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Remembering Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire

March 6, 2014

An examination of the massive strike wave of 1909-1913 reveals that the history of women’s liberation, the beginning of North American industrial unionism, and rank-and-file organizing are closely intertwined.
Beginning in the first few decades of the twentieth century, New York’s textile industry relied almost exclusively on Jewish women and immigrants for labour. The growth of industrialization, and the shift to factory-made clothing, gradually transformed a highly skilled cottage industry—that many women relied on—into a largely deskilled industrial process. Therefore, many working class women worked in sweatshop conditions in “light” industry. Difficult and unsafe working conditions, long hours, and low pay caused women to be at the forefront of early industrial labour struggles. 

Women’s resistance
In fact, women workers of the time strongly believed that their struggles in the workplace were intertwined with their struggle for liberation. According to academic Jennifer Gugliemo, Italian working women would use the word femminismo to refer to their work; however, most women preferred the word emancipazione, because it described the all-encompassing nature of the freedoms they desired.

Rank-and-file resistance in the workplace was a daily occurrence for women working in the garment industry long before the Triangle fire. In many situations, if a woman was harassed by management, her co-workers would walk off the job; often this led to spontaneous strikes. Furthermore, women shared stories of resistance with one another and they stole time from management by coordinating together to slow down their pace of work.

Though Trade Unions in the garment industry were quite small to start off with, many succeeded admirably. Thus, the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, and the International Workers of The World, had already began recruiting energetically, and secured some major victories against New York employers.

In 1909, the first major strike in the New York garment industry had already broken out under the auspices of the ILGWU as the “Uprising of 20,000,” named for the number of women who had participated. Though the strike itself was only a partial victory, the shreer number of participants was a major success considering that only a few years before the union had only consisted of a few hundred members. Similarly, another major strike in Hoboken, led by rank and file women, was organized under the auspices of the IWW at the same time in 1909.
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory
The strikes of 1909 specifically identified the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory with hazardous working conditions. Thus, when the building went up in flames in 1911, the anger of New York garment workers was overwhelming. The fire spread due to flammable oil that was kept close to fabric cuttings. Most exits on each floor were locked by the employer in order to limit workers’ movements, and the fire escape was rusty and unmaintained. Those that tried to climb down the fire escape fell to their deaths. The factory was essentialy a death trap.
Ultimately, 146 garment workers, primarily women of Jewish and Italian descent, died in the fire. Dozens of women died jumping out of ninth story windows to avoid the flames only to shatter the concrete below with the impact of their fall. The owners survived the fire by running up to the roof at the first sign of trouble. However, the charges brought against the owners resulted only in a few hundred dollar fine.
From mourning to organizing
The ensuing anger convinced many women working in the garment trades that joining unions and fighting was the only way to improve their situation. Thus, membership in the ILGWU rose from a few thousand before 1909, to several hundred thousand by 1913.
More importantly, ensuing mass mobilization was led entirely by rank-and-file women workers. Though men made up the upper leadership of both the ILGWO and the IWW, they were unable to make headway with women workers unless they opened the door to rank and file decision making and organizing. 

The women who accounted for the organizing teams worked the same jobs as the others and experienced extreme repression for their actions. In several instances, women were beaten up and arrested, or attacked by hired thugs from the mob who would target, intimidate, and attack organizers. However, the women persevered and earned a reputation as courageous and talented leaders. Moreover, they successfully organized non-union shops thereby bringing in tens of thousands of new workers into their unions time and again.
As a result, the time of 1910 to 1913 was a period of major labour uprisings. Garment workers rose up in tens of thousands in strikes, sympathy strikes and even general strikes; often mass demonstrations consisting of over a hundred thousand workers took place. As the number of striking participants increased, so too did the level of their militancy. In the 1913 garment workers’ strike, a group of several hundred women attempted to occupy a factory in Manhattan. Armed with umbrellas, they broke through police lines and, according to the press, “fought like furies” once inside.

However, the strike wave came to a halt due to various critical defeats, general economic downturn, and unemployment—and in a few cases due to the efforts of upper union leadership to undermine the rank-and-file process. Yet, the mass mobilization of 1909 to 1913 irrevocably altered the socio-economic landscape for women and workers in North America. 

It was the birth of industrial unionism in the region. It made the International Ladies Garment Workers Union one of the largest in the country, and brought the IWW the notoriety it needed to successfully organize in the west. Many strikes during the period were won thereby tangibly improving conditions for garment workers. The period of 1909 to 1913 also led to the emergence of legislative reforms that significantly improved working conditions.
Ultimately, years of persistence in mass mobilization manifested in a clear sign of political progress as well as in 1917 New York State become the first U.S. state where women won the right to vote.
Join International Women’s Day Toronto this Saturday: rally 11am at OISE, march 1pm

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