Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire, 100 years later


Hostile Employers See Yourselves as Others Know You

American Federationist, May 1911. pp. 356-361.

(Excerpt) by Samuel Gompers

In the slaughter of more than 140 clothing factory operatives in the Washington Place fire in New York on March 25, the opponents of unionism among the clothing manufacturers of that city reached the climax of the long course of inhumanity and criminality against which the only agency successful in putting any effective impediment has been the trade union. Slow murder through underpay, overcrowding, bad ventilation,and slave-driving gave way in that awful event to the swift methods of murder characteristic of Chicago packing-house butchery. As the bodies of the poor girls fell with the patter of hailstones on the sidewalk from the height of ten stories, or reeled over in the one narrow and overcrowded stairway or in the fire-trap workrooms, the last convincing point in evidence was reached of the lawlessness, the unrestrained avarice, the merciless disregard of human life which for more than a decade has marked the concentration of clothing manufacture under the control of employers directing the work of hundreds or thousands of employes, who were meantime taking advantage of every means possible to reduce wages and deprive their employes of the protection of the law or the trade union.

The girls employed by the Triangle Waist Company really Isaac Harris and Max Blanck were of the class of non-unionists which time and again we have warned the country are being brought to America to take the places of wage-workers either born here or established here for a sufficient period to know their rights as employes and to be aware of the weekly wage requisite to maintain themselves atsomething like American standards. These poor "greenhorns" were packed at their machines like close-herded cattle, while at work they were locked in like penitentiary prisoners, they had never been exercised in the fire drill, they toiled amid heaps of highly inflammable materials, they had as outlets in case of fire one impracticable fire-escape and one stairway so small that two persons could hardly move in it abreast all conditions clearly violating the factory laws. Hear the ultra-conservative New York Times on these points: "They were mostly girls of from sixteen to twenty-three years of age." Most of them could barely speak English." "Two thousand employes were on the payroll," crowded in upon four floors, the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth. A heading in the Times of Monday, 27th, read; "Locked in factory, the survivors say, when fire started that cost 141 lives." The Times also quoted Mr. H.F.J. Porter, the industrial engineer to whose statements regarding factory conditions we have heretofore referred. After printing a letter written by Mr. Porter last June to the Triangle Waist Company, in which he offered to introduce a fire-drill among its employes, to which the company never replied, the Times continued:

"Mr. Porter was very empathetic in talking of the fire last night. 'It is a wonder that these things are not happening in the city everyday. There are only two or three factories in the city where fire drills are in use, and in some of them where I have installed the system myself the owners have discontinued it.

"One instance I recall in point where the system has been discontinued despite the fact that the Treasurer of the company, through whose active co-operation it was originally installed, was himself burned to death with several members ofhis family in his country residence, and notwithstanding that the present President of the company while at the opera, nearly lost his children and servants in a fire which recently swept through his apartments and burned off the two upper floors of a building which was and still is advertised as the most fireproof and expensively equipped structure of its character in the city.

"The neglect of factory owners of the safety of their employes is absolutely criminal. One man whom I advised to install a fire drill replied to me: Let em burn up. They're a lot of cattle, anyway.'

"Although against the law of many States, it is not infrequent that factorydoors used by the employes are kept locked during working hours. In one such case,of the 400 girls locked in on the fifth floor of an underwear factory, some leaped into nets held by firemen and others were taken down on the fire ladders; many were more or less injured, all nervously shocked."

As to fire-escapes and stairways, the following is from one of the articles in the Times on the fire:

"'This is just the calamity I have been predicating,' said Chief Croker. 'There were no outside escapes on this building. I have been advocating and agitating that more fire-escapes be put on factory buildings similar to this. The large loss of life is due to this neglect.'"

He said that there was only one fire-escape from the building. An old-time perpendicular affair, he said, leading to the courtyard in the center of the block of buildings, which would only allow of one person's escape at a time. When he examined his escape, he found on the upper floors that it had become very loose, and it was a dangerous matter to escape by that route.

"'A repetition of this disaster is likely to happen at any time in similar buildings,' he said. He advocated balcony fire escapes with a wide iron staircase. The staircases in the building, the Chief said, were of the ordinary three feet six inches wide type. . . . The lesson of the fire is that a building is just as fireproof as the stuff within it fireproof walls, fireproof floors, and fireproof stairways then rooms packed with flimsy cloth and trimmings and run by electric dynamos about which waste and oil were allowed to accumulate."

The last point mentioned by Fire Chief gives probable contradiction to the suggestion, snapped at by the clothing manufacturers and their defenders, that the fire was started from a lighted cigarette.

The most significant fact to trade unionists that Fire Chief Croker made in the interview, as quoted by the Times, was:

"He spoke bitterly of the way in which the Manufacturers' Association has called a meeting in Wall Street to make measures against his proposal for enforcing better methods of protection for employes in case of fire."

In an editorial, the Times said:
"Crowded workrooms in such a condition that a slight outbreak of fire can convert them into furnaces within a few minutes should not be tolerated in this city. No new laws are needed. Enforcement of existing laws is imperative."

Why are not existing laws enforced? There is but one reason: Clothing manufacturers either bribe crooked office-holders or take advantage of inadequate inspection.

The New York Times (March 30) had the following as a recommendation of the Commissionon the Congestion of Population, with comment thereon:

"That 500 cubic feet of air space be provided for every employe of any factory instead of 250 cubic feet of air space as at present, and not less than 600 cubicfeet of air space for every employee when employed between the hours of 6 in the evening and 6 in the morning, under the provisions of the present labor law."

"It was predicted that a report about to be made would show that the employes of the flame swept factory in Washington Place were working with only 125 cubic feetof air space."

It might be thought that the Triangle Company should have learned a bitter lesson from the fire which killed so many of its employes, and that in all its future acts relative to its workshop it would proceed in a chastened and law-abiding manner. But, instead, its very first steps to resume work were characterized by its habitual brazen lawlessness and indifference to human life. On these points we again quote from the Times (April 1) as being in this respect sufficiently cautious authority, surely with no working class prejudices:

"The Triangle Waist Company attempted to open for business in a new location, yesterday, and this time it found Building Department Inspectors quickly upon its trail. Instead of being allowed to put operatives to work it was confronted witha violation notice from the Building Bureau, setting forth that the new place is non-fireproof, and that the tiers of sewing machines have been so arranged by the company that access to the fire-escapes is cut off.

"The company's new factory is at 5,7, and 9 University Place, and it occupies the entire top floor of a six-story building owned by the Sailor's Snug HarborC orporation. The violation notice was directed to this corporation and was made after complaint had been filed against the Triangle Company from sources not made known.

"The Triangle management has arranged twenty-one machines to a row, there being four rows on the floor with aisle space sufficient for two girls to sit back between each line. The girls when seated would have no space in which to move about or to leave their places without all getting up together.

"There is one small passenger and one freight elevator in the building, while the staircase is dark and narrow and built with many steep and sharp turns."

At a mass meeting at the Metropolitan Opera House, Sunday evening, April 2, Dr. Moskowitz reported that in 1,200 factories, the facts as to which had been verified by his board, these conditions were found:

Factories without fire-escapes 14; factories with defectively placed ladders, 63; with no other exits than fire escapes; 491; with doors opening in 1,173; with doorslocked during the day, 23; with halls less than 36 inches wide, 60; with stairwaysdark, 58; with defective steps, treads, and handrails, 51; with obstructed fire-escapes,78; having fire drills, 1.

As to New York factory conditions with regard to fire, here is the evidence given by Dr. Henry Moskowitz:

"The Joint Board of Sanitary Control in the cloak, suit and skirt industry has laid bare a condition of affairs in New York that is positively terrifying. The boards was created as the result of the cloakmakers' strike of last summer. It consists of William J. Schieffelin, Chairman; Lillian D. Wald of the Settlement and myself, as the three representatives of the general public; Dr. George M. Priceand Benjamin Schlessinger for the unions, and Max Meyer and S. L. Silver for the manufacturers. The board is empowered to make investigation of all cloak and suitfactories in the city.

"We have eight inspectors and have investigated 1,243 factories. The official report has been made out and will soon be submitted. But the horrible disaster of yesterday induces us to tell in advance some of the conditions we have found, inthe hope they will be remedied. We have sent a list of seventy-three factories absolutely inadequate in fire protection to Mayor Gaynor and the heads of the Building, Fire and Police Departments. We have informed the unions that the employes in some of these shops work under conditions that threaten life in case of fire."

Observe Dr. Moskowitz's reliance upon the trade unions. Every union in the clothing trade is continually doing what it can to combat the state of things in New York factories consequent upon the negligence or cupidity of employers with respect to fire or other dangers to employes. In January last, the Women's Trade Union League asked that a list of questions be printed in the New York newspapers relating to the very abuses which existed in the Triangle workrooms overcrowding of work places, windows barred down, doors locked, doors opening inward, inadequate fire-escapes, insufficient staircase exits, etc.

We think that the manufacturers would have done well to employ their time in trying, with the unions, to reform the infamous working conditions in the New York clothing trade, of whatever branch, instead of regarding the union shop as a stumbling-block it is, indeed, to such concerns as the Triangle Waist Company the only persistent and effective stumbling-block in the way of their inordinate pursuit of wealth, even with the wealth stained with human blood; aye soaked in it. A stumbling-block the trade union certainly is, also, to the tyrannical institution in full play in the National Clothiers' Association, the black list employers' labor bureau, designed to bar from employment the members of a trade union.

While writing this article comes the news of two more frightful mine disasters,occurring almost simultaneously. In all, 200 men dead from explosion and fire. In the Banner mine near Littleton, Ala., the lives of 123 defenseless convicts and 5 free men were on Saturday, April 8, snuffed out in a few minutes. In the Pancoast colliery near Scranton, Pa. 74 miners were on the day before burned to death. Were these dreadful occurrences accidents? Vice President John Mitchell, of the American Federation of Labor, expressing his sorrow at hearing of them, said; "It seems to me that both disasters could have been averted. The laws for the protection ofthe workingman are not fully enforced until such disasters occur." Dr. Chas.P. Neill, United States Commissioner of Labor, speaking of the necessity for legal compensation for death or injury by accidents, said:

"This is the only country in the world where an appeal for help has to be made following an industrial disaster. All countries where there is industrial advancement such as we enjoy have the necessary machinery to provide for the victims without an appeal to charity. The fund of $30,000 raised for the relatives of the recent factory fire in New York, while it does credit to the charitable inclination of the citizens of New York, is an indictment of the maladjustment of our social system."

In these two accidents we have repeated the story of employing class criminology in the mining industry. Three years ago 125 miners were sent down into the earth to their death at Marianna, Pa.; two years ago, 300 at Cherry Hill, Ill.; last year, 185 at Palos, Ala. Suppose that the law required at least three high company officials were to be down in the mine where work was going on, would the mines not quickly be made safer than they are? Suppose that three such officials President, Vice-President, General Manager were to be killed with the miners on the occurrence of these so called accidents, how long would it be until there was a comprehensive law, with the damages for the officials' widows? Yet our country is a democracy!

We take occasion, in the light of the facts we have cited, and others to follow,to say emphatically that we will not dilly-dally with employers bent on forever putting trade unionism in the crucible and refining from it every element the least objectionable to them while themselves trying to ignore their own questionable practices, ranging from simply those unfair on downward through every step to the worst practices avaricious, felonious, barbarous, murderous as exposed in recent events, whether in famine strikes like those of Chicago or in wholesale murder like that in New York. Some of their spokesmen would argue the union shop out of existence as detrimental to industrial peace. This when, the fact is that when clothing manufacturers get their employes completely at their mercy in the "open shop" they force them to submit to every manner of neglect, indignity, and slave driving, and then on occasions burn them alive.

While we are at the task we may as well recite some irrefragable testimony, of recent development, to show that it is the employing class that today in America is on trial before the world for theft, disloyalty, and inhumanity that a considerable part of it has degenerates to a stage of many phased crookedness in comparison with which union labor stands upright and honorable, despite all the sinister agencies hired to blacken its reputation.

Too long, in dealing with the trade unions, has there been an assumption by employers, wholly unfounded, that their class represents law and order, responsibility, and high standing, the distinction of individual merit and the authority of superiorclass integrity. Too often what they really stand for is no more than a colossal and unblushing gall, unscrupulous and insatiable greed.

We want to assure trade unionists and their sympathizers that taking into consideration that no human institution can be perfect the trade union representatives when facing employers have no good reason to be ashamed of their class or their cause. The trade union is right if not all right to the last dot and particle, as near right as many other human institution, and doing a hundred fold the good of most others. One source of our weakness is that too often we forget that the employers who dread and hate our unions never falter in finding them in the wrong, whether the testimony against them to be false or true, and also that we hesitate to hitback when employers and their paid agents are blackening our leaders or depreciating our organization. What here follows regarding employers is but a sketch of a mass of truths than can be produced. Let union men take full cue from it all, and prepare themselves in their own occupations for the occasions when the Harrises and Blancks are indulging in virtuous self-praise, coupled with denunciations of the trade unionthat seeks to protect their employers from discrimination or exploitation, fraud or fire.

If one of the Triangle girls was caught filching a ten-cent bit of shirt-waist material, she would have been liable to arrest and sentence to a term in prison.

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