code after the Triangle Fire.

Members of the Women's Trade Union League proudly display their banner