Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire, 100 years later

Dubinsky Address


We stand here where the dream of self-reliance and opportunity which brought millions of immigrants to these shores was tested in a hell. On this site was the Triangle shop with a thousand workers on its three floors. And this was fifty years ago.

It was not a traditional sweatshop. It was an airy shop, a shop with efficiency, with profits, with bosses who knew what they wanted and in 1908 made a million dollars profit out of their workers.

When you made that much money fifty years ago you couldn't afford to have a sense of social responsibility either to the individual worker or to the community. You couldn't be concerned with their welfare and even at the cost of life itself you had to drive hard all the time to pile up more and more and more profits.

So Triangle made a company union to keep its workers from joining the ILGWU. And when they did join the ILGWU anyhow, the company fought them until the workers went out on strike. And when these immigrant girls, Italians and Jewish girls who had come here full of dreams and hopes for a better life for themselves and their families walked the picket line right here on this street where we stand now, Triangle hired gangsters and loose women to bump into the pickets and their friends from the Women's Trade Union League and to start fights so that they could be arrested and thrown into jail.

What a time that was! What a test for these new Americans! Where were the streets paved with gold? Where were the shining new opportunities? Where was the extra couple of dollars with which to bring over a mother or a father or another sister or brother from the old country?

Triangle had it - but not for its workers. So it fought the ILGWU, and when the shirtwaist workers won their long strike, they didn't win it at Triangle where the whole thing started. The victorious shirtwaist workers had shown America that women could organize, even young immigrants. But this lesson was not for Triangle.

So Triangle locked its doors. Yes, it barred its doors so that no union organizer could get in and not a scrap of fabric worth half a penny could get out.

Its young workers had to submit to the indignity of a search when they left the shop. They had to line up and pass single file through the one door on the Greene Street side because the other was kept locked.

Here, fifty years ago, these young children of those who filled the slums of the East Side were sacrificed to human greed on a hellish, flaming altar. Greed locked the doors. Greed made the doors open inward instead of outward. Greed put a cheap fire escape on the backside of the building, so cheap that it collapsed, throwing scores more to their deaths.

Greed said no fire drills. Greed commanded that there be no fire sprinklers, eventhough Chief Crokerof that day had pleaded for fire sprinklers. Greed decided that this building should be 10 floors Instead of 11. One more floor and the wooden windows would have had to be metal, the wooden floor would have had to be concrete.

We gather here now to pay homage to the memory of the l46 who died here in flames, leaping from the windows, crashing through the sidewalks, screaming to death behind the locked doors. These were our martyrs because what we couldn't accomplish by reasoning with the bosses, by pleading with the bosses, by arguing with the bosses, they accomplished with their deaths. The horror of this tragedy so shocked the city and the state and the whole nation that on all sides there were suddenly protests and cries for reform and demands for new laws.

Out of this tragedy came a great industrial commission in this state, It inquired not only about safety in the shop but also about lighting and ventilation and industrial poisons, about conditions under which women and children worked ten hours a day and on night shifts. In fact, the commission broadened its jurisdiction until it took in the entire industrial scene.

What a commission that was! It included Robert Wagner, later Senator and author of the Wagner Act; it had Alfred E. Smith, later Governor of New York. Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, and Mary Dreier, head of the Women's Trade Union League were members of the Commission. Both had helped the shirtwaist makers in their great uprising in 1909; Gompers spoke at their rally, Mary Dreier marched on their picket lines.

Among its investigators was one who later became the New Deal Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins. Rose Schneiderman who led our girls in their strikes, Dr. George Price who founded our Union Health Center were also investigators for the Commission.

As a result of their work, scores of laws were enacted - good laws, fine laws, laws that have saved lives. But how do you legislate against selfishness?

The greed that will save a few dollars even at the cost of a few lives is still with us. Right in this neighborhood, long after the Triangle fire, other garment workers have lost their lives long after the lessons of Triangle should have been learned by all. And they - as well as firemen -have died in buildings that were real estate junk fifty years ago.

No, this is not a memorial only for the Triangle martyrs. This is also a memorial for those who died exactly three years ago in the Monarch Undergarment fire, which in a sense was even more outrageous than Triangle.

This building at least is fireproof. But the Monarch Building, 33 years older than this one, was not fireproof. And 47 years later it still had no sprinklers.

We in the ILGWU launched a drive in 1958 to put sprinklers in all buildings entered by workers for the purpose of making a living. That's the least our members are entitled to have. Assemblyman Abrams introduced a proper bill and it was passed. As a result, from July 1, 1960, even the old buildings, the buildings that really needed them the most, were required to have sprinklers.

But selfishness dies hard.

Here we have a law to save lives. But it costs money to install the sprinklers to save lives.

And for some people money comes first, ahead of lives.

Now we have the outrageous action of the property interests who have hauled and pulled and worked a kind of legislative miracle.

They have been able to cripple the Abrams provisions.

They have taken a law already effective and made it ineffective. They have done this by prevailing on the state legislature to change the effective date from July 1, 1960 to April 1, 1962. More: they have said that anyone already found guilty under the Abrams provisions is to be forgiven.

What an outrage! What a mockery of the sacrifice of l46 garment workers here and 24 at Monarch! What gall to pass such a law in the very weeks in which we mark in sorrow these deaths! That bill was passed only 10 days ago. It is now on the Governor's desk.

I pray it doesn't happen - but if it does, on whose conscience will it rest if before 1962 there is another fire with loss of life in an unsprinklered building?

Not on the consciences of the landlords who pushed through this outrageous bill, for it is obvious they have no conscience.

But if there should be another such tragedy, how will the Industrial Commissioner of this state be able to sleep nights? He is supposedly pledged in this progressive state to maintain its rich and honorable tradition of concern with its workers, a concern that practically originated with the Triangle fire.

But the Albert bill that sheds tears for the owners of these death traps bears the prominent note that it was prepared under the direction of the State Department of Labor.

A memorandum sent in February by the Industrial Commissioner to the Counsel to the Governor noted that even the effectiveness of the Abrams bill had been delayed one year to give the owners time to conform. Now, the Industrial Commissioner pleads that industry -he means the property owners - need still more time.

Yes, they need more time. The three years since Monarch is not enough time. The fifty years since Triangle is not enough time,-and the lives that have been lost, the lives of garment workers and firemen, are not enough lives.

We say enough! We say no more Triangles or Monarchs! We say that the toll of life taken by industrial slums must end just as we are wiping out the human cost of residential slums. And we say that it is an outrage in this state that has pioneered so much labor legislation, to have its Industrial Commissioner take a stand that increases rather than cuts down the danger in the shop.

We want a fitting memorial to the martyrs we honor today. No better one can be found than to increase the respect for and the safety of workers. I call on each and every one of you to write today to Governor Rockefeller and to demand that he veto the Albert-Folmer bill. Write to him in Albany, New York. In memory of those who have already been sacrificed to greed - write.

Sweatshop conditions in the early 1900's