At about 4:30 p.m. on March 25, 1911, a fire erupted at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, a blouse manufacturing company housed on the eighth and ninth floors of an office building in New York City. The factory was considered a modern facility of its type, a step up from the tenement sweatshops that were more common. The workers were mostly young women, Jewish and Italian immigrants. There were two sets of stairs and an elevator leading to and from the factory, and a fire escape. There were buckets of water scattered about in case of fire. There was a rule against smoking inside, but the rule was never enforced.
Almost as soon as someone yelled, “Fire!,” the blaze overran the eighth floor. Soon all the buckets were emptied to no effect. Yards of cotton cloth, more flammable than paper, hanging from the ceiling and piled into overstuffed bins, became sheets of flame. The fire reached the ninth floor. The first women who made it to the only fire escape were lucky. It soon collapsed under their weight. The same happened with the elevator, which fell too fast to the ground and could not be raised. The final woman to escape on the elevator from the ninth floor, Katie Weiner, grabbed a cable and swung herself into the car on top of the others.
The people on the ninth floor were trapped. The fire escape had fallen. The elevator was stuck on the ground. One of the staircases was consumed in flames. And the door to the other staircase was locked.
You have that dreamlike feeling one has when something that simply cannot be happening really is. Flames are everywhere. And a smell, almost pleasant, like an outdoor barbecue. And then your mind says, “People,” and you smell the burning hair. You look to the window, but the fire escape is gone. You turn to the elevator, but it isn’t there anymore. You spot your friend Sophie in a crowd by the doorway to the stairs and you try to push close to her but there are screaming women between you and you hear, “Locked,” and then a different kind of scream like you have never heard. And now you feel your heart knocking in your chest and the brassy taste of adrenalin on your tongue. You peel yourself off from the mass of bodies at the door and swim against the noxious air back to the window. Now it’s your own hair burning, now it’s your lungs that knife you with each breath.
One hundred and forty-six people died in the fire. Many more were injured. When fire trucks arrived, they discovered that their ladders only reached to the sixth floor. Horrified families and friends rushed to the factory, only to stand helpless on the sidewalk, as women, some on fire, fell 100 feet to the pavement, mangled or dead. When the fire was extinguished, they discovered a melted scrum of bodies, pressed against the locked door. The door had been locked to keep union organizers out and workers in, and because the factory’s owners had an obsessive fear of theft.
Two years earlier, New York’s garment district had been electrified by the Uprising of the 20,000, a woman-led movement for unionization and better conditions. In 1909, 19-year-old Clara Lemlich was among the thousands of workers who had packed a meeting called by Local 25 of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) to discuss a general garment workers’ strike. Speaker after speaker rose to testify to unsafe conditions, 12-hour workdays and pennies an hour for pay. Finally, Clara had heard enough. Taking the stage, she proclaimed in Yiddish, “I have no further patience for talk as I am one of those who feels and suffers from the things pictured. I move that we go on a general strike…now!” The workers voted, and the strike was on.
It lasted for four months. Many women who were more privileged economically than the strikers, including suffragists, came out to support their sisters on the picket line and to collect food and other necessities. Factory owners hired thugs to harass and even attack picketers, but the women held firm. Many strikers were arrested and sentenced to the workhouse. One judge proclaimed, while sentencing a striker, “You are on strike against God!”
The women would disagree. Some of them had drawn their inspiration from the New York Kosher Meat Boycott of 1902. In May of 1902, kosher meat, controlled by the Beef Trust monopoly, soared in price from 12 cents to 18 cents a pound. Retail kosher butchers attempted to strike against the monopoly by refusing to sell meat for a week. The butchers’ strike ended with no reduction in meat prices. Then Jewish housewives took over. Following custom, they took the floor at synagogues on Shabbat, speaking before the Torah, demanding that their brothers hear their grievance. Orthodox Jewish rabbis supported the boycott. The women led pickets at butcher shops and stayed strong despite attacks from the police. The price of kosher beef was reduced to 14 cents a pound.
Like those boycotters, the women union leaders who sparked the Uprising won significant victories. Many factories agreed to higher wages and improved conditions and to rehire workers who had gone on strike. 20,000 workers had joined the union and were working with contracts. However, the Triangle factory did not sign with the union or agree to their demands. They kept their doors locked.
Rose Safran, a Triangle fire survivor, said, “If the union had won we would have been safe. Two of our demands were for adequate fire escapes and for open doors from the factories to the street. But the bosses defeated us and we didn’t get the open doors or the better fire escapes. So our friends are dead.”
The best tribute to the dead was made by those who kept fighting. The Factory Investigating Commission of New York State was formed after the fire, ultimately getting 25 laws on the books governing workplace safety, limiting work hours, abolishing child labor, and making other reforms. Some of those galvanized by the horrific incident would become part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, protecting unions and changing conditions around the country. Clara Lemlich remained a union organizer all her life, organizing the women in a nursing home during her last days.
Today, we might ask ourselves what happened to the eight-hour day, the safe factories, and the right to unionize that the ILGWU fought for. The international garment trade is corrupted by all the abuses the union fought against. Factories in Bangladesh supply major U.S. clothing brands. Twice in 2010, factory fires there, eerie repetitions of the Triangle fire, complete with locked doors and flammable products, killed hundreds of garment workers. In 2013, a Bangladeshi factory complex collapsed, and last year, another was ripped apart by a boiler explosion. Women workers in Cambodia regularly collapse on the job, overcome by heat, exhaustion, and toxic chemicals. When we buy cute, cheap, mass-produced clothes, are we willing to scrutinize the sources of our bargains to make sure that we are not wearing the products of other women’s misery?
Rose Freedman, the last survivor of the Triangle fire, died at the age of 107 in 2001. She had been an activist all her life. Featured in a PBS documentary, “The Living Century,” she said, “Hundred forty-six people in a half an hour. I have always tears in my eyes when I think. It should never have happened. The executives with a couple of steps could have opened the door. But they thought they were better than the working people. It’s not fair because material, money, is more important here than everything. That’s the biggest mistake — that a person doesn’t count much when he hasn’t got money. What good is a rich man and he hasn’t got a heart? I don’t pretend. I feel it. Still.”
You are being chewed up by pain. You can’t see what’s below you on the street. You can’t stand anymore. You whisper, “Shema Yisroel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai, Echad,” and you plummet. You trust that you will be forgiven. And that someone will remember you.
Rabbi Robin Podolsky teaches at California State University Long Beach and blogs here. Her most recent article was published in European Judaism, Volume 49, Issue 2, Autumn 2016. She lives in Los Angeles.