Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire, 100 years later


The Triangle Trade Union Relief

American Federationist, July 1911. pp. 544-547.

By William Mailly

Within a few hours of the Triangle Waist Company fire in New York on March 25 last - while the searchers were still raking the ruins for the charred remains of the murdered victims, while the wails of the mourning relatives and friends were mingling with the cries of the newsboys calling "specials" throughout the shocked and distraught East Side, while the morgue was filled with grief-stricken people frantically, and in some cases vainly, seeking for lost ones amid an atmosphere surcharged with grief, horror and resentment - the Executive Board of Ladies' Waist and Dress Makers; Union, Local No. 25, met in special session to consider a situation such as no other union had had to face in the history of New York.

It was known that although the disaster had occurred in a non-union shop - the most notorious in the trade and the starting point of the great strike of waistmakers in the winter of 1909-10, a number of union members had been employed there, just how many not being definitely known at that time, for only as a last resort would a union girl seek employment in the Triangle shop, and then she would frequently fail to report herself as a member-at-large (as the union members in non-union shops were designated) in the hope that she might not remain long there but succeed in getting work elsewhere. Later, record was obtained of forty union members having been employed in the ill-fated shop. But whether there had been any union members involved in the disaster or not, the union would have acted as the one organization representing the workers in the trade and the one with the sole right to represent them. It was a working-class calamity and as such it was the duty of a working-class organization which sought the advancement and improvement of all the waistmakers through the trade union movement to go to the aid of its brothers and sisters, regardless of what other people, however sincere and well intentioned, might seek to do.

It was in that spirit and with that motive that the Executive Board of the union held its special session on that Sunday morning. At the meeting were present also as representatives of the Women's Trade Union League Mary Dreier, Rose Schneiderman and Helen Marot, the President, Vice-President and Secretary, respectively.

The action of the meeting resolved itself into three distinct phases - relief, protest and prosecution. A relief committee was appointed and authorized to issue an appeal for funds and to organize a system of relief distribution; another was appointed to arrange a funeral protest demonstration, and finally, the union's attorney was instructed to take immediate steps looking toward the criminal prosecution of Harris and Blanck, the proprietors of the Triangle shop, who have since been indicted by the Grand Jury and declared culpable by the coroner's jury which investigated the disaster. The protest demonstration, held on Wednesday, April 5, was the most remarkable of its kind ever held by any body of workers in this country at any time.

This article proposes to deal with the relief work done through the union, for, so far as I am aware, this was the first time that a trade union in the United States not only collected money for relief but also organized its own relief work and directly administered the funds collected. For this reason, the work accomplished has a special value, since it demonstrates what a union of workers can do along these lines when it approaches the task confidently and energetically.

The union relief committee consisted of M. Winchevsky, Financial Secretary of the union, B. Zuckerman, Miss M. Weinstein, A. Silver and William Mailly. As will be related later, this committee was afterward merged into a larger and more comprehensive committee. But the appeal for funds was immediately drawn up and was in the offices of all the day had begun. That this appeal did not receive prominence in all the papers, nor even publication in some, next morning was due to the fact that Mayor Gaynor had officially called for donations to the American Red Cross Fund and this was "featured" in the conservative press.

Simultaneous with the issuance of the appeal for funds by the union, there went out from the Women's Trade Union League headquarters a corps of women commissioned to visit the homes of the victims - to investigate conditions and report to the Union Relief Committee. It was the diligent, efficient work of these volunteers that enabled the union on Monday to give temporary relief wherever this was reported to be necessary - and there were few cases where this necessity did not exist, for the wages of those affected had been seldom more than sufficient to sustain them from week to week, while the current week's wages had in many cases been consumed with the victims.

Contributions to the fund began to arrive early on Monday morning. These were recorded as soon as received and a receipt for each amount handed either direct to the giver mailed before the day was out. Daily acknowledgements were issued to the press. A complete itemized statement of all receipts and expenditures is to be made.

On Monday, however the Jewish daily Forward also opened a fund. In order to avoid possible conflict or waste in the administration of the two funds, a Joint Relief Committee was formed on March 29, and composed as follows: Ladies' Waist and Dress Makers' Union, M. Winchevsky and William Mailly; United Hebrew Trades, B. Weinstein and J. Goldstein; Workmen's Circle (Arbeiter Ring), B. Weintraub and J. Bernstein; Women's Trade Union League, Helen Marot and Elizabeth Dutcher; Jewish Daily Forward, Abraham Cahan, whose place was afterward taken by M. Gillis. Abe Baroff, general organizer of the waistmaker's union, acted with the committee throughout its entire activity. It may be noted that with the exception of the Women's Trade Union League all the organizations represented on the committee were Jewish and from the East Side. No attempt was made to enlist other unions in the relief work, since it was felt that the situation was one that peculiarly affected the East Side, which has its own particular environment and psychology.

The Joint Relief Committee organized with the following officers; Chairman, B. Weinstein; Vice Chairman, B. Weintraub; Secretary, William Mailly, Treasurer, Morris Hillquit. These served until the close. The work of investigation and of recording and distributing relief was under the immediate charge of Miss Elizabeth Dutcher.

The committee began by defining its policy of action in the following motion: That they moneys collected by each of the bodies represented on the Joint Relief Committee be turned over to that committee and distributed through the Treasurer under its supervision in the name of Ladies' Waist and Dress Makers' Union.

At the very beginning it became apparent that some understanding must be arrived at with Red Cross Emergency Fund if there was not to be waste and duplication in the distributing funds. It was taken for granted that the Red Cross fund would be much the larger of the two, since the general public would respond more directly and readily to its appeal, and its operations would therefore be more extensive than those of the union committee could possibly be.

A conference between representatives of the union committee and Dr. Edward T. Devine, director of the Red Cross, resulted quickly in an arrangement being reached whereby lines of jurisdiction were definitely established. Under this arrangement all cases in which union members were directly involved or there were waistmakers surviving in any family affected by the disaster were first referred to the union committee, with the privilege of referring back to the Red Cross in the event that the union committee did not, for any reason, care to act upon the case. An interchange of reports upon cases and other details of co-operation were also agreed upon. Throughout the entire work of the relief this agreement was adhered to strictly each side. The offices of the two funds were in constant touch with each other and joint consultations were daily occurrences. In addition to this, representatives of the union committee were upon invitation, present and active all meetings of the conference, composed of officials of various settlement and charitable organizations, whose special duty it was to pass upon all cases coming before the Red Cross fund. Through these means there was the fullest measure of co-operation without the slightest of conflict, each party receiving the benefit of the information and experience of the other, with a consequently enhanced efficiency of administration of the two funds.

At its first session of the Join Relief Committee appointed a sub-committee on relief, empowered to meet between sessions of the joint committee. The actions of this sub-committee were in turn submitted to the joint committee for its approval or otherwise. Sometimes the joint committee itself heard the reports and acted directly upon the cases, according to the convenience of the members. The joint committee, however, had final jurisdiction in all cases.

The system of inquiry and investigation was necessarily a thorough one. While the committee, as much as possible, avoided any tendency at "red tape," and other methods that might prove embarrassing or annoying to those most affected, yet a certain amount of time of precaution had to be taken, so that the money appropriated in each case should be placed in the most responsible and deserving hands. The one thought always kept uppermost, however, was relief, and that as prompt and complete as circumstances would admit.

In the work of investigation, not less than two or three visits in each case were made. Th greatest difficulty was in finding the nearest relatives of the victims, and when found to discover which were the most responsible. A number of the dead girls left not a single relative in this country, their families usually being in Russia or Italy. As many of the families could speak but little English, the relief workers (those who investigated details after the first general reports were made) found it useful to have a smattering of either Italian or Jewish or both.

A card system was used for recording the reports of these visitors. For each case a separate card was made out in the name of the killed or injured person; it covered principally the following details; name; address; family, if any, with name, age, residence in the city and country of each member; injury sustained; loss due to the fire (value of clothing lost, etc.); resources (insurance, fraternal societies, etc.); church connections, if any (this in order to provide for proper funeral or religious service); whether members of any union; nearest relatives; family's estimate of needs; visitor's recommendations, and, finally action taken by the committee.

First, temporary relief, as before stated, was given. This took the form either of cash in amounts varying from $% upward or payment of funeral expenses, or both. The cash payments were extended weekly when deemed necessary, pending actions for permanent relief. Besides paying expenses of several funerals contracted for privately, the Joint Relief Committee buried directly 21 victims, 14 of these being Jews and 7 Italians. By special arrangement with the Workmen's Circle (Arbeiter Ring), the Jewish working class and death benefit society, the Jewish burials were made in the Mount Zion Cemetery in the society's plot.

What might also be called temporary relief were the sums given to the families that desired to observe the Easter or Passover religious holidays. In nearly all cases, both in the Jewish and Italian families, there was membership in the orthodox Hebrew and Catholic churches, and the coming of Easter and Passover meant in each case an increased expense in the household so that the season could be properly observed with due regard to orthodox requirements.

Cases for permanent relief finally resolved themselves into four distinct classes; First, where families were deprived of all support; second, where dependent relatives were left in Europe; third where partial support had been lost; fourth, where people injured had been helped until well.

The amount given in each case varied according to the circumstances, i.e., the number, age, capacity, and general living conditions of the family, amount of wages lost, financial condition of victim at time of disaster, etc. An attempt was made to maintain at least the previous standard of living, however poor it may have been.

It is not my purpose to give here in detail the particulars of the cases, even though space permitted. This is intended to be a recital of methods merely. Suffice it to say at this time that the circumstances in almost every case coming before the committee were nothing short of a revelation to us, accustomed though we were to working-class conditions. Not one of the committee but acknowledged surprise at the poverty, deprivation and struggles which were so vividly disclosed to us. And along with this were revealed records of devotion, self-denial and fortitude on the part of working girls which we felt certain were only an intimation of the nobility of soul and integrity of character that had inspired their lives.

The one startling fact of all was the large number of girls who had been the main, and oftentimes the sole, support of families in Russia or Italy. These girls had come to this country, either alone or to relatives (though in most instances they had lived alone or shared a room with a girl shopmate of the same race), for the purpose of working to send back money to their fathers and mothers and younger sisters and brother in their native land. And this money, when it was not used to relieve immediate necessities there, was stored up until enough was saved to bring over the whole family, or at least some other member able to work and send still more money back, until eventually the entire family should emigrate to the United States. Only in cases where extreme old age or physical disability would prevent entrance here under the immigration laws did the parents remain behind.

But in no case were these allowed to suffer if the girls could help it. And these girls assumed this responsibility uncomplainingly and even joyfully, not as a task or burden, but as a labor of love freely and gladly undertaken. How some of them send the amounts they did and maintained themselves was a problem which only they and the thousands of other girls who are now doing likewise could solve.

The amounts sent home varied, but were not less than $5 monthly. This in roubles means much more in Russia than here. The chief problem confronting the relief committee lay in providing for these dependent families abroad. In each case a lump sum was allotted sufficient to equal the amount usually sent each month to cover a certain period of years, according to knowledge of the family circumstances. Arrangements for remitting these apparitions every month were made through different mediums. Wherever practicable, families were assisted, in whole or in part, to immigrate here, when assurance was had they would be cared for and there would be no violation of the immigration laws.

A number of young girls left without homes or responsible relatives were placed in the Clara de Hirsch Home for Girls, an excellent trade school, where they will remain until they have learned enough English and are deemed capable to make their own living. In other cases, girls who suffered injuries or shock were sent to the country through the Solomon Loeb Convalescent Home, to stay there until well, and on their return to receive a weekly stipend, through the union office until they should obtain work.

Although the Joint Relief Committee, at the time its report of all receipts and expenditures is made, will have practically completed its work, yet the actual operations of the fund will extend over a number of years. These operations - the remittance of moneys abroad, the distribution of weekly pensions, the supervision and care of the girls and children placed in institutions of various kinds, the securing of work and proper living arrangements for others when recuperated from their injuries, and the care of numerous other details will be conducted through an Executive Committee of three members, consisting of Elizabeth Dutcher, of the Women's Trade Union League, Abe Baroff, General Organizer of the union local, and Morris Hillquit, acting as trustees of the funds remaining in the hands of the Joint Relief Committee. The Women's Trade Union League will be the centre of operations and thoroughly there is no question.

The total amount to be administered by the Joint Relief Committee, it was estimated would reach between $16,000 and $20,000 (contributions continued to come in after the funds were declared closed); and as most of the work done was voluntary and only moderate salaries were paid when necessary the total expense of administration will be comparatively small amount (under $200). It was believed that with the aid of the Red Cross Emergency Fund, which was adequately covered, the provision made in the various cases for relief would be sufficient to enable the afflicted ones to tide over, to some extent at least, the critical and unforeseen situation which had been so cruelly thrust upon them.

Ladders and fire equipment in front of the Asch Builing on Washington Place