Friday, March 4, 2011


Bodies of women who leaped to their death to escape the Triangle Factory fire.
      One hundred years ago, on March 25, 1911,  at 4:40 p.m., a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. Thirty minutes later, 146 people were dead. Most of them were immigrant girls, some as young as 15. Most burned to death or died in the smoke. Others jumped nine stories to their death on the sidewalk below, smashing themselves to pulp in front of horrified spectators. Many died because there was only one wobbly fire escape, which collapsed. A door that would have let many others escape couldn't be opened, locked earlier by the owners to prevent the workers from stealing cloth.
     A year earlier, when the factory's workers had tried to organize a union to improve their working conditions, the owners had brought in police and prostitutes to beat them up. At the time of the fire, most of the girls in New York's garment industry were working 13 hours a day, six days a week, for about 13 cents an hour. In dim, unventilated sweatshops, they worked in dank shadows and rarely saw the light of day. The Triangle Factory was actually brighter than most; it had windows. Girls, aflame, jumped to their death from those windows.
     The fire spurred New York State to pass legislation guaranteeing fire safety in places like the Triangle Factory and improving workplace conditions for all workers in the state. Other states followed New York’s model. It took 146 horrific deaths to make that happen.

      This is presumptuous of me, but, as the 100th anniversary of this fire approaches, I hereby issue a call to action—a very simple action:

      I call on all workers in the United States to step outside on Friday, March 25, 2011, at 4:00 p.m. Rise from your desks, walk away from your machines, step out from behind your counters, open the doors of your malls, and walk out into the fresh air. There let the sun shine warm on your face, or let the spring rain refresh you, or let the March winds brace you. If it snows, rejoice in the snow.

     And while you’re there, outdoors, beyond the walls of your work, remember  the 146 very young women and men who died in the Triangle Factory fire exactly 100 years ago. And remember all the millions of workers before you who fought for your right to walk outside, through unlocked doors, to breathe fresh air on a day of work. Remember the union organizers. Remember the progressive politicians (yes, of both parties). Remember all those who helped pass the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which gave you the right to organize unions and bargain collectively to improve your working conditions and wages. Remember that whether you’ve chosen to exercise the right to unionize or not, you benefit mightily from the fact that that right exists. And remember, too, those who fought for the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which protects you from poisoning and injury on the job. 

     Spend five minutes outside at 4:00 p.m. on March 25, or 20 minutes, or the whole hour before you head for home.
     And while you’re out of doors on that day, breathing fresh air in the daylight, look around you. Look at each other. Shake a few hands. Pat a few shoulders. Share a few hugs. Congratulate yourselves. You, the people who run the machines and sell the goods and provide the services, are the power that keeps the world running—not the politicians, not the stockholders, not the employers and business owners, though they all have their role to play. It’s you who are the mind and muscle that make it all work.
      There are some today who choose not to remember, or have never learned, what the world was like 100 years ago, before there were laws protecting the rights of workers to organize, guaranteeing their right to bargain collectively,  assuring their safety. Please, on Friday, March 25, at 4:00 p.m., open the doors, walk outside, and spend a few minutes remembering. 
The Triangle Factory workroom after the fire.


“The right to bargain collectively is at the bottom of social justice for the worker, as well as the sensible conduct of business affairs. The denial or observance of this right means the difference between despotism and democracy.”—President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (May 8, 1937)

Here are more articles about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911:

From Nation Public Radio’s archives:



  1. Hi, Ed. I really like your blog. I was born in 1948, so only a few steps behind you. Only thing is, I've not been lucky enough to have obtained my college degree yet. Still hoping to finish, and even go on to law school.

    I like your post about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory here. I'm in Madison, Wisconsin, so this is pretty timely for us right now.

    I don't think OSHA really does keep workers safe. For that, you'd need a union. OSHA has been pretty much on the side of the corporations and management companies.

    Thanks again for a great blog.

  2. Glad you enjoyed the blog, Diana. Best of luck on finishing your degree and going to law school. I agree that unions are necessary to keep workers safe. OSHA was a small step in that direction, largely supported by unions. It no doubt could do more, especially in the mining, oil, and chemical industries.

  3. Wonderfully said! While I wasn't born until the 70's, I was raised by two liberals (one a history teacher) in what used to be a small mill town in North Carolina -- so I was also raised on labor stories! The Triangle Factory Fire was one of them. Now I live in NYC, and was well-trained by my mother to think of this *every* time I pass the old Triangle building. Thank you for your blog!

  4. Judith: I'm glad your parents passed the labor stories along to you. I've tried to pass them on to my son, who is of your generation. I worry, now that my father and mother's generation has passed, that we will forget what the world was like before workers were given the absolute right to organize and bargain collectively. I look at Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio, and I worry a lot. I think we were raised by similar parents. My blog post about my father is one you might share with your parents. They remind me of him. Thanks for your comment.