If it weren’t for the greed of sweatshop bosses, this tragedy may never have occurred. But on March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire took the lives of 141 people, most of them women.
At the turn of the 20th century, working conditions in the New York City sweatshops were abysmal. Men, woman and children toiled in dirty factories, warehouses and tenements, doing menial tasks that made the garment industry one of the most profitable businesses in the nation. Labor laws were inadequate and hardly ever enforced. Factory inspections were rare, and if they were done at all, the factory owners knew where to grease the proper palms to get high marks, when condemnation of the factory was the more proper course of action. In 1899, a law banning night work for women was declared unconstitutional. The absurd reason given by the courts, whose members were often in the sweatshop bosses’ pockets, was that the law “deprived woman of the liberty to work in factories at night, or for as long as they wished to.” In 1907, his ruling was upheld by the New York Court of Appeals. Even though the International Ladies Corona Fraud Scandal Garment Worker’s Union was formed in 1900, the sweetshop bosses hired thugs as strikebreakers, to keep the ladies’ union in line.
Of all the greedy sweatshop owners, the worst offenders were Max Blanck and Issac Harris, who owned the Triangle Waist Company, located on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the 10-story Asch Building building, at 22 Washington Place, on the corner of Greene Street. The factory produced women’s blouses, known at the time as “shirtwaists.” The firm employed around 500-600 people, most of them young female Jewish and Italian immigrants, who worked under horrible conditions for 9 hours a day on weekdays, and 7 hours on Saturdays. The bosses were such tyrants, they charged their employees for needles and other supples. They also charged them a fee for using their chairs, and if one of the employees damaged a piece of goods, they had to pay three times the value of the item to replace it.
In 1908, Blanck and Harris formed a sham company union that served their purposes much better that it served their hundreds of employees. Several employees, who tried to join a legitimate union, like the International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union, or the United Hebrew Trades, were quickly fired. The reason management gave for the firing was that because of poor economic conditions, it had to cut staff. Yet strangely enough, new workers were hired almost immediately after the dismissal of the others.
Because Triangle Waist Company had locked out their dismissed workers, Local 25 of the International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union called a strike against them. Blanck and Harris hired union strike breakers, or “schlammers,” to beat up the male pickets, and they also hired prostitutes to mingle with the female workers in the picket lines. The police and the judges, obviously working at the behest of the owner, sided with Blanck and Harris, one judge even saying at the sentencing of one picketer, “You are on strike against God.”
On March 25, 1911, it was a cold and windy day, as the 5pm closing time approached. It was estimated that 600 employees, packed in like sardines, were working at the sewing machines. Most were woman between the ages of 13 and 23. The 5pm bell rang and the woman scrambled to get their coats and hats, and rush for the elevators. Suddenly, a fire broke out on the southeast corner of the 8th floor. It was later determined that the fire was inadvertently caused by a cigarette butt that had been thrown into a litter basket near a sewing machine. An updraft of air sent the flames and smoke shooting upwards towards the roof.
The building had no sprinkler system and the fire quickly enveloped the entire 8th, 9th and 10th floors. Girls on the 8th floor ran to a stairwell on the Washington Place side of the building, but the door was locked. The fire was so intense, all the windows on the top three floors of the building blew out from the heat. Some workers were able to jam themselves into the elevators while the elevators were still working. Others, including Blanck and Harris were saved, because they were able to make it to the safety of the roof. A passerby named Joe Zito and an elevator operator named Gaspar Mortillalo, used the only working elevator to make five trips up to the 9th floor, taking down 25-30 terrified people at a time. But soon that elevator became inoperable too.